Malaysian military leaders on recent conflict in Sabah

Byline: Vladimir Karnazov / Langkawi

Top military leaders have confirmed the employment of Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) combat jets in the recent events in north east of Sabah province, which is located on north Borneo. In an exclusive interview with Defence Review Asia, the RMAF chief said: “Talking about the recent events we have had in Eastern Sabah… We are in the Armed Forces, and so we were called upon to defend our sovereignty. It is our mission, regardless which other form the acts against us take place. And we have done it. The RMAF was involved in this effort with our aircraft used primarily to drop bombs. We used the systems best suited to fulfill particular requirements. I am very happy with the performance of my pilots – they did very well, especially in the use of Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs)”. Asked about lessons leant from this recent RMAF combat experience, Gen. Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Rodzali bin Daud answered: “Intelligence is very, very important. We need to have first hand intelligence, we need to know who, when and where is on their way, to know who we are against, to make better use of our weapons. One of the major lessons to us is the understanding that we definitely need newer technology weapon systems, more up-to-date systems. We do have some advanced, high-technology systems in our inventory, but we need to have more, including munitions guided by GPS and laser. We need to enhance our capabilities and enlarge our stockpiles”.
Speaking about changes in the weapons acquisition and upgrade plans, Rodzali bin Daud said: “The first priority for RMAF now is to handle the crisis situation that we have had in Sabah. That’s number one. Number two is to upgrade our requirement to the platforms which we already have in our inventory. That especially applies to the domain of maritime surveillance and maritime patrol”.
Addressing the issue of ongoing fighter competition, RMAF chief said: “We have developed medium and short-term [procurement] plans. Now, we need to look around and find replacement for our Multirole Combat Aircraft (MRCA) to replace the MiG-29. There are a few contenders, including the Super Hornet, as well as Russian and European aircraft. The F/A-18D Hornets will stay in service for a while, so that the MRCA is only about MiG-29 replacement”. Asked on the AWACS, the general said: “Airborne early warning aircraft are also a part of our medium and long term plan. We have already shortlisted platforms that we want. The process will soon come to an end, and we are now in the process of shaping [specification for] the radar”.
Rodzali bin Daud is happy to see world-leading manufacturers competing in Malaysia; and stresses the importance of Russian participation in the process of RMAF modernization. “For the first time we have the chief of the Russian air force Gen. Victor Bondarev here with us, at LIMA’2013. It is an honor for us. We look forward to continue our cooperation and meeting exchanges. We are also happy to have a Russian air force display team, the Russian Knights on the Su-27s. We want to exchange experience with our Russian friends, and also those from other nations. The very fact that RMAF operates common platforms with Russia and India (Sukhoi, MiGs) gives us a solid ground for cooperation, from which we all can benefit. We need to collaborate more so as to be more effective in defending our nations. There is no alternative to that”.
He welcomed the long-term agreement on Su-30MKM support signed between Malaysian MoD and Sukhoi at LIMA’2013. “This one is meant to improve the maintenance system we already have in place”. Cooperative links should be developed further despite RMAF and RusAF having vastly different content of weapons systems which naturally leads to difference in training procedures and tactics. “This is the only [major] issue we have, but this should not stop us from co-operation”, Rodzali concluded.
Malaysian defense minister Dato’ Seri Dr. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi also addressed the crisis in Sabah during LIMA’2013. He started the press conference with a statement that Maritime Patrol Aircraft and helicopters are top priority in procurement plans now. Immediate needs are to be addressed by the transfer of three fixed-wing and two rotor craft to the Coast Guard for patrol duties in the waters washing the island of Borneo. “We also need to do modifications of our existing assets. Sabah events influenced this. Police forces in the area need reinforcements”.
In an exclusive moment with DRA, the minister addressed the ongoing fighter competition. “We are doing final evaluations over the acquisitions of MRCA. Speaking in public over the last three months I have been saying that the final decision is going to be made after the general elections. The Air force has given us their recommendations but we leave it to the Treasury of the Ministry of Finance to re-evaluate [RMAF reports] and our ability to buy [equipment RMAF requested]”. Specifically on the Russian offerings of improved Su-30MKM and upgrades to the in-service MiG-29s, Hamidi said: “We have considered the Russian proposals on the MRCA to be in our list. Price is important… We are also recommending that during selection process such considerations should be taken into account as delivery times, after sales support, technology transfer, – in other words, the whole package. Not only pricing, but these other elements are also important to us”. I also asked the minister whether Malaysia is looking what India buys and if the Indian choices influence those of Malaysia? “There are some press reports about it, but these are only speculations. We made decisions based on our own needs”.
