07 September 2009

Malaysia Starts Search For New Fighter

7 September 2009

The Gripen has become a real contender for the Royal malaysian Air Force (RMAF) MiG-29N/NUB replacement programme, with discussions having started on a major government-to government defence package between Sweden and Malaysia (photo : Saab)

The decision in Malaysia to retire the MiG-29N/NUB fleet of the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) has created a requirement for a new advanced fighter aircraft. At this point the plan is to acquire up to 18 aircraft, with the purchase to be funded from an allocation out of the 10th Malaysia Plan, the national development programme that will run from 2011 to 2015. How the RMAF goes about filling this fighter requirement will be particularly intriguing, as there will be some hard choices to make in the context of this programme.

With the retirement of the MiG-29N/NUB fleet, the RMAF currently has a primary combat capability based on eight Boeing F/A-18D and 12 Sukhoi Su-30MKM aircraft, with six more Sukhoi aircraft due to be delivered. To that we can add the survivors of the Hawk 208 fleet numbering some 13 aircraft.

There is currently an issue with regards to the Sukhoi Su-30MKM due to avionics integration problems: the aircraft uses a mixture of Russian systems, plus a Thales avionics package, a Saab Avitronics missile approach warner, radar warning receiver and laser warner and Rohde Scwarz communication. Inevitably there was always the potential for integration problems in putting together equipment from a diverse range of suppliers of both Russian and western origin.

The avionics integration issues have apparently been resolved on the six Su-30MKM aircraft waiting to be delivered, but Malaysia wants its existing fleet of 12 aircraft to have their avionics rectified before it takes delivery of the final six aircraft, and presumably collect the payment that will be due when that happens, before it tackles the avionic problems on the first 12 aircraft. No firm solution has yet been found to this disagreement and negotiations continue between both parties.

Assuming that an agreement is reached and that all 18 Su-30MKM aircraft enter service with the RMAF, it will have a very powerful multi-role fighter aircraft as its disposal. It will also have the eight Boeing F/A-18D aircraft in service, which provide an excellent capability as well. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that the RMAF is in a difficult situation running two different combat aircraft fleets with zero commonality, requiring different supports infrastructures.

Looking To The Future

Alternative fighter is the same type with current RMAF's fleet : MiG-35, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and Su-30MKM (photo : Indian Defence, Aircraft Information, Airliners)

Almost as soon as the official withdrawal of the MiG-29N/NUB fleet had been announced, the RMAF starting receiving a stream of visitors keen to talk about a new combat aircraft. Thus far, the RMAF has received a briefing on the Lockheed Martin F-16, the Gripen and in early June on the Eurofighter Typhoon. It is expected that Russia will suggest ordering more Sukhoi Su-30MKM aircraft, with an alternative offer being the MiG-35. At this stage it is unknown whether Boeing will resurrect their effort to sell the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet to Malaysia. Potentially Dassault could be added to this list if the RMAF expresses an interest evaluating the Rafale.

Aircraft of interest include : Lockheed Martin's F-16 C/D, Dassault's Rafale, and Eurofighter's Typhoon (photo : Airplane Pictures, Indowebster, Sean Hare)

All of these aircraft can put forward an extremely credible case for being selected by the RMAF, but there will be wide variations in the unit cost of the various aircraft on offer due to their differing capabilities and configurations. So, initially the RMAF will have to balance the capability that they need against the cost they can afford. Then comes another critical determinant to consider, the Life Cycle Cost (LCC) of a combat aircraft – how much it costs to own, operate and maintain in service. The LCC issue is very important and in an upcoming issue of Asian Defence & Diplomacy we have an article discussing combat aircraft LCC in some depth.

Of course other factors come into play in terms of a fighter acquisition, for example supplier diversity – wanting to avoid being over dependent on one single country as a source of high technology equipment. There a good strategic reasons to institute such a policy and there are good economic reasons as well, a wider choice of suppliers inevitably creates more competition.

There are however other drivers for a decision to choose a particular fighter aircraft, and potentially this is what might happen in Malaysia. According to well-informed Asian Defence & Diplomacy sources, there have been high level discussions between Malaysia and Sweden on a major government-to-government defence package. This package would cover the RMAF fighter requirement through the supply of the Gripen, with the long-standing RMAF requirement for Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft also being met through the provision of the Saab Erieye AEW system mounted on either the Saab 2000 or Saab 340 aircraft.

The Swedish package proposal goes beyond systems for the RMAF and there are unconfirmed reports of discussions covering coastal defence missiles, plus unspecified equipment for the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) and the Malaysian Army. At this stage of the proceedings, it is the Gripen and the AEW&C aircraft that appear to be the central elements of the Swedish proposal. Expanding the scope of this Swedish offer will then depend on the course of negotiations between the Swedish and Malaysian governments.

Saab and Sweden are no strangers to putting these package deals together, for example the acquisition of the Gripen and the Saab 340 AEW by Thailand was handled in this manner. The scope of what is being discussed with Malaysia is far larger, but the Swedish government appears to be very supportive of its defence industry in attempting to put this major government-to-government defence package together.

A word of caution though, all of this does not mean that the RMAF fighter requirement is inevitably destined for Sweden. What is does do is make certain that the other potential suppliers will have to be extremely competitive in terms of their offerings to Malaysia if they are to have any chance of success.

(Asian Defence & Diplomacy-Agustus 2009)

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