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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Relook into Malaysian MRCA Programme

"Ingatkan panas sehingga ke petang, rupanya hujan di tengah hari", a Malay proverb which best encapsulate the feeling of many defence watchers when the Defence Minister, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein announced that the MRCA programme will not go through during the LIMA 2017. 

The Programme's Hiccups
The MRCA programme which was first announced circa 2003 - 2005 (I can't really remember when) was intended to replace the venerable MiG29N Fulcrum interceptor for RMAF. 

The programme was first deferred when the global economy had went into a severe recession in 2008 due to the subprime crisis in the US which had unfortunately infected the rest of the world. 

Changing Priorities
As the economy began to improve, the plan was revived.  Unfortunately, it ran into several problems.  The Government was tightening its belt as not to breach the self-imposed limit of debt-to-GDP ratio of 55%.  Concurrently, RMN was in the midst of acquiring 6 new ships (the Maharajalela class, or the SGPV).  And the threat from Suluk together with Daish forced the military to refocus back to COIN warfare.

Add in the explosive mixture of politics, funding for MRCA became more and more elusive.
This photo, or rather mishmash of photos was a meme which I had created a couple of years ago, in a shallow attempt by myself to criticise the opposition towards the procurement of MRCA.

But the last 2 years of focusing on the procurement of MRCA, I have reached a point of doubting the need for a full-blown top of the range MRCA for RMAF. 

What is MRCA?
For the uninitiated, MRCA is short for Multi-Role Combat Aircraft, a more modern terminology proposed first by the Russians and then adopted by the industry.

While the industry as a whole took up to the terminology, they were unable to agree with the definition. 

The latest iteration of MRCA is the 6th generation MRCA; US F22 and F35, Russian PAKFA, and Chinese J20 fall into this category.

The Contenders 
The MRCA that Malaysia is, or rather was looking at are F/A18EF Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon, D'Assault Aviation Rafale and Swedish JAS39 Saab Gripen.  These are classified as 4th, 4.5th and 4++ Generation MRCA, depending on who you ask.

Of the 4 jets, the most advanced can be classified as Rafale, followed closely by Typhoon.  These two were the top contenders to the contract to supply RMAF with between 18 units to 24 units of these highly capable jets. 

Do We Really Need Top Range Jets?
As mentioned earlier, two years ago I was convinced that we need to have the best MRCA for RMAF.  But these days, even I am questioning the need to have MRCA to replace the MiG29N.  Note that even the US today is questioning the need to have F35 Lightning II and is contemplating to reorder Super Hornets instead.  With the latest unfavourable news from Israel that they may have lost one F35 to a so-called bird strike, we may really need to study how effective are these top-range jets, and may be should settle for something more realistic.  Please note, the news of the Israeli F35 coincides with announcement by Syrian military that they have managed to hit an unknown type Israeli Air Force jet conducting air strike in Syria using an S200 Cold War era SAM.

Role of MiG29N Fulcrum in RMAF
Before we speculate further, let's look into the role that is currently handled by the MiG29N.  

Today, or rather in the past, the MiG29N was used primarily as interceptor and air-superiority aircraft.  It functioned to intercept foreign unidentified aircrafts that strayed into our airspace, which the MiG29N had performed superbly.  The MiGs were very capable that it had forced RAAF to have their F/A-18 Hornets to be upgraded to be able to counter the MiGs.  In fact, during one of the air combat exercises in the 90's, the MiG29N had caught the RAAF pilots off-guard with the off-the-bore ability to "down" their aircraft. 

Whether RMAF MiG29N was really successful in intercepting foreign flights is basically unknown, though there are snippets of stories proclaiming how the MiGs were used to intercept jets from a foreign nation wanting to test our air interdiction capabilities.  

However, it must be noted that in 2011, then Defence Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had revealed in the Parliament that between 2008 to 2011, RSAF of Singapore had intruded into Malaysian air space in 2,058 occasions

The MRCA Programme
Now that we know what is the role that needs to be filled by this MRCA, let's look at the 4 candidates.

Please note that around 2 years ago, I did a similar article on this issue.  Back then, it was more on the capabilities of the aircraft.  This article, on the other hand, will focus on a more pertinent issue; financing, which was not touched back then.

The Criteria
First, we will be looking at first flown date.  To be precise, the year the first model took off.  I feel this is a pertinent information before our judgement gets clouded by the array of terms and jargons usually thrown around, especially by fanboys.

Next, the price tag.  This will be based on what is termed as fly-away cost.  Fly-away cost is the best measurement of what is the expected cost per unit of the jets, assuming other parameters, such as training, ammunition, ordnance and spare-parts are not taken into the picture.

We will also look into operational cost per hour.  Like it or not, military operations are still dollar (or ringgit in our case) and sen. A soldier doesn't fight on an empty stomach.  And a military doesn't fight without money.  Even the reclusive North Korean military needs money to run their operations.

We will also be comparing 3 types of technical data.  These are speed, range, and payload.  This will give us an idea how reasonable is the price tag for these flying war beasts.

You can see in the table below, that I've labeled the most favourable data in green, and the most unfavourable data in yellow.  Note too that I did not label any of the manufacturers or countries in similar manner, as relationship with these countries should not be labeled as such.

