Sunday, 29 March 2015

Malaysian MRCA Programme - The Next Step

Like F-14, the MiG-29N is going to be replaced (Source: Wikipedia, US Navy)

By: Danny Liew

As the curtain falls over the Langkawi International Maritime and Air Show 2015 (LIMA 2015), the long anticipated announcement on RMAF MRCA programme to replace the RMAF ageing Mikoyan Gurevich MiG29N air superiority fighters were yet to be announced. While the lack of announcement was a dampener for LIMA, it was a foregone conclusion, considering capital funding for the programme under the 10th Malaysia Plan had long since been exhausted and the budget for 11th Malaysia Plan is only expected to be tabled in April or May 2015.

However, the lack of announcement does not mean that Malaysian Government is not committed to do window shopping during the same air show. The lack of announcement had instead resulted in an even more intense jostling and bidding behind the scene for the small pie in Malaysian defence budget.

The More The Merrier

Despite months ago's announcement that the contenders had been narrowed down to 3 bidders; British's BAe Eurofighter Typhoon, France's Dassault Rafale and Swedish SAAB JAS37 Gripen, entering LIMA 2015 saw another 2 competitors trying to throw their weight into the competition. They were US' Boeing Advanced Super Hornet and China's J-10.
(Note: while some writers and analysts follow a strict definition of what is MRCA, I am going to approach this in a more liberal sense, ie types of aircraft that had been or rumoured been lobbied to Malaysia as MiG29N replacement).

(Note 2: while ATSC is also promoting their own plan to further upgrade our MiGs, I will not consider them as part of the equation, as like it or not, we would need to replace them all one day).

Let us see one by one of these birds based on some data that I have managed to glean from multiple sources.

(Note 3: all these data are publicly sourced data only. No classified data would be shared).

Reliability in terms of users
Source: multiple Internet source
At first glance, Eurofighter Typhoon seems to be the best bet. You could do no wrong if 8 other air forces around the world are operating this bird. Further more, there are approximately 571 birds flying worldwide. However, there negative news coming out from several Typhoon users indicating problems with the plane's manufacturing fault.

One source, indicating that German Air Force had halved the flight time for their Typhoon due to manufacturing fault. However, there would be questions on the reliability of this source of information as the news outlet, is a Russian-owned agency, and its impartiality and motive can be questioned in view of the Cold War-like setting that Europe is slowly sinking into.
This is followed closely by China's J10. While the exact number of J10 is not known, they only have 3 known users; 2 of which are Chinese entities (PLA - AF and PLA - Navy). With China being very secretive about its military, we could not be sure of how well are these J10 in the service of the Red Panda.

Saab JAS-39 Gripen is also being offered to Malaysia by Saab. With a growing number of users worldwide, the reliability of this plane is surely being noticed by Malaysian defence planners. The fact that there are now approximately 247 units operated by 6 nations, 2 of these are nations with long maritime coastal waters indicate that this plane is worth considering. An added value would be Saab is also offering Saab 2000 Erieye system to Malaysia to fill up the gap on the need for an early airborne early warning system.

Perhaps the most understated offering would be Boeing's Advanced Super Hornet. RMAF being an operator of 8 units of F/A-18D legacy Hornet, there could be a stronger pull factor to RMAF to obtain this plane instead. In its 20 plus years in service with RMAF, the legacy Hornets had served superbly with high availability and logistics need been met. This was despite having 1 Hornet suffering a crash landing in Kuching International Airport in 2003, with both crews ejecting from the plane on the ground.

However, no known number of current fleet of US Navy's Super Hornet had been upgraded to ASH. Additionally, the plane is only being planned to be inducted into USN as interim measure whilst waiting for the long-waited F35 to be able to perform the duty that it was supposed to. Additionally, the plane would also be at the tail-end of technology as Boeing intends to close production lines if no orders are being received.

Operational Range

In terms of combat range, both Rafale and Typhoon easily beat the rest. However, I am not able to discern if the accuracy of the information that I have received are apple to apple comparison.

The assumption used for Gripen and J10 are these are the achievable range without using additional fuel tanks or air-to-air refueling probes. The accuracy of these comparison is that ASH data are actually derived from SH as the first ASH into USN service is expected only in 2015.

The method of calculating the distance is also questionable. For Gripen and J10, the range provided as the combat range is assumed as the furthest distance for the planes could be flown before they need to fly back to their bases.

