MELBOURNE, Australia — Malaysia has reportedly asked Japan for some of its retired Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft, as the Southeast Asian nation seeks much-needed improvement in its maritime domain awareness.
According to Japan’s Nikkei Asian Review, Malaysia approached Japan for a donation of its retired P-3Cs. However, Nikkei noted that Japan’s parliament will need to revise the foundational law of the Ministry of Defense that would allow equipment to be given to other nations at no cost, as currently some form of compensation is required by law for the transfer of Japanese national assets.
It added that if the deal should materialize, Japan will remove sensitive equipment such as the radar from the aircraft prior to transfer. The Nikkei report did not say how many P-3s are being sought by Malaysia, and Japan’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency did not provide specific numbers or a time frame for the transfer when asked by Defense News. However, sources in Malaysia had previously said it was looking for four aircraft.
Malaysia is one of the six claimant countries to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and a recent report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative revealed that Chinese Coast Guard vessels have been conducting near-constant patrols around Luconia Shoals, which is claimed by both China and Malaysia.
The shoal is 62 miles from the coast of Malaysia’s state of Sarawak in Borneo, and as such is well inside Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone. This is the second time Chinese Coast Guard vessels have been noted maintaining an extended presence in the area with little interference from Malaysia’s own ships.
The country also straddles the strategic Strait of Malacca chokepoint, through which a significant port of global maritime trade passes. Its unique geography also presents a challenge, with its territory split by the South China Sea into two separate landmasses 365 miles apart at its narrowest point.
With these factors in mind, maritime domain awareness is a key concern for the country. The Royal Malaysian Air Force operates a single, modified Lockheed Martin C-130H Hercules aircraft as well as three Beechcraft B200T King Air aircraft for maritime patrol and surveillance duties, short of what is required given the multitude of maritime issues such as cross-border crime and piracy that Malaysia has to tackle.
Japan’s P-3 aircraft were locally manufactured under licence by Kawasaki Heavy Industries between 1982 and 2000. Defense News understands that Japan has retired 28 aircraft as of 2016, with airframes that have logged above 15,000 flight hours being progressively pulled from service. If Malaysia does end up taking the former Japanese P-3s, it may find itself with high-time airframes with much of the most capable equipment removed; although there are options for airframe life-extension and avionics upgrade packages available.
Lockheed Martin is offering a midlife upgrade to the Orion that it says removes all current airframe flight restrictions and provides 15,000 additional flight hours by the installation of new, enhanced design wings and horizontal stabilizers built with improved corrosion-resistant materials. Several P-3 customers including Taiwan and Norway have already re-winged their fleets or are in the process of doing so, while the U.S. Navy has done so for part of its fleet.
Several nations that use the P-3 have also carried out upgrades to the aircraft’s avionics, with a majority opting to replace most of the aircraft systems, including the radars. The Elta EL/M-2022 multi-mode radar is a popular choice, equipping the upgraded aircraft of Australia, New Zealand, Spain and others. However, the Israeli-built EL/M-2022 is a definite nonstarter for Malaysia, and it will need to look for an alternate radar, as the Muslim-majority country has no relations and forbids any sort of dealings with Israel.
However, Malaysia taking up any of these upgrade packages for the P-3 will be contingent on its budget, bearing in mind its defense spending is currently at historic lows. Any additional costs for the refurbishment and upgrades to the aircraft will require additional funding allocations from the government and will not likely be cheap. As an example, the Taiwanese program for structural service life extension and avionics modification of its 12 aircraft cost more than $665 million in 2009 alone.