Amid speculation that new aircraft are being sought to beef up the air force, Dr Mahathir Mohamad confirmed today that the government is indeed keen on doing so, but is not ready to spend just yet.
As the prime minister pointed out, the air force's ageing fleet is well-serviced and will continue to perform for some time.
"With regards to the purchase of aeroplanes, we are interested, but not to the extent of making the purchase.
"Moreover, we find that the old aircraft that we bought can still perform well. We saw a demonstration this morning involving all these old aircraft that are well-serviced, and we find that their performance shows that they can still last long,” he said.
Mahathir was responding to questions at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition (Lima) on whether new jet fighters would be purchased to replace the existing fleet of Russian-made planes.
He earlier told reporters that he was impressed by the performance of the various aircraft at Lima, and that hundreds of these jets would be bought if the country had the means to do so.
"But we’ll have to wait for some time before we have that kind of money,” he said.
The air force currently operates a mixed fleet of combat aircraft that are of Russian, US, and UK origin.
Of these, the Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-30MKM were purchased from Russia and entered service in 1995 and 2007, respectively.
The MiG-29s are air-superiority fighters designed to engage in air-to-air combat, while the Su-30MKMs are multirole fighters suited for tackling both air and ground targets.
Earlier this year, defence journal Jane’s 360 reported that Malaysia had issued a preliminary request for information (RFI) to Korea Aerospace Industries in support of a potential acquisition of the company's FA-50 light attack aircraft.
The journal also separately reported that the Italy-based Leonardo SpA had received an RFI from the air force on its M-346FA aircraft.
"Jane's understands from other industry sources that the RFI is regarded as a preliminary step in the procurement, and that additional RFIs are expected to be issued by Malaysia in due course before a formal request for proposal (RFP). However, the progress of this latter stage would depend on available funding.
"The procurement is expected to feature an initial 12 light combat/fighter lead-in trainer aircraft for an estimated cost of about USD300 million (RM1.2 billion), with an option for another 24 units,” the report said.
If Malaysia proceeds with the purchase of either aircraft, it would likely fill or complement the niche currently occupied by the air force's fleet of British Aerospace BAE Systems Hawks.
Different variants of the BAE Hawk are being used by the air force as a jet trainer and as a light combat aircraft. In the latter role, it had been used in airstrikes during 2013 Lahad Datu incursion.
'It's not a trade war'
Meanwhile, when asked whether European aircraft manufacturers would be sidelined due to the ongoing spat over the ban on palm biofuels, Mahathir stressed that there is no trade war with the European Union.
"We have to make known the problems we face when they take action against us. What I was doing is to tell the world this is grossly unfair for rich countries to prevent poor countries from getting richer by not buying their products.
"That’s all. It’s not a trade war," he said.
On another matter, Mahathir said he has received delegations from France, Russia, and Japan expressing an interest in collaborating with Malaysia in the aviation industry, including the possibility of manufacturing aircraft.
"We have met with several delegations led by ministers of France, Russia, and Japan, and they all expressed interest in working with Malaysia.
"Perhaps in certain circumstances, the would make plans to manufacture whole aircraft or its components. That is what we discussed.
"I think following this discussion, there would be follow-up on setting up manufacturing (facilities) for aircraft or aircraft parts in Malaysia," he said.