Prior to the 2013 Sabah Incursion, the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) was focusing its development into a force capable of all aspects of conventional warfare. The incursion of 2013 has changed that, with the MAF now improving its conventional and non-conventional warfare capabilities alike.
During the Sabah Incursion, also known as the Lahad Datu standoff which occurred between 11 February and 24 March 2013, insurgents from the so-called Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and Northern Borneo, laid claim to the region of eastern Sabah on behalf of Jamalul Kiram III, the self-proclaimed Sultan of the Sulu Sultanate. The standoff was ended by military action by the MAF and the Malaysian security forces. However, Malaysia’s fiscal situation coupled with the depreciation of the ringgit, the national currency, has resulted in the development of all three services of the MAF (The Royal Malaysian Navy, Malaysian Army and the Royal Malaysian Air Force) being limited, particularly in regard to key conventional requirements such as the procurement of new fighters for the Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia (TUDM/Royal Malaysian Air Force), the multirole support ship programme for the Tentera Laut Diraja Malaysia (TLDM/Royal Malaysian Navy) and the tactical transport helicopter for the Tentera Darat Malaysia (TDM/Malaysian Army).
The defence budget for 2016 recorded an increase for the development expenditure allocation. For 2016, the development expenditure is $918.4 million in contrast to 2015’s $911 million. However, it would be difficult to say if a real increase occurred considering that for 2015 the ringgit was pegged at a much higher value and in as such the increase for 2016 is likely due to the need to factor in the depreciating ringgit in regard to progressive payments on the Airbus A400M Atlas turboprop strategic freighter procurement for the TUDM, the DefTech AV-8 Armored Fighting Vehicle for the TDM, and the Littoral Combat Ship programme for the TLDM, with the latter two, though built in-country, having a high percentage of imported components.
It should be noted that save for small value or scale procurement, the defence budget allocation for development is not an indicator of the availability of funds for large ticket procurements or an indication of overall funds available for procurement. The purchase of most major defence equipment is normally indicated in the five-year Malaysia Plans allocation rather than the annual defence budget allocation. The current Malaysia Plan is the eleventh Malaysia Plan of 2016-2020 and, based on Parliamentary debates and statements by Malaysian defence officials, procurement priorities include a new fighter, upgrades to BAE Systems Hawk Mk.108/208 light attack/lead-in jet trainer aircraft, additional Pilatus PC-7 Mk.II turboprop trainers, new Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), naval support helicopters for the TLDM, and additional ground-based air surveillance radars. Save for the Hawk Mk.108/208 upgrades and Pilatus PC-7 Mk.II, there is little indication that any of these targeted programmes are proceeding and the likelihood of some of the more expensive initiatives such as the fighter and MPA proceeding in the near term appears remote.
One programme requested for under the Eleventh Plan has been concluded, namely the procurement of a Manportable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) for the three services in the form of the Thales Starstreak system. A formal contract signing was held in September 2015 in London during the Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition where it was disclosed that the contract was worth more than $140.8 million. A statement by Thales stated that the integrated arms package for the Malaysian armed forces comprises the Starstreak missile and ControlMaster-200 ground-based air surveillance radar. During the Defence Services Asia exhibition in Kuala Lumpur in April 2014, Weststar exhibited a Starstreak Lightweight Multiple Missile Launcher mounted on its GK-M1 four-wheel drive vehicle. It is not known whether the vehicles are included in the contract or will form a separate contract? The purchase was largely to replace the Starburst systems used by the TLDM’s Base Air Defence Unit and the TUDM’s 401 and 402 GBAD (Ground Base Air Defence) Squadrons though the Malaysian Army would receive some units also. The Starburst system was phased out in 2013 by the navy and air force and both services have been said to have been temporarily loaned KB Mashinostroyeniya 9K38 Igla MANPADS belonging to the army until a replacement for the Starburst system was procured. The TDM also operated the Starburst system but phased it out in 2012, having replaced it with the People’s Republic of China’s FN-6 MANPADS. A tri-service requirement for a medium-range air defence system exists on paper but given the fiscal situation it is unlikely to materialize soon.
The split of priorities between preventing a repeat of the 2013 Sabah Incursion (see above) via strengthening non-conventional capabilities and at the same time strengthening conventional capabilities to allow the MAF to meet any potential future challenge is reflected in the recent developments of the three services of the Malaysian Armed Forces which are outlined below.
In 2015, when asked about the major challenges and issues that the TDM faced, the chief of the Malaysian Army, General Tan Sri Raja Mohamed Affandi told the writer, “There are numerous challenges faced by us today but the chief among them is the non-traditional threat. The security environment is becoming more dynamic and is categorized as VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambigious). The Malaysian Army understands the need to analyse and respond to this security environment in order to ensure a high state of readiness to counter any possible threat towards the well-being of the nation. Besides that, limited resources are another matter that needs us to be more creative in planning and executing our responsibilities.” He also stated the need for the Malaysian Army to develop both its non-conventional and conventional warfare capabilities, saying, “The future development of the army will therefore attempt to strike a balance in its roles and capabilities in facing both traditional and non-traditional threats.”
