Malaysia is a country split into two halves: Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia - which are separated by a large body of water, much of which is controlled by neighbouring countries.
7th Mar 2013
By Dzirhan Mahadzir
Malaysia is a country split into two halves: Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia - which are separated by a large body of water, much of which is controlled by neighbouring countries. The Royal Malaysian Navy’s (RMN) shape and mission has been largely determined by this factor - along with the circumstance that Malaysia controls one half of the vital Straits of Malacca. This is reflected in the operational command organization of the RMN.
The RMN has three operational area commands overseen by Fleet Command headquartered at RMN Lumut, with an independent Submarine Command reporting directly to the Chief of Navy. The three major operational commands are, firstly: COMNAV I, located at RMN Kuantan. This is responsible for the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia and the South China Sea portion of it including Malaysia’s 200-mile EEZ claims there, along with the waters along the Singapore Straits. COMNAV II, located at RMN Sepanggar, is responsible for the entire coastline and waters of the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak plus the various seas surrounding them which form part of Malaysia’s 200 mile EEZ claims. Finally, COMNAV III, located at RMN Langkawi, is responsible for the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia and the Malacca Straits.
The RMN splits some of its surface ships evenly between the three area commands while others are deployed to areas depending on operational or training requirements. The navy’s two submarines are permanently stationed at RMN Sepanggar in the COMNAV II area of operations with Submarine Command also based at RMN Sepanggar. Submarine Command has not only the responsibility for the operations of both the RMN submarines but also in regard to the training of personnel for them. Following an initial blitz of publicity to offset media reports on maintenance issues in regard to the two Scorpene class boats, the RMN has drawn a tight veil over the operations and exercise participation. The submarines will continue to be a source of controversy in Malaysia - owing to issues surrounding the circumstances of their purchase and a subsequent murder linked to it.
While all three naval commands are of importance, COMNAV II is seen as the major operational challenge. This is because the East Malaysian state of Sabah, whose waters fall under COMNAV II, faces the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea and the Celebes Sea. Additionally, COMNAV II’s portion of the South China Sea includes the disputed Spratly Islands. Malaysia currently maintains 5 military outposts there, the largest being Naval Station Lima on Swallow Reef. Various works undertaken since its initial occupation in 1983 has led to the reef becoming an island about 7.3km long and 2.2km wide. It has a land area of around 6 hectares with a runway capable of supporting C-130 transport aircraft and a dock allowing the RMN’s patrol craft to operate from there. Since 1999 Malaysia has not added any additional outposts in the Spratlys beyond the five established there. The Spratlys and the South China Sea around them are known to the RMN as the “Gugusan Semarang Peninjau” (GSP) operational area, which roughly translates to “Frontier Reconnaissance Island Chain” in English.
Currently the RMN has only one overseas operational mission, namely “Operation Fajar” - an ongoing task to escort merchant shipping belonging to the Malaysian International Shipping Corporation through the pirate-infested waters near the Gulf of Aden. The mission was sparked by the seizure of two MISC vessels in September 2008 by pirates and since then the RMN has been carrying an indefinite anti-piracy escort mission in the region. Initially these escort missions were carried out by ships from the RMN fleet, but the costs along with the wear and tear on them led to the RMN working with MISC to provide an alternate solution in the form of a converted MISC merchantman to function as a naval auxiliary ship.
To perform this mission, the container ship Bunga Mas Lima was converted to a RMN auxiliary ship on 1 June 2009. The modifications to the 699 TEU vessel (owned by MISC) included the installation of a helicopter landing dock, light weapons mounts, military grade communications and medical facilities, the ability to launch RMN’s small craft and a repainting of the ship to RMN’s colours. MISC personnel commissioned as Naval reservists formed the ship’s crew while a combined special forces team drawn from all three services of the Malaysian Armed Forces along with a medical team and an RMN naval helicopter detachment with a single helicopter were also stationed on the ship. The success of this led to the acquisition of a second naval auxiliary, the Bunga Mas 6 being launched in August 2011 to operate simultaneously in the region with the Bunga Mas 5. The roles were one ship escorting westbound shipping while the other will escort eastbound shipping - however budgetary and operational constraints prevented the RMN from having an additional helicopter detachment to operate in the region. Thus the RMN’s sole helicopter in the area was deployed on one or the other ship depending on requirements. Recently though, as a result of the number of piracy attacks declining in the Gulf of Aden, the RMN has scaled back the presence of the auxiliary ships to a single vessel deployment on a rotational basis rather than both ships being simultaneously deployed in the region.
