The Malaysian Government continues to have ambitious plans for all branches of its armed forces, but more focus needs to be applied to budgetary commitment and acquisition prioritisation.
With a general election to be held in 2018, it was expected that the defence budget for that year, announced at the end of October 2017, would not be geared towards making any significant defence procurement. To some extent this was largely true but approval was given for the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) to start proceedings towards the purchase of four maritime patrol aircraft while the Malaysian Army was given the go-ahead to carry out the acquisition of 29 surplus M109A5 155mm Self-Propelled howitzers from the United States and purchase a small quantity of 105mm howitzers.
A key naval programme, the requirement for at least two Multi-Role Support Ships (MRSS) for the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN), was not funded though for 2018 leaving the RMN to continue with an amphibious capability gap that has existed since 2009 when the Newport class LST KD Sri Inderapura was lost due to a ship fire. The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) did however get approval to carry out long overdue upgrades and life extension programmes for the C-130 Hercules, BAE Hawks and Sikorsky S-61 Nuri helicopters. As per normal practice, no details were given out regarding the exact funding for these programmes. In fact, the 2018 defence budget only addressed a small portion of the Malaysian Armed Forces requirement, aside from the MRSS, a replacement for the RMAF’s MiG-29 fleet has yet to be decided upon, the Army has an eventual need for a new tactical transport helicopter over the stopgap measures of transferred S-61 Nuris from the RMAF, a new lead-in fighter trainer is needed by the RMAF, as well as anti-submarine warfare helicopters for the RMN and the replacement of the Seawolf missiles on the Lekiu class frigates. All these requirements are pending with uncertainty as to if and when they will be funded.
A clearer picture may emerge post election, though even then it will be subject to the leadership changes in 2019 as a number of senior military officers all reach the mandatory retirement age of 60 in that year. Armed Forces Chief General Raja Mohammad Affandi has already been extended past the retirement age and it remains to be seen if he will be extended beyond 2019. Both Army Chief General Zulkiple Kassim and RMN Chief Admiral Ahmad Kamarulzaman will be at the mandatory retirement age in 2019 and Malaysia generally does not provide an extension of tenure for service chiefs in contrast to the Chief of Defence Force. There are also a number of three star and two star officers in all three services who are due to retire in late 2018 and 2019 and thus it remains to be seen that in 2019, the new leadership within the Malaysian Armed Forces may choose to embark on a different path of development. While the Malaysian Armed Forces as a whole and its three services does have long term strategic and development plans, these are all subject to modifications so as to allow the Malaysian Armed Forces and the three services to have the flexibility to adjust to shifting situations and circumstances rather than being wedded to a development plan that has become obsolete to irrelevant due to time, hence the new MAF leadership in 2019 may wish to readjust current plans for developments when they assume command.
The following is a summary of the current and future key programmes of the Malaysian Armed Forces.
The current key ongoing programme of the Malaysian Army is the ongoing delivery of 257 AV8 Gempita AFVs built by Malaysia’s Deftech. Over a hundred vehicles have been delivered so far and when all vehicles are delivered, eventually two armoured regiments and one mechanised battalion will be equipped with the AV8s. The main configurations are: the IFV-25 variant with a one-person FNSS Sharpshooter turret armed with a stabilised ATK Armament Systems M242 25mm dual-feed cannon and an FN MAG 58M 7.62mm co-axial machine gun (46 vehicles) for the mechanised regiments; and the AFV-30 variant for the armour regiments with a Denel Land Systems (DLS) two-person LCT-30 turret, DLS stabilised 30mm GI-30 external dual-feed linkless cannon and an FN MAG 58M MG (68 vehicles). A third varient is the anti-tank guided weapon (ATGW) vehicle which will be distributed to all three units, having a Denel LCT turret fitted with the GI-30 and two Denel Dynamics Ingwe laser-guided missiles either side (54 vehicles). The remaining 89 vehicles consist of support, command and communications vehicle variants in seven types.
