Our new Minister of Defence Mohamad Sabu recently dropped a bombshell (well, not literally) when he revealed that only four out of the 28 Russian fighter jets owned by the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) are air-worthy.
He said that the RMAF had 18 Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30MKM and 10 MiG-29 jet fighters and that the remaining 14 Sukhois are under repair. He further said the RMAF was unable to properly maintain the airworthiness of these fighter jets.
Not long after, as expected, Mohamad, or Mat Sabu, cheerily told us that the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition 2019 (LIMA’19) will become “a reference point for the government to develop and modernise the military, civil aerospace and maritime requirement”.
From their past purchasing patterns, you know what to expect when the defence ministry goes shopping at LIMA 2019…
No, we can’t afford it!
Apart from the fact that the country has been hyped up to believe that our debt crisis is so severe that we can only afford to increase the national minimum wage by RM50, our record on maintaining our fighter jets through the years has to be seen to be believed.
Billions of ringgit have been spent on these defence procurements, bought without due diligence to clear purpose and without accountable debate. Such a seemingly random variety of purchased assets has resulted in problems of non-integration between systems in the armed forces, massive wastage and human tragedies.
The procurements are often large (RM3.2 billion for 18 Sukhois at 2007 prices) and there is competition amongst the sellers. The British foreign minister was one of Mat Sabu’s first visitors since they are trying to sell their Typhoon fighter jets. You can bet the French have already contacted the defence minister as they are trying to sell their Rafaels.
The market for fighter jets is opaque and complex with each contract having special requirements, making them difficult to compare and, perhaps most importantly, they are cloaked in secrecy under the rhetoric of “national security”.
At a time of austerity, let us not allow the new PH government to get away with such multi-billion purchases without transparency and discussions of our national priorities.
First, the choice of these defence purchases is questionable when some of the expensive equipment such as the British Hawks in the ’90s comprised prototypes, resulting in delays in finding spare parts and other accruing problems. Many other examples of embarrassing shortcomings and scandals have been uncovered by the Auditor-General in the last few decades revealing non-accountability and negligence. The problems involving the Sukhois should be a red flag for the nation to ponder our defence priorities and what we can afford.
Bizarre choice of military equipment
When we study Malaysia’s defence procurements, the choice of equipment is often bizarre as noted by Mak, J.N:
“In terms of equipment maintenance and purchases, the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) have a rather colourful history. They have the reputation of buying prototypes, and of procuring a variety of systems which have resulted in maintenance difficulties… the A-4 Skyhawks refurbished between 1983 and 1985 are to be somewhat prematurely replaced by 1995 with the British Aerospace Hawks…”
US Vietnam War-ers Skyhawks, 1985 (RM320 million)
The Vietnam-era Skyhawks that Malaysia bought in 1985 for RM320 million had a rather eventful career, reminiscent of an episode from the television series M.A.S.H. The Malaysian government bought 88 Vietnam War-era A4 Skyhawks from the US for RM127,000 each. Fifty-three of the aircraft were taken out of the desert. Out of these, 40 were refurbished to be flown by the RMAF; 12 others were cannibalised for spare parts and one brought back for maintenance training. The balance of 35 jets was left in the California desert parked under the scorching sun. They were never brought back but placed under the management of a company in the US which paid the parking charges for years. The cost of refurbishing the 40 aircraft with new avionics, engines, and armaments was RM320 million.
British Hawk Trainer Jets, 1996 (RM2 billion)
Our British Hawks superseded the US A4 Skyhawks. They were part of the RM5 billion arms deal signed between Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Margaret Thatcher in 1988. Soon after 28 Hawk advanced jet trainers were delivered in 1996, the RMAF revealed that it was facing problems with them. Armed Forces chief Jen Ismail Omar confirmed that certain avionic components were prone to breakdowns and that spare parts were slow in arriving.
The RMAF experienced a critical moment earlier in 1996 when almost all the Hawk advanced jet trainer squadrons were grounded because of components shortage. One reason cited for the problems was the lack of concrete shelters to protect the aircraft from vagaries of the weather.
Another was that the avionics were very sensitive and needed maintenance to operate at optimum level. It took some time for the problem to be identified because the Hawks used were new models. Furthermore, the maintenance cost of the aircraft had gone up and the Government had to foot the bill for the spare parts.
As a result of this problem, the RMAF was unable to meet its target of training sufficient numbers of pilots to fly the more sophisticated jet fighters like the Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum and the US F/A-18 Hornets. The pilots need at least 1,000 flying hours on the Hawk or other fighter aircraft like the F-5E air defence jets before they can fly the Fulcrums or Hornets.
