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National air defence - if we don’t play-play

I refer to your article 'France optimistic M'sia will buy Rafle warplanes' which no doubt would have sent Dr Kua Kia Soong’s blood pressure soaring to the stratosphere.

In another of your articles, ‘From Scorpene Scandal to Mistral Mystery’ , Dr Kua once again gave us his views on defence spending. Yes, there is some truth in his views but much as I respect and in fact like Dr Kua, I don’t believe his expertise is in defense studies.

More than two years ago Malaysiakini published my letter ‘Politicisation of police-military ops in Lahad Datu’ , in which I commented on Dr Kua’s comments during the launch of Malaysian civil society’s 20-point demands for the 13th general election at the Kuala Lumpur (Selangor) Chinese Assembly Hall, Dr Kua had questioned the strategy used by the armed forces in Lahad Datu.

While I respected some of his points raised at the Malaysian civil society forum as being reasonable, I viewed (still do) his queries on the use of Scorpene as highly politicised, and his suggestion on the type of military strike aircraft in the Lahad Datu crisis, where his stated preference was for Apache attack heli-gunship instead of F/A-18 Hornets, at best as plain silly.

As I stated then, Dr Kua should stick to his scholarly and political work, which we admire very much, but to leave military operations and defence issues to the professionals.

As an example of his gross error in his recent article ‘From Scorpene Scandal to Mistral Mystery’ he blundered humongously when asserting that “In a sweeping review last year, Britain cut its defence budget by scrapping its only aircraft carrier. Their cooperation with France may eventually lead to the creation of identical ships, equipment and similar training in order to cut down maintenance costs. Thus, if a country such as Britain can do without any aircraft carrier, ...”

In fact, the converse is true where Britain has just built two very modern aircraft carriers known as the Queen Elizabeth class naval vessels, namely, HMS Queen Elizabeth (named in 2014 and expected to be operational 2017) and HMS Prince of Wales (expected to be operational in 2020). Each aircraft carrier will carry 40 to 50 aircraft comprising a mix of the latest 5th generation F-35 Lightning fighter-bombers and various helicopters from the heavy lift Chinook to the multi-role land-sea Lynx Wildcat.

The planned budget for both vessels is £6.2 billion or RM40 billion, but we may expect this figure to inflate with time and inevitable construction problems by at least (speculating) 25 percent if not more.

Dr Kua’s inaccurate reporting does NOT mean I support the Royal Malaysian Navy buying the Mistral class veseel, but as mentioned, Dr Kua should be more careful with his facts.

He has also been unbelievably naïve in his take on potential threats to Malaysia, diminishing that to a few hundred brigands from a neighbouring country, and that the armed forces needn’t prepare well ahead, when the usual ought to be by at least 15 if not 25 years based on political, economic and defence intelligence.

Will we go to an arms supermarket?

I hope he’s not suggesting that when we face an enemy of greater threat than a few hundred brigands and pirates, our Defence Minister will go to an arms supermarket to order a dozen or so fighter aircraft, frigates, artillery pieces and armoured vehicles, etc for immediate delivery, and to hell with pilot and technical support training, doctrinal development in the employment of the vehicles, tactics and such military ops matters.

No, I’m not going to explain to him again on how defence planning is done as I have already done so in a previous letter to Malaysiakini (directed at him) in 2013. I find some aspects of his recent article a wee grating especially when he harped once again on the Scorpene submarines as unsuitable for dealing with the foreign infiltration and banditry in Lahad Datu.

It seems he has either not learned since what a submarine is used for or he has deliberately ignored what many including yours truly had informed on the employment or use of a submarine. I urge him to read my earlier letter to Malaysiakini.

Anyway, the aim of my letter today is not so much about Dr Kua’s mindset on defence spending (and notwithstanding my criticism of him, I accept he has made some good points though in a naïve manner, as we would expect from a peace activist - smile!).

My letter is more about the French defence minister’s confident statement that Malaysia prefers the Rafale and is likely to order 16 of the aircraft. To be fair, our dear Hishammuddin Hussein hasn’t yet made any commitment on such a purchase though he has dismissed the rumoured purchase of the Mistral class heli (not aircraft) carrier or amphibious assault vessel.

But I would urge our defence minister and the air chief to consider this: that while the purchase of the Dassault Rafale fighter-bomber aircraft is not the issue, the numbers suggested as likely to be purchased is. That’s right, sixteen (16) is NOT good enough. But because the Rafale, as Dr Kua has highlighted is frightfully expensive (unless you are an Gulf Arab nation or Singapore - wicked grin!), obviously purchasing more than the 16 mentioned will be out of the question.

Let me take you back to an earlier letter of mine to Malaysia titled ‘RMAF and Zhang Ziyi on MH370’ where our poor air force was excoriated left, right and centre for not intercepting the runaway MAS B777.

