As per the local Malaysian media, India’s state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is one of the three Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) to completely fulfil the demands specified in the Malaysian Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) tender. The demands were focused on offering relaxation in payment methods as well as increasing participation of local firms in terms of maintenance of new jets.
As per the report, the Indian government is ready to accept palm oil as a mode of payment for half the amount of the deal, and partner with a domestic entity in order to obtain 30% of the products or services required in the deal. This includes licensing or production of airframe components, maintenance facilities and more. Boustead Heavy Industries Corporation (BHIC), a firm specializing in defence, security and marine development are reportedly in talks with HAL to fulfil the demand.
This lucrative move by HAL shows its eagerness to secure its first export order, being ready to make the offer as flexible as the potential customer demands. The Tejas Mark 1A presently on offer is an upgraded variant of the present Mark 1. It offers significant advantages that include improved Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar “Uttam” (AESAR), indigenous Astra Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missiles, new Electronic Warfare (EW) suite, Anti-Ship capability and more.
The other two contenders who agreed to comply with Malaysian terms are Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) with its Hürjet and Russia’s Rosoboronexport with MiG-35. The former has assured to set up its engineering and design office in Malaysia, indicating its ambition to jointly produce the aircraft and set up a second production facility in Malaysia as well. The Russian proposal specified that it is ready to partner with Aerospace Technology Systems Corporation Sdn Bhd company (ATSC), an already existing premium Maintenance, Repair, and Operations (MRO) facility that has experience of overhauling the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) fleet of Russian aircraft, including Su-30MKM and MiG-29N. Another MRO unit, National Aerospace & Defence Industries Sdn Bhd will hold 23% stake in the deal along with Rosoboronexport.
Background of Malaysia’s LCA/FLIT tender
Under “Capability 55”, Kuala Lumpur is keen to carry out an acquisition process for new and advanced fourth-generation Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) to replace the ageing fleet of Bae Hawk Mk-208 and hawk Mk-108 light aircraft. The Fighter Lead-In Trainer (FLIT), will be procured to replace Aermacchi MB-339CM, and expected to be a variant derived from the same LCA type: in simpler words, a twin-seat variant of the LCA. The tender was launched in June 2021 and a total of 9 companies were invited, via a Request for Proposal (RFP), to offer their products. Six companies responded which included Italy’s Leonardo with M-346, China’s Hongdu with L-15, Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) with FA-50, TAI with Hürjet, HAL with Tejas and Rosoboronexport with MiG-35.
The acquisition will be done in two batches, each batch consisting of 18 jets, of which 10 airframes will be dedicated LCA and the rest 8 will be twin-seat FLIT variants. The OEM needs to assure the force that it will start delivery of the platform within 36 months after the deal is signed. This government-to-government US$960 million deal will witness half proportion of the payment in form of palm oil worth US$480 million. India and Turkey, along with many states around the globe, already import a million tonnes of palm oil every year from Malaysia.
Challenges for final contenders
With last three contenders now ready to offer Malaysia their sophisticated products on flexible terms, there are certain challenges each OEM is facing. Both TAI and HAL are yet to roll out an operational prototype of Hürjet and Tejas Mark 1A respectively; giving a lot of uncertainty as the actual product is not available for evaluation. However, as Mark 1A is only an internal upgradation of Tejas Mark 1 without any major structural changes, the original active Tejas is more feasible as an evaluation platform, unlike its Turkish counterpart. However, Hürjet has specific technical advantages over Tejas. A proportion of components in Tejas are manufactured in third world states, including US-made engine, UK made ejection and Israeli weapon sets. For any export, the manufacturers of the particular system must approve so that their systems can be integrated on the platform destined for use by any force out of India. This may be valid most for the Israeli case, which at present, is a primary supplier of BVR-AAMs and CCMs. However, alternatives like indigenous Astra and Russian R-73 are available, the former that is yet to be tested. Hürjet, on the other hand, will employ Bozdoğan (Merlin) CCM and Gökdoğan (Peregrine) BVR-AAM, an indigenous family of air-launched anti-aircraft missiles.
Rosoboronexport seems the most unrealistic option. The twin-engine jet is not officially classified as an LCA, making it a questionable entry into the competition. Equipped with Russia’s first indigenously designed AESA radar Zhuk-A, the aircraft features several enhancements with increased payload capacity as well. However, It must be noted that the jet does not have any foreign customers while the Russian air arm is yet to procure sufficient numbers of the type itself. Therefore, it can be speculated that it could be the last attempt by UAC to save the Fulcrum family that is yet to see any success after the MiG-29 family (M2 being the latest). Furthermore, due to severely low availability rate and high maintenance costs, an entire fleet of RMAF MiG-29N were forcefully grounded and a good proportion of Su-30MKMs are not in flyable condition. This shows a valid lack of trust on Russian origin platforms, and especially in the case of a system that is not even domestically accepted in sufficient numbers.
However, looking at the present conditions, HAL has much lucrative offer for Malaysia to choose from. The aircraft also participated and demonstrated its high-value agility in Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition (LIMA) 2019 and attracted the crowd and officials of RMAF and government. If selected, it will be a big win for India as it successfully managed to secure a foreign customer for its indigenous fighter after several years of struggle.
Between 2019-2020, it was speculated that Kuala Lumpur may prefer proceeding with China/Pakistan JF-17 due to their close political and diplomatic relations. However, Chengdu aerospace, that is the actual OEM holding the rights of JF-17 did not respond to the Malaysian RFP that closed the bids on October 22. However, with JF-17 out and low chances of MiG-35, it is now a duel between Turkey and India on who comes out on top to bag the order. An official announcement by the Malaysian government is expected by mid-2022 after reviewing inputs from RMAF on their preferred fighter.