Defence: RMAF’s Walks Slowly But With Big Strides

RMAF Airbus A400M (M54-04) on finals at the Labuan airbase during exercise PARADISE 2017

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!

The cockpit of the RMAF A400M (M54-04) is large and is very comfortable

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.

RMAF A400M (M54-04) is being loaded with HADR cargo bound for Marawi

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

The Beechcraft Super King Air 200T MPA has been in service with RMAF for 23 years

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.

The Leonardo ATR-72MP, seen here at LIMA 17, also comes with an electronic surveillance and C4I platform. The airframe is that of the ATR-72-600 (photo courtesy of Janes Defence)

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.

The Airbus C-295 of the Força Aérea Brasiliera arrived at the Subang airbase on Friday 7 July 2017

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.

RoKAF Black Eagle’s KAI T-50B zooms above Langkawi during LIMA 17

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.

The Chief of RMAF (second from left) speaking to reporters during Exercise PARADISE 4/2017 at the Kota Belud Air Range

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.

Epilogue

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.

Defence: LIMA ’17 To Be More Exciting

The Langkawi Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition 2017 will be more exciting than the previous editions because there is a marked increase in floor space as a result of the re-introduction of the Maritime Segment at the Resorts World, Langkawi.

There will be the array of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) that will be on display such as the United States Air Force MQ-1 Predator, United States Navy MQ-8 Fire Scout, Thales Fulmar Mini-UAV, SAAB AUV 62AT, and the TBN UAV from Ukraine.

The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) will be debuting the newly-received offshore patrol vessel ‘KM Pekan’ donated by the Japanese government.

LIMA ’17 has confirmed 555 exhibitors from 36 countries and is expecting over 180,000 trade and public visitors from all over the world. LIMA ’17 will be held from 21 to 25 March 2017 in Langkawi. This year will mark the 14th edition in its 27 year history and is expected to be the best and biggest one to date.

Irkut Corporation of Russia will be featuring the Russian Air Force’s aerobatic team ‘Russian Knights’ in their spanking new Sukhoi Su-30SM.  This would be the return of the Russian Knights’ to LIMA and their first tour outside the Russian Federation in the Su-30SMs.

Sukhoi Su-30SMs of the Russian Knights at the Langkawi International Airport

Irkut will also be featuring its scout/attack helicopter, the Kamov Ka-25 “Alligator.”

Irkut Corporation will be featuring aircraft models of the entire Irkut product line will be presented at the UAC stand: the Su-30SME fighter, the Yak-130 and Yak-152 training aircraft, and the new MC-21 commercial liner.

Irkut Corporation comes under the Russian pavillion which is under the charge of JSC Rosoboronexport, which is a part of the Rostec State Corporation. Rosoboronexport is in-charge of the united Russian stand at LIMA’17 showcasing over 500 products from 20 enterprises of the defence industry complex of the Russian Federation.

LIMA’ 17 also serves as the perfect platform to encourage further co-operation between Malaysia and regional & global allies in both the maritime and aerospace industries, specifically on asset acquisition as Armed Forces around the world are modernizing their asset bases. For example, the Chiefs of Navy Roundtable Talk at LIMA’17 this year will bring together 12 Chiefs of Navy and 24 representatives to discuss about “Naval Capability Based Acquisition Reform”. Subsequently, the LIMA’17 Air Chiefs Conference will also be taking a similar approach this year, and the attending Chiefs of Air Force and other senior air delegations will be tackling the “Air Force Capability Based Acquisition Reform”.

The Ministers of Defence and Transport viewing the preparations at the Maritime Segment before the Press Conference cum High Tea on board the Royal Malaysian Navy frigate KD Jebat

Another first for LIMA 17 will be the involvement of youths from across the country. The Ministry of Youth and Sports, together with the Ministry of Defence have invited over 500 young individuals from Briged Sukarelawan Khidmat Negara (BSKN), Universiti Pertahanan Nasional Malaysia (UPNM), Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) Perlis, Parlimen Belia Malaysia, iM4U, Gabungan Pelajar Melayu Semenanjung (GPMS), Majlis Belia Malaysia (MBM) and our Reserve Officer Training Unit (PALAPES). They will be attending a Comprehensive Educational Tour throughout LIMA ’17 and attend engagement sessions with leaders in the defence sector. On the final day, a Transformasi Nasional 2050 (TN50) Townhall Dialogue on defence to encourage the youth to play a larger role and capture their aspirations about the future of Malaysia’s security.

ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, GUAM — A B-1B Lancer soars over the Pacific Ocean after air refueling training here Sept. 30. The B1B Bomber is deployed to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, as part of the Pacific Commands continuous bomber presence in the Asia-Pacific region, enhancing regional security and the U.S. commitment to the Western Pacific. The B1 is from the 37th Bomb Squadron, Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Other than the Russian Knights, the Black Eagles, the aerobatic team of the Republic of Korea Air Force will be making a first-time appearance this LIMA. The Black Eagles’ performance involves 9 KAI – T50B jet aircrafts. LIMA 2017 will also see the TNI-AU’s Jupiter as part of the aerobatic demonstrations on show. Our very own Royal Malaysian Air Force’s SU-30 MKM and F/A 18D jets, the Rafale from France, the Gripen 39C/D from Thailand and 2 Supersonic B-1 Bombers from the United States Air Force will also perform flypasts during the exhibition.

The Royal Malaysian Air Force’s Sukhoi Su-30MKM will be performing solo aerial displays throughout the five-day exhibition in Langkawi