Protest Against China’s Blatant Intrusion

Ever since my last posting on China’s hegemonic role in the South China Sea I was told that China has agreed to not station its coast guard cutter at the Luconia Shoals while Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Shahidan Kassim, announced in Parliament that there has been an increase in operational presence by the Royal Malaysian Navy and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency at the South Luconia Shoals from 269 days in 2014 to 345 days this year. It is believed that Malaysia’s continuous diplomatic stance that is seen as friendly by China as opposed to holding demonstrations as held in other claimant countries is the reason for the one step back taken by China at the Luconia Shoals. However, the Chinese coast guard continues to loiter in the South China Sea.

  
However this morning (18th December 2015) a group of about 16 people calling themselves the Sarawak Association for People’s Aspiration or SAPA, headed by Lina Soo as its President, held a protest rally in front of the Chinese Consulate in Kuching, Sarawak.

The protest which began at about 9am kicked off by the submission of a protest note at 9.28am to the personal assistant for Mr Liu Quan by SAPA, followed by shouts in Hokkien saying “Get out and don’t return” by the SAPA members.

  
Although small, this protest is significant as it displays a growing awareness amongst Malaysians on the blatant incursions by the Chinese navy as well coast guard.

China has been aggressive in creating ad hoc ADIZ (Air Defence Identification Zone) around its man-made islands, warning off other military aircraft and vessels that got too near. Four days ago the BBC filed a story on how one of its journalist flying in a Cessna 206 was asked to leave the area to avoid miscalculations.

Last month a Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion aircraft was told by the Chinese to leave and that “it would be a shame if a plane fell from the sky.”

Things are not going to get better as China continues to claim the South China Sea as its territorial waters whereas two thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 per cent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and 80 per cent of China’s crude oil imports come through the South China Sea. Even Indonesia, a non-claimant, has begun to reinforce its military presence in the Natuna islands to face the Chinese.

It will be a matter of time, sooner rather than later, that we will see aggressive flying by PLAAF aircraft that will be stationed at China’s South China Sea airstrips when intercepting other military aircraft. The South China Sea is a potential flashpoint Malaysian cannot ignore nor take lightly.

South China Sea: The Gatling Gun Approach?

China's build-up in the South China Seas brings this region closer to a conflict
China’s build-up in the South China Seas brings this region closer to a conflict

We need to look at what we see as the threats. What you see is the story unfolding in Syria and Iraq and which fighter is not there at the moment? You’ve got the Super Hornets, you’ve got the Typhoons and yet it is still unfolding before our very eyes. And secondly, the threat from IS is different from our traditional terrorist threats that we have faced in the past, don’t compare with the threats that we’re facing from IS.”

Those were the words uttered by the Malaysian Defence Minister on the eve of the recent Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace exhibition that concluded on the 21st March 2015. He added:

You will see the gatling gun that we have fitted on our A109s and maybe the threat that we face just requires a gatling gun.”

Many defence practitioners, analysts, journalists and bloggers such as I, felt as if the military had been let down when we heard those very words uttered on board the Royal Malaysian Navy’s frigate, KD Jebat.  Malaysia has been seeking for the replacement of the MiG-29N fleet for the longest time, and now it has been stalled again.  Furthermore, the fight against the IS is first and foremost a counter-insurgency warfare that falls within the purview of the Home Ministry, with the Defence Ministry in a supporting role.

It would be good to note, too, that missing from the airshow for the first time at LIMA ’15 are the Smokey Bandits, the RMAF’s aerobatics team that consists of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29Ns.  It was looked forward to, and missed by many.

In March of 2013, the PLA-N sent its largest and most modern amphibious assault ship, a destroyer and two guided-missile frigate to James Shoal (Beting Serupai), 80km off the coast of Bintulu in Malaysia’s state of Sarawak, to conduct an oath taking ceremony there.  The PLAN sailors and marines pledged to “defend the South China Sea, maintain national sovereignty and strive towards the dream of a strong China.”  Just 80km off Malaysia’s coast, this flotilla went unchallenged by the Royal Malaysian Navy or by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency vessels.

