Myths and Defence

KD Tunku Abdul Rahman at its welcoming ceremony in 2009. There is no horizontal bump on the rear of the conning tower. Malaysian Defence picture.

KUALA LUMPUR: Everyone who has Astro and subscribed to the Learning Channel will have seen the Mythbusters. These fellas get paid to have fun busting myths and urban legends.

However in Malaysia there is an ongoing myth that the Armed Forces can afford to have a lot things that other countries routinely fly or shoot. It is not the layman alone who live in these dream world, unfortunