Smoky Bandit: The Malaysian Air Force Retires All Russian Aircraft

MiG-29's hot engine fume is an invitation to shot it with IR-guided missiles.

On June 22, the Malaysian Ministry of Defense released a tender released for Lead-in Fighter/Trainer Aircraft; within the tender, the Malaysian air force intends to purchase a platform that combines combat training and strike aircraft. At the same time, maximum attention is paid to factors such as after-sales support, commonality with existing aircraft and maintenance.

According to the Malaysia Flying Herald, when choosing a candidate, they urge to consider the specifics of the powerplant. For example, the allegedly “unsuccessful” purchase [18 units under the 1994 contract] of the Mig-29N / NUB fighters, a version of the Soviet aircraft by Russian designers at the customer’s request, is cited.

The serviceability of the RD-33 engines was one of the main problems that worried the country’s air force. This forced the early decommissioning of the 16 remaining aircraft between 2010 and 2015. Klimov’s RD-33 engines emitted too much smoke, which led to the nickname “Smoky Bandit” among Malaysian pilots. Smoky Bandit is also a play on the title of a 1977 American comedy film.

In combat exercise, one of the US Air Force pilots thought the Malaysian MiG-29 had caught fire when they saw black smoke rising from the fighter’s engines.

Although MiG-29s are cheap to purchase, it is common knowledge that an engine is expensive to operate (as it consumes a lot of fuel) and to maintain.

The JF-17 was proposed to the Malaysian Air Force as part of the LIFT programme, but since the power plant is Klimov RD-93 on the Pakistani assembled JF-17 fighter [of Chinese origin], which is participating in the tender, the local media urges to take it into account of Russian Engines when deciding JF- 17. The advice is given to pay attention to the Indian MiG-29K fighter’s engine problems.

HAL Tejas and FA-50 meet most of the requirements, especially the commonality between platforms. The Malaysian Hornets were the backbone of the Air Force, and this success was aided by the reliability of the F404 engines, which are also equipped with Tejas. But HAL Tejas and FA-50 have Israeli components that might deter Malaysia which doesn’t have a diplomatic relationship with Israel.

While the JF-17’s participation has led to much media hype, assisted no less by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad’s apparent personal interest in it in the 2019 air show. However, the RMAF’s poor experience with the Klimov RD-33 engines powering its now-mothballed MiG-29 fleet will likely result in strong resistance, as current JF-17s are powered by RD-93s, a derivative of the RD-33. Similarly, recent incidents with Chinese incursions into Malaysian airspace could pose a political problem for the JF-17 and the L-15B.

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