The RMAF Su-30MKMs are about the only MRCA capable of taking on the PLAN or PLAAF but lack miserably in numbers
The RMAF Su-30MKMs are about the only MRCA capable of taking on the PLAN or PLAAF but lack miserably in numbers

While the Minister focuses on the IS threat, which really should be looked at by the Home Ministry and not Defence as it involves counter-insurgency warfare, both the Royal Malaysian Navy and the Royal Malaysian Air Force are in dire need of more capable assets.  Without the MiG-29Ns and the F-5E Tiger IIs, the RMAF is down to just 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKM Flankers and 8 F/A-18 Hornets, supported by 14 BAe Hawk 208 and 6 BAe Hawk Mk 108.  Of course, that is if the serviceability rate is at 100 percent.

The Royal Malaysian Navy’s combat power is represented by 2 Scorpene submarines, 2 Frigates (with 6 to be constructed), 6 corvettes, 6 offshore patrol vessels, and 8 missile boats.  Although the Royal Malaysian Navy could give any enemy a bloody nose if required, without air superiority achieved, there will be a repeat of what happened to Force Z in 1941.  The RMN is also somewhat impaired given that its OPVs are fitted-but-not-with strike-capable weapons such as anti-air and surface-to-surface missiles.

The Kedah-class OPVs have been fitted-but-not-with SSMs (Photo courtesy of BERNAMA)
The Kedah-class OPVs have been fitted-but-not-with SSMs
(Photo courtesy of BERNAMA)

Underscoring its intention to subjugate the other claimants especially Malaysia, the Chinese Coast Guard was found in the vicinity of the Luconia Shoals, 150km off Miri, early this month.  With a large to cover, both the Royal Malaysian Air Force as well as the Royal Malaysian Navy are very much lacking in assets.

A Malaysian vessel intercepts a Chinese Coast Guard cutter at the Luconia Shoals off Sarawak, Malaysia - picture courtesy of WSJ
A Malaysian vessel intercepts a Chinese Coast Guard cutter at the Luconia Shoals off Sarawak, Malaysia – picture courtesy of WSJ

In his speech during the recent Air Force Day celebration, General Dato’ Sri Roslan bin Saad RMAF underlined three approaches to ensure that the RMAF stays on top of the game:

  • The amalgamation of assets and organisation: this approach gives focus to the readiness of aircraft and radar systems. Through the Chief of Air Force’s Directive Number 19, several action plans have been formulated to ensure that the serviceability rate for aircraft and radar systems remain high.
  • Enhancement of Human Resource: this is done by raising, training and sustaining the RMAF’s manpower by increasing its specialisation and competency levels.
  • Optimisation of Available Resources and Finance: this is by formulating a strategy to ensure that resources and finances are being managed properly and are well managed.
General Dato Sri Roslan bin Saad RMAF, the Chief of Air Force, delivering his speech at the Air Force Day parade at the Kuantan Air Base.
General Dato Sri Roslan bin Saad RMAF, the Chief of Air Force, delivering his speech at the Air Force Day parade at the Kuantan Air Base.

In my opinion, the amalgamation of assets should also include the reactivation of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29N Fulcrum as well as the Northrop F-5E Tiger II fleets.  With limited funds available for the addition of more interceptors as well as MRCAs, perhaps the RMAF should get the MiG-29Ns back online in a reduced number. The final number of MiG-29Ns maintained by the RMAF was ten.  Perhaps eight is a credible size to maintain.  We know that engine hours is no longer the issue with the MiG-29Ns. If budget constraint is a concern, no upgrades are needed for now. They can still perform their MRCA role with what is readily-available, and perform as Smokey Bandits when needed.  It would be worthwhile to note that the Indian Air Force has upgraded its much-older MiG-29Bs to the MiG-29UPG, at par with Russia’s MiG-29SMTs but sporting western avionics.  I am more than sure that Malaysia’s Aerospace Technology Systems Corporation Sdn Bhd (ATSC) could propose an upgrade to the MiG-29Ns. These upgrades would be cheaper than a total fleet purchase which negotiations will take years to conclude.

The Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) maintains more than 400 F-5E Tigers in its inventory while the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) maintains more than 200.  These old analog interceptors are based near where the threats are.  The most interesting point about the F-5Es are that they run on analog systems and require less time from cold start to interception.  Malaysia had about 16 F-5Es and 2 RF-5E Tigereye that could do Alert 2 standby for first interception while the Alerts 5 and 7s could come and back them up later.  Two squadrons could still be maintained perhaps in Kuching with an FOB set-up in Miri and Labuan for F-5E detachments.