Currently it is known that the 19th Battalion Royal Malay Regiment (mechanised) and 1st Regiment Royal Armored Corps (Kor Armor Diraja – KAD) are equipped with the vehicles but the second armored regiment to be equipped has yet to disclose its status. The AV8 replaces the 4×4 Condor APCs operated by 19th RMR as well as the 6×6 Sibmas Fire Support Vehicles operated by the 2 KAD regiments. However, other mechanised battalions and two other KAD regiments will continue using the Condors and Sibmas respectively as funding for the time being precludes additional orders of the AV8 for full replacement. The Malaysian Army is still assessing whether to carry out a upgrade programme for the Condor 4x4s to enable them to continue service. About half of the 459 vehicles purchased in the 1980s are estimated to be in service. Malaysia’s sole tank regiment, the KAD’s 11th regiment, continues operations with the PT-91M main battle tank. Long term army plans following the deliveries of the 48 PT-91M from 2007-2009 called for a second tank regiment (though not necessarily additional PT-91Ms) but this has slipped in priority over the years.
Malaysia is expected to formalise acquisition of 29 surplus M109A5 155mm howitzers from the United States under the US Excess Defense Articles programme. A letter of intent was signed at the Defence Services Asia 2016 exhibition and a formal agreement expected for the purchase and transfer is expected to be signed at the Defence Services Asia 2018 exhibition. A contract for the purchase of an estimated 18 Nexter LG1 105mm howitzers is also expected to be signed there. There has been little movement towards acquisition of additional Multiple Rocket Launchers systems to form a third regiment to add to the two existing regiments of Astros II MRLs despite Army plans calling for a third regiment of MRLs.
The Malaysian Army Air Corps is expected to take delivery of the first two of a total of six ordered MD-530G light attack helicopters by late 2018, which will be deployed to the eastern part of the East Malaysian state of Sabah to assist in the ongoing security operations there against cross border attacks from armed groups operating in the Philippines. The recent takeover of the city of Marawi in the Philippines by a combination of Daesh affiliated/inspired groups has raised concerns in Malaysia that such groups will spill out to Eastern Sabah which is separated from the Philippines by the Sulu Seas – a distance close enough to allow raids using small boats. Meantime ithe Air Corps has received four out of a planned 12 S-61 Nuri helicopters from the RMAF though eventually the Army Air Corps hopes to obtain a more suitable helicopter for the tactical transport role though no funding has been forthcoming.
Royal Malaysian Navy
The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) launched the first Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Maharaja Lela on 24 August 2017, at the Boustead Naval Shipyard. Despite the LCS tag, the ship is actually a corvette based on the Naval Group’s Gowind design. The 3,100 tonne ship incorporates stealth characteristics with an armament of a single BAE Mk3 57mm gun in a stealth copula, two MSI Seahawk 30mm guns, two launchers for the Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile anti-ship missile (each with four missiles), a 16 cell SYLVER Vertical Launch System for the MBDA Mica surface to air missile and two J+S Marine triple torpedo launchers. Electronics systems includes the Thales Smart-S Mk 2 3D surveillance radar, Rheinmetall TMX/EO Mk 2 fire control radar, Rheinmetall TMEO Mk 2 electro-optical tracking systems and the Thales Captas Mk 2 variable depth sonar with the Combat Management System being the Naval Group SETIS system. Six ships are to be built with the keels of the second and third ships having been laid down in 2017. LCS Maharaja Lela is scheduled to be delivered in April 2019 with the whole fleet of six ships due to be delivered by 2023. The RMN’s ’15 to 5’ Development Plan calls for an additional six of this class to be built once the initial six are completed.
The ’15 to 5’ Plan seeks to pare the RMN’s existing ship classes from a current 15 classes of ships to five classes, namely the Maharaja Lela class Littoral Combat Ship, the Kedah Class Next Generation Patrol Vessel (of which six are already in service), the Littoral Mission Ship (LMS), the conceptual Multi-Role Support Ship (MRSS) and submarines (with the RMN currently operating two Scorpene class). The targeted goal by 2045 would be a fleet of 12 Maharaja Lela class LCS, 18 Kedah class NGPVs though the additional 12 ships are envisaged to be armed with anti-ship and anti-air missiles, 18 Littoral Mission Ships (of which four are contracted), three MRSS and four submarines. It remains open to question how many of the ships required under the plan will be funded and the long end goal of 2045 likely means the plan will end up being modified. While the MRSS programme has yet to be funded, industrial sources say that shipbuilders from Holland, Turkey, France, China and Indonesia have made proposals towards fulfilling this requirement.
