Nigel Pittaway and Chen Chuanren report from Malaysia’s biennial air show at Langkawi
The world’s fighter manufacturers were out in force again at the 14th Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (LIMA) exhibition, held on the resort island of Langkawi between March 21 and 24. However, not all of them brought aircraft with them this time and, once again, news of progress to any Malaysian fighter aircraft acquisition programme was very thin on the ground. Instead, the news centred on proposed upgrades to several platforms, but only one of those, the replacement of the Nuri helicopter’s analogue instruments with a modern semi-glass cockpit, has achieved any real traction.
The current Malaysian five-year defence plan is due to expire in 2020 and although officials were keen to talk about fighters, maritime surveillance aircraft and helicopters, it would appear there is no funding for new acquisition projects in the meantime.
Malaysia’s Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) programme has stagnated for several years now, and despite a BAE Systems official stating that Typhoon and Rafale have been shortlisted, there was no evidence of further progress at LIMA 17.
The MRCA is intended to replace the Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia’s MiG-29N and MiG-29NUB fighters, of which only a few are thought to remain airworthy and none actually operational. In years past, the competition was thought to have been between BAE Systems (Typhoon), Boeing (Super Hornet), Dassault (Rafale), Saab (Gripen) and Sukhoi (Su-30). However, Russia’s RAC MiG also threw its hat into the ring this year, with a proposal to upgrade a number of MiG-29s and return them to service.
Only Dassault demonstrated its aircraft to customers at LIMA 17, with a two-seat Rafale B and single-seat Rafale C on display. The French fighter took part in the daily flying programme, as well as providing experience flights for Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia and government officials.
BAE Systems had a full-scale mockup of a Typhoon outside the exhibition halls, but no real aircraft, and Boeing was represented by two US Navy F/A-18F Super Hornets in the static display. The JAS 39 Gripen and Su-30 were represented by a pair of Royal Thai Air Force Gripen Cs and new Su-30SMs with the Russian Knights Aerobatic team.
RAC-MiG, in conjunction with Malaysia’s Aerospace Technology Systems Corporation (ATSC), announced at LIMA it is proposing to upgrade ten of Malaysia’s MiG-29s (eight single-seat MiG-29Ns and two two-seat MiG-29Bs) to MiG-29SM configuration.
Two years ago, ATSC proposed a similar but more comprehensive upgrade, similar to the MiG-29UPG upgrade on offer to India and known as the MiG-29NM. This earlier offer would have replaced the existing N019E fire-control radar with the Zhuk-ME FGM-229 slotted phased array radar, together with a glass cockpit, handson throttle and stick functionality and a structural upgrade to extend airframe life to 6,000 hours.
ATSC officials confirmed the 2015 offer still stands, but the MiG-29SM proposal announced at LIMA 17 is much more conservative, upgrading instead of replacing the N019E radar, for example, and is based on the upgrade currently being undertaken by RAC-MiG for Myanmar’s MiG-29s.
Deputy-General of Marketing and Sales at RAC-MiG Victor Chernov said the work would be undertaken at ATSC’s facility in Malaysia and the project would take two years to complete. “It’s time to make the critical decision on what to do with the MiG- 29,” he said. “Malaysia has trained MiG-29 specialists and pilots and the necessary infrastructure. It will save a lot of money.”
Gripen Lease Deal
Also cognisant of the lack of funding available for the MRCA project, Saab has offered to lease 16 new-build JAS 39C and JAS 39D Gripen aircraft to the Malaysian Government, with options to purchase outright or upgrade to JAS 39E and JAS 39F Gripen in the future.
Speaking at LIMA 17, a spokesman for Saab said the lease would use the money currently allocated for the MiG- 29 operational budget and no further funding would need to be sourced: “This is a squadron-sized replacement for the MiG-29 within the operational budget, no new acquisition money is required. We can deliver new-build aeroplanes within 18 months of contract signature.”
Saab says the length of the lease would be up to the Malaysian Government and the deal would also involve partnering with local industry.
The spokesman also said that Gripen is being offered to Jakarta, against a budget requirement from Tentara Nasional Indonesia-Angkatan Udara for 14 aircraft to replace its Northrop F-5E and F-5F Tiger II fighters between 2017 and 2020.
Maritime surveillance and maritime patrol were also hot topics at LIMA 17, with the Malaysian Government understood to have two distinct requirements.
The first is for a coastal surveillance project, run by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, but contracted to a service provider who will supply a pool of aircraft to several ministries and government agencies, including the Malaysian Department of Fisheries. The aircraft types required will likely be a mix of relatively unsophisticated, shorter-range, fixed and rotary-wing platforms.
Switzerland’s RUAG has proposed a maritime surveillance version of its Do228, similar to those already in service with the Marine flieger and Netherlands Coastguard for the fixed-wing capability. The company is understood to have been previously down-selected by the service provider as the fixed-wing platform of choice, but the deal is awaiting government approval.
Saab has also indicated it has proposed its Albatross maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) solution, based on either the 340 or 2000 airframe.
