Reviving the RMAF | A tangible guide : LCA Tejas Acquisition
The RMAF currently suffers from a wide variety of issues due to a lack of procurement discipline and clarity. The force now comprises of a small fleet of a wide variety of aircraft for a similar sort of mission profile which has created a large amount of inefficiency in the force. This inefficiency has caused a wide range of problems such as the entire fleet of Mig 29s (16 Units) being grounded and placed in reserve instead of being upgraded, which severely depleted RMAF’s combat strength. These airframes were only twenty years old and still had a significant amount of airframe life left (in comparison, IAF, one of the first export customers of the Mig 29, still have their entire fleet air worthy due to constant upgrades done to their jets).
Another issue is the wide range of aircrafts involved. Even in a larger air force that can acquire fighters in significant numbers, having a fleet of western and eastern aircraft could be a logistical challenge, since all the weapon systems involved are non-compatible with each fighter. Now, imagine this issue compounded with the fact that your fighter fleet is small to start with and therefore would need customised upgrades which is not economically efficient at a smaller scale. This is what the RMAF struggles with at present.
In order to increase squadron strength, Malaysia has essentially started two programmes; an initial quest for a multi-role fighter aircraft (MRFA) but now downgraded to a more cost-efficient light combat aircraft tender as well as another tender for a squadron of MRFA to be executed in 2025 when more funds are available.
Currently, for the LCA tender, four fighters are competing for this deal. These are the following jets: JF-17 (Which appears to be out of competition already and Turkish Hurjet may be fighting instead. However, Hurjet is yet to take its first flight), Tejas, FA-50 and L-15. The JF-17 is not a serious competitor to begin with since it’s plagued by reliability issues in almost all the air forces it has operated in, with the same unreliable RD-33/93 engines used in the Mig 29. To purchase this fighter, together with the L-15 will be the death knell for the RMAF as they will be at the mercy of the Chinese aviation industry. This is an especially crucial point as China started to send warplanes into Malaysian air space as well as started taking more aggressive actions in the South China Sea, where Malaysia is an important stakeholder.
This leaves Malaysia with the FA-50 (a trainer that will struggle to fulfil the roles of a fighter jet) and the Tejas (a purpose-built light fighter from the ground up). Tejas is one of the most premier fighter jets in its class, with an unmatched reliability record, high level of composite material usage (leading to low RCS), advanced sensors as well as compatibility between Russian, Indian and Western weapons.
Advantages of Tejas
The level of customisation offered by the Tejas enables the RMAF to procure a tailor-made fighter jet for their needs. Malaysia had already requested Israeli subsystems to be removed and India has offered the indigenous UTTAM AESA radar as well as an Indian electronic warfare suite (D-29) already being installed on the Mig 29 UPG. Unlike the FA-50, the Tejas also allows for Russian weapons in the RMAF arsenal as well as American weapons to be integrated as well. Some of the weapons that have already been integrated in the Tejas that is in the RMAF stables include:
Weapons such as Sidewinder, AMRAAMS and Harpoons can also be integrated upon request. Uttam AESA radar has also been approved for integration of the Meteor missile, which the Russian, Chinese and Israeli radars have not been accommodated for.
There will also be multiple weapons that India is indigenously developing or are integrating with the Tejas that might be of interest to the RMAF in order to expand its capabilities envelope. In the BVR AAM space, India is currently developing the Astra family of missiles [Astra Mk1 – 100+ km range (Solid propellant), Astra Mk2 – 160+ km range (Dual-thrust pulsed), Astra Mk3 – 340 km range (Solid fuel ducted ramjet propulsion)].
Tejas has a wide variety of precision guided munitions (PGMs) already integrated as well as being developed for it. JDAM, Hammer series, KAB series, Griffin LGB as well as Paveway-II have been integrated. Some of the future PGMs under development include; SAAW, HSLD, Garuda and Garuthma.
Tejas also has the ability to carry a variety of Air-to-Ground missiles unlike the KA-50. The Rudra series of anti-radiation missiles can take down any SAM threat with a variety of missiles [Rudra M1 – 250km, Mach 2; Rudra M2 & M3 – 300+km, Air-launched ballistic missiles, hypersonic].
The infamous Brahmos AShM (in its smaller air launched “NG” variant) is also available for procurement for the RMAF once its development ends in 2024. Every Tejas can carry at least one Brahmos NG, thus boosting RMAF’s strike capabilities to the next level. Malaysia can further leverage this capability by procuring the coastal defence variant of the Brahmos as well as the ship launched variant for its future naval vessels.
A futuristic eco-system noone else can provide!
But the Tejas’s true power play comes in the eco system it provides to the RMAF. Malaysia would get a huge push in building up its forces by aligning itself to the new Indian aerospace resurgence. The next rendition of Malaysia’s MRFA could be fulfilled by the larger version of the Mk1A, the Mk2 Tejas (with larger payload, canards and range) or the land-based variant of the Twin-engine deck-based aircraft (TEDBF), also known as the ORCA (omni role combat aircraft). The need for the fifth-generation fighter can also be fulfilled by the advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA).
This is one area where India is the only legitimate partner for a fifth-generation fighter for Malaysia. Since the KF-21 is a joint development between Indonesia and South Korea, Indonesia will reserve the right to ban exports to Malaysia and this would end Malaysia’s procurement partnership with Korea after KA-50.
Malaysia could continuously receive new upgrades for the acquired Tejas which KA-50 cannot provide. For example, under the CATS programme, Tejas will be upgraded with a next generation cockpit that will enable it to control swarm drones [Alfa-S (loitering munitions)], loyal wingman drones [CATS Warrior], pseudo-satellites [CATS Infinity] as well as smart cruise missiles [CATS Hunter].
Another area where India is a crucial partner for the RMAF is the maintenance and upgrade facilities. India’s indigenous Sukhoi 30 MKI (Super Sukhoi) and Mig 29 UPG upgrades could also be executed for the Malaysian fleet. India also overhauls F404 engine while also being the future manufacturing hub of the F414 engines, this could help the F18 fleet stay up to date and enable regular and cheaper maintenance. The Advanced Hawk is also being built in India and could also be acquired by RMAF to replace their older Hawks in the future.