At the time of writing, Malaysia is engaged in a potentially violent standoff with Philippines militants in the East Malaysian state of Sabah, who appeared to have infiltrated the state by sea. As a consequence, it is expected that there will be an effort to beef up the RMN’s riverine and coastal waters capabilities. The RMN currently operates some 17 CB-90 combat boats bought in the late 90s - but there may be plans to bolster this fleet in light of this latest confrontation.
Also ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, particularly involving the disputed Spratly Islands, are expected to add to the RMN’s burden since the Navy is responsible for maintaining Malaysia’s presence in the disputed areas. Given that the area that it has to cover, the RMN’s relatively small fleet size of around 40 ships seems inadequate to meet all its operational tasks. Budget issues and the lack of priority by the Malaysian government over the years has made fleet development difficult.
The cancelled Batch 2 Lekiu class frigates are a good example of this. In 2006 the Malaysian government had signed a letter of intent with BAE Systems for the construction of two follow-on ships to the existing two Lekiu class frigates already in service in the RMN. The Batch 2 ships were to be built locally on the island of Labuan at the Labuan Shipyard and Engineering dockyard. However in August 2009, it was reported that both the Malaysian government and BAE Systems had reached an agreement not to continue with the deal due to cost-cutting measures.
With the cancellation of the Batch 2 Lekius, the RMN is expected to have to settle for a possible upgrade and Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) of the existing two Lekius - though no funding has been allocated publicly for that. Similarly an upgrade and SLEP of the 4 Laksamana class corvettes is also expected to be carried out. Originally built in Italy for the Iraqi Navy as the Assad class but impounded following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, two of the ships were purchased by Malaysia in 1995 and the remaining two in 1997.
The Malaysian government has provided funding for one of the Royal Malaysian Navy’s key programs, the six ship Second Generation Patrol Vessel – Littoral Combat Ship (SGPV-LCS). The SGPV-LCS are meant to be the follow-on to the six Kedah class Next Generation Patrol Vessels (NGPV) built by Boustead Naval Shipyard (BNS). The SGPV-LCS will be bigger and more heavily armed compared to the Kedah’s. Despite the LCS name, the SGPV-LCS is a conventional design hull based on DCNS’s Gowind design, with the French shipbuilder being selected as the foreign partner to work with BNS on the SGPV-LCS program.
The ship is to have an overall length of 107m, a full load of 2750 tons, a 106 personnel crew, maximum speed of 28 knots with a cruising speed of 16 knots. The range of the ship is expected to be 5000NM with an endurance of 21 days and will have a hangar and flight dock for a single helicopter. The weapon systems of the SGPV-LCS have been a source of continuing disagreement between the RMN and Malaysian government. The RMN is insisting that the ships be outfitted their exact choice while the government has pressed for systems that are cheaper than what the navy wants. The RMN is said to prefer the Raytheon ESSM for the surface to air missile with the Kongsberg Defence & Aerospace Naval Strike Missile for the surface-to-surface weapon.
