#SafeguardOurFuture Essays Collection Defence Reform Featured

Invest in a Modern Air Force for a safer Malaysia  

by Nicholas Sim

With the current great power rivalry that has created instability in the region, it is more important than ever for Malaysia to maintain a modern air force. Air power serves not just as a tool for war but also as a deterrent against both state and non-state actors that potentially threaten our national security. 

To achieve this, the RMAF revealed Capability Development 2055 (CAP 55) in 2018 and MINDEF released the Defence White Paper in 2019, detailing how they intended to transform the RMAF into a more efficient and modern air force over the next few decades with the procurement of new equipment.  Unfortunately, ever since CAP 55 was announced, there have yet to be any confirmed deals or negotiations for the purchase of new aircraft, although the tender for the LCAs and MPAs have been issued.

Most  Malaysians public are unaware of this issue or simply don’t understand why we need to purchase new aircraft. As it is, the RMAF already had  to decommission its MiG-29 Fulcrums and retired its Nuri helicopters last December. With the long time that it will take to field new aircraft due to long procurement and testing processes as well as further hindrance from budgetary constraints that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought, this article seeks to justify and specify four parts of Cap 55 (LCAs, MRCAs, AWACs and UAVs) as well as raise public awareness on why we need these new aircraft. 

Malaysian Air Doctrine

With the instability in the South China Sea, the primary threat that the future Malaysian Air Force will need to deal with are aerial and naval incursions from unknown aircraft and surface vessels. To do this, it would require a combination of Multirole Combat Aircraft (MRCA) and Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) that have further combat range, heavier maximum take-off weights, better avionics and are able to carry a wide array of weapons compared to their current counterparts. To assist them, the RMAF will need Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWAC) to detect, identify and track targets, coordinate responses and feed targeting data to the fighters to counter these incursions. Malaysia is currently dependent on ground based radar and they are not as mobile as AWACs are and are thus subject to higher risk; by combining them with AWACs, we will be able to expand our radar coverage around the clock. 

Secondary threats that are still prominent and a danger to Malaysian national security would include transnational crime and terrorist activities that will most often come from sea or land like the 2013 Lahad Datu Incursion. Given the extensive Malaysian coastline and border that will need to be patrolled, the addition of Maritime Patrol Aircraft that are specifically designed to operate over water for long periods of time and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) that are at least capable of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) will be crucial. 

In the unfortunate case of a full scale war breaking out in Southeast Asia, the Malaysian Air Force will need to divide its resources to maintain air superiority in both West and East Malaysia theatres, which will be no small feat. In this case, the RMAF will be stretched rather thin with our current forces. To do this, we need MRCAs that are stealthy, well-armed and survivable enough to conduct air superiority and Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) missions against potential fifth generation aircraft and highly capable SAM systems respectively in order to create a safer airspace for more vulnerable support aircraft like AWACs and UAVs that will ensure we have superior battlespace awareness. Strategic and Tactical Airlift platforms will also be crucial to transport supplies and friendly units between both theatres as needed but will not be discussed in this article. 

Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)

The DWP identifies that the LCAs will be responsible for close air support, battlefield air interdiction, intervention and serve as a Fighter Lead-In Trainer (FLIT). The BAE Hawk 108/208s that currently serve as the LCAs of the RMAF are now almost in their 27th year of service and are increasingly outdated. Malaysia requires new LCAs that will be able to effectively train new fighter pilots and provide a supporting role to the MRCAs so that we have sufficient fighters to cover both West and East Malaysian theatres in the case of war. 

CAP 55 has stated its intent to acquire 1 FLIT and 2 LCA squadrons which should total to 36 aircraft. The potential two final candidates that have been reported are the South Korean FA-50 Golden Eagle and the Chinese/Pakistani JF-17 Thunder. In order to perform its role, it will require a good mix of air interdiction and ground attack capabilities. The table below compares the current Hawks with the FA-50 and JF-17 on several crucial factors that a Malaysian LCA will need to fulfil its role. 

