Tracking Malaysia’s Force Build-up in the South China Sea

By Alexander L. Vuving —

Royal Malaysian Navy guided missile frigate Jebat of the Leiku class on patrol during CARAT 2013. Source: Wikimedia, U.S. Government Work.

Aware that their navy and air force are underequipped, Malaysia’s military planners have developed several plans to upgrade old platforms and acquire new ones in recent years. However, military spending has never been prioritized in the government budget, and most plans for force modernization have been repeatedly delayed or cancelled. The declining trend in Malaysia’s defense outlay was halted in 2013. That year, Malaysia was shocked when China staged a naval exercise around James Shoal, a 72-foot deep underwater bank lying 55 nautical miles (nm) off the Malaysian Borneo coast. It was also in 2013 that China Coast Guard ships started to anchor at South Luconia Shoal, an oil-rich area lying 70 nm off Borneo. Each of Malaysia’s armed services face challenges in securing their areas of Malaysia’s claimed maritime territory with their current assets.

Air Force

Malaysia’s territory comprises two parts, a peninsula in the west and a northern swath of Borneo Island in the east, separated by 600 miles of water on average. Planners in the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) estimated that this territory requires at least six squadrons with 18 air superiority aircraft each for adequate coverage. However, Malaysia currently possesses only the equivalent of two squadrons of front-line aircraft, including 18 Su-30MKM Flankers (acquired in the late 2000s), 8 F/A-18D Hornets, and 12 MiG-29N Fulcrums (both acquired in the late 1990s). In other words, Malaysia’s air force is presently able to cover no more than one-third of its territory.

In addition to 38 front-line and 12 second-line combat aircraft, the RMAF has a fleet of 26 transport aircraft, including four A400Ms delivered in 2015-2017, eight CN-235s acquired in the late 1990s and early 2000s, nine C-130 Hercules procured in the early 1990s, and five C-130s from the late 1970s. Malaysia has sought to procure between four and eight airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, but budget limits have delayed those plans indefinitely.

A key modernization program of the RMAF is to replace its aging fleet of MiG-29N jets with more advanced multirole combat aircraft. First delivered in 1995, the MiG-29Ns were originally slated to retire by 2010, but only six of the 18 aircraft were retired by then. Financial constraints prompted the government to extend the service life of the rest, first until 2015 and then indefinitely, supported by an upgrade program. In 2013, the government confirmed it had no plans to replace this aircraft.

Table 1. Major equipment of the Royal Malaysian Air Force

Type Platform Quantity Delivery Stationed Modernization
Air superiority, multirole MiG-29N Fulcrum 18-6=12 1995 Kuantan (Peninsula) Multi-Role Combat Aircraft program to replace MiG-29N put on hold indefinitely despite ambitious plans to retire this warplane by 2015. Originally intended to retire by 2010, but only 6 of 18 retired by 2010. 2/2010 government said would extend service life until 2015. 2013, government confirmed no plans to replace. 3/2015, announced plans to upgrade.
F/A-18D Hornet 8 1997 Butterworth (Peninsula) Upgraded by 3/2015
Su-30MKM Flanker 18 2007-2011 Gong Kedak (Peninsula)
Airlift C-130H Hercules 5x 1976,
9x 1992
Subang, Labuan (Borneo) Required to upgrade since 2010 but little progress.
CN-235 8 6x 1999,
2x 2002
A400M 4 1x 2015,
2x 2016,
1x 2017
Subang (Peninsula) 12/2005 agreement signed, USD $1.98 billion
AWACS

(planned)

4-8 2008: Plans to acquire between 4 and 8. Supply of 2 sought 3/2010 but procurement pushed back


Navy

The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) has a pair of Scorpène-class submarines, which were ordered in 2002 and commissioned in 2009-2010. Its largest surface combatants are two 2,270-ton Lekiu-class light frigates, which have been in service since 1999. A plan to add four more vessels to this fleet surfaced in the early 2000s, but lack of funding prevented its progress. In addition to two submarines and two frigates, the RMN possesses 12 missile corvettes, six of which (Kedah-class) entered service in the late 2000s, while the rest have served between 20 and 35 years.

The RMN received a major boost of modernization in 2011, when it signed a deal to build six vessels of a new class of frigates called Second Generation Patrol Vessel-Littoral Combat Ship (SGPV-LCS). With the first delivery expected in 2019, the SGPV-LCSs will be similar in size to the Lekiu-class. In 2014, Malaysia ordered six new corvettes displacing 1,800 tons each, but a lack of funding has stalled this plan.

