19 Juni 2015
A French air force Rafale takes off to display at the Langkawi airshow in Malaysia last March, in support of a bid to sell the French jet there. (Photo: AIN)
At the ILA Berlin Airshow three years ago, the head of the European Defence Agency (EDA) publicly bemoaned the fact that the continent’s prime aerospace companies were engaged in damaging and wasteful competition to export three rival fighters. That nothing has changed was quite evident at the recent Langkawi International Marine and Aerospace (LIMA) airshow and exhibition in Malaysia. Dassault, Eurofighter and Saab were again scrapping to secure an order–from a country that hasn’t even allocated funding for the purchase and could buy American or Russian warplanes if and when it does.
Malaysian officials have been talking about a new multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) for the past five years. The first priority of the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) was supposedly to replace the MiG-29s that were acquired 20 years ago. Based at Kuantan on the country’s east coast, 18 aircraft served in two squadrons originally, but two crashed and half of the remaining fleet has been grounded and cannibalized to keep the remainder flying.
The RMAF also operates one squadron of eight Boeing F/A-18D Hornets acquired in 1997, a squadron of 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKMs acquired in 2007 and a squadron of 18 BAE Hawks that have a primary combat, rather than training, role. A squadron of elderly Northrop F-5E/Fs has been retired.
In March 2013, at considerable expense, the air forces of France, Sweden and the UK all dispatched operational versions of their respective Euro-canards to the LIMA show–the Rafale, Gripen and Typhoon. Boeing sponsored the appearance of two U.S. Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, and presumably also the cost of getting them there by refuelling from an Omega Air KDC-10 tanker. Moscow sent the Russian Knights aerobatic team of five Su-27 Flankers, eyeing the possibility that the RMAF might opt to buy more Su-30s to meet the MRCA requirement.
All this made for a great airshow on an otherwise sleepy island that was developed for tourism by Malaysia’s energetic former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammed. But no choice of a new fighter was forthcoming.
The federal government in Kuala Lumpur allocates funding for big-ticket items in five-year development plans, and the MRCA was not in the current plan. Moreover, some informed observers–and at least one senior RMAF officer that spoke to AIN–believe that the air force should prioritize spending on an airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft and more maritime patrol aircraft (MPA). Besides, just how many different fighter types should a country like Malaysia seek to operate?
Eurofighter Typhoon (photo : Eurofighter)
Crowded Field at LIMA 2015
Despite this, and attracted by a Malaysian request for information on possible lease options for the MRCA rather than a purchase, the fighter marketing circus returned to LIMA in March 2015. The French air force sent two Rafales from their now-permanent deployment at Al Dhafra airbase in the UAE. One of the French jets flew each day during the show.
Meanwhile, Saab arranged for the Thai air force to send one of its Gripens for the static park. The U.S. Navy flew in Boeing two Super Hornets from its nearby aircraft carrier for static display. Eurofighter did not bring hardware, but the full-scale model was shipped in and reassembled in a prime position just outside the entrance to LIMA’s big exhibition hall. The Russians also didn’t send jets this time, but an RMAF Sukhoi Su-30 pilot put on a great display.
Top brass and government officials supported the marketers from the aerospace companies. For instance, the UK sent defense procurement minister Philip Dunne, Royal Air Force Air Chief Marshall Sir Andrew Pulford and Sir Glenn Torpy, one of Pulford’s predecessors as RAF chief and now the senior military advisor to BAE Systems. The British company has the lead on marketing the four-nation Eurofighter in Malaysia.
French air force chief General Denis Mercier was also present. Pulford, Mercier and other senior visiting airmen were obliged to sit through a long opening session of the Air Chiefs Conference put on by the show organizers.
Meanwhile, Malaysian defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein and RMAF commander General Roslan Saad toured the show, but made no commitments about the MRCA. In his public comments, Hishammuddin stressed the threat to Malaysia from terrorism and piracy–hardly the prime mission areas for a new combat aircraft.
Saab Gripen (photo : militaryphotos)
Unlike his predecessor General Rodzali, General Roslan did not seem so insistent that the MiG-29s must be replaced. He told AIN that they were still flying in one squadron and that, although spares were expensive, no out-of-service date had been fixed.
