LANGKAWI, Malaysia — Western fighter jet manufacturers attended the 12th Langkawi Maritime and Aerospace (LIMA) exhibition in Malaysia, anticipating the launch of that country’s delayed Multi-Role Combat Aircraft program, but recent conflict has refocused attention on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, particularly maritime surveillance.
Armed militants recently launched an incursion into the East Malaysian state of Sabah, and this attracted the attention of government and industry.
The Royal Malaysian Air Force has a requirement for 18 multirole combat aircraft to replace its Russian-built MiG-29s, which are due to be retired in 2015. Malaysia had planned to retire the MiGs by the end of 2009 but gave the fleet a stay of execution because of defense budget constraints.
Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has identified four or five manufacturers who will compete for the multibillion-ringgit contract, including Boeing (F/A-18 Super Hornet), Dassault (Rafale), Eurofighter (Typhoon), Saab (Gripen) and Sukhoi (Su-30).
The four Western fighters were displayed at LIMA on March 26-30, participating in the daily flying displays. The Malaysian Air Force operates 18 Su-30MKMs, procured under an earlier contract.
Local industrial participation will be a key element, and the Western manufacturers either announced initial agreements or detailed their plans at the show.
Mark Kane, BAE Systems managing director, Combat Air, said his company has designed a comprehensive industrial participation offering to align with Malaysia’s Economic Transformation Program. He points to relationships already established with Composites Technology Research Malaysia for composite components, and SME Aerospace, which is the sole supplier of weapons pylons for the Hawk fighter trainer.
“We have placed 3.5 billion MYR [Malaysian ringgit] [$1.12 billion] worth of work with Malaysia in the last five years and that will rise to 6.3 billion MYR over the next five years,” he said. “We think we have demonstrated a real commitment to work with Malaysian industry on real and not hypothetical programs.”
Mike Gibbons, Boeing vice president for F/A-18 and EA-18 programs, said that although the Malaysian government has not yet provided a set of requirements or advised what the program timeline would be, his company is getting close to a decision on its industrial participation offer.
“The Super Hornet Industry Team will look at co-development work, design and development of composite components, but we also see vocational training as very important,” he said.
Dassault Aviation signed a memorandum of understanding with Strand Aerospace Malaysia at LIMA to help develop Malaysia’s capabilities in the global aerospace industry’s supply chain, and adds to at least 10 earlier collaborations between Rafale International and Malaysia.
Saab also announced a memorandum with Malaysian industry, signing a deal with DRB-HICOM to develop a relationship based around the Swedish company’s airborne early warning and control proposals to Malaysia and to look at the design and manufacture of advanced composite systems and components.
Malaysia is in an election year, however, and a formal competition is not expected to be launched until the new government takes office.
In other news, Zahid announced that plans to upgrade some aging Air Force S-61A-4 Nuri helicopters will finally go ahead, with some possibly being passed on to the Army and others sold abroad.
The Nuri’s transport capability was pivotal in operations against the insurgents in Sabah, under Operation Daulat. It will be upgraded with new rotor blades, transmission and a digital cockpit.
Zahid also announced at LIMA that two fixed-wing aircraft and three helicopters from Malaysia’s armed forces will be reconfigured to carry out maritime patrol of the Eastern Sabah Safety Zone, created in the wake of Operation Daulat. Although not willing to specify which platforms will be selected or how they will be modified, he said they will be completed under a fast-track program.
“At the same time, we will also be upgrading assets and procuring new ones to boost our capability,” he told the New Straits Times on March 27. “We will also review our defense spending budget to ensure our security forces are adequately equipped to face threats to our sovereignty.”