First Flown
If you see the first flown date, all of these jets were first flown either just before the end of the Cold War, or just after the collapse of the Iron Curtain.  What does this mean? 
The term MRCA was only bandied around during the recent decade.  Yet, these jets are technically been classified as MRCA.  The jets were, technically speaking not designed even as MRCA in the first place.

Does the tag MRCA has any actual meaning?  Or is it just a marketing gimmick by the manufacturers to over-price their jets? 

Price Tag
Of these 4 contenders, the Super Hornet is the cheapest of 4.  At USD77 million, this translates to RM308 million per aircraft, and for 18 units, this comes to a total of RM5.5 billion. 

Compare this to the top 2 contenders which are priced in the USD100 million range per unit.  The same contract size given to, say Rafale would be enough to equip RMAF with at least 2 squadrons of Super Hornets.

Operational Cost
It is very difficult to obtain the correct set of data for this.  The current data set that I have here is not indicative of the actual cost.  Some of the data were obtained from the manufacturers (in the case of Saab), and others from their operators (SH and Typhoon).  Do note also that these data did not specify what are the type of missions flown by these jets to attain the operational costing mentioned here.  

The anomaly here would be that of the Super Hornet.  It has the second highest operational flight cost.  But this might be due to the fact that the data was obtained from USN which generally operates the SH on aircraft carriers and they usually fly with full complement of weapons. 

Do note also that SH has the heaviest weapon suite available, which is double of that of Rafale.  This heavy weight means that a SH is more likely able to fulfill more mission objectives than that of Rafale.  In fact, the only mission that Rafale has over SH would technically be a nuclear strike, a capability which we do not have, and not within our interest. 

Top Speed
Typhoon wins this category hands-down.  The delta-wing design approach has allowed the plane to be flown at super fast speed.  Same is noted for the Gripen.  

Surprisingly, speed seems not a priority for the Rafale, as it is the slowest of the 4.  

Operational Range
Once again, the Typhoon is superior.  These are to be frank, rather marginal difference as operational range for fighters these days can be extended using air-to-air refueling probes, something which RMAF is known to be very capable of.  

Super Hornet wins this hands-down as it is able to carry twice as heavy ordnance compared to Rafale, the least of the four.  Considering Malaysia's geography, this might be a better solution as the same jet can carry sufficient ordnance to handle threats from the air (anti-aircraft suite), sea (anti-ship suite) and land (air-to-ground suite) concurrently. 

Regional Threat
Assessing which jets are best to be procured by RMAF using the above factors is still not sufficient.  Regional threat must be considered.  

This area might be a bit sensitive, but hold your horses.  They are our neighbours, but that does not stop the possibility that they will turn hostile against us.  In fact, many of these countries do have border disputes with Malaysia which may turn into a flash point in the region. 

Let's not forget also that South China Sea is one of the world's potentially hottest flash point.  China wanting to secure itself from threats of colonisation/invasion, it had came up with what it calls as 9-dash line.  Never mind that the move itself may be seen as invasion by their neighbours.  And if the flash point does get hotter, we are inevitably trapped in between.  

Note, I didn't include some of the jets available, such as Hawks or F5Es as are no longer viable in this current environment.  With the exception for Philippines FA50 as that is the only type of jets they have right now. 

But let's get back to the point.  Based on current and near future threat assessment, the MRCA to be procured by Malaysia must be able to handle at least threats from F15 and SU30.  

It would be rather difficult to compare if any of the 4 contenders would be able to handle the threat posed by F15 and SU30, and even SU35 in the near future.  Failure to do so would be like going to a gun fight with a knife.  

But, even if you have the best MRCA, would you have the fund to operate it?  Or even the weaponry that it can carry? 

Personal Opinion
Personally, I prefer we procure the Super Hornet.  

Source : Boeing

The fact that we have been operating SH's predecessor in the USN, the Hornet, makes it the most logical choice.  Add it the above-mentioned criteria, I strongly believe that this is should be something that Ministry of Finance (MoF, being the one holding onto the purse) and MINDEF should be considering.  

Yes, the Rafale and Typhoon both look sexy and good.  But at the current price where 18 units of Rafale or Typhoon could easily finance up to 36 units of Super Hornets, which can carry more ordnance, I would not be looking any further.  

So, what do you think?  Share your thoughts.  And please, please, please, no politics.  


  1. Is the range stated for the SH including a CFT? If not, it could potentially be longer.

    The maritime strike capability of the Rafale is somewhat limited compared to the SH

    1. This is internal tank only.

      Hmmmm, another plus point to SH against Rafale.

  2. "The latest iteration of MRCA is the 6th generation MRCA; US F22 and F35, Russian PAKFA, and Chinese J20 fall into this category."

    confused is this about 5th gen aircraft or MRCA which was develop to 6th generation??

    why Griphen is pricey??is that E version or C/D??i think we were propose wit C/D version

    supposedly we choose SH rather than typhon or rafale because of commonality,cost of operation and procurement. but the final say is the govt and they tend to pick the extraordinary.

    1. Hi Shodaime,

      Apparently, Gripen is pricey. Though not as pricey as Rafale or Typhoon.

      E is offered to us when it became operational.

      Do not be worried about being confused what is 4th, 4.5, or 4++ version, or even 5th Gen. You`re not the only one.