Table 2. Major equipment of the Royal Malaysian Navy

Type Class Size Quantity Commissioned Missiles Helicopter Modernization
Submarine Scorpène

CM-2000

1,565t 2 2009-2010

 

 

 

 

 

18 torpedoes; Exocet SSM Ordered 6/2002. Procurement seen as response to Singapore’s decision to purchase subs in 1990s. Homeported at Sepanggar
Frigate Lekiu 106m, 2,270t 2 1999 Plans to upgrade not finalized by 3/2016. Plan, considered in early 2000s, for procurement of up to 4 new frigates, prevented by ongoing funding constraints. 2nd batch cancelled 2009.
 

Corvette (existing)

Laksamana 62.3m, 675t 4 1997 Otomat SSM; Aspide SAM Life extension started 2016
Kasturi 97.3m, 1850t 2 1982-1984 Exocet SSM Life extension completed 2014
Kedah (New Generation Patrol Vessel) 91.1m, 1850t 6 2x 2006,
2x 2009,
2x 2010 

 

 

Exocet SSM Lynx. Plan to upgrade 4x for ASW confirmed 2015. Deal signed 11/2000. Plan to modernize, announced 2013, incl. surface-to-surface missile system, has yet to receive funding. Late 2015 announced intent to treble to 3 squadrons of 6x
SGPV-LCS

(planned)

99.5m, 2,200t 6 SSM ASW Contract announced 2011, finalized 2014. First vessel expected to be completed in 2019, subsequent vessels delivered at 10-mo intervals. Requirement for ASW helicopters existed for years, but has nor progressed due to lack of funds.
Missile corvette

(planned)

S Korean DSME 85.5m; 1,800t 6 2018? SSM 1x but no ASW Order announced 11/2014 but lack of progress. Late 2015 wish-listed subject to change depending on funding.


Coast Guard

When Malaysia established a coast guard in 2005, the new service’s assets were transferred from the navy, marine police, customs, and fisheries fleets. In 2008, the Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) had 37 vessels larger than 100 tons with the combined tonnage of 8,000 tons. As six Sipadan-class ships were decommissioned in 2012 and 2014, then two Bay-class ships donated by Australia in 2015, the fleet was reduced to 33 large vessels displacing 7,500 tons in 2015.

Table 3. Ships larger than 100 tons in the Malaysian Coast Guard

Type Class Displacement Commisssioned 2008 2012 2014 2015 2017 2018
Offshore patrol vessel OPV 3x 1890t 2021 0 0 0 0 0 0
Pekan (ex- Kunigami-class) 2000t 2017 0 0 0 0 2 2
Langkawi 1320t 2008 2 2 2 2 2 2
Inshore patrol craft New Generation Patrol Craft 245t 2017/18 0 0 0 0 4 6
Gagah 180t 2005 15 15 15 15 15 15
Perwira (ex-Bay-class) 134t 2015 0 0 0 2 2 2
Sipadan 130t 2005 15 14 9 9 9 9
Ramunia 130t 2005 5 5 5 5 5 5
Total Number of ships 37 36 31 33 39 41
Tonnage 7,940 7,810 7,160 7,428 12,408 12,898

 

Malaysia’s coast guard received a huge boost in November 2016, when Japan announced that it would give two former Japanese Coast Guard cutters to Malaysia as a gift. These two vessels, the 1,700-ton Pekan and the 1,500-ton Arau (both about 2000 tons at full load), were handed over in January and June 2017, respectively. Larger than the two 1320-ton Langkawi-class vessels, they became the largest ships of the Malaysian Coast Guard. Also in 2017, the MMEA received the first ships of the 245-ton New Generation Patrol Craft program. It had signed a contract for six such vessels in 2015, with all ships expected to be delivered by June 2018. Thus by 2018, Malaysia’s coast guard will have 41 ships larger than 100 tons displacing a total of 12,900 tons. This represents a 62 per cent growth in tonnage and an increase of 11 per cent in the number of ships between 2008 and 2018.

After the shock of Chinese intrusion in 2013-2014, Malaysia’s coast guard developed a major program to acquire three new Damen-class offshore patrol vessels, each of which would be 83-meter long and displace 1,890 tons. The program was announced in the 2016 budget, and an order was signed in January 2017, with the first ships expected to be delivered in 2021.

Among the three major Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea, Malaysia feels the least urgent to redress existing gaps in its defense capabilities. Although China’s sustained naval presence in Malaysian waters since 2013 helped to halt a declining trend in Malaysia’s arms spending, the country’s force modernization remains very limited with no signs of competition with the other claimants. In fact, Malaysia’s military expenditure in real terms did not significantly change throughout the last decade. It even decreased as a percentage of GDP, from 2.6 percent in 2003 to 2.1 percent in 2007 and down to the level of 1.5 percent since 2010.

Dr. Alexander L. Vuving is a Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. Follow him on twitter @Alex_Vuving. The views expressed in this article are his own. The author wishes to thank Kuik Cheng Chwee, Scott Bentley, and Mary Ellen Haug for their support during the research for this article.

This post is the second in a series by Dr. Vuving reviewing recent arms expenditures by South China Sea claimants Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. 

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