Air Warfare

Singapore Airshow 2020: Malaysian air force grapples with fighter shortages

5th February 2020 - 06:45 GMT | by Dzirhan Mahadzir in Kuala Lumpur

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Gen Ackbal Samad assumed command of the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) on 3 January, making him the fifth chief who will have to grapple with the much-delayed Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA).

The MRCA project to replace the now deactivated MiG-29 fleet has been in existence since 2009, and the outlook is that Ackbal’s tenure, which ends in late 2022, will not result in any change given the Malaysian government’s disinclination to commit significant spending to Malaysia’s armed forces despite a large number of ageing assets.

Malaysia’s Defence White Paper did not mention the need to replace the MiG-29s, instead only saying a new fighter would replace F/A-18 Hornets and Su-30MKMs in the timeframe of the 14th and 15th Malaysia Plans (2026-35).

The paper stated that priority would be given to the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme. The document mentioned no timeframe and there is no fiscal allocation yet, though it is possible that an LCA programme could be funded under the 13th Malaysia Plan (2021-25).

Although the RMAF has its Capability 55 development plan geared towards an end-state force structure in 2055, that target date ensures the government will have no sense of urgency. Furthermore, Deputy Defence Minister Liew Chin Tong stated in the Senate on 16 December 2019 that the CAP 55 development plan was not recognised by the Ministry of Economic Affairs or Finance Ministry.

With ongoing political uncertainty, it is expected that defence spending will be placed on the backburner as the government’s priority will be wooing the public for a general election, scheduled for early 2023.

At the moment, RMAF requirements for a maritime patrol aircraft and UAVs also appear stillborn. A lack of funding is evidenced by the fact that the RMAF will phase out its S-61A Nuri fleet but can only look to lease helicopters rather than buying new ones.

Ackbal acknowledged the situation on 7 January by stating in a press conference that the RMAF normally only receives half its funding requests regarding operations and maintenance. However, he added that the RMAF was able to cope by adjusting operations to compensate.

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