By 2017, there were nine incidents involving Hawk fighter jets of the Royal Malaysian Air Force since 1996.
8 US F/A-18D Hornet Strike Aircraft, 1997 (RM1.6 billion)
At the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition in December 1993, the Malaysian government signed a contract with US aerospace giant, McDonnell Douglas, for the purchase of eight F/A-18D Hornet strike aircraft. The contract was worth RM1.6 billion.
The contract stipulated provisions for the supply of weapons systems including missiles, bombs, training, spares and after sales service. Four of the F/A-18Ds would be delivered to the RMAF in January 1995 while the remaining would come four months later. The first four F/A-18D Hornets arrived in April 1997. However, just three months later, the Deputy Defence Minister Abdullah Fadzil Che Wan was reportedly asking the visiting Assistant Deputy to the US Secretary of Defence, Asia Pacific Affairs, Dr Kurt Campbell for advanced weapons systems for the eight F/A-18D Hornets. In other words, after spending more than RM1 billion on these Hornets, they were not equipped with all that they had been advertised to be capable of!
18 Sukhoi-20MKM jets, 2007 (RM3.2 billion)
The 18 Sukhoi-20MKM jets were purchased in a deal worth US$900 million in 2003, in the final year of Mahathir’s term as prime minister. In May 2007, Malaysia’s Air Force received the first of these Sukhois. Officials said the purchase would make Malaysia one of Asia’s largest operators of the high-tech jet after India and Vietnam. Moscow had agreed to allow Malaysia’s purchase to partly offset a US$25 million space program in which Russian officials would train Malaysia’s first astronaut to join a Russian scientific mission on the International Space Station in October 2007.
However, the purchase has also stirred political controversy after opposition leaders claimed that hefty commissions were paid to middlemen. Malaysia’s defence ministry rejected the allegations. The deal was through a Russian state company, Federal State Unitary Enterprise ‘Rosoboronexport’.
The RMAF’s decision to buy British Hawks, Russian MiG-29s and US-made F-18D Hornets have been criticised for complicating maintenance, spares stocking, sustainability and operational effectiveness. In 2009, Jane’s Defence Weekly already pointed out these problems:
“There are continuing integration problems with the 12 Sukhoi Su-30MKM delivered and the remaining six to be delivered at the end of 2009… Problems in integrating Russian weapons systems and Western avionics have plagued the Su-30 MKM since its delivery in 2007, with the result that training on the aircraft has progressed slowly.”
Considering the billions of ringgit spent on arms, we would expect more exhaustive debate and discussion in public and especially in Parliament regarding the choice of these purchases. The examples of non-integration of US, British and Russian systems and the problems of maintenance must be seriously addressed especially when the French are now peddling their Rafaels as well. The allegations of commissions received in the Scorpene submarines, Eurocopter and Sukhoi deals warrants higher standards of accountability in government.
The government can justify arms cuts
During the mid-80s economic recession, Malaysia’s defence budget was cut from US$2.7 billion in 1982 to US$216 million in 1986. The financial crisis toward the end of the 1990s gave us a vision of a region without an arms race. It was not because the political leaders had suddenly come to their senses, simply that countries in the region could no longer afford expensive military equipment. Indonesia announced in 1998 that it would cut military spending by up to US$20 billion. During the financial crisis of 1997, the Malaysian defence ministry was forced to reduce its budget under the Seventh Malaysia Plan to RM3 billion, making a saving of more than RM400 million.
In the early 1990s when East Asia’s military spending was the highest in the world, one exception was Japan which announced in 1995 that it would cut the size of its forces, as part of a post-cold war policy review. It would cut down the number of aircraft and its defence force would place more emphasis on anti-terrorism and disaster-relief roles.
During times of economic recession or austerity such as the present, the government has no choice but to implement cuts in defence spending.
During such times, all the previous justifications for buying more and more sophisticated defence equipment are quietly forgotten. Thus, when the Malaysian economy slowed down in 1980-81 and annual growth rates for 1981-85 were well below the 7% growth rates enjoyed in the 1970s, all sectors including defence had to be cut back.
This keynote address to the Global Community Forum by Mahathir, the then prime minister in 1984, is an example of the right attitude to take at this juncture of our economic situation:
“We in Malaysia believe that the first line of defence of any country is not its military capability. The first line of defence lies in its national resilience and in shaping a strategic environment where threats are minimised. It lies in the policy of making friends with those who want to be friends with us.”
Kua Kia Soong is adviser to Suaram.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.