The real problem with the Sukhois: The Russians

Engineers check a Sukhoi Su-30MKM. A source says there are problems dealing with Russia in maintaining the fleet of fighter jets. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: The fighter jet problems as revealed by Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu last month have nothing to do with weaknesses in maintenance, says a high ranking official with knowledge of the air force.

Speaking to FMT on condition of anonymity, he said the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) was under pressure due to the limited budget to maintain its fleet comprising different types of aircraft.

Mohamad, or Mat Sabu, had last month said that only four of the country’s 18 Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30MKM could fly, while the others were under repair.

But at the centre of the problem, said the official, is the manufacturing country itself.

“The problem with the Russian planes is the Russian way of doing business,” he said.

The Sukhois, the most advanced fighter jets in the RMAF’s inventory, was purchased in a deal worth US$900 million in 2003, in the final year of Dr Mahathir Mohamad first stint in office.

The deal was inked in 2003. Six Sukhois were delivered in 2007 and the rest in 2009.

As part of the deal, Russia bought palm oil from Malaysia, and trained a Malaysian astronaut, who in 2007 became the first Malaysian to travel to space.

The official said initially, RMAF received good support from the Russians, but soon it found out about the “complications” of Russian bureaucracy.

Among the problems is that customers must go through a state-owned company, which would then deal with the original manufacturer or design bureau.

“That makes things difficult,” he said.

He said the Russian way of doing business wasn’t as “open or transparent” compared to other Western nations.

“They are supposed to support us for a certain time after we procured the jets, they don’t disclose everything. In the midst of procurement, we weren’t informed on the need to carry out certain types of maintenance after 10 years, which only they can do.”

On the other hand, US-made jets are easy to manage as their maintenance and procurement systems were straightforward and systematic, he added.

He said the Americans have the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme to facilitate the sales of arms, defence equipment, defence services, and military training to foreign governments.

“Ultimately, this means anything purchased from America and the subsequent servicing was very reliable,” he said.

The source said although the government had over the years delivered its allocation for RMAF, it was not enough taking into account its diverse and ageing fleet.

Meanwhile, an industry source, echoing similar concerns, said the servicing of Russian planes was more expensive as it had to go through third parties.

He said the more transparent manner in dealing with countries like the US and the UK was not something that local officials would welcome.

“The problem with defence procurement in this country is that Malaysian officials don’t like to buy from the US or UK because with them everything is above board.

“National security is often used as an excuse for corruption,” he added.