On 23 March 2017, the RMN dispatched a project team to to China to monitor the design and construction of its LMS. The Malaysian government formally signed a contract on 23 March 2017 with Malaysian company Boustead Naval Shipyard for four LMSs in which Boustead is partnered with China Shipbuilding Offshore and International Corporation on the programme. Two LMS will be built at Wuchang Shipyard in Wuhan, China with the first ship delivered in 2019 and the second ship in 2020, while the remaining two are scheduled to be built at the Boustead Navy Shipyard facilities in Lumut, Malaysia and completed by 2021. The LMS, as conceptualised by the RMN will be 68m long with a 45 personnel crew, a displacement of 780 tonnes, a maximum speed of 22 knots (kts) and a range of around 2000 nautical miles (nm) with an endurance of 15 days at sea. A maximum of three mission module containers, each with a maximum payload weight of six tons can be carried on the ship with projected mission modules being a UAV operations module, a HADR operations module, mine warfare and a hydrographic survey module.
The RMN’s 15 to 5 plans leaves open to question as to whether replacement of the Seawolf surface to air missile will be carried out on the two Lekiu class frigates in service as 15 to 5 targets both ships to be phased out though no time frame has been set. MBDA has been proposing the replacement of the Seawolf with CAAM and Bae, the manufacturer of the ships, has also proposed a service life extension and upgrades to the ship. It is expected that this issue will be addressed by the next RMN Chief when he takes over in 2019. Another pending program is the requirement for six anti-submarine warfare helicopters to operate off the Maharaja Lela class LCS, a total of six is sought rather than a larger total partly due to costs and partly also that the RMN operational practice is to assign an onboard helicopter on a ship only when the ship’s mission or deployment requires the presence of one. No funding has been announced by the government for such for the time being but it is on the RMN’s request list that has been submitted to the government.
Royal Malaysian Air Force
While the RMAF received the go-ahead under the 2018 Defence Budget to begin evaluations towards an eventual purchase of four maritime patrol aircraft, it is expected that an actual contract is unlikely to be signed until 2019 or later. Still, a number of aircraft manufacturers are aiming to fulfill this requirement, namely Leonardo with the ATR 72MP, Airbus with its C295 and Indonesia’s IPTN’s CN-235 MPA. Japan has also offered surplus P-3 Orions but the RMAF is said to be not keen on this offer owing to the age of the aircraft.
Meanwhile, the replacement for the MiG-29 by a multi-role combat aircraft continues unfulfilled with a 2020 timeframe now said to be the time for a decision to be made. France, the United Kingdom and the United States continue to market the Rafale, Typhoon and Super Hornet respectively for this requirement. The RMAF is also looking at other possibilities including an upgrade of the MiG-29 or the possibily obtaining Kuwait Air Force legacy Hornets should these become available following Kuwait’s purchase of the Super Hornet. A requirement for lead in fighter trainers also exists but the RMAF would rather wait until the MRCA purchase is signed as this would partly determine which lead in-fighter trainer would be compatible. The UK is offering the BAE Hawk AJTs as an add on package with the purchase of the Typhoon.
The RMAF has received funding for the upgrades and service life extension programs for the C-130 Hercules, BAE Hawk and S-61 helicopters. The contracts for these have yet to be signed this is expected during the Defence Services Asia 2018 Exhibition in April. Malaysian company Airod, the in-country MRO for all three RMAF aircraft type will be given the contract for all three aircraft though it will work with various foreign partners on the work, one of which will be BAE Systems, which is the OEM for the Hawks. The upgrades will address the avionics, communications and sub-systems on the aircraft allowing them to continue service with the RMAF for an additional decade or more.