Fight's on for M'sia's next combat aircraft

Above: Royal Malaysian Air Force chief Gen Tan Sri Rodzali Daud.

As Malaysia scouts for fifth-generation replacement jet fighters for its ageing fleet, at least five contenders are bidding to be part of this ambitious programme, worth billions of ringgit.

France's Dassault Aviation's Rafale, the United States' Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Europe's Eurofighter Typhoon, the Swedish JAS-39 Gripen and the Russian Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E are reportedly the top contenders for the Royal Malaysian Air Force's (RMAF) new-generation front-line fighters.

The MRCA programme is to replace the 16 Russian MiG-29N Fulcrums purchased in 1995.

RMAF chief Gen Tan Sri Rodzali Daud said the air force was looking at acquiring between 12 and 18 ultra-modern jet fighters per squadron, to replace the MiG-29N by 2015.

"Ideally, we want to operate not more than two types of fighters.

"Although nearly 16 years old, the MiG-29Ns are still very useful and can serve up to 30 years with proper maintenance and refurbishment.

"Our ultimate aim is to refurbish and upgrade our combat aircraft every 10 years to remain as a deterrent force and enhance our surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities."

The government announced that the new-generation MRCA would strengthen the RMAF's capability in protecting the country's maritime assets within the exclusive economic zone, including vital oil and gas assets like those in the Spratly Islands and the Ambalat oil block, off Borneo.

The decision to acquire a mix of Western and Eastern-bloc fighters took into consideration factors like versatility, transfer of technology, cost, operational effectiveness, availability of spares, logistics support, crew training, the environment and weather.

The RMAF is also looking at stealth technology in the near future, to enhance its electronic and non-conventional warfare capability, especially in combating terrorism.

A more immediate priority is the acquisition of airborne early warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft.

The contenders are believed to be the Embraer EMB-145 from Brazil and the Swedish Saab 2000 equipped with Saab Microwave Systems' Erieye radar, and the US' Northrop Grumman's E-2C Hawkeye 2000.

The RMAF operates 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKM procured in 2007 and eight Boeing F/A-18D strike and interdiction fighters bought in 1997.

The Su-30MKM, ordered at a cost of RM3.42 billion (S$1.38 billion), are based with the 11 Squadron in Gong Kedak, Kelantan, while the MiG-29N are with the 17/19 Squadrons in Kuantan, while the F/A-18, are with the 18 Squadron in Butterworth.

The Flanker-E and Super Hornet are upgrades of the Su-30MKM and Hornet aircraft.

The tender for the MRCA replacement programme is expected to be announced at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (Lima) 2011 show this December.