Combat RangeMaximum Take-off WeightNumber of HardpointsType of Malaysian Weapons Carried Radar Systems (Max Range)
BAE Hawk 208333 nm20,000 lbs7AIM-9 SidewinderMk 82AN/APG-66  (40 nm)
FA-50 Golden EagleExact number unknown but <900 nm27,000 lbs7AIM-9 SidewinderPaveway IIJDAMAGM-65 MaverickMk 82EL/M-2032 (80 nm)
JF-17 Thunder730 nm27,300 lbs7Unknown whether current Malaysian-owned American and Russian weapons are compatibleKLJ-7(60 nm)
Note: Data from this table is from IISS’s The Military Balance 2021 and Command: Modern Operations Database

As we can see, the current Hawks are considerably behind both the FA-50 and the JF-17 in almost every category. They have less range, unable to carry as heavy a payload with their lower maximum takeoff weight and their fire control radar has a shorter range. They need to be replaced and while it is unlikely the new LCAs will be used extensively in an air-to-air combat role, both the FA-50 and the JF-17 possess solid ground attack capabilities, as shown in the table, that can be deployed against enemy land units. Both have also been somewhat combat proven, the FA-50 has been deployed by the Philippines to conduct airstrikes against terrorists and the JF-17 Thunder was a part of Operation Swift Retort. Needless to say, these are exceptional equipment that no matter which one is chosen, will serve as a major upgrade to the Hawk and will provide necessary close air support that will protect our troops on the ground. 

Multirole Combat Aircraft (MRCA)

MRCAs are the tip of the spear for any air force. The RMAF currently operates two types of fourth-generation MRCAs in 18 Russian Su-30MKM Flankers and 8 American F/A-18D Hornets. Although they are currently considered to be quite capable aircraft for the Southeast Asian region, they will inevitably be surpassed in the coming years by the more modern MRCAs that our neighbours are in the midst of procuring. Examples include Indonesia with its joint development with South Korea of the KAI KF-X and Singapore with its purchase of American F-35Bs

As CAP 55 plans to streamline the RMAF to possess only 1 type of MRCA, defense officials in the military and MINDEF have the difficult task of choosing the right aircraft by the 14th/15th Malaysia Plan when the Hornets and Flankers reach their end-of-life. Defense planners will also need to take into consideration the aircraft’s potential for unmanned flight capabilities that all sixth-generation fighters will have in the future and whether or not Malaysia’s plan to develop network-centric operations have advanced far enough by then to be able to utilise the unmanned feature. The question then remains of which aircraft should the RMAF purchase?

Following the doctrine I have laid out, the RMAF requires a fighter that can primarily intercept small numbers of intruding aircraft as well as serve a secondary role of bombing small to medium scale land/sea incursions together with the LCAs. The two major options that the RMAF can consider are the American F-35A and the Russian Su-57E, providing of course the Russians can produce enough Su-57Es by the 2030s. They are both fifth-generation aircraft that have the potential to be used as a testing platform for future unmanned flight operations if Malaysia is able to sufficiently progress its cyber and satellite network infrastructure. 

Combat RangeRadar Cross SectionNumber of HardpointsType of Malaysian Weapons Carried Radar Systems (Max Range)Electronic Warfare Systems (Purpose)
F/A-18D 400 nm1-3m²9AIM-120 AMRAAMAIM-9X SidewinderAIM-7 SparrowAGM-65 MaverickAGM-84 HarpoonPaveway IIJDAMAN/APG-73 (80 nm)AN/ALR-67(V)2 (RWR)AN/ALQ-126B (DECM)
Su-30MKM800 nm4m²12R-27R-77R-73Kh-29Kh-31Kh-59KAB-500KAB-1500Bars N011M PESA(160 nm)MAW-300 (MAWS)OLS-32 (IRST)RWS-50 (RWR)SAP-518 (DECM)
F-35A>590 nm0,0015 – 0,005m²4 internal hardpoints
 6 external hardpoints
AIM-120 AMRAAMAIM-9X SidewinderPaveway IIJDAMAN/APG-81 AESA(200 nm)AN/AAQ-37 EO-DAS (IRST/MAWS)AN/ASQ-239 Barracuda (ELINT)EOTS (IRST)AN/APG-81 (OECM)
Su-57E900 nm0.1 – 1m²6 internal hard points
6 external hardpoints
R-77R-73Kh-31Kh-59KAB-500KRKAB-500ODN036 Byelka AESA(160 nm)L402 Himalayas (RWR/DECM)101KS Atoll (IRST/MAWS)
Note: Data from this table is from IISS’s The Military Balance 2021 and Command: Modern Operations Database

CAP 55 stipulates that the RMAF plans to acquire two squadrons of MRCA which would total to 24 aircraft. Compared to the Hornets and Flankers, we can see that the fifth-generation aircraft possess greater stealth capabilities with their smaller radar cross section and also better detection range with their improved radar systems. Despite their ability to carry a less diverse range of weaponry, their greater stealth will allow them a much better chance than the fourth-gens of coming within standoff range from the enemy undetected and conducting successful air superiority, SEAD and ground attack missions.

