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Sunday, February 8, 2015

A400M - Boost in MAF Strategic Capabilities

On February 3 2015, the first RMAF A400M Atlas took to its maiden test flight. The historic flight means soon RMAF will have strategic lift capabilities, and thus will elevate MAF abilities to move fast to face the ever evolving threat matrix.

The first RMAF A400M in flight.  Photo courtesy of Airbus Defence & Space
The first RMAF A400M in flight.  Photo courtesy of Airbus Defence & Space

RMAF Current Transport Aircraft

Currently, RMAF are operating 2 types of transport aircrafts; the venerable Lockheed Martin Hercules C-130, which is affectionately called Charlie, and Indonesian-made CN-235 transport planes.


The Charlies were procured in the 80's and were meant to replace the ageing Caribou, which by then had gained an unfavourable nickname of flying coffin.

The Charlies contributions to RMAF, and MAF were immense. MAF airborne capabilities relied heavily on these venerable birds, dropping paratroopers from the 10th Paratrooper Brigade via parachute.

In 2006, as the planes were prepped for an airborne exercise, urgent instructions from MINDEF dictated the prepped up planes and their cargoes of paratroopers with elements of special forces from 21st Special Forces Regiment to fly directly  Dili, Timor Leste at moments notice. The sudden change of plan was due to requests from Timor Leste government to help them to quell down civil unrest and a potential rebellion at hand.

Civil upheavals in Middle East also saw the planes flying to the Middle East to bring back our stranded students. During these mercy flights, RMAF had to used black tapes to cover the Malaysian flags on our Charlies, fearing local insurgent groups might mistaken the planes as belonging to US Military.

During the Lahad Datu intrusion by Sulu terrorists, these planes together with the CN-235 were pushed to the limit, carrying critical supplies from Peninsular Malaysia to Sabah.
Even during the search for MH370, the whole fleet were deployed to search for the missing plane, both in South China Sea and in the later stage in South Indian Ocean.
During the recent flood in East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia, these planes were extensively deployed from Subang Air Force base to bring supplies to the East Coast.

Ageing Charlie

The extensive use of Charlies in both military and non-military operations have seen the Charlie fleet getting worn out. During the recent show of force in Sabah, the Charlie that was assigned to carry media representatives to Sabah had to turn back to Subang due to malfunctioning engine. The same incident repeated itself 3 days later, when the Charlie that was to carry them home had suffered severe malfunction that forced another Charlie to be flown to KK to pick up the hapless media the following day.


Malaysia procured the CN-235 from Indonesia's PT Dirgantara Indonesia (now known as Indonesia Aerospace) to support the airborne brigade operation.  The planes were purchased as part of diplomatic deal with Indonesia, which was selected to spearhead ASEAN's push for industrialization.
The planes were involved in the search for MH370.

Enter the Atlas

Introduction of the Atlas will probably see the plane to be deployed in a strategic role.  Due to its heavier lift, the planes are most likely to be involved in the logistical movement of armoured vehicles between both sides of Malaysia.

The lesson learnt during the Lahad Datu incident showed that MAF does not have strategic sea-lift capability after the loss of KD Inderapura in a fire in 2009 that resulted in the ship being scrapped.  The loss resulted in MAF had to procure the service of merchant container ships to send a column of armoured vehicles in the form of Condors and Adnans from Peninsular Malaysia to Sabah.

With the induction of Atlas, an advance team of armoured vehicles could be sent earlier on into the affected areas, thus improving the troops combat capabilities on the ground.

Operational Comparison 

Once the Atlas is inducted into RMAF, as mentioned earlier, RMAF capabilities will jump leaps and bounds.  But by no means that this should mean to the end of Charlies and CN-235 service in RMAF.  All 3 planes support different operational roles and should be left as such.

However, it is a concern that RMAF had procured only 4 units of the Atlas.  Depending on the momentum of RMAF operations in the future, if the Atlas are being heavily deployed, RMAF should consider increasing the number of Atlas, or at least replace the Hercules currently in service to ensure the workload can be spread out between all the RMAF heavy lifters.

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