The A400M: How Has It Fared?
When the Royal Malaysian Air Force purchased the Airbus Defence and Space A400M Atlas, many thought it was to replace the Lockheed C-130H-30 that had entered service in 1976. 15 C-130Hs were delivered to the RMAF with 14 still flying.
However, the RMAF announced further upgrades to its C-130H fleet to keep them operational. The A400M’s role, although similar to that of the C-130H, enhances the RMAF’s airlift capability. Not only can the A400M carry 17 tonnes more payload compared to the C-130H, it can fly 200 knots faster and land on rough or soft landing strips like the C-130H.
Its glass cockpit/side-stick coupled with three-axis fly-by-wire (FBW) with flight envelope protection configuration makes the A400M user-friendly and is based on the A380 but modified to suit military operations requirements. The flight envelope protection allows the A400M to perform bank angles up to 120 degrees!
Not only could the A400M support the Malaysian Armed Forces’s tactical and strategic capabilities, it could also be utilised for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations in the region. To date, the RMAF’s A400Ms have performed two HADR roles: delivering 17 tonnes of aid to embattled Marawi in July 2017 and 12 tonnes of aid to the Rohingya refugees in south Bangladesh in September 2017.
The remarkable thing especially about the Marawi mission was the A400M’s ability to fly to Cagayan del Oro and back without refuelling (an approximately 5,400 kilometers return trip); this, together with its speed cuts down total turnaround time.
The A400M is equipped with the defensive aid sub-system and an in-flight refueling capability. The inflight-refueling package allows the A400M to refuel helicopters at 105 knots indicated airspeed (KIAS) and fighters at up to 300 knots, hence safer for the refuelling of both helicopters and fighters. Flight tests have also revealed that at Alpha Max (with the Alpha Floor protection disabled, the A400M reached 98 KIAS before the FBW low-speed protection function eased the nose down. There was no wing roll-off or loss of control. Recovery was almost immediate when the nose was lowered and thrust added, underscoring the fact that the A400M is indeed a very safe and capable aircraft.
Maritime Patrol Aircraft – Budgeted For
For almost two decades the role of maritime patrol was assigned to several C-130Hs that were converted to C-130MPs. Four Beechcraft Super King Air B200T aircraft were inducted into the RMAF maritime patrol fleet to complement the C-130MPs. However, the high operational costs versus mission requirements of the C-130MPs saw the latter taking over the role completely.
Even before the loss of an airframe, there were already talks of replacing the B200Ts. Leonardo brought its ATR-72MP aircraft to LIMA ’17. Apart from the hardpoints and MPA modules on board, the ATR-72MP is just a normal commercially-available aircraft, powerplants and all. Leonardo’s concept is to provide a platform using what is available in large numbers in the market to keep the costs down.
Airbus Defence and Space flew a CN295 almost around the world to promote it as a multirole platform. The CN295, albeit a SAR version that was on its way to its new home in Brazil, made a stop in Malaysia and was presented to operators such as the RMAF, the MMEA, as well as the Royal Malaysian Police Air Wing.
Stretched three metres longer than the CN235 that the RMAF is currently operating, everything about the CN295 is very similar to the CN235, which makes crew conversion fairly easy to make. It comes with a more powerful plant that features better efficiency, longer loiter capability at station and comes with six external hardpoints for ASW weapons.
When the announcement of the budget for the procurement of four MPAs in 2018 was made, the immediate follow-through was that four of the RMAF’s remaining seven CN235s will be fitted with the MP systems from the B200Ts, a sure sign that either additional CN235s will be acquired for the MPA role, or the CN295s would be acquired instead.
The commonality between the C295 and the CN235 also potentially leads to even lower operating costs, given the versatile cabin configuration that allows fast switching of mission types, high manouvrability, better low-level flying capabilities given the high-wing configuration and a wide rear ramp, the C295 makes the best option for maritime patrol and surveillance as well as anti-submarine warfare missions in Malaysia.
The C295 is powered by twin PW127G turboprop engines driving Hamilton Sundstrand Type 568F-5 six bladed propellers which provide outstanding hot and high performance, low fuel consumption, and an endurance exceeding 11 hours. Flying at a maximum speed of 480 km/h which is slower than the B200T’s 540 km/h, but has a range of 5,600 kilometers compared to the B200T’s 3,100 kilometer range.
The RMAF’s need for a reliable platform that would be able to perform largely anti-shipping missions and has a reasonable but economical loiter endurance with some strike capability if required makes the CN295 a better choice of MPA. It also makes strategic and economical sense for Malaysia as it allows operators to narrow down its aircraft types and suppliers, making logistical and technical support easier.
UAV, MRCA and LIFT
Although the procurement of the badly needed MRCA to replace the MiG-29Ns have not been announced, the RMAF is making up for the void by ensuring high serviceability rate of its frontliners. Observers would note that the serviceability percentage has increased tremendously despite the cut in the defence budget.
Perhaps the RMAF should think of an interim fighter or Lead-In Fighter Trainer (LIFT) that gives the bang for bucks. The Korea Aerospace Industries’s TA-50 LIFT comes into mind. Each unit of the more advanced FA-50 costs half or three times less than a top-of-the-line fighter would but it carries enough sting to hurt the enemy.
Losing only but not much in terms of range to the BAe Systems Mk 108/208 that the RMAF currently deploys in Labuan to cover both the eastern South China and Sulu seas, the TA-50’s ability to reach supersonic speeds (Mach 1.5 compared to the Hawk’s Mach 0.84) and excellent thrust-to-weight ratio (0.96 to the Hawk’s 0.65) means that the TA-50 would make a better aircraft placed on Alert 5 to intercept straying foreign aircraft. Its superb ability to deliver air-to-ground as well as anti-shipping ordnances makes it a suitable platform to support anti-incursion/counter-insurgency operations in the ESSCOM area.
The RMAF is also interested to develop its Unmanned Aerial Vehicle capability in both tactical and strategic aspects. RMAF Chief General Tan Sri Dato Seri Affandi bin Buang TUDM said that the RMAF is conducting a detailed study to identify the UAV capable of meeting the current needs of the country apart from being equipped with technologies which could be shared with various parties in the country.
“Besides security surveillance, UAV can also be used for other purposes such as weather information and others,” he said. “If the RMAF is able to acquire sophisticated UAVs we would be able to enhance our operations in the Peninsular, Sabah, Sarawak and also in support of the MPAs patrolling the South China Sea as well as the Sulu Sea.”
Hopefully the RMAF would acquire UAVs with extended on-station endurance with some hardpoints for strike capability.
Although the RMAF is still in want of frontline airframes, it is seen to improve its serviceability percentage, a task that seemed daunting in times of global econmic uncertainty, but certainly achievable. The plan to purchase capable Maritime Patrol Aircraft as per the 2018 Budget, and planned addition of sophisticated UAVs, will certainly enhance its control over the airspace.
It is hoped that the government could look into equipping the RMAF with interim strike capability, especially in the South China and Sulu seas, by adding a squadron or two of the KAI TA-50, if not a squadron each of the TA-50 and its frontline version, the FA-50, hopefully by 2020, before preparing its budget for the procurement of actual frontline MRCAs that are badly needed, not only as replacements of the recently-retired MiG-29N, but also as a contingency to replace the F/A-18D which is already in its 20th year of service with the RMAF.
The RMAF may seem to walk slowly, but it is definitely walking with big strides.