Also important to note are that the fifth-generation aircraft possess more advanced avionics than their fourth-generation counterparts which make them much more survivable and effective. Both the F-35A and Su-57E have advanced infrared search and track (IRST) and extensive electronic warfare systems installed on board to detect threats and protect itself from enemy missiles. The F-35A has such advanced communication systems in fact that it’s Link 16 is even capable of potentially acting as a command platform that can help coordinate other aircraft and unmanned platforms. 

Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS)

Malaysia currently possesses a network of ground based air defence radar that serve to detect, identify and track aerial and surface threats to the country. However, these ground based air defence radars suffer from certain drawbacks due to their relatively immobile nature. Ground based mobile radars like the ones that the Malaysian military operates are largely incapable of command and control as they are spread out and first have to relay information back to a centralised command structure in order for the information to be analysed and a decision made on what to do with the information. Like all radars, ground based radar systems can be detected by enemy forces and subsequently targeted due to their lack of mobility. However, AWACs being airborne allows them to be much less vulnerable to potential attacks while still being able to perform the same duties as ground based radar. 

Often described by NATO as the “Eye in the Sky” and for good reason, AWACs are a vital part of any modern air force’s kill chain process by acting as airborne command and control platforms. They detect, identify and track multiple aerial and surface threats and coordinate friendly units to respond to said threat. AWACs are commonly equipped with radars that are more powerful than those carried on fighter jets and thus have a much further detection range. AWACs like the E-7 Wedgetail possess a Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) that has a maximum range of 350 nautical miles, far exceeding those of the LCAs and MRCAs. Compared to mechanical scanning radar arrays, electronic scanning radars allow for almost instantaneous positioning of radar beams that reduces system reaction times, a much more flexible multi-mode radar that allows for target tracking, orders, missile guidance and air traffic control to all operate from one radar, and also are much less susceptible to the mechanical errors that occur with mechanical scanning radars. 

Once unknown aircraft and surface units have been detected, onboard AWAC crew will analyse them quicker than fighters can to identify their type, heading and speed. Once they’re identified as hostile and are being reliably tracked, targeting information from the AWAC can be sent to fighters so that they can attack the enemy from a further range than they normally would be capable of with their own radar systems (providing they’re within weapon range). 

Malaysia does not currently have an AWAC and this is a mistake that needs to be rectified as soon as possible in order to give future air crews the training and experience they need to operate an AWAC efficiently. CAP 55 plans to invest in a new AWAC squadron but hasn’t said how many they plan to procure. An optimal number of 4 AWACs will ensure that we always have at least 1 covering each theatre in the case of turnover time and maintenance issues. Combined with ground based radar, they will be imperative to the doctrine stated above as they are the keystone to having superior battlespace awareness (especially in the air) by knowing where the enemy and our own units are at all times. 

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)

Despite the AWAC’s ability to detect and track aerial and surface vehicles from a long distance, it lacks the capability to secretly and visually monitor targets that do not have any significant electromagnetic emissions like terrorist cells hiding in remote areas. To counter the secondary threats such as terrorists, criminals and pirates, UAVs are necessary to covertly collect intelligence of their activities, size and base of operations and in some exceptional cases, UAVs can eliminate them if deemed necessary. 

CAP 55 shows that the RMAF plans to acquire a squadron of Medium Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Aerial Systems (MALE UAS). The RMN currently has several American Scan Eagles and the RMAF itself has 3 Aludras built by local Malaysian company CTRM (now DefTech). Although their current primary role is to conduct ISR missions around our borders, it hasn’t been stated explicitly if the future MALE UAS will be able to be equipped to carry ordnance. However, it is advisable that we consider purchasing one that is capable of doing so and conducting ISTAR missions (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Reconnaissance). 

In peacetime scenarios where UAVs have detected a threat or have been sent to verify friendly intelligence, unconventional enemy forces without any sophisticated radar systems will be unable to detect these UAVs. Armed UAVs are able to hit these targets with high precision and ensure a high rate of operational success as the enemy wouldn’t be aware of their presence until too late unlike if we used LCAs or MRCAs which are very loud and will compromise operational security. However, even if their ordinance isn’t fired, they will still be able to provide valuable real time intelligence to assist friendly troops on the ground that are conducting raids or simply collect intelligence for future analysis or sharing with our international partners. 

