Malaysia’s mighty Hornets

Nigel Pittaway provides an overview of the Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia’s F/A-18D Hornet fleet

Two F/A-18Ds break over Langkawi airfield during an airshow.
All images Nigel Pittaway

The eight McDonnell Douglas F/A-18D Hornets in service with the Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia (TUDM – Royal Malaysian Air Force) represent, together with the Sukhoi Su-30MKM, the cutting edge of Malaysian air power today.

In recent years, the small but capable fleet of Hornets have been called upon to drop weapons in anger in East Malaysia, flying strikes against armed insurgents, and have undergone a significant upgrade to keep them relevant into the next decade.

In 2018, the TUDM deployed Hornets to Australia for only the second time since they entered service in 1997, when five aircraft participated in Exercise Pitch Black 2018. During Pitch Black, the largest air combat exercise in the southern hemisphere, AIR International was privileged to visit the TUDM Hornet detachment in Darwin to find out more.

Hornets for Malaysia

By the early 1990s the TUDM was, from a technology standpoint, in danger of falling behind its rival, the Republic of Singapore Air Force, which was then introducing the General Dynamics F-16A/B Fighting Falcon, under a major modernisation plan.

In response, the Malaysian government under the leadership of Dr Mahatir Mohamad, then (as now) the country’s Prime Minister, embarked upon its own modernisation plans for the TUDM in the early 1990s. Malaysia’s most potent fighter at that time was the Northrop F-5E and F-5F Tiger II but the TUDM also had a requirement for an all-weather, multi-role aircraft. Reportedly unable to afford sufficient quantities of a western fighter design, the Government subsequently elected to purchase just eight Hornets and also acquire the (much cheaper) MiG-29N from Russia.

The F/A-18D Hornet was ordered in the middle of 1993 and the acquisition contract was subsequently signed on December 9, 1993. TUDM crews travelled to the United States to undertake training with the United States Marine Corps, who also operate the twin-seat F/A-18D version of the popular Hornet family. The TUDM aircraft subsequently arrived in Malaysia in two batches of four aircraft during 1997.

To operate the new aircraft, the TUDM established No.18 Skuadron (Squadron) at TUDM Base Butterworth, situated on the east coast of the Malaysian Peninsular opposite the resort island of Penang. Although their official name is Lipan (a local species of centipede) the squadron refers to itself as the ‘Mighty Hornets’ and their unit crest also aptly depicts a Hornet. The squadron is tasked with interdiction and maritime strike missions. In TUDM service, the Hornets carry the serials M45-01 to M45-08 and to date, none have been lost in accidents.

In-country support for the Hornet was provided by the original equipment manufacturer, initially by McDonnell Douglas before the company was merged with Boeing in August 1997. Boeing has continued to support Malaysia’s Hornet fleet at Butterworth, including the completion of the fleet upgrade in 2017.

TUDM Hornets described

Malaysia’s Hornets are similar to their twinseat US Marine Corps equivalents, including a mechanically-scanned Raytheon APG-73 fire control radar, General Electric F404-402 engines and BAE Systems ALE-47 Airborne Countermeasures Dispenser System. The initial four aircraft (M45-01 to M45-04) are fitted with flight controls in the rear cockpit to assist local conversion and training, and the remainder have a rear cockpit in a similar configuration to the US Marine Corps F/A-18Ds operated by the allweather attack squadrons.

Initial weapons included Raytheon’s AIM-9L and AIM-9P Sidewinder, AIM-7M Sparrow, Boeing AGM-84A Harpoon anti-shipping missile, Bristol Aerospace CVR-7 rockets and a range of laserguided precision weapons. As delivered, the targeting pod was the Lockheed Martin AAS-38 Nitehawk, but the recent upgrade has seen this replaced by a modern pod.

The aircraft wore an overall ‘Gunship Grey’ colour scheme on delivery but this is now giving way to a lighter shade, referred to by local sources as Air Mobility Command grey but, unlike the MiG-29N and F-5E and F-5F, Malaysia’s Hornets have never worn permanent unit markings.

In December 2005 the US government approved the sale of Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles to Malaysia for use on its Hornet fleet and these weapons had all been delivered by the middle of 2008. In April 2007, Raytheon was also awarded a contract by the US government for the upgrade of 57 TUDM AIM-9M missiles, with the work completed in 2009.