Plans are for the army to expand its presence in East Malaysia with addition of a new division, the 5th Infantry Division to supplement the 1st Infantry Division already there and the establishment of an Eastern Region Command for East Malaysia. Previously Army Field Command was responsible for Peninsular and East Malaysia regions. Gen. Sri Raja Mohamed Affandi told the writer, ‘Based on the current situation in the Eastern Region of Malaysia, namely Sabah and Sarawak, there is an urgent need to increase the army’s force level and state of readiness in both of these states. To this regard, the Malaysian Army has established the Eastern Region Command Headquarters to perform the duties of planning, commanding and controlling all land operations in the Eastern Region. This Headquarters is also modelled to the Field Command Headquarters in Peninsular Malaysia and will be equipped with sufficient combat, combat support and combat service support units in order to carry out its role and tasks effectively.” The Malaysian Army has also formed up the Task Force 450 command in Sabah to concentrate on the various land operations in the state with the aim of allowing the 1st Infantry Division to focus on land operations conducted in Sarawak instead of the whole of the Eastern Region. Task Force 450 will subsequently progressively transform into the 5th Infantry Division. The rate of the division’s establishment will depend on the availability of manpower and equipment to be allocated for it along with the completion of infrastructure to support the Division.
Regarding army procurement programmes, the indigenous AV8 AFV initiative is currently in the delivery stage, with the IFV-25 amphibious variant being supplied to the army, with the other main variants, namely the IFV-30, which is equipped with a Denel LCT-30 turret, and the LCT-30 ATGW version which includes the LCT-30 turret equipped with a Denel Ingwe Anti-Tank Guided Missile, both expected to commence delivery this year. The AV-8 is built by Malaysia’s DefTech and the IFV-25 variant is fitted with a one-person FNSS Sharpshooter turret armed with a stabilised Orbital ATK M242 25mm dual-feed cannon and an FN Herstal MAG 58M 7.62 mm co-axial machine gun. Of the 257 vehicle order of twelve variants, 46 IFV-25s have been ordered and 40 had already been delivered by the end of 2015 based on the statement in Parliament on 30 November 2015 by deputy defence minister Datuk Wira Johari Baharum who said that 27 vehicles had already been delivered and another 13 would be delivered at the end of the year. Regarding the IFV-30, a total of 68 have been ordered. Of the remaining ten variants, the most significant number is the LCT-30 ATGW of which 54 have been ordered while the remaining variants consists of command and control, and armoured recovery vehicles.
While the AV8 programme represents the conventional aspect, being the replacement for the army’s ageing Rheinmetall Condor four-wheel drive armoured personnel carriers and six-wheel drive SIBMAS IFV, the unconventional warfare aspect is represented by the army’s purchase of the Chaiseri First Win MRAP (Mine-Resistant/Ambush Protected) vehicle, marketed in Malaysia by DefTech as the AV4. Twenty vehicles are to be purchased, with a portion of them to be assembled in Malaysia by DefTech and these vehicles will have the Dillon Aero Hybrid M134D-H 7.62mm minigun on a crew-served mount. The AV4s will be deployed in the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZONE) as part of the Army’s role in the joint military/paramilitary/civilian security command known as Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM). ESSCOM was formed in the aftermath of the 2013 Sabah Incursion (see above) and its mandate is to ensure security in the area is maintained and no repeat incidents occur.
Related to the ESSCOM requirements is the purchase of six MD Helicopters’ MD-530G rotorcraft announced in early February. The six helicopters will be assigned to the Army Air Corps and will be specifically deployed in the ESSZONE area of operation. On a similar note, the Army Air Corps is expected to soon receive four ex-Royal Brunei Air Force Sikorsky S-70A Blackhawk medium-lift utility helicopters donated by Brunei-Darussalam to Malaysia and these will also be deployed to East Malaysian for ESSZONE operations. In the meantime a number of the Army Air Corps AgustaWestland AW-109 light utility helicopters are deployed to the ESSZONE area to provide support there.
The Army Air Corps will also have ten Sikorsky S-61 Nuri medium-lift utility helicopters transferred from the TUDM to form a tactical transport helicopter squadron. Plans originally called for a new-build helicopter but budgetary constraints have resulted in the S-61 transfers. A total of four S-61s were transferred in December 2015. Chief of the air force General Tan Sri Roslan Saad told the writer that the rate of transfer depended on the transferred helicopters reaching their scheduled MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) appointment, following which they were transferred to the Army.