“We’re talking to RAC MiG about that,” Roslan added. Indeed, the MiG company had a stand at LIMA 2015 where it was displaying a proposed service-life extension and upgrade to the RMAF’s MiG-29s.
To give them credit, Hishammuddin, Roslan and other top Malaysian officers and government officials spent the whole week at the show, even the public days, and must have made contact with most of the exhibitors. Regarding the MRCA, they would not have lacked for advice.
“It’s important that air forces understand the cost of their desires,” Knut Ovrebo, Saab’s chief engineer for future air systems, told attendees at the Air Chiefs Conference. The Swedish company is proposing a package that would include the EriEye AEW/MPA system on a Saab 2000 turboprop twin, as well as the Gripen, thus meeting three RMAF requirements.
“We provided a similar package to Thailand, and they are very happy with it,” a Saab manager told AIN at LIMA. “That package included tactical datalinks and naval and land-based C4I, so the Thais now have some sophisticated data fusion. Not many nations have that,” he added.
“A new fighter is an acquisition for the next 30 years, and over that period sustainment will be 70 percent of the total outlay,” a Boeing official told AIN. He claimed that Boeing had a significant advantage here, with the F-18D already in the RMAF inventory. “There’s a common network of suppliers between the Hornet and the Super Hornet, common support equipment, as well as aircrew, training and maintenance synergies,” he added.
Sir Glenn Torpy described the Typhoon’s combat record over Libya and its role as the defender of British airspace. He was also keen to stress the importance of factoring in the operating costs. “The RAF has achieved a 15-percent reduction with the Tornado through collaboration with industry, and we’re now seeing the same on Typhoon,” he added.
Dassault Aviation was handing out a glossy six-page brochure that had been entirely translated into the Malay language by Rafale International, the marketing entity that also includes Snecma and Thales. Complete with a long personal message from Dassault chief Eric Trappier, the brochure touted the Rafale’s sovereignty and maintainability, as well as its combat-proven record. As in other campaigns, such as Brazil, Rafale International also created a dedicated website that locals could access for data and photos of the French jet and videos that it produced at the LIMA show.
One of the EDA’s biggest concerns about the competition for exports between the European fighters is the stimulus that it generates for the giving-away of precious technology and production work as offsets. And there was no shortage of such offers at LIMA.
Rafale International promised “a key role” for several Malaysian aviation and defense companies, in partnerships that “will go beyond the Rafale program by offering other high-technology cooperation.” BAE Systems said that “industrial partnerships form an important part of our strategy” and announced a new contract for Hawk pylons with local company SME Aerospace.
RMAF MiG-29N and F/A-18D (photo : DID)
Education Is Key
Education is another key battleground. Both Rafale International and Saab have organized technology seminars open to hundred of students at Malaysian higher education institutes or universities. BAE Systems sponsors one-year engineering masters’ degree scholarships for Malaysian students at British universities. Boeing’s regional vice-president made a careers presentation at LIMA on “the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for Boeing and the aerospace industry.”
Since the LIMA show, the French have secured orders for the Rafale from Egypt and Qatar, and a renewed commitment from India. The Rafales from LIMA 2015 flew on to Jakarta for demonstration to the Indonesian air force.
But it’s not clear how much capacity remains in France to build more jets for a fourth or fifth customer. However, at his pre-Paris Air Show press conference two years ago, Dassault Aviation boss Eric Trappier said that Malaysia could have its own production line, if it wanted.
Meanwhile, Saab has progressed its big partnership with Brazil for the Gripen, and confirmed the Swedish order for the new-generation Gripen E/F. It could be that Boeing and Eurofighter are most in need of new export business right now. Without it, both the Typhoon and the Super Hornet will be out of production by the end of the decade. Perhaps the sponsors of these jets had better reserve their exhibition space for LIMA 2017.
Or perhaps not. Two weeks ago, RMAF commander Gen Rosland told the Malaysian media that the MiG-29N fleet would be upgraded after all. He said, “Initially there were plans to phase out the aircraft and replace them with another multi-role combat aircraft. However, we have decided to upgrade the aircraft to ensure it has similar capabilities with fighter jets owned by other countries.”