Assessing Light Combat Aircraft Options for Malaysia

The LCA, slated for delivery in 2021-2022, is part of the RMAF’s ‘Capability 55’ transformation roadmap aimed at sustaining the service’s capabilities up to 2055. For the LCA requirement, the types under consideration are the Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) FA-50 Fighting Eagle, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Tejas, the Leonardo M-346FA, the Aero Vodochody L-39NG, the CAC L-15A/B and the CAC/PAC JF-17.

In terms of the LCA requirement, the official noted that the selected platform must be able to conduct air-to-air and air-to-ground missions effectively, with a future maritime strike capability; that it must be able to conduct counterinsurgency operations; that it be “economically viable”; and that enough be bought to be able to conduct operations in two theatres simultaneously, and at very short notice.

The M346FA is an extremely effective and low-cost tactical solution for the modern battlefield, as it offers Air Forces the greatest effectiveness with all the M-346’s AJT (Advanced Jet Trainer) features, including the advanced and pre-operational training capabilities of the basic version. Let’s discover why.

The M-346FA will be equipped with a DASS (Defensive Aid Sub System) self-defence system, which includes a Radar Warning Receiver, a Chaff and Flare dispenser as well as a Missile Approach Warning System, with six sensors and a comprehensive 360° protection against any missile threat. The aircraft will be safely able to exchange in real time all the tactical data thanks to a dedicated Tactical Data Link according to the NATO Link 16 or other standards.

A key on board attribute will be the pulse-doppler multimode radarGRIFO-346, produced by Leonardo’sAirborne & Space Systems Division. This radar is specifically optimised for the M-346FA and originates from the Grifo family that, with over 450 units sold worldwide, represents a great commercial success.

The M-346FA’s cost per flying hour is 80% lower compared to a heavier and more expensive fighter used for close air support missions.

In terms of performance, the Golden Eagle and M346FA have arguably superior avionics compared to the Thunder. In other areas such as speed, service ceiling and payload, however, all three platforms are fairly similar. Any advantage one aircraft has over one or the other two contenders is marginal or can be negated in other areas.

When operational attributes are more or less the same, commodisation kicks in. This is an economic situation, where, in the words of leading defence industry expert Richard Bitzinger, there “exists an almost total lack of meaningful differentiation between competing products, and when they are instead sold almost entirely on the basis of price”.

Indeed, Malaysia’s well-documented economic woes mean that cost could be the main concern for Putrajaya when it comes to the LCA programme, HAL Tejas is $77 million dollars a piece. Based on cost alone, the JF-17, with a unit price of some $25 million, is the cheapest amongst the three contenders. However, both the Tejas and FA-50 are priced at around $28 million and $30 million respectively. The M346FA is around $25 million dollars a piece.

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Given that Malaysia is reportedly looking into acquiring up to 36 LCAs, a very substantial amount will be saved should the cheapest option – the M346FA or FA-50 – be chosen.

CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder (China-Pakistan)
CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder (China-Pakistan)

Cost is just one of several drivers behind any one arms acquisition decision. That the JF-17 uses a Russian engine fairly similar to the one used by the now-grounded MIG-29 in RMAF service could also be a factor in Malaysia’s choice of aircraft. The Klimov RD-33 engine had serviceability issues when the MIG-29 was deployed. The JF-17 may therefore not be the best option in terms of reliability, and it may need significant after-sales support and maintenance.

As for the Tejas, it has some commonality with the RMAF’s logistical base as it is powered by the General Dynamics F404 engine that is also used by the service’s F/A-18 Hornets. There is also an element of congruence with the commonality between American armaments with M346FA and FA-50.

This brings us to the third and last option for the LCA, the FA-50. While the Korean aircraft is the costliest prima facie, it has a number of advantages.It also has the reliable F404 engine, and accepts Western armaments. Logistical commonality with the RMAF Hornet fleet – checked. Likelihood of lower downstream costs – also checked.

Moreover, the Golden Eagle is a fairly well-established platform in the region as it is already in service with Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Should the RMAF get this aircraft, interoperability between its major regional counterparts during exercises and operations would be enhanced. All in all, while it may be the most expensive, the Golden Eagle offers benefits, both tangible and intangible, that arguably transcends its $30 million price tag.

KAI FA-50 Golden Eagle (South Korea)
KAI FA-50 Golden Eagle (South Korea)

While pragmatic reasons as discussed above posit the South Korean aircraft as the choice to make, political considerations, Italian Leonardo M346FA makes sense for RMAF, may become overriding. This state of affairs is commonplace all over the world, but especially so in South-east Asia, and we may just see it happen again in Malaysia’s LCA requirement.

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