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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

MRCA - Do We Still Need Them?

LIMA 2017 came and go, and still no MRCA being signed. The official visit by French President François Hollande to Malaysia was expected by many as culmination of years of effort to get Malaysia to procure D'assault Aviation Rafale soon dissipated when Prime Minister DS Najib Tun Razak mentioned that we will not be buying the Rafale, yet.

In his words, "We’re not ready yet to make a decision, but we take note of its success in other countries…,”

A disappointment for many, but definitely is not a surprise. Well, at least I wasn't.

During a PC held during LIMA, a reporter had asked Def Min DS Hishammuddin Hussein if the MRCA has been finalised and he had answered no. In fact, he also mentioned that both Gripen and Super Hornet are both still in contention.

This was despite the man at the coffers, Dr Mohd Irwan Siregar, Sec-Gen to Treasury had been taken on a ride by D'assault Aviation on the Rafale during LIMA.

A further evidence that Def Min was not ready to commit was on Saturday, during the TN50 town hall in Langkawi held for security personnel. Both Def Min and Youth and Sports Minister, Brig Gen Khairy Jamaluddin had personally answered questions pertaining to the TN50 plans and one of the questions were regarding military assets procurement. To this DS Hishammuddin had answered (verbatim), "harga sebuah Typhoon boleh membina sebuah universiti", roughly translated to "the price of a Typhoon can build a new university".

TN50 Townhall in Langkawi - Source: Utusan Malaysia

So, to be frank, I was surprised that people were jostling around claiming the Rafale had clinched the contract and would be signed today between French President François Hollande and DS Najib Razak.

Now that has been settled, let's look back on if we still need MRCA.

My Personal Choice
Personally, yes we do need MRCA. And personally, D'assault Aviation Rafale is my personal choice.

In a procurement document made public by Swiss Air Force, they have made it clear that the best aircraft for their own procurement is D'assault Aviation Rafale. It had scored high marks on all areas despite not being combat proven. 

Another reason why it is my personal choice is that French has been a reliable supplier to Malaysia. In Malaysian Armed Forces Orbat, we can count French-made optics and fire control system on our Pendekar MBT, our Scorpene submarines and Exocet anti-ship missiles for Navy, and our air force are operating A400M lifters, EC725 helicopters, and French-made avionics in our SU30MKM.

With our SU30MKM using French-made avionics, I had hoped for the Rafale to reduce the compatibility cost.

But what I want is not what the Air Force need. And frankly, what I want should not be forced upon the Air Force just so that I have bigger balls. And with rumoured procurement may be numbered between 8 to 10, which is less than what we require, having 8 to 10 big balls doesn't sound enticing when you consider that you need 18 balls to work perfectly.

What We Should Procure
Rumours has it that our pilots prefer the Super Hornets. Not a surprise since that we have 8 units of FA18D Hornets.

For the last 20 years, the Hornets which is slightly smaller than the Super Hornets have been serving in our Air Force with distinction, with high availability.

Despite claims that US-made aircrafts are manja, as compared to their Russian-made counterparts, the Hornets have proven they are rugged and tough fighters.

Indeed, circa 2003, a Hornet had suffered a catastrophic damage to the cockpit and landing gear as the crew had ejected from the plane upon losing control while landing at Kuching International Airport. What would have ended up as a write-off, the Hornet was fully repaired and returned to operational status within a year.

Spare parts for the Hornets are easily procured via USN logistics procurement. Thus, ensuring high availability.

With the current US administration looking into reactivating existing USN Super Hornets back to service, it would mean Super Hornet assembly line is likely to be reopened. Not to forget, Royal Canadian Air Force is also looking into procuring Super Hornets to replace their existing Canadian-made Hornets after they had cancelled their participation in the F35 programme.

This should be taken as a good sign for RMAF to look into getting Super Hornets into our Air Force.

If newly minted Super Hornets are too costly, there are currently 2 other friendly countries that are looking to dispose off their Super Hornets. Both Royal Kuwaiti Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force are going to retire off their Super Hornets. (Update: Kuwait has FA18C and FA18D. Thus not Super Hornet as I had mentioned).

Another reason for RMAF to procure the Super Hornets would be that the Super Hornets share similar ammunition and armament with the Hornet. This will ensure that whatever we have purchased for the Hornets can still be used.

In terms of training, RMAF does not need to change the training module if Super Hornets are procured.

But the critical part about getting Super Hornets is operationalisation.

The existing Hornet Squadron can be split into 2, each as nuclei for the new squadrons for Super Hornets. Existing officers get promoted, while younger pilots get to be trained by experts. Even the ground crew will get opportunity to be promoted.

I'm not privy to pricing for Super Hornet, but it is definitely much cheaper than what Rafale is priced at. Which opens the possibility for RMAF to finally be able to purchase more than 18 units and to allow RMAF to have at least 6 air combat squadrons.

All of these, are not possible with the D'assault Aviation Rafale. Everything has to be built from scratch. And even the agreement might not hold as François Hollande is the outgoing president.

So, I am not disappointed that my favourite plane did not win the contract. It gives the Air Force choice more fighting chance to gain the contract.

It is Still an Interim Purchase
But, even if we purchase the Super Hornets, it is likely only to be interim fighter only. Which should last to at least 2030 or 2040.

After all, our pilots are still fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, to other Malaysians. As we owe them the peace we have today, at least we provide the best and most suitable equipment for them to protect us.