In a report analysing the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) tender, The Edge Malaysia on Monday stated that six bidders have submitted their proposals and all the contenders are being officially considered by Malaysian Ministry of Defense (MoD). In a sudden twist however, the bidders list doesn’t include Pakistan, who were initially expected to nominate the JF-17 “Thunder”, a platform jointly developed with China.
The open tender reportedly specifies the requirement of aircraft classified under Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) or Fighter Lead-In Trainer (FLIT); the procurement of which will be processed in a staggered state: A limited order of first batch and later a follow up order of additional units. A total of 18 airframes are likely to be acquired. The entire deal, worth MYR 4 Billion (US$ 962 million) will also include half of the payment in the form of Crude Palm Oil or Palm Oil products. The Request For Proposal (RFP) was sent to 9 aerospace companies listing products in the criteria, of which 6 submitted their proposals before the deadline on October 6, 2021.
The 6 companies are Leonardo with M-346 (Italy), Rosoboronexport with MiG-35 (Russia), China National Aero Technology Systems Corp (CATIC) with L-15 (China), Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) with Hurjet (Turkey), Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) with FA-50 (South Korea) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) with Tejas (India). All the aircraft are suitable to serve as both light combat aircraft and lead in fighter trainer, providing flexible role profiles as per the requirements and priorities set by the operator. Additional requirement set by Kuala Lumpur was that the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) should establish Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility in Malaysia to make sure the RMAF need not entirely depend on foreign support to carry out regular maintenance.
Why is the JF-17 missing?
It is noticeable that the Sino-Pak fighter, JF-17 “Thunder” is missing from the list even after it was widely speculated that Malaysia might favour the platform over other contenders due to close political ties with Beijing. However, it is quite possible that RFP was probably received by the OEM but they decided not to participate in the tender intentionally. The production line of JF-17A Block I and JF-17 A Block II are already closed and the focus of Chinese and Pakistani aerospace industries have entirely shifted towards the development of JF-17 Block III, which has already achieved the milestone of first flight in December 2019. With Pakistan yet to receive any units of Final Operational Clearance (FOC) standard aircraft, fulfilling its domestic necessity is the first priority, considering how the platform was introduced on the basis of Pakistan Air Force.
JF-17 is a multirole light combat aircraft derived from the Super 7 programme started in late 90s. The aircraft entered service in 2007 and more than 130 airframes of Block I and Block II standards have been produced. The latest version, Block III features significant advancement over the preceding variants, which include enhanced Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air combat capabilities with new KLJ-7A Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, medium to long range air-to-air missiles like PL-12 and PL-15, enhanced situational awareness increased by the Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS) coverage, increased High Off BoreSight (HOBS) capability integrated with Helmet Mounted Display (HMD) and PL-10E Imaging InfraRed (IIR) Close Combat Missiles (CCMs) and a modern Electronic Warfare (EW) suite.
All these features, coupled with a low price tag provides significant scope to JF-17 in the global market and till now has seen remarkable success with two nations, Myanmar and Nigeria already operating 16 and 3 units respectively and seeking more units.
LCA Tejas, the most plausible option?
India’s LCA Tejas is already facing stiff competition from 5 renowned aerospace giants with tremendous experience in supplying indigenous fighters to foreign countries along with long term logistical support. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) on the other hand, is already lagging behind in terms of fulfilling domestic requirements. The firm is yet to complete the delivery of FOC standard Tejas Mark 1 for the second Tejas squadron formed in 2020. However, it is assured that delivery will be completed by 2023. In Malaysia’s tender, the Mark 1A variant is reportedly offered which is expected to take the maiden flight in early 2022 which will be more suitable to operate in a modern threat environment. The Tejas Mk1A perfectly satisfies all the technical criteria specified in RFP, which include air-to-air refuelling capability, beyond visual range combat capability, and flying at supersonic speed. However, it still needs to assure the potential buyer that HAL is capable of strictly abiding by the delivery schedule.
When compared to other jets in the tender, the Indian fighter outguns the competitors. Except MiG-35, all the contenders have lower payload capacity than Tejas. Being a delta wing fighter and incorporating an aerodynamically unstable design configuration, it can also perform extreme manoeuvres and sustain high Gs. In 2019 edition of Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (LIMA), Tejas displayed commanding performance and attracted the interest of Malaysian authorities. The use of Israeli components in the platform, like the radar and primary weapon systems, will be replaced with Indian alternatives, the proposal for which was already made under the tag “TejEx”, that is Tejas for Export. Overall, with technological and performance superiority, Tejas has a great chance to be selected as Royal Malaysian Air Force’s future fighter. HAL is the most ambitious to bag its first export order of indigenous fighter, hunting the stage of procurement as positive on multiple occasions.
Malaysia’s budget cut
The extreme loss which occurred in the Malaysian economy in the past few years caused a diverse effect in defence expenditure. The Air Force is reportedly incapable of achieving sufficient availability rate. In June 2021, the RMAF had to scramble Bae Hawk 200 aircraft against the Chinese aggression over the disputed waters off its eastern state of Sarawak. The Su-30MKM and F/A-18D are said to be very costly for maintenance, leading to low availability rates and flight hours. In 2017, the government and Royal Malaysian Air Force had jointly agreed to ground the entire fleet of Mikoyan MiG-29N fighter aircraft, even when sufficient service life was still remaining in the airframes. Lack of proper support from Russia has also created a possibility of the Su-30 fleet to face the same fate; as some proportion is already grounded due to lack of spares. This could also suggest that Malaysia may not purchase Russian warplanes anymore, especially twin engine types to avoid another loss of such scale.
With only the low cost of the LCA under consideration, it will be interesting to see where this would lead to. The bidders must provide the product at the most reasonable prices to win the tender. Malaysia is likely to declare the winner officially before or by mid-2022, albeit after a thorough evaluation.