NARRATIVE & IMAGES BY MARK ROURKE
In the early heat of the bright morning sunshine on the Malaysian island of Langkawi, anticipation grows at the international airport. Dignitaries and government ministers have given speeches, the world’s press has its sound bites and headlines, and now all eyes look to the sky. Outside of the airport crowds gather, locals and foreign enthusiasts from around the world gather near the fence, on hills and any other vantage points they can find. High in the commentary box, the Royal Malaysian Air Force officer begins his oration, “Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to the Langakwi International Maritime and Aerospace exhibition, and if you look to your left….”
Speeding in from the north, through the lush jungle valleys, a Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) McDonnell Douglas F/A-18D Hornet creates its own weather at just below the speed of sound, so close it creates a sound wave, it blasts past the crowd at low level before climbing spouting flares in the humid sky. Before anyone can catch their breath, behind them two more Hornets appear, cross each other’s flightpath, and speed overhead in high ‘g’ turns again with the flares pumping out of their self defence systems. Straight in front of the guests, reporters and onlookers, two of the latest combat aircraft in the RMAF inventory, the incredibly manoeuvrable Sukhoi Su-30MKM, turn to face each other and cross before climbing away into the blue skies. Behind five BAe Hawks break overhead, but there is still no time to take it all in as three Eurocopter EC.725AP helicopters join the show. Pyrotechnics with explosions and gunfire permeate the air as a simulated aerial assault takes place. The helicopters fly off and to the right of the audience seven Pilatus PC-7 mark 2s arrive in formation closely followed by three huge Airbus Military A.400M transport aircraft. The lead A400 climbs and the two others turn to port in formation; the lead then turns back towards the crowd and departs. Facing the crowd the fighters appear together and overfly before finally, a Hornet returns from behind at high speed, spilling its load of flares as it climbs away. Welcome to the opening demonstration of LIMA 2017, Asians leading military and civilian aviation and maritime show.
Held between March 21st and March 25th, with the last two days open to the public, LIMA has established itself as the prime exhibition in the western Pacific region. Now in its 14th event, this biennial display has 119, 209 square metres of display area for exhibitors at the airport, with even more at the maritime section a few miles away. This article will concentrate on the military aerospace element. Over 40,000 trade visitors with 550 companies from 36 countries are expected to have attended this year’s event, the most successful to date.
Malaysian Defence Minister Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein explains the importance of the show for Malaysia and the region, “From its humble beginnings in 1991, LIMA has evolved into a premier event for today’s maritime and defence industry. The LIMA series is not only an ideal platform for players in the defence and security industry to promote their products and technology, exchange ideas and forge partnerships. It is also an excellent example of how the defence industry can directly result in economic benefit for Malaysia. As a national event, LIMA is not only for the trade industry. At LIMA’17, the public will also have more time to look forward this time around. Opportunities will be provided for them to learn more about the maritime and aerospace industries. Activities for all visitors, including the LIMA fest, LIMA career Fair and LIMA concert, have been carefully planned to encourage higher levels of participations from Malaysian youth.”
The Defence Minster also explained what new acquisitions and updates are planned for the Royal Malaysian Air Force. “It has always been our goal to ensure that the RMAF operates as a force with full spectrum capabilities. We are looking at options to upgrade the Nuri (Sikorsky S-16A-4 Sea King), C-130 (Lockheed C-130 Hercules), Hawk (Bae Hawk mk.108 and 208) and MiG (MiG 29) fighter plans, but all these efforts depend on the economic climate. We have also purchased twelve EC725 helicopters and four Airbus A400M aircraft, with the last one just recently delivered just in time for LIMA’17. At present, we are also looking at acquiring maritime patrol aircraft to aid us in our patrolling initiatives in the Mallaca Straits as well as the Sulu Seas. Ensuring the readiness of the RMAF has always been, and always will be, our upmost priority”.
Indeed the final A.400M did indeed appear just in time, arriving in Malaysia on March 14th following a two day ferry flight from Seville, Spain to its home base of Sebang to operate with 22 Squadron. This fourth aircraft arrived exactly two years after its first and completes the RM3.5 billion (US$1.1 billion) contract that was signed in December 2005. At the time of writing the first RMAF A.400M was back in Seville receiving the latest tactical configuration, known by the number 2.5. The first three Atlas, as the A400M is known, were delivered in 1.5 configurations and Airbus is updating them to the latest version free of charge.
Defence Minister Hussien’s mention of a maritime patrol aircraft has certainly taken the interest of Italian defence and aerospace giant Leonardo, who were present at LIMA showing the latest version of the ATR-72MP multi-role maritime surveillance aircraft, the P-72A, now entering service with the Italian Air Force. A spokesman for the company stated,” Thanks to its maximum endurance of around 10 hours, the ATR-72MP is capable of patrolling Malaysia’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) while incurring extremely low operating costs. The ATR 72MP also offers significant benefits to Malaysia in terms of training and maintenance because a number of ATR regional aircraft (With Malindo and Firefly airlines, amongst others) are already operational in country”.
So apart from a strong showing from the home team, what else does LIMA offer? Well, lots as it happens, and perhaps arguably the most spectacular was the Russian Knights (Russkie Vityazi) debuting their brand new Sukhoi Su-30SM multirole fighter jets. The first four were only delivered to the team in October 2016, though a second batch was delivered before years end. Talking about the debut of the aircraft at LIMA’17 lead pilot Colonel Andrey Alekseev said,” (The) Su-30SM is an excellent aircraft, therefore, our demonstration programme at LIMA will feature a lot of new solo flying components through the usage of the fighters’ super-manoeuvrability”.
