Sat, Mar 21, 2015 - Page 6 News List

Tight budget hampering Malaysia’s defense goals

Reuters, LANGKAWI, Malaysia, and SINGAPORE

Budget constraints are jeopardizing Malaysia’s defense spending plans, which include replacing aging fighter jets and beefing up its maritime capabilities, at a time when Beijing is growing more assertive in the disputed South China Sea.

While Malaysia has traditionally played down any tensions with China over the contested waterway, it has long expressed concern about piracy and security along its land and coastal borders.

More recently, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 after it flew unimpeded across the Malay Peninsula last year exposed gaps in the military’s tracking of the skies.

“We have a lot of areas to be concerned about. The Straits of Malacca, the southwestern part of the South China Sea and others,” Malaysian navy chief Admiral Abdul Aziz Jaafar said on the sidelines of an air show on the Malaysian coastal island resort of Langkawi this week.

“We don’t have enough to cover it all. The best way is synergy, by working together with regional partners we can ensure maritime security,” Jaafar said, referring to possible joint sea patrols among Southeast Asian nations.

Malaysia’s defense budget for this year of 17.7 billion ringgit (US$4.79 billion) does not offer much hope for new kit, given it includes only 3.6 billion ringgit for military procurement.

This has been earmarked mainly for the purchase of four Airbus military A400M cargo planes as well as navy patrol vessels.

A prolonged slump in oil prices is expected to further hurt the net oil exporting nation, while heavily indebted state investor 1MDB could drag on public finances.

“Malaysian acquisition plans have been continually postponed for reasons of financial constraints,” said Richard Bitzinger, a security expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“The navy is short of ships, and the army is similarly under-equipped. Compare sizes with, say, Singapore, which has more than five times as many frontline [jet] fighters and twice as many main battle tanks as the Malaysian armed forces,” he said.

Malaysia’s top priority is to replace its aging Russian MiG-29 fighters with 18 modern jets that would join a fleet of Boeing F/A-18Ds as well as Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30MKM warplanes.

Defense officials are assessing Boeing’s newer F/A-18E/F, French firm Dassault’s Rafale, Swedish manufacturer Saab’s Gripen and the Typhoon from European consortium Eurofighter.

Affordability would be key, Malaysian air force chief General Roslan bin Saad said at the air show.

“We are discussing whether we should continue with these [MiG-29] jets or not. Nothing is final yet,” he said.

Malaysian military sources expect the armed forces to push for more procurement funds in the next five-year plan starting next year.

“The armed forces want new fighter planes, maritime patrol aircraft, airborne early warning systems and anti-submarine helicopters. The military chiefs, however, are likely to be asked to prioritize their needs,” one Kuala Lumpur-based security expert who is close to senior military officers said.

Malaysia has pursued close economic ties with China, its biggest trade partner.

However, two Chinese naval exercises in 2013 and last year around James Shoal (Zengmu Shoal, 曾母暗沙), a submerged reef about 80km off Malaysia’s Borneo island state of Sarawak, shocked Kuala Lumpur.

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