Against a backdrop of Chinese military aircraft incursions into its airspace, the Malaysian Defense Ministry published a request for bids for the supply and delivery of new light combat aircraft that double as lead-in fighter trainers. The prospective procurement involves 18 aircraft under the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s fighter lead-in trainer/light combat aircraft (FLIT-LCA) requirement. These are to replace several inventories of aircraft serving in these two roles, including the BAE Hawk 108 and 208 light combat aircraft fleets and Aermacchi MB-339CM trainers.
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Under the RMAF’s “Capability 55” (CAP55) future force structure program, the service intends to field three FLIT-LCA squadrons of 18 aircraft apiece by 2055. The new procurement initiative would fill the requirement for the first of these three squadrons.
The FLIT-LCA procurement – first given life in December 2018 when a Request for Information (RFI) was issued to multiple manufacturers – is now back in the forefront of modernization priorities, as an overflight of 16 Chinese military airlifters near the eastern state of Sarawak in late May forced the RMAF to scramble its aging Hawks in response. The Hawks – which entered RMAF service in the mid-1990s – are nearing the end of their service lives and will not be upgraded.
The need for a newer platform with which to cover national airspace is therefore pressing.
But Malaysian military procurement has often fallen victim to economic – and by extension budgetary – pressures. Fluctuations in the national currency hinder major acquisition projects, as unfavorable shifts in exchange rates shrink Malaysia’s purchasing power.
Due to governmental unwillingness to provide requisite funding, the RMAF’s cornerstone project – the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) program, involving 36 swing fighters forming two squadrons under CAP55 – has remained in abeyance since an initial Request for Proposals was released in March 2011.
A long-standing – and pressing – requirement for manned maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) finally received the go-ahead in September 2020 after being pushed to the right for years. For a country sitting in the heart of the strategic Strait of Malacca waterway, featuring a coastline of 2,905 miles, and serving as one of six claimants to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, the need for increased maritime surveillance is acute.
The goal now is to jump-start CAP55 by making progress on the goal of an amalgamated fast jet fleet featuring just two types of platforms forming five squadrons. With the Aermacchi MB-339CM fleet grounded and the Hawks running out of useful service lives, timing is crucial.
The previous FLIT-LCA RFI drew responses from Boeing (offering its T-7 Red Hawk), South Korea’s KAI (the FA-50), Italy’s Leonardo (M-346 Master), India’s HAL (Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, or LCA), China-Pakistan PAC (JF-17 Thunder), China’s Hongdu (L-15 Falcon), Czech Aero Vodochody (L-39NG), and Russia’s Yakovlev (Yak-130 Mitten).