Malaysian Navy chief confirms fleet plans
The head of the Malaysian Navy discusses how his service will buy new ships while being dramatically downsizedAdd bookmark
Earlier this year, Kuala Lumpur awarded a contract for four Littoral Mission Ships (LMSs) to be built in China but outfitted by the Malaysia’s own Boustead Group.
Buying Chinese naval vessels in order to bolster defence against intrusions by Chinese maritime assets truly underscores the complexity of relations in the South China Sea.
We took the opportunity to ask the Royal Malaysian Navy’s (RMN) chief commander, Admiral Ahmad Badaruddin Kamarulzaman (Kamarul), how this acquisition will occur – and what it means for the overall shape of the fleet in the coming years…
Defence IQ: Admiral, what will this Chinese LMSs actually offer the navy?
Kamarul: Littoral mission ships are relatively small, thin vessels, designed for stealthy combat near coastlines and sometimes to take on bigger enemies. With a coastline stretching from the Sulu Sea westward to the Indian Ocean, we need these four littoral platforms to be made in China. They will be delivered to RMN in 2019-2020.
DIQ: And they’ll be partly built in Malaysia?
Kamarul: The procurement contract was signed between the Government of Malaysia and Boustead Naval Shipyard (BNS). Two of the vessels will be built in China and the other two will be built in Malaysia under a joint-venture project. Over the whole RMN Fleet Transformation Programme – known as the ‘15 to 5’ plan – is to procure a total of 18 LMSs. All remaining will be built by our local shipyard. This will further enhance their capacity to be more competitive and multi-faceted for the export market in the near future.
DIQ: How does this acquisition fit into the modernisation plans for the RMN in terms of its surface fleet and submarine fleet? And what are the RMN plans for surface and sub-surface assets after 2020?
Kamarul: The RMN has taken a bold initiative towards capability management in consolidating and streamlining the RMN fleet from the existing 15 different classes of ships to a much more manageable list of only five ship-classes, which will be more cost-effective to maintain and manage. These 15 classes of ships were built in seven different nations – namely the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Sweden, Korea and Malaysia. The five classes of ship would all possibly be built by our local shipyards. That would therefore make us less dependent on foreign support to allow for an efficient and effective maintenance and upkeep of the fleet. At the same time, this move will enhance the local shipbuilding industry to help boost the nation's economy.
I realise that our long-term plan needs to be realistic and practical. The ageing fleet needs to be replaced with new and capable assets to safeguard the national sovereignty. The phasing out of obsolete assets in stages can save operations and maintenance costs to enable the acquisition of new assets. The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) vessels are currently being built. The first LCS will join us by 2019. A total of six patrol vessels are operated by the RMN. An increase in maritime operations will require another 12 PVs. With a total of 18 PVs, the RM will be able to effectively manage day to-day operations in Malaysian waters.
Next in the pipeline is the Multi Role Support Ship (MRSS). The existing logistic ships in the RMN's inventory [31st Squadron Multi-Purpose Command and Support Ship] are 30 years old and are increasingly less cost-effective to operate. The 31st Squadron will be phased out in stages and will be replaced entirely with the MRSS, which will then carry out humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations and act as hospital ships. RMN and the government are convinced that current maritime challenges, such as strategic sealift to mobilise troops and rendering food assistance, are a factor in supporting this investment. Most prominent will be the role of enabling fast strategic lift missions for army troops between Peninsula Malays and Sabah/Sarawak.
DIQ: And then there are the submarines! Some say you’re running at only half the capacity required…
Kamarul: Yes. Let me first underline that our Submarine Force of two Scorpenes has raised the RMN's profile among the regional navies and elevated national prestige. Having the Scorpenes in our fleet has not only improved the RMN's anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare capabilities but has also increased the Malaysian Armed Forces’ overall war fighting capability, situational awareness and intelligence-gathering.
Some critics however are partly right when they suggest two boats are operationally challenging and that therefore, in the long term, we will have to decide on whether to add two more to the inventory.
DIQ: But we all know there is now a budget drop for Malaysian defence due to inflation and currency effects on the Ringitt [Malaysian currency]. What procurements will therefore be first in line for the Navy?
Kamarul: The global economic conditions have indeed hit the Malaysian economy and in turn have impacted all of our armed forces. But I always look at challenges as opportunities, so one opportunity I see is in reviewing our priorities and focus towards 'fit-for-purpose' requirements, we will be looking to do more with less.
On specific programmes, we have decided that the priority for procurement right now will be the LMS. This programme will cost us 20 per cent of the LCS budget but the LMS will be able to perform 80 per cent of the larger LCS’s duties.
DIQ: What steps are being taken in turn to further enhance indigenous shipbuilding of warships?
Kamarul: In line with the ’15 to 5’, we will continue to prioritise local shipbuilding capabilities in future acquisitions. Although some of the designs, such as the patrol vessel and LMS, are not indigenously designed, more local content will be introduced in our future acquisitions to enhance our industries under similar initiatives and contribute to the national economy.
DIQ: What generally are the main threats being faced by the RMN in the region?
Kamarul: Taking into consideration the multifaceted nature of today's security dynamic, Malaysia, as a maritime nation, is facing various challenges. We are currently putting great efforts into ensuring the security of the Eastern Seaboard of Sabah from the threats of kidnapping-for-ransom and particularly in the Sulu Sea area and South China Sea area we are focusing on possible conflict surrounding disputed territories.
Nonetheless, security and safety in the busiest strait in this region – and maybe the world – the Straits of Malacca, is our main concern. In dealing with this challenge, business shall not be as usual. The Navy needs to be more innovative in its operational conduct in order to safeguard the sovereignty of the country.
Images: Georg Mader, 2017