TUDM F/A-18D M45-01 painted with a full colour tail to mark the 20th anniversary of Hornet ops.

More sting for TUDM Hornets

The durability of the Hornet designed has served the TUDM well and it is worth noting that by the end of the last decade the service was struggling to keep its MiG-29N fleet in the air, whereas the F/A- 18D was looking forward to a capability upgrade. Fast forward to the present day and the MiGs have long been withdrawn from use and even the much-vaunted and more recent Su-30MKM fleet is displaying very low serviceability rates.

At the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace exhibition in December 2011, Boeing announced it had won a major FMS contract for the design, development and installation of retrofit kits for the TUDM Hornet fleet, intended to enhance navigation, targeting and situational awareness. Included in the upgrade were a colour moving map cockpit display, enhanced Identification Friend or Foe capabilities and the addition of a Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System. Software was also to be upgraded to the then-current 25X configuration.

At the time of contract award, Julie Praiss, director of Tactical Aircraft and Weapons Support at Boeing Global Services and Support, said: “These upgrades will deliver enhanced capability for the TUDM (Hornet) fleet to remain effective, interoperable with allies and operationally relevant for years to come. Boeing looks forward to our continued partnership with the Royal Malaysian Air Force and the US Navy to ensure that these F/A- 18Ds continue to serve Malaysia’s strike and interdiction mission needs.”

Concurrent with this upgrade was the replacement of the Nitehawk targeting pod with the next generation Raytheon ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infra- Red pod and the sale of the latest version of the Sidewinder missile, the AIM-9X-2 Block II weapon to Malaysia. Other weapons capabilities added during this process included global positioning system guidance kits for the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) series of precision weapons.

In 2012, L3 Link Simulation and Training was awarded a contract by the US Naval Air Warfare Training Systems Division for the supply of an F/A-18D Tactical Operational Flight Trainer to Butterworth in support of the upgraded aircraft. The trainer is capable of realistically simulating close formation flying, suppression of enemy air defences, and reconnaissance, forward air control, close air support and aerial refuelling missions, including the use of night vision goggles.

TUDM maintainers conduct post-mission checks at RAAF Base Tindal during Exercise Pitch Black.

The TOFT includes two separate but linked cockpits, one each for the pilot and weapons systems operator and was subsequently delivered to Butterworth in December 2014. L3 Link vice president of strategic development, Frank Casano, said: “The F/A-18D Tactical Operational Flight Trainer delivered to the Royal Malaysian Air Force will provide a significant increase in training capability. This enhanced level of training will enable aircrews to prepare for the full range of force multiplier capabilities that the F/A-18D can support during rapidly changing battle scenarios.”

Initial upgrade work was carried out by Boeing in St Louis, but all subsequent aircraft were upgraded at Butterworth, with the final aircraft completed in April 2015. In 2017 the Hornet celebrated 20 years of operational service with the TUDM and one aircraft (M45-01) was painted in special markings to commemorate the event.

Strike missions - Operation Daulat

Malaysia’s Hornets went to war in 2013 in response to an incursion of armed militants from the Philippines in the Lahad Datu District of Sabah, East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. The Malaysian Government declared an emergency in response to the conversion and the following stand-off was eventually resolved by a major military operation, which included the use of airpower.

Airstrikes were carried out by the Hornets of 18 Skuadron and BAE Systems Hawk Mk208s of 6 Skuadron against the intruders under Operasi (Ops) Daulat (Operation Daulat), the Malaysian Defence Force’s combined response to the emergency. The first airstrike was carried out in Lahad Datu on March 15, 2013, a month after the insurgents had arrived in Sabah by boat.

One F/A-18D aircraft (M45-07) released two 1,000lb (454kg) GBU-16 Paveway IIs in an airstrike on targets at Kampung Tando for the first time on the above date, reportedly marking the first use of the weapon under operational circumstances in the region. M45- 07 was suitably marked with mission markings after the event to denote the type of weapons released and other TUDM Hornets noted with Ops Daulat mission markings include M45-01 and M45-02. When M45-01 was repainted to commemorate the 20th anniversary of TUDM Hornet operations during 2017, the Ops Daulat tally was amended to include the numbers of each weapon released, rather than just the type.

