MELBOURNE, Australia – Malaysia has released a long-awaited tender for a new light combat aircraft and advanced fighter trainer, three weeks after accusing China of sending 16 military aircraft over the South China Sea near Malaysian airspace

The Southeast Asian country’s defense ministry has issued a notice seeking 18 Fighter Lead In Trainer-Light Combat Aircraft (FLIT-LCA) to replace its aging fleet of aircraft currently serving in both roles.

These include 18 BAE Hawk 108 and 208 light combat aircraft and seven Aermacchi MB-339CM trainers operated by the Royal Malaysian Air Force or RMAF, with both fleets having been worn down by attrition. The tender closes at noon on Sept. 22 Malaysian time.

Under the RMAF’s Capability 55 plan, the service is to have three squadrons of FLIT-LCAs in service. A squadron in the RMAF context typically has 18 aircraft.

Malaysia had previously issued a request for information in December 2018 from various manufacturers for its FLIT-LCA program, which reportedly garnered eight responses. The platforms put forward were the Boeing T-7 Red Hawk, South Korea’s KAI FA-50, the Italian Leonardo M-346 Master, India’s HAL Tejas, China-Pakistani PAC JF-17 Thunder, China’s Hongdu L-15 and Russia’s Yakolev Yak-130 and the Czech Aero Vodochody L-39NG.

The decision to move forward with the program was confirmed last year when air force chief Gen. Tan Sri Datuk Seri Ackbal Abdul Samad said that the RMAF’s fleet of Hawks, which entered service in the mid-1990s, would not be upgraded.

The procurement of new combat aircraft would doubtlessly have been given extra impetus by the overflight of Chinese military aircraft near the eastern state of Sarawak in late May, when 16 transport aircraft approached to within 60 nautical miles of Malaysia’s coastline

The Chinese aircraft turned back after overflying shoals in the South China Sea whose ownership is being disputed between China and Malaysia, but not before triggering a scramble of RMAF Hawks based at nearby Labuan.

Malaysia’s efforts to modernize its military has been repeatedly stymied by budget shortfalls. The RMAF air combat arm is equipped with eight Boeing F/A-18D Hornet and 18 Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKM Flanker combat role aircraft.

However, efforts to replace retired MiG-29 Fulcrum interceptors have stalled due to lack of funds, while Ackbal confirmed that Malaysia is still keen on acquiring some the Hornets that Kuwait is disposing and has sent a letter to the Gulf country’s military leadership expressing that interest.

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