Malaysia needs bigger drones than ScanEagles, says analyst

Six ScanEagle drones are expected to arrive from the US in November. (Reuters pic)

PETALING JAYA: Malaysia will need bigger drones than the ones it will be receiving from the United States, according to defence analyst Thomas Daniel of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

However, he welcomed news of the acquisition of the 12 ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) as a good first step in enhancing the country’s maritime surveillance.

Daniel told FMT these UAVs had been tried and tested and more than 20 countries were using them.

The ScanEagles, produced by Boeing’s Insitu Inc, are expected to play an important role in high-priority areas such as the Sulu Sea and the South China Sea.

“However, Malaysia has a dire need for better maritime domain awareness. Bigger UAVs should be a priority as they can stay airborne for longer hours.

“I think there are plans to acquire such drones,” Daniel said.

Sources have told FMT a lack of funds was holding back the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF).

The UAV, according to Boeing’s website, is capable of operating in extreme environments to gather intelligence at land or sea from altitudes of 5,944m and loiter over a battlefield for more than 24 hours.

The ScanEagles, six of which are expected to arrive in Malaysia in November, will be operated by the Royal Malaysian Navy in contentious maritime areas such as the Sulu Sea, South China Sea and Straits of Melaka.

These tactical drones are expected to provide the ships they are deployed on with awareness of what is happening across a 400km radius.

But what the country is moving towards is acquiring operational unmanned aerial systems (UAS), a classification of weaponry that UAVs are a component of.

Under the 12th Malaysia Plan, the defence ministry plans to purchase three medium altitude longer endurance (MALE) UAS.

One of the world’s most famous MALE UAS is the MQ-1 Predator, used primarily by the US Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency.

“This will provide the armed forces with a higher level of flexibility, higher situational awareness and increased intelligence gathering capabilities,” said one source in the know.

He said MAF was well aware of its future needs and was training its personnel locally and abroad to be ready to handle such assets, but he added that Malaysia was falling behind Singapore and Indonesia because of budget constraints.

“For the last 10 years, the threats in the region have been relatively low, and the government has always emphasised consultation and peaceful engagement in handling tensions,” he said.

“But in the near future, especially with the US taking a greater interest in developments in the South China Sea, things are likely to get tense.”

This means that Malaysia’s need for UAS, satellites and multi-role combat aircraft to replace the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s ageing fleet will become more vital.

Homegrown technology will mean great savings for the government, but while some local universities are developing UAVs, the payloads, including infrared scanners and cameras, still need to be imported.

One issue the government should look into, said the source, was its procurement policy, under which the participation of local companies is required. But he said this worked only in some cases.

“Some local companies work hard to benefit from the transfer of technology but some just act like middlemen. When they can’t do the job, the MAF needs to go back to the original equipment manufacturer for parts and support.

“A lot of money is lost in cases like this,” he said.

The source said the government should strive to strike a balance between procurement needs and the goal of developing native technology.

Last September, a high ranking official with knowledge of the air force said the air force was under pressure because the budget for maintenance of its fleet was limited.

Earlier, Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu said only four of the country’s 18 Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30MKM could fly, the others being under repair.