Malaysia’s proposed 2014 core defence budget has increased by six percent to $5.1 billion. However, just $868 million of this will go towards new equipment, despite current security threats. For example, China’s state news agency, Xinhua, reported in January 2014 that a three-ship People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) task force had patrolled James Shoal, 43 nautical miles (80 kilometres) from Sarawak, one of two Malaysian states on Borneo. Xinhua reported sailors aboard the amphibious warfare ship and two destroyers that comprised the task force “swore an oath of determination to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and maritime interests”. China regards James Shoal in the South China Sea as its southernmost territory, a claim vigorously contested by Malaysia. In March 2013, Malaysia protested the incursion of four Chinese ships in the same location.
China’s growing maritime aggression has neighbours like Malaysia, which claims part of the Spratly Island archipelago in the South China Sea and has garrisons on five reefs, greatly concerned. Malaysia does not publicise Chinese incursions to avoid jeopardising economic ties with Beijing, although it is stepping up maritime patrols despite being hampered by a small naval fleet and the need to maintain a picquet off Sabah (on the north Borneo coast) against insurgent incursions.
The MAF confronted approximately 235 Muslim separatists from the Philippines in Sabah between February and March 2013. These Filipino gunmen from the Royal Sulu Sultanate Army insurgent movement, were supposedly reclaiming ancestral lands, occupied Tanduo village in Sabah. After a three-week standoff, the MAF finally launched Operation Sovereignty, which included aircraft, ships, naval special forces, army soldiers, Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) and helicopters, to root out the invaders. Admiral Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar, Malaysia’s chief of navy, told AMR: “What we’re doing now is making sure those who want to come in will not be able to.” Protection is now the function of the newly formed Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM). The above two events highlight the need for the MAF to modernise its equipment.
The Royal Malaysian Navy’s (RMN) biggest acquisition programme revolves around six Second-Generation Patrol Vessel-Littoral Combat Ships (SGPV-LCS) to be built by Boustead Naval Shipyard (BNS) located in Lumut, Perak. Based on its ‘Gowind’ class design, DCNS shipbuilders of France is providing technical assistance to Boustead for the project. The SGPV-LCS follows on from the ‘Kedah’ class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) used by the RMN, but the design is bigger and better armed. The corvette’s armament is expected to include the MBDA Mica surface-to-air missile (SAM), Exocet MM40 Block 3 anti-ship missile, two torpedo launchers, BAE Systems Bofors Mk3 57 millimetre (two-inch) guns and two 30mm MSI Defence cannons. The ships will feature Thales Smart-S Mk2 radar and CAPTAS-2 towed-array sonar. Construction should start this year, and delivery of the first example is slated for 2018.
These vessels are desperately needed as the navy is suffering under a high operational tempo that is apparently affecting morale. A limited number of hulls make it difficult to meet all obligations. One such task is Operation Fajar, the anti-piracy escort mission in the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Sea for Malaysian-flagged cargo ships. Ongoing since 2008, the government recently renewed this commitment until at least June 2014. Because of a lack of suitable vessels, the RMN acquired two converted container ships (MT Bunga Mas 5 and MT Bunga Mas 6 in 2008 and 2011 respectively) to support Operation Fajar.
In other construction news, Selangor-based NGV Tech has built two 76-metre (249-feet)-long ‘Samudera’ class training vessels for the RMN. The local shipbuilder collaborated with Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) of the Republic of Korea (RoK) in their technical development. The second vessel was launched in February 2013 as part of the $96.1 million contract signed in 2011, and it should commission by the middle of 2014. The navy chief has called for the procurement of two more armed ships based on this type to help overcome a platform shortfall, but no movement has occurred to date.
The earlier ‘Kedah’ class Next Generation Patrol Vessel (NGPV) programme delivered six vessels based on the Blohm and Voss ‘Meko-A100’ class OPV design. From the third NGPV onwards the ships were constructed locally, but the lightly-armed fleet could be upgraded with anti-ship missiles in the future. There is also speculation that the RMN has a preference for Kongsberg Naval Strike Missiles (NSM).
Two ‘Kasturi’ class frigates are undergoing a Service Life Extension Programme (SLEP) to enable 15 more years of service. KD Kasturi rejoined the fleet in January 2014, and her sister is now undergoing a SLEP at the hands of BNS; she should begin sea trials by late 2014. The SLEP overhauls the engines, replaces the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system, and an Atlas Elektronik DSQS-24C hull-mounted sonar is fitted. The frigates now have eight Exocet MM40 Block 2 missile launchers, two EuroTorp AS244 torpedo launchers, a Bofors 57mm Mk1 gun and two MSI Defence 30mm cannons. Thales’ TACTICOS is the ships’ new combat management system.
