LANGKAWI, Malaysia — Despite no apparent movement on Malaysia's Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) program, this month's Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (LIMA) show revealed a new player in the mix.
Boeing, Dassault, Eurofighter and Saab have been the main contenders for the MRCA program, which will replace Royal Malaysian Air Force MiG-29N fighters, for a number of years now, with little detectable progress.
However, Malaysia's Aerospace Technology Systems Corp. (ATSC) has also launched a bid to upgrade the 16 surviving MiG-29s for what it says is a fraction of the cost of a new fighter.
Speaking at the LIMA show on March 19, ATSC CEO Mohd Fadzar Suhada said the upgrade program was launched in conjunction with Russia's RSK MiG, the original equipment manufacturer, and talks with the Malaysian Air Force have been positive.
"We launched the MiG upgrade program six months ago," he said. "It is similar to the MiG-29UPG [upgrade] being undertaken by India and is therefore a proven blueprint. It is not an interim solution until MRCA comes along. It is a medium- to long-term solution for Malaysia's fighter requirement."
Known as the MiG-29NM, the upgraded aircraft will include a Zhuk-ME FGM-229 slotted phased-array fire control radar that will provide an air-to-ground capability not available on the baseline aircraft, which are optimized for the air defense role.
The avionics system incorporates a night vision goggle-compatible glass cockpit, with two color multifunction displays and hands-o- throttle-and-stick functionality.
Weapons systems and pylons will be upgraded, making the MiG-29NM capable of carrying the full range of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons available to Malaysia's Su-30s.
The Klimov RD-33 Series 3 engines of the MiG-29N will remain, but Fadzar said that a conformal fuel tank added to the spine of the aircraft, together with an extra ventral tank, will increase operational range by 30 percent.
The current airframe life of the MiG-29N is pegged at 4,000 flight hours, although the highest-time aircraft in service has accrued only around 1,800 hours in 20 years of service. Fadzar said that a concurrent structural upgrade will increase the life of the airframe to 6,000 hours.
"The MiG-29 is supportable for at least the next 20 years," he said. "The MiG-29NM will deliver the capability required by the [Air Force] for about 20 percent of the cost of a new type."
ATSC was formed in 1994 as part of Malaysia's original purchase of the MiG-29N, with 70 percent of the equity owned by Malaysia and 30 percent by Russian interests. It was originally set up to support the MiGs and today also provides support for the Air Force's Sukhoi Su-30MKM fleet.
Fadzar said that, apart from a small number of aircraft upgraded in Russia by RSK MiG, the majority of Malaysia's MiG-29s will be upgraded in-country at ATSC's MiG-29 Technical Centre at Kuantan, providing a local capability that will continue to support the aircraft in service.
"We can produce the prototype in around 18 months of contract signature," he said.
The Malaysian government is putting together its 11th five-year defense plan, which will come into effect on Jan. 1, 2016, and fighter manufacturers are hoping it will contain a line of funding for the MRCA program.
France's Dassault had a major presence at LIMA 2015, supported by two Rafale aircraft from the French Air Force. One Rafale flew in the daily flying program while a second two-seat aircraft was used to provide VIP familiarization rides to Malaysian officials.
Speaking at LIMA, Thomas Linden, head of Saab Malaysia, revealed that the Swedish plane maker had offered the Malaysian government a lease deal for 16 JAS-39C/D Gripens.
The Malaysian Air Force has previously stated a requirement for an airborne warning and control system (AWACS) capability, and though Saab has sold package deals of Gripens and Erieye-equipped Saab 340 or 2000 platforms to other countries (notably Thailand), Linden said that the offer to Malaysia would be different.
"The Gripen and AWACS are two separate programs in Malaysia," he said. "At the moment we are offering a leasing arrangement for 16 Gripen C/Ds. We will offer the Saab 2000 platform to meet the [Air Force] requirement for an airborne early warning and control capability separately."
A spokesman for the United Kingdom Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation said at LIMA that Malaysia had also been offered a lease deal for a number of Eurofighter Typhoons.
"We put a leasing proposal [for Typhoon] on the table last year and we are willing to discuss options," the spokesman said. "It's very much up to Malaysia now to decide the timing of their fighter program."