The two suggestions above is for the RMAF to consider while it waits for budget and arrival of the new MRCA.

It is of no secret that while Dassault Aviation has been promoting its Rafale MRCA heavily in Malaysia especially, the fighter jocks of the RMAF prefer the F-18Ds that they have; and if any addition is to be made to its MRCA fleet, it should be the F-18Ds.  End-users’ opinions and evaluation must be seriously considered.

The other threat that faces Malaysia is the potential insurgency in Sabah’s ESSZONE.  While “helicopters with Gatling guns” may be considered an answer, a helicopter is slow to get away from a fire-fight.  Time and time again we have seen how rebels in the southern Philippines who are also responsible for the kidnappings as well as skirmishes in Sabah brought down military helicopters.

The real answer is in a platform that can deliver enough payload at high speed and conduct effective strafing of known enemy positions.  The RMAF should consider reactivating the Light Attack Squadron (LAS) that was used in counter-insurgency warfare in the 1980s and early 1990s.  The Pilatus PC-7 Mk II, while acting as the aircraft for the LIFT program (Lead-In Fighter Training), can also be used as both counter-insurgency warfare aircraft as well as in support of the roles taken up by the Hawks 108 and 208 as well as the Aermacchi MB-339CM.  Economy-of-effort has always been part of the Principles of War and still holds true today.  Having the experience in the LAS I believe will make them better pilots for the F/A as well as MRCA roles as they progress later.

RMAF BAe Hawks and Aermacchi MB-339CM light fighter/lead trainers flying past during the Air Force Day parade
RMAF BAe Hawks and Aermacchi MB-339CM light fighter/lead trainers flying past during the Air Force Day parade

The RMAF also lacks the eye-in-the-sky.  From the days when I joined the RMAF in the 1980s, the AWACS have always been sought after but never procured.  An AWACS provides the RMAF as well as the RMN a good detail of what is happening both in the sky and at sea.  Four AWACS with good loiter endurance based in Kuching working round-the-clock should suffice. Kuching is at the nearest point between Borneo and the Peninsular, and covers the South China Sea easily.  On top of this, Maritime Patrol Aircraft with anti-ship and anti-submarine capability should be made available for the RMAF.  This is to complement the RMN in its role especially in the South China Sea.

I am not sure but I believe we cannot see much of what is beyond the Crocker range in Sarawak.  Mobile radar systems could be stitched along the range to provide better coverage of what goes beyond the range.  The data can be fed via satellite or HF system.  The RMAF’s HF system is more than capable of providing accurate radar picture of the area.

The Malaysian Army’s “top secret” Vera-E passive radar system should also make its data available and fed into the RMAF’s current air defence radar system to enhance the capability of the the latter.  There is nothing so secret about the Vera-E.  Several keys tapped on Google and one would be able to find out about the Malaysian procurement of the system.  I am flabbergasted that the Malaysian Army has yet to share the Vera-E data with the RMAF.

The government should also allow the RMN to look into procuring available assets from the USN that are capable to deter PLAN assets from entering sovereign waters unchallenged.  Apart from capital assets. the RMN should look into converting some of its smaller assets such as the CB-90s and RHIBs into Unmanned Surface Vessels (USV) with 30mm stabilised weapons and targeting system complemented by a STRIKE-MR fire-and-forget missiles that could be operated remotely to conduct swarm attack on larger enemy units.  Using the USV swarm tactic, the RMN should look at the tactics used by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) to sink larger Sri Lankan naval units.  Using the CB-90s as well as the RHIBs for swarm warfare at shoals and atolls controlled by Malaysia in the South China seas fits with the concept of “working with what we have and not what we feel we should have.”  Swarm forces can neutralise or deter larger forces from advancing further, while the USV concept does not need the unnecessary loss of lives to achieve its objective.

I urge the government to reconsider the budget put forth by both the RMAF and the RMN. Budget constraint should not be a reason the military is not allowed to enhance their current capabilities.  The warfare doctrine based on the principles of selection and the maintenance of aim must be respected if the Malaysian military, in particular the RMAF and RMN, is to achieve its objectives which mainly is to act as deterrence from potential belligerent forces.  If the RMAF and RMN are not allowed to be strong, Malaysia will always be bullied at the South China Sea diplomatically.