In further refurbishment work, four ‘Laksamana’ class corvettes will be refitted and re-designated as Fast Attack Craft (Gun). Their outdated missile systems have been retired, their torpedo launchers removed, and they will rely on 76mm (three-inch) and 40mm guns as their armament. Malaysia obtained two DCNS ‘Scorpene’ class submarines in 2009, though their upkeep continues to drain money from the RMN budget. These 1,550-tonne submarines based at Sepanggar in East Malaysia are equipped with Exocet SM39 Block 2 missiles and Whitehead Black Shark torpedoes.
Since 2008 Malaysia has had a requirement for a large-displacement Multipurpose Support Ship (MPSS) for peacekeeping and humanitarian-assistance duties. This need became more acute in 2009 when the navy’s solitary amphibious-warfare ship (KD Sri Inderapura) was engulfed by fire. France has offered an amphibious support ship based on a downsized variant of DCNS’s ‘Mistral’ class design while the RoK is offering a smaller version of the ‘Dokdo’ class amphibious support vessel. The USA has also proffered the USS Denver ‘Austin’ class amphibious support ship as a hot transfer once she decommissions in 2014. The MPSS project has been deferred indefinitely but it may be reinstated in the Eleventh Malaysia Plan (11MP) governmental spending programme in the 2016-20 timeframe.
The Sabah confrontation demonstrated the RMN’s need to boost its asymmetric capabilities. Consequently, it is deploying locally built fast interceptor craft to East Malaysia. The RMN has three regional naval commands, but a fourth will be added at the planned Bintulu naval base in Sarawak, according to the RMN chief. “It will be a major effort there and we are currently in discussion with both the federal and state government there as to the size and development of the base and its facilities,” said ADM Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar. Bintulu will be the closest facility to the James Shoal.
The RMN operates six AgustaWestland Super Lynx 300 and six Airbus Helicopters AS555 Fennec maritime support rotorcraft. However, the navy further requires at least six maritime support helicopters, most likely to be procured under the 11MP. Christophe Nurit, Sikorsky’s vice president in Asia, told AMR, “Malaysia has a stated requirement for anti- submarine warfare helicopters. We’re supporting the US Navy to offer the MH-60R Seahawk.”
Maritime surveillance is critical to the country’s security, so the RMN wants organic Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA). Up to four are required, though four Beechcraft B200T MPAs of the RMAF are presently performing long-range patrols. Eight US-funded coastal surveillance radar stations have been incrementally established on the Sabah coast as part of a counterterrorism initiative. Able to track boats up to 38nm (70km) offshore, this radar network could expand still further in the future.
The most important programme for the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) is replacing its 14-strong MiG-29N fleet with 18 Multirole Combat Aircraft (MRCA). Four suppliers attended last year’s LIMA (Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition) show in force: Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Eurofighter’s Typhoon, Dassault’s Rafale-B/C/M and Saab’s JAS-39C/D Gripen were all on show. The programme was picking up momentum, but has since skidded off the runway because of insufficient funds. It is unclear when the MRCA will be dusted off, but a capability gap is looming once the MiG-29Ns retire in 2015.
In May 2013 the RMAF chief, General Rodzali Daud, said his force might have to lease second-hand JAS-39C/D fighters from Sweden if money was unavailable to replace the MiG-29Ns outright. Meanwhile, Mark Kane, managing director of combat air at BAE Systems, noted the Eurofighter Typhoon solution would offer Malaysia comprehensive industrial participation: “We can offer Malaysian industry access to more than 400 aerospace and defence companies and suppliers. The combined skills of Malaysian industry and the Typhoon supply chain are ideally suited to long-term growth.”
The RMAF’s most potent aircraft remains 18 Su-30MKM MRCAs. Additionally, Boeing received a $17.3 million Foreign Military Sale (FMS) award in 2011 to upgrade eight F/A-18D Hornets. Due for completion in April 2015, the programme includes the addition of a colour moving-map display, new Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) equipment and a Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS).
Nineteen Pilatus PC-7 Mk.II trainers were bought to replace existing PC-7 basic trainers. However, more are needed, so the 2014 budget allocates funds for approximately twelve additional PC-7s. Malaysia, the only Asian customer to date, ordered four Airbus Military A400M Atlas turboprop freighters in 2005, and they are finally due for delivery in 2015-16. They will be based at Subang near Kuala Lumpur, where facilities are being upgraded to accommodate them. Upgrades to the 15-strong Lockheed Martin C-130H Hercules turboprop freighter fleet are required too, primarily focusing on cockpit and navigational improvements.