Because of the recent acquisition the team have so far worked up on only a four ship display, but spectacular it certainly was. The first part of the show is four ship formation manoeuvres before two of the aircraft land. The remaining two do a few quick crossovers and mirror passes before the solo element, which is simply show stopping. For several minutes the ultra-agile jet is thrown around the sky as if it’s a toy being played by a five year old, it simply defies belief what an aircraft should do in a normal context, and has to be seen to be believed. LIMA’17 was spoilt for choice for this year as the RMAF itself has a solo demonstration from its own Su-30MKM version, and no less spectacular was the home display either.
The Russian Knights were not the only foreign display teams at LIMA’17. South Korea bought over the very impressive Black Eagles with their nine KAI (Korean Aerospace Industries) T.50B, the aircraft flying the 5,800 kilometre journey via Taiwan and the Philippines to attend the show. Also present for which has become a regular appearance at LIMA was the Indonesian Air Force team ‘Jupiter’, who are also equipped with a South Korean trainer aircraft, this time the KT-1B Wong Bee.
In the current climate of Russian/US diplomacy it was nice to see at LIMA the armed forces of the USA and Russia sharing the tarmac at LIMA. Supporting the Russian Knights and starring as part of the static display was Russian Air Force Ilyushin IL-76MD in-flight refuelling aircraft which sat alongside a United States Air Force (USAF) Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker and Royal Australian Air Force Boeing C-17A Globemaster III to dominate the exhibition platform of aircraft at LIMA’17.
The United States had a strong presence at LIMA’17, which included two Rockwell B-1B Lancer bombers flying direct from Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. The B-1s have only recently taken over from the Boeing B-52H Stratofortess as the main strategic bomber force in the Pacific region. As well as the USAF the United States Navy sent two Boeing F/A-18F from VFA-102 stationed at Astugi in Japan and a Boeing P-8A Poseidon normally stationed at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa.
There was much interest at LIMA’17 from various combat aircraft manufacturers for the much talked about Malaysian requirement for a new MRCA (Multi-role Combat Aircraft) with Dassault displaying the Rafale and Bae actively promoting the Eurofighter Typhoon, alas with a mock up in the static display. Asked about the MRCA programme and the Sukhoi Su-30MKM fleet, the Chief of the Royal Malaysian Air Force, General Dato’ Sri Hj Affendi bin Buang said,”The MRCA programme is one of the priority procurement(s) listed by the RMAF. However, the MRCA programme requires a major chunk of the development budget and within current financial constraints; (the) RMAF is formulating a holistic approach towards the MRCA programme so that the nation can be assured of the best return on investment. Meanwhile the Su-30MKM fleet is currently operational and programmes are under way to ensure the continuing operational capabilities of the Su-30MKM fleet. This includes follow on weapons procurement and maintenance package contracts that will also benefit the local aerospace industry from the transfer of technology”.
But what does this mean with the proposed upgrade for the MiG 29 fleet? The General carried on,” The RMAF MiG 29 fleet have been a long standing mainstay of the Malaysian air defence system and as it passed the 20-year mark; we are starting to see an increase in capability gap especially considering that the MiG 29 is a design that started in the Cold War era. Advancements in technologies, especially the sensor fusion and weaponry, is forcing the RMAF to consider available options for future operations of the MiG-29. The RMAF have proposed certain measures deemed fit and we are still awaiting the direction from the Malaysian government.
Offensive capability seems well assured in the RMAF but what of other capabilities such as AEW & C (Airborne Early Warning and Control) and additional maritime surveillance platforms? General Buang gave an honest answer, “As mentioned earlier, any procurement is greatly influenced by the financial availability and capacity of the nation. As the organisation tasked for the defence of Malaysian sovereignty, territorial integrity and national interests through effective use of air power, the RMAF endeavours to acquire capabilities that can provide an edge in performing our tasked responsibility. Does the RMAF want AEWC and MPAs? The answer is a resounding yes, but we are pragmatic as we understand that the national resources must be optimised to achieve what is best for the nation. As AEWC and MPA are high value platforms with large dollar signs affixed on it, such procurement must be prudently planned so as not to tax the government operational and development budget. The RMAF is working closely not just with industry players and their strategic partners but also among stakeholders from other government agencies so that the effects and capabilities acquired can provide a multiplier effect for the cost that it incurs.”
British interest in the Malaysian defence world is high and BAe currently has two major projects related to the country; The Hawk upgrade and convincing the Malaysian government that the Typhoon fits the bill for the MRCA programme. Of the latter BAe states the economic value of the Typhoon as well as its obvious world beating performance. A BAe spokesman said that it is, “Building on the success of various offset initiatives relating to the previous supply of Hawk to the RMAF, Typhoon will deliver over 21,500 Malaysian jobs and more than RM45b to the economy over the operational life of the aircraft”. Of the former the Hawk upgrade contract is expected to be signed in the next month between local company AIROD Sdn Bhd and the Malaysian Ministry of Defence. At the moment the upgrade is aimed at the single seat Hawk mk.208 with a systems upgrade relating to threat detection, countermeasures and mission planning but with the MRCA coming to fruition an upgrade to the trainer version would be desirable for a 4th or 5th generation capability.
Support from other Asian nations was strong at LIMA’17 with the aforementioned South Korea and Indonesia display teams being added to by the Royal Thai Air Force with an energetic SAAB JAS-39C Gripen display and the Republic of Singapore Air Force bringing along a Boeing F-15SG and Boeing AH-64SD Apache for the static park. As well as the C-17, Australia supplied a Lockheed AP-3C Orion and the Malaysian Army, Navy and Coastguard had an eclectic mix ranging from Westland Lynx to the Canadair CL-415MP water bomber.
LIMA’17 certainly lived up to the hype and was a resounding success yet again, and has firmly established itself as a premier event in the airshow, as well as the corporate world, and an event not to be missed.