However, the government prefers the Mica system for the SGPV-LCS’s SAM and the MBDA’s Exocet as it’s SSM. The main gun is expected to be the BAE Systems Bofors Mk3 57mm, with which BNS’s parent company, Boustead Heavy Industry Corporation has an existing joint venture partnership known as BHIC Bofors Asia. The first ship is scheduled to be delivered in 2017, with subsequent vessels delivered every six months thereafter. All will be built at the BNS facilities in Lumut. Nevertheless, with this ship class only to be delivered beginning from 2017, it is clear that the RMN will face a capability gap till then. There has been moves by the US to offer surplus Perry class frigates being decommissioned from the US Navy to meet the capability gap though little has emerged from this to date. This is partly because any such acceptance would require funding approval from the Malaysian government, which has appeared to have put any defence decision involving money on hold until after the election. Though the design and manufacture of equipment are different from other RMN ships, the Perrys would help the RMN in preparing crews for the SGPV-LCS as their capabilities in air, surface and anti-submarine warfare matches the SGPV-LCS mission profile and capabilities.
The RMN has launched two 79.5m locally manufactured training ships in December 2012 and February this year. These have been built jointly by Malaysian company NGV Tech with assistance from South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering under a MYR294 million (US $96.1 million) contract signed in 2011. Both ships, named ‘Gagah Samudera’ and ‘Teguh Samudera’ will be commissioned later this year. Each is armed with a 30mm main gun and will have a helicopter dock but no hangar. They will carry a complement of 45 personnel along with 60 trainees. In his speech at the launch of the ‘ Teguh Samudera’ in Febuary this year, RMN Chief Admiral Tan Sri Aziz Jaafar urged the Malaysian government to consider the purchase of two additional training ships. He recommended this occur during the timeframe of the 11th Malaysia Plan of 2016-2020. He asked for additional ships based on the same design but configured as combat ships as replacements for the current 8 aging Handalan and Perdana class Fast Attack Craft, which entered service in the 1970s.
Meantime, the RMN’s multi-purpose, command and support ship (MPCSS) requirement - which was originally scheduled to be implemented in the time frame of the 8th Malaysia Plan (2001-2005) - has yet to be realized. This is despite the loss to a fire in 2009 of the Royal Malaysian Navy’s sole amphibious operation capable ship, the Newport class LST KD Sri Inderapura. The purchase of the Multi-Purpose Support Ship is now unlikely to commence until the 11th Malaysia Plan of 2016-2020. Various companies - including Navantia and DSME - have been proposing their designs to meet this requirement. Malaysia’s initial requirements have been said to be a three-ship class capable of carrying a combined arms battalion and four medium lift helicopters.
Also likely to take place in the timeframe of the 11th Malaysia Plan of 2016-2020, though the RMN would like to have it commence as soon as possible, is the purchase of at least 6-12 anti-submarine warfare helicopters. These will supplement the RMN Naval Air Wing which current consists of six Augusta Westland Super Lynx and six Eurocopter Fennecs. The US has been heavily promoting the MH-60R Seahawk for this requirement - though there has been talk of a navalized Eurocopter EC-725. This latter choice would ensure some compatibility of logistics and maintenance with the RMAF’s existing EC-725 fleet. The main issues the RMN has in regard to the MH-60R are the manpower requirements for the aircraft’s maintenance and support team and also cost. However, the helicopter does meet all the RMN’s requirements and the issue of cost stems more from the funding available to the Malaysian government for such a purchase than the actual price of the helicopters themselves.
Further into the future is the requirement for new Minehunters to replace the Mahamiru class (Italian Lerici class), which have been in service since 1985 - though a SLEP program was carried out by Thales in the mid-2000s. Again although the RMN have listed the replacement of the minehunters on their requirement list, no funding have been specifically allocated for it.
The Maritime Patrol Aircraft function is carried out by the Royal Malaysian Air Force with four Beechcraft 200T. The navy is happy to continue with this mission carried out by the RMAF, and both services have been jointly pushing for a new long range MPA which will carry a combined RMAF/RMN crew - though the aircraft will be part of the RMAF’s fleet. The US has been marketing the Northrop Grumman E-2D for this requirement - though again both the RMN and RMAF have been stymied for lack of funds.
Ongoing funding issues are likely to remain the greatest challenge facing the RMN. However, given the age of many of its fleet and the emerging capability gaps - particularly in regard to the amphibious capability - it is likely that the Malaysian government will eventually have to make available the funds needed to address RMN requirements.