A second requirement calls for a more capable, potentially armed, MPA to replace the Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia’s Beechcraft 200T King Air fleet, which has been reduced to three following the loss of one aircraft in a training accident at Butterworth in December.
Contenders include Saab with its Swordfish MPA system, which can be integrated into either the Bombardier Q400 or Global 6000 platforms, Airbus Defence and Space with its C295MPA, combined with the latest generation of its fully integrated tactical mission system dubbed FITS, and Leonardo, with the P-72 MPA.
The P-72 is based on the ATR 72-600 airliner, popular throughout Malaysia and southeast Asia and fitted with Leonardo’s Airborne Tactical Observation and Surveillance System. The Italian manufacturer sponsored the deployment of an Aeronautica Militare example (MM.62298/41-03) to LIMA, which according to marketing and sales representative Giovanni Timossi was the first international deployment since the type was commissioned into service in December 2016.
Timossi also confirmed the Italian manufacturer is proposing the P-72 for New Zealand’s Future Air Surveillance Capability requirement. He said: “We see a second, more detailed, request for information in the near term, followed soon afterwards by a request for tender in New Zealand.”
Saab’s Enhanced Swordfish
Saab’s also announced at LIMA that its Global 6000-based Swordfish is capable of carrying a greater payload of external stores than initially believed.
Richard Hjelmberg, Head of marketing and sales, Airborne ISR, revealed the latest engineering studies done by the Swedish manufacturer show the platform can carry four MU90-class torpedoes (one per pylon). He said: “Maximum [payload] weight under each wing is now 1,700lb [771kg], so we could also carry two anti-ship missiles [RBS15 or AGM-84 Harpoon] on the inner pylons. This means an operational load-out could be four torpedoes, two anti-ship missiles and two torpedoes, four SKADs [survival kit, air-droppable] or a mix of weapons and SKADs.”
Hjelmberg also revealed that Saab is studying the possibility of adding a twin stores rack to the inner pylon, which increases the number of torpedoes to six. This work is yet to be validated, but is a possible growth option. He added: “Carriage of a large missile like the RBS15 also allows carriage of other heavy stores such as the Taurus KEPD 350 air launched stand-off missile.”
The first Sikorsky S-61A-4 Nuri transport helicopter to be fitted with a partial glass cockpit (M23-37) was handed back to the Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia during a ceremony on March 23.
Developed by Canada’s Heli-One and performed at Subang by Airod, the new cockpit replaces the Nuri’s analogue flight instruments with two digital primary flight displays and two navigation displays (including moving map) and a flight management system, although the original engine instruments remain.
The first aircraft is a proof-of-concept vehicle and an Airod spokeswoman said it is hoped a follow-on contract will soon be signed for an additional 14 production aircraft for the Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia and 11 for the Malaysian Army.
Glass for C-130s
Airod is also proposing a glass cockpit upgrade for an initial seven of the Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia’s C-130H and C-130H-30 Hercules transport fleet.
A company spokesman said government funding has not yet been made available, but the company was hopeful it will be able to start work in the second half of this year. Airod is partnered with Rockwell Collins for the bid, with an upgrade based on the American company Flight 2 digital flight deck, with the work to be performed at Subang.
MD530G Next Year
The first of six MD Helicopters MD530G scout attack helicopters for the Malaysian Army is due to be delivered by early February 2018, according to Steve Lapping, MD Helicopter’s director of business development and sales for military contracts.
Lapping said all six MD530Gs were now in production at the company’s facility in Mesa, Arizona, where the training of an initial cadre of Malaysian pilots will be carried out, and all six will have been delivered by the third quarter of 2018. He also revealed the Malaysian Government was considering the purchase of between six and twelve additional helicopters.
Hawk 208 Upgrade
The Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia’s 12 single-seat Hawk 208s will be upgraded this year to enhance their defensive capabilities. The news was announced at LIMA, with details that BAE Systems and Airod will carry out the project as a joint venture.
Scope of the upgrade includes installation of Leonardo Seer radar warning receivers, Thales Vicon78XF countermeasure dispensing systems, a Zodiac digital video recorder and a ground-based mission planning system at a cost of $87.3 million.
Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia Hawk 208s are now deployed from Peninsular Malaysia to the East Malaysian base of Labuan, especially after the Lahad Datu incident in 2013 where Hawk 208s and F/A-18D Hornets were used to bomb insurgents.
The fourth and final Airbus A400M, serial number M54-04 (MSN050), was delivered to the Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia on March 14 and officially handed over on March 22 at the LIMA exhibition. The first Malaysian A400M was delivered in March 2015 in line with the biennial air show.
MSN050 was delivered in the latest configuration 2.5, which features installation of a defensive aids subsystem, certification for para operations and airto- air refuelling. Malaysia’s first A400M is already back in Spain for reconfiguration to 2.5 standard, and the remaining two aircraft will follow suit.
Commanding Officer 22 Squadron, Colonel Kaliwon said: “With the A400M’s range and payload, 22 Squadron will be used mainly for overseas missions while the C-130H will be utilised for domestic missions.” Colonel Kaliwon also said the squadron has clocked over 2,000 flying hours and hopes to attain full operational capability by 2019. Chen Chuanren