Furthermore in a wartime setting, these UAVs will be able to support LCAs and MRCAs in CAS and SEAD missions by being able to target enemy land units and air defence systems. One of the best examples of which is the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 and its experience in Syria, Libya and the Nagorno Karabakh War. Although they were only matched against older Soviet SAM platforms like the S-300 and SA-8, they still showcased the UAV’s ability to conduct strikes in air space contested by ground based air defence systems. Although conflict in Southeast Asia and the current modernisation drives of various militaries in the region may see more advanced SAM capabilities deployed than in Nagorno-Karabakh, the use of UAVs not only help to increase the survivability of our manned aircraft but also will not be as drastic a loss if they are shot down since they are unmanned and relatively cheap (A Bayraktar TB2 costs U.S. $5 million). 

There is no shortage of drone types on the international market right now and Malaysia will have a wide variety to choose from. As there is no specific number on how many UAVs a squadron should have, I would suggest a mix of 2 UAVs capable of ISR and another 4 UAVs capable of ISTAR. This will give us a good balance of both options as not every mission will require us to field the armed ISTAR capable UAVs. One real concern however, is whether or not Malaysia is able to upgrade and expand our cyber infrastructure in time to ensure secure and fast communications with these drones from the remote terminals, without this our drone operations will be inefficient and ineffective. Thankfully, the DWP does account for this by stating that we should be “establishing a Cyber Electromagnetic Command (CEC) to strengthen and coordinate CEMA (Cyber Electromagnetic Activities)”,  the recent establishment of Cyber Electromagnetic Defence Section (Bahagian Siber dan Elektromagnetik Pertahanan) is indeed a welcoming development. We will have to wait and see how effective this change will be. 

What will all of this cost and is it worth it?

Every part of the government is going to be cash-strapped for the next few years due to the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Acquiring such expensive assets will unfortunately not be a priority, as most Malaysians don’t see the urgency of having them given that Malaysia is not under any form of attacks. The recent incident of intrusion of Chinese military planes into Malaysia’s airspace should however serve as a reminder of the importance of maintaining air power.. Let’s dive a little deeper into the economics of these aircraft and how it’s benefits can offset their costs. 

In regards to LCAs, the FA-50 Golden Eagle would cost U.S. $30 million per unit and the JF-17 Thunder would cost U.S. $25 million. They are considerably cost-effective options for cash strapped countries like Malaysia. To acquire 24 fifth-generation MRCAs will not be as cheap, a single Su-57E can cost U.S. $40 million and a single F-35A can cost around U.S. $80 million. For AWACs, the example of the E-7 Wedgetail would cost U.S. $200 million and a UAV like the Bayraktar TB2 can cost U.S. $5 million.

Not including the other Strategic and Tactical Airlift, Maritime Patrol Aircraft and helicopters that we would require, these all tally up to several billion ringgit that will need to be spent over the coming years to acquire all of these. Additionally, there will be maintenance costs, operation costs, weapons costs etc. that we will need to be prepared to spend on. 

However, these aircraft are worth it if we want to be able to effectively deter future threats. Once integrated into our Air Force, they provide previously unprecedented capabilities that Malaysia will inevitably need in the future where network-centric operations, highly capable integrated air defence systems and stealth aircraft are common features of conventional militaries. Furthermore, we can reframe their price tags to consider they will be financially feasible in the long term as they can be expected to last several decades as we can see from the Australians who plan to use the F-35 until 2050

In addition to fulfilling the capability needs of the RMAF, these aircraft can also bring certain economic benefits to the country. Notably it is rather difficult to make assumptions of the economics of these aircraft as no concrete deal is yet to be made but we can assume that a sustainable supply chain will be needed to provide the logistics for these aircraft to operate efficiently. Fortunately, Malaysia’s defence industry intends to carve out a niche part of the aerospace defence market for itself in aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul. We can state that potential deals for aircraft must stipulate that local Malaysian companies be contracted to work with the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) to assist in repair and maintenance contracts. This will help to develop some limited self-reliance in the military and also boost the local defence industry’s profile, technical knowledge and skill.

To return to the point, do we really want to sacrifice our safety and security by not investing in these aircraft that are crucial to our defence capability? If we don’t speed up the Air Force’s procurement plans, Malaysia will miss out on having a reliable and modern air force that can protect our national security and deter potential aggressors in the coming years.

About the author

Nicholas Sim is a 3rd year Malaysian student in Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom. He is passionate about defence, national security and intelligence and he aspires to either pursue a career in the military or in defence analysis.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Projek Pertiwi.

Picture: RMAF F/A-18D Hornet took part in the unbox challenge in 2019. Source: The Aviation Geek Club

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