Replacement of the Sikorsky S-61A4 Nuri medium-lift utility helicopter fleet has been a long-running saga, reignited by another crash in December 2013. The Eurocopter EC725 Cougar medium-lift rotorcraft was selected to take over air mobility and search-and-rescue roles from the S-61A4, and the last of twelve examples are due for delivery in early 2014. Initial operational capability should be gained by the middle of 2014. However, twelve EC725s will be insufficient for the tasks they will perform, and so the long-suffering S-61A4 may be upgraded. A SLEP for 15 helicopters has been allocated, probably taking the airframes to zero hours life and installing glass cockpits.
To rectify a weak air defence umbrella, the MAF needs a omprehensive radar and medium/long-range SAM network. Raytheon, in combination with Kongsberg of Norway, told the author it was working closely with Malaysia to offer a ground-based air defence solution in the form of its Fire Distribution Centre (FDC) Command and Control (C2) architecture that can integrate many SAM types: “We can tailor our offering to their needs and requirements,” explained Patrick Marcoux, senior manager of Raytheon’s integrated air and missile defence division.
In February 2013, ThalesRaytheonSystems announced full acceptance by the RMAF of an enhanced national C2 system.
The Malaysian Air Defence Ground Environment Sector Operations Centre-III (MADGE) incorporates Sentry C2 software and Ground Master-400 radars. Up to eight Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft would further improve situational awareness, but for now even significantly less than this figure remains out of reach due to budgetary constraints. Contenders waiting in the wings include Northrop Grumman’s E-2D Hawkeye turboprop AEW platform and Saab’s Erieye radar, which can be mounted on a turboprop or turbofan airframe.
The Malaysian Army’s mobility will be enhanced when new Deftech AV8 eight-wheel-drive armoured vehicles start arriving to bolster some 267 FNSS ACV-300 Adnan APCs. Further announcements are expected at the Defence Services Asia (DSA) exhibition to be held in Malaysia in April 2014, but it is known that a six-month long vehicle trial of the AV8 concluded in 2013. The AV8, derived from the Turkish FNSS Pars platform, won a $2.4 billion order for 257 vehicles in twelve variants. These vehicles are desperately needed to replace over 450 geriatric Rheinmetall Condor four-wheel-drive and 184 Belgian-made SIBMAS six-wheel-drive vehicles, and Malaysian-based Deftech is partnering with companies such as BAE Systems, FNSS, Thales and Denel. One definite area of deployment for the new vehicles will be in Eastern Sabah to deter further Sulu incursions.
The 11th Royal Armoured Regiment is equipped with 48 Bumar-Labedy PT-91M Pendekar Main Battle Tanks (MBT), but the artillery still desires 155mm Self-Propelled Howitzers (SPH) further down the line. A mixed fleet of tracked and wheeled SPHs may be the best combination. Malaysia now has in service 36 Brazilian-made AVIBRAS ASTROS II multiple rocket launchers.
The Army Air Corps fields eleven AgustaWestland A109LOH helicopters in the light observation role, although one crashed on 30 January 2014. This corps still lacks tactical transport and attack helicopter squadrons, however. Many see the Airbus Helicopters EC665 Tiger attack rotorcraft as a frontrunner for the latter requirement, and 2013’s Sulu incursion demonstrated how useful such attack helicopters would be.
Significantly, Malaysia is planning to create a marine corps. Details are bare on what it will look like, but the MAF is consulting with the US Marine Corps on the next steps. The amphibious force will be drawn from all three services, and one of its prime tasks will be defending Sabah. The bulk of the force will come from the army’s 10th Parachute Brigade, which already has two battalions that maintain a secondary amphibious role. It is not clear whether the force will fall under navy or army command.
Malaysia is trying to boost indigenous defence production and, in 2011, it introduced an updated offset policy. China has made inroads into the Thai and Indonesian defence markets, and it is trying to do the same in Malaysia. Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein visited Beijing in October 2013, and he promised closer defence industrial collaboration as part of a growing strategic partnership. The two sides will also conduct joint military exercises.
Malaysia emphasises regional cooperation and encourages bilateral defence cooperation within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) framework. The Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) with the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore remains an important alliance for the country too.
Malaysia’s emergence as a defence industrial power is demonstrated by the expertise of local firm FNSS which has developed a niche in the supply of Self-Propelled Mortars (SPM), notably the company’s products are currently in service with the Turkish armed forces, and their counterparts elsewhere in the Middle East and South East Asia. FNSS also has expertise in integrating 120mm mortars onto chassis, from conventional systems to semi-automatic weapons with automated fire control. One of the firm’s flagship products is its ACV19 Self Propelled Mortar which uses a tracked chassis. This mortar requires a crew of only three-to-four personnel for operation. It also has a high degree of commonality with the ACV15 and M113A4 tracked vehicles, reducing the maintenance and logistics burden for armies operating these vehicles alongside the ACV19. (Asian Military Review)