As MiG29N was used primarily in the interceptor role in RMAF, I would consider speed as the most important aspect in selecting MiG29's replacement.

In terms of speed, J10 wins the contest hands down at Mach 2.2, which is slightly slower than MiG29's Mach 2.25. However, an increasingly belligerent China towards her maritime neighbours including Malaysia may see this plane being dropped from the lineup.

This leaves only Gripen and Typhoon being able to fly at top speed of Mach 2.0.


On paper, the ASH offers Malaysia the most number of weapon choices. However, with Malaysia not being one of US' favourite nation, most of the weapons listed here would only be on our dream list.

What interest me are the inventories that both Gripen and Typhoon can carry. Being a maritime nation, it is high likely that RMAF would be used to intercept and destroy enemy naval vessels before they can be within firing range of Malaysian shores. Both planes can be configured to carry Taurus KEPD 350 (classified as cruise missile) which can be used to destroy ships.

The missile is also a dual-purpose missile, being able to target land targets, especially bunkers.

Both planes are also able to carry US-made GBU, which would be a boon for RMAF as these are likely to be able to use the same Ground Laser Target Designator (GLTD).

On the same note, it is here that J10 would face the second hurdle. Acquiring J10 means the whole range of weapon systems (missiles, ammunition, GLTD) would also need to be obtained. These are currently incompatible with RMAF current inventory. Thus, this will be the hidden cost that RMAF planners need to consider too.

Sensors and Radar

For radar and sensor system, Gripen may have the greatest advantage. Its unique plug-and-play capability allows it to be upgraded easily to use latest sensors available of the shelf.

The fact that it has data-link capabilities put this plane on top of my want list. Combined together with Saab 2000 Erieye, this plane will be a deadly combination for any potential future adversary for Malaysia.

Of all potential MRCAs, the ASH boasts the most type of electronic sensors suit. However, as what was mentioned earlier, the suits offered would be very dependent on how US Congress see Malaysia. With the recent jailing of Opposition Leader, Mr Anwar Ibrahim, the US Congress may not be too friendly to Malaysia.

Other Factors

There are of course other factors that I did not take into account. Diplomatic being the top spot. For once, I hope that Malaysian government would not decide the purchase based on diplomatic reasons (note ASH and J10), but to consider the long term future of Malaysian sovereignty.

However, it is well known that diplomacy plays a big hand in our defence procurement in recent years.

So far, the United States have begun its move as early as Christmas last year. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak's golf game with US President Obama is a huge indicator that they would want us to purchase the ASH as part of our MRCA programme. Do note that failure for Malaysia to purchase the MRCA will see Boeing closing their manufacturing line for Super Hornets.

It is believed that J10 is also being considered as part of the plan to juggle our friendship with the US and China.

Another factor that plays a huge role in our defence procurement is on transfer of technology, or ToT. So far, all contenders (except for J10) have expressed willingness to transfer part of the technology to Malaysia. The package so far differs from one manufacturer to another.

In this sense, Gripen may have clinched a good deal by aligning itself with Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Albukhary's Deftech. Deftech being the premier local defence contractor is known for its reliability. With the successful delivery of AV8 Gempita, this may be the deal clincher.

On the other hand, Typhoon too had promised to have some of the Typhoons to be assembled here in Malaysia. BAe's long standing cooperation with CTRM has put it in good stead. Plus, BAe Hawk 108 and 208 currently serving in RMAF inventory may well convince Malaysian defence planners this is the better choice.

However, a note of caution. Malaysian defence planners should be well aware that the high price that most Malaysian defence procurement with ToT had led to many Malaysians, both laymen and defence analysts, to be very uncomfortable with the procurement practice. The ToT which is supposed to help to kick start our own defence industry have seen little success. The disgust can be seen as the word 'ngenToT' is now slowly entering Malaysian defence watchers' lexicon.


The slow decline in RMAF air power must be arrested. The current fleet of planes that RMAF operates is no longer sufficient to defend the whole nation. Age is slowly catching up, whilst our neighbours are enhancing theirs.

It is hoped that in the upcoming 11th Malaysia Plan, the Minister would be willing to break the mold of purchasing small number of planes. That is the mistake that we made with both MiG29N and F/A-18D. Let us not make that mistake again.

Note 4: I'm buying Note 4.

Note 5: There may be mistakes in the data as mentioned earlier. So do please point it out if you see any. I would be glad to amend them and giving the credit to you.

This article was first published at the following link. Published with expressed permission from the author.

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