Then I wrote at length about the air force’s daily state of readiness and the paltry number of interceptor aircraft we have, and I also posed a question: Surely, we aren’t suggesting that air defence is ONLY about peninsula Malaysia, or worse, just its north-western part centered around the Butterworth air base?

In other words, what if another MAS airline (and may the heavenly thunder strike my naughty mouth for scenario-rizing this) taking off from Kota Kinabalu airport for Hong Kong were to turn right and head east towards the south of Mindanao, into the Pacific Ocean?

Would we expect a poor Rafale or whatever aircraft is or will be based at RMAF Butterworth to zoom across the South China Sea to intercept that naughty wayward aircraft which will by then be over the Mariana Trench, the deepest sea in the world?

There is no free lunch

You want the air force to intercept this and that, so brother, sisters, uncles and aunties, just remember that there is no free lunch. As I wrote, we should consider a ‘national’ (not just Peninsula Malaysia) air defence system, otherwise buying those expensive 16 Rafales will be nothing more than Malaysian Defence fooling around with its ‘boys toys’ or keeping up with the Jones.

We should be locating aircraft fighter units at Butterworth, Gong Kedak, Kuala Lumpur, Kuantan, Johor Baru (or a new fighter base at the current heli base at Kluang), but far far more importantly, at Kuching, Miri or Labuan (latter has limited room for development), Kota Kinabalu airport or (a new base at) Kudat, and Sandakan.

That’s nine fighter bases to cover the entire nation, not just peninsula Malaysia. We can play around with the numbers but I reckon anything less than eight will be not a national system. Let’s not treat Sabah and Sarawak as second class states with no air defence, please.

With a squadron comprising a modest number of fighter-aircraft, say 12 (and that’s really very modest), at each location, we’re looking at about a total requirement of 110 aircraft.

What does our wee little neighbour have in terms of only fighter aircraft?

Just a mere 24 F-15SG Strike Eagles, 74 F-16 C/D Fighting Falcons, 41 F-5S/T Tiger II, making up a total of 139 aircraft, and I read that Singapore will be purchasing more of the F-15SG Strike Eagles, an aircraft that costs as much as the Rafale with a basic price of US100 million or RM422 million.

With armaments such as missiles, etc, training, engineering support and whatnot, we’re looking at a billion ringgit each though some of the cost will be either a one-off or only further required to replenish used ammunition such as missiles and bombs.

Incidentally, just for Dr Kua’s information, his preferred heli-gunship that he believed should have been used at Lahad Datu without even realizing the RMAF or Malaysian Army didn’t/doesn’t have any, namely the Boeing AH-64D Apache which by the way Singapore has 20 of them, cost US65 million each in 2010 - and that’s the basic unit cost, at 0.65 of the cost of a Rafale. Dr Kua can work out the likely cost of the total package for a fleet of Apache gunship involving armaments, spares, pilot and technical training, etc.

Additionally, an air defence system, apart from ground radars and interceptor aircraft requires other supporting air vehicles.

Let me name what our Singapore neighbour has (if only to make our mouth water and turn our eyes green with envy - grin!): four Grumman E2-C Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW & C), four Gulfstream G550 AEW & C, four Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker (to refuel the interceptor fighters without requiring the short endurance jets to return to base for refueling), five KC-130B/H also for air-to-air refueling of fighters, and has on order six Airbus 330 MTT for the same purpose.

Our air force should not purchase the Rafale aircraft UNLESS we have the money to buy 100 of them, and also to purchase AEW aircraft and more refueling tankers. Sixteen (16) Rafales will only be fooling ourselves about their meaningful usefulness within the national air defence context.

Thus we should of course look for cheaper options, perhaps even used aircraft like the Dassault Mirage 2000-5 MK II from France, Qatar, UAE and Greece as these countries are changing to Rafales or other equivalents - here’s our chance to grab them for cheap.

The Mirage 2000-5 MK II may be just a wee dated but with upgrading and weapon enhancements by the company Dassault, it can be a credible weapon platform for the RMAF, and it costs only a fifth or quarter of the Rafale, meaning we could get 80 re-conditioned but upgraded Mirage 2000-5 MK II for the same amount of money we may be thinking of spending on a mere 16 Rafales.

The operative word is QUANTITY because we have a very large country, from Kangar to Tawau (ever heard of this town?), and we need around one hundred fighter aircraft. The 80 Mirage 2000-5 MK II will be a good start.

Just food for thought, on Oct 8, 1996, a Hellenic Air Force Mirage 2000-5 shot down a Turkish Air Force F-16D, the type Singapore has [grin].

K TEMOC is a Penangite who enjoys being an independent blogger and loves to share his opinion on Malaysian and world affairs without fear or favour, though currently he is politically inclined towards DAP, only because the political party has thus far shown faithfulness to its promise of competency, accountability and transparency.

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