In addition to speaking with the minister, the writer happened to have watched Hamidi’s visit to BAE Systems stand. He expressed an interest in upgrade programs available to the Hawk aircraft in RMAF service. Afterwards, director for business development with BAE Systems Alan Garwood said: “What we are showing [at the LIMA’2013 stand] are some enhancements to the Hawk, and training aircraft especially since we have already supplied such aircraft [to RMAF]. The Hawk has sold over a thousand copies round the world and is the most successful jet trainer in the world. RMAF has the previous version (Mk.108) and we briefed the minister on the newer one. So, we were showing him what the very latest version can do. We explained to him that there is an upgrade available if he wants to do it, and this upgrade increases the amount of simulation that the aircraft can do. We could upgrade the fleet of Hawks they have into a more advanced and recent version”.
In particular, the updated trainer aircraft can emulate work of radar on fighter jets, which is interesting from the viewpoint of RMAF also having the Hawk 208 single seat strike version equipped with Lockheed Martin AN/APG-66H radar.
Reportedly, five RMAF Hawk Mk.208s and there F/A-18D Hornets were involved in the air strikes on the gunmen, with the main mission occurring in the morning of March 5, 2013. Last time RMAF combat jets were used in anger during Operation Selamat Sawadee in 1978-1980. The RMAF also used Sikorsky S61A-4 Nuri helicopters from the Second RMAF division based at Kuching and Labuan in Sarawak and Sabah respectively, and, probably, also C130H Hercules tactical transports. Aviation assets from other branches of the Malaysian armed forces included Bombardier CL-415 flying boats and Eurocopter Fennecs. AgustaWestland AW109s were also reported to have been deployed in the area. Air Asia low-cost carrier provided their A320s narrow body jets for troops transportation. Land forces deployed seven battalions with estimated strength of 7,000 troops. They used 81-mm mortars and ACV300 Adnan 4×4 APC equipped with gyro stabilized rapid-fire cannons, ballistic computers, optical and infrared systems which enabled accurate firing in day and night. In addition there were 400 policemen including VAT69 commandos.
Up against them there were up to 300 gunmen from the Sulu Islamic movement. They arrived on Malaysian soil from the neighboring islands of Simunul and Tawi-Tawi – which belong to the Philippines. Initiator of the move was Jamalul Kiram III, 74, claiming to be the legitimate heir to the throne of Sulu Sultanate. He decreed on 11 November 2012 that a civilian and military contingent should assert his territorial rights in North Borneo. He appointed his brother and Raja Muda (“heir apparent” or “crown prince”), Agbimuddin Kiram, to lead the group. On February 11, 2013, they landed near the village of Tanduo, located near Tungku in Lahad Datu District, Sabah. The gunmen set camp in the village and started calling themselves “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo”. They were encircled by police forces who took positions at all roads going to Tanduo through palm oil plantations and jungles. Skirmished and fire exchange took place at Kunak, Kampung, Semporna. Following escalation of the conflict, Malaysian prime-minister Dato’ Sri Haji Mohammad Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak authorized the use of armed forces against the intruders. He said: “We started with an air strike by jet fighters of Royal Malaysian Air Force, followed by a mortar strike; and as I’m speaking, the army and police forces, along with other members (of the security forces) following behind, are taking action to arrest and destroy the group which has breached the nation’s sovereignty”.
The respective operation was called Operation Daulat. The gist of it was aerial bombing and artillery shelling to squeeze gunmen out of the jungle into the area where they could be taken prisoner or annihilated. Coast Guard and Navy ships blockaded the intruders from the sea, preventing reinforcements. There are an estimated 800,000 Filipinos living in Sabah, out of a total population of just over three million. Agbimuddin Kiram is understood to have counted on their support in case of a prolonged conflict. Tanduo fell on March 11 after a week of artillery bombardment and bombing strikes. The intruders lost 62 dead, 11 injured and 79 captured. Government forces lost ten men KIA and sixteen wounded. Six civilians were killed.
The selection of the F/A-18D and the Hawk Mk.208 for the bombing campaign seems logical, reflecting the specialization of aircraft types in RMAF. The Su-30MKM heavyweight multirole fighter is indented for air superiority, interdiction, isolation of the area of hostilities and long-range strike missions using radar and optical guided missiles. The MiG-29N lightweight frontal fighters serve as interceptors and dogfighters. The Hornet is for land strike and anti-shipping; the whole RMAF fleet is made by twin-seaters better suited that single seat version for ground attacks using laser guided PGMs. Subsonic Hawk Mk.208 is a dedicated attack aircraft. Its employment reflected the earlier use of similar aircraft in Indonesia, which used hers in East Timor starting in 1983. Reportedly, during Ops Daulat the Hornets used Paveway II guided bombs, and the Hawks free-fall bombs and ADEN rapid fire cannon.


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