The TUDM always provides a rigorous F/A-18D flight demonstration at the Langkawi airshow.

Mighty Hornets down under

TUDM Hornets first participated in a Pitch Black exercise in Australia in 2008 when six aircraft deployed from Butterworth to Darwin, marking their longest deployment since arriving in Malaysia in 1997. The six aircraft were supported on the flight by a Lockheed KC-130H Hercules from 20 Skuadron TUDM, which also participated in the exercise, regularly refuelling the F/A-18Ds on air combat missions. During Pitch Black 2008, the TUDM Hornets also regularly tanked from Royal Australian Air Force Boeing 707 tankers, which were then in the twilight of their operational careers.

Malaysia’s Hornets regularly participate in Five Power Defence Arrangements exercises, such as Bersama Lima and Bersama Shield series, with RAAF Hornets and fighters from other partner nations on home soil, but their second major international deployment was again to Australia in 2018. Pitch Black 2018 (PB18) was also the first time the jets had participated in a large multilateral exercise since they were upgraded with the 25X software, JHMCS, ATFLIR and AIM- 9X-2 capability.

Five F/A-18Ds were involved in Pitch Black 2018 (M45-01, 02, 06, 07, 08), together with a supporting Airbus A400M from 22 Skuadron (M54-04). The combined force departed Butterworth on July 24, 2018, flying via Kuching and Denpasar and arrived in Darwin on the following day.

The TUDM Hornets were based at Darwin for the duration of PB18, operating from a series of shelters, alongside RAAF F/A-18A/B Hornets from 77 Squadron. Using the squadron’s Ghostrider callsign, the first TUDM Hornet PB18 sortie was flown by M45-01 and M45-06 on July 30, 2018 and during the exercise, 18 Skuadron participated in daily day and night sorties, operating as either Red air or Blue air as required by mission planners, during the large force employment (LFE) phase. The LFE Phase involved up to 80 combat jets, from nine nations and during this time, the TUDM Hornets were also cleared to receive fuel from the RAAF’s Airbus KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport.

During the first week of the two-week LFE Phase, AIR International spoke with Mejar (Major) Faiz Fauzi, callsign Havoc, a Hornet pilot with 18 Skuadron about his experiences.

A TUDM F/A-18D uploads fuel from a Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A tanker during Pitch Black.

Mej Fauzi said: “We are participating in the day and night missions during Pitch Black, mainly in the LFE phase. We have brought five jets down to Darwin, together with a maintenance force.”

He added: “Operating as part of the LFE is different to back home, where we don’t operate with so many assets, but here it’s large scale – operating with different nations (and) different procedures and there are differences on the operations side. We have learned a lot, regarding procedures and how other nations operate, so we can bring some of the good things back home to learn and digest.”

Although 18 Skuadron did not employ live air-to-ground weapons on the Delamere Air Weapons Range within the Pitch Black training area, it did simulate the use of 500lb (227kg) GBU-38 JDAMs during close air support missions.

Mej Fauzi, who has been flying the Hornet for four years, said: “We brought five jets and we fly four at any one time, we switch between Blue and Red air, but we’re doing more flying for Blue. We are flying both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions during Pitch Black and the learning outcomes are not just from the air operations themselves, but also the exercise planning and so forth, there are lots to bring back home.”

He added: “We brought the A400M, but we have also been tanking with the KC-30A. The A400M is dedicated to us but we also wanted to try tanking with other platforms. It depends on the mission, how long we want to stay in the fight, so we plan the tanking through the mission planning cell. We don’t often deploy outside Malaysia for exercises and Pitch Black is our longest deployment.”

Finally, describing the upgraded capabilities of the TUDM Hornet, Mej Fauzi said: “We use ATFLIR for the close air support part of the exercise, which gives us greater definition than the previous Nitehawk targeting pod. We’ve had AIM-9X in the inventory for the last two years, when we were upgraded to 25X software and that gave us JHMCS capability as well. Pitch Black was really challenging, but in a good way. We learned a lot during the exercise, and we will take a lot of the lessons learned back home.”