In the meantime the changeover of the army’s standard assault rifle to the M-4A1 from the Steyr AUG is expected to be completed soon with the rifles supplied by SMEO Ordnance which has a licence from Colt Defence for local manufacture. The Future Soldier System, previously known as Soldier Advanced Combat Technology Integrated (SACTI) programme, is still under development and evaluation by Malaysia’s Sapura though the budget constraint means that when the system is eventually fielded, it will be on a smaller scale rather than widespread use. The army has long-term plans for an armoured brigade but is unlikely at the moment to receive funding for an additional regiment of tanks to add to the sole main battle tank regiment of 48 Bumar Labedy PT-91Ms currently in service.
Admiral Dato’ Seri Panglima Ahmad Kamarulzaman recently took over as chief of the navy on 18 November 2015, and in a speech to the RMN on 21 December 2015 stated that other than security challenges, the RMN faced the challenges of limited funding and budget, and a shortage of assets along with the challenges of conducting day-to-day operations with ageing ships. It is early days to see what the RMN chief’s plans would be for future acquisitions, particularly given the fiscal constraints, but a number of programmes will eventually have to be carried out, namely the acquisition of naval support helicopters and the replacement of the fast attack craft fleet which have been in service since the mid-1970s. For the helicopter, the RMN does have some breathing space as these will be operated on the six Littoral Combat Ships, based on DCNS’s ‘Gowind’ class design, and the first of which is currently being constructed Malaysia’s Boustead Naval Shipyards and scheduled to be commissioned in 2019 at the earliest. Thus the service does have a two-year window for a decision to be made, if the delivery and service entry of the helicopters are to coincide with the entry into service of the LCS. The six Littoral Combat Ships will carry the Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile as its anti-ship armament with the MBDA Mica surface-to-air missile.
The fast attack craft fleet, totalling 14 boats from the ‘Perdana’, ‘Handalan’ and ‘Jerung’ class having been in service for more than 40 years and given their age, will have to be replaced though it remains to be seen whether a similar class of boats or a larger ship class will be their replacement, and whether funding will be allocated for such.
In other developments, the operations of the RMN’s submarine fleet of two ‘Scorpéne’ class conventional hunter-killer submarines will be limited over the next two years owing to the fleet undergoing a scheduled repair and overhaul being performed by Boustead DCNS Naval Corporation at their facilities in the RMN Kota Kinabalu Naval base. The first submarine KD Tunku Abdul Rahman entered the repair and overhaul phase in November 2015 while the KD Tun Razak will commence this process in June 2017.
The RMN is also involved in ESSZONE operations, maintaining three sea bases stationed off the coast of Eastern Sabah, from which security patrols are performed in the local to prevent any infiltration from the Philippines. These two sea bases take the form of the converted container ships, the MV Bunga Mas Lima and MV Tun Azizan, while the third sea base is the converted oil rig Tun Sharifah Rodziah.
The RMN is also expected to receive by the end of this year its two ‘Samudera’ class training ships, originally scheduled to enter service in 2013 and built by NGV Tech of Malaysia in partnership with Daewoo of the Republic of Korea. Construction of the ships was halted in 2013 when NGV Tech ran into financial problems with the company being subsequently wound up in 2014 leaving the status of the ships in limbo while the interest of the creditors on the ships was being adjudicated in court. By late 2015, the Malaysian government had taken ownership of the two ships which are now in the process of being completed by Malaysian company Grade One Marine.
The key programme for the TUDM has been the replacement of the MiG-29N/UB fighter with a new aircraft. Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault’s Rafale-B/C, the Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab’s JAS-39E/F Gripen are all vying for a potential requirement of 18 aircraft though Malaysia’s fiscal situation makes any decision unlikely in the near term. Meanwhile the future of the MiG-29N/UB squadron, 17 Squadron and the MiG-29N/UB fleet remains in question. The TUDM had stated in the past that the MiG-29N/UB would be phased out by December 2015 though the aircraft continues to be in operation at the time of writing (March) along with the fact that No.17 Squadron was conferred royal colours on 29 February; an odd situation for a squadron likely to be deactivated with the retirement of the aircraft type it operates. The possibility is that either the squadron will remain without any planes or alternately several of the 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKMs in 11 Squadron could be transferred to No.17 Squadron.
Away from the fast jet fleet, the TUDM received its second A400M on 28 December 2015 with the remaining two are scheduled for arrival in late 2016 and early 2017. All four aircraft will form part of 22 Squadron. Air force chief General Tan Sri Roslan Saad told the writer in December 2015 that currently the TUDM was conducting conceptual studies on the vehicles and large equipment of the MAF that could be loaded onto the A400M, and would conduct actual loading trials once the studies were completed. The TUDM is also expected to modernize its Lockheed Martin C-130H fleet; a letter of intent was presented to Malaysia’s Airod in 2014 for the modernisation of such and a formal letter of acceptance and contract is expected to be issued at the Defence Services Asia 2016 exhibition to be held in Kuala Lumpur this April.
Overall the outlook for the MAF development appears to be limited given the funding constraints and the need to split resources between building up conventional and non-conventional capabilities alike. Until the fiscal situation improves the MAF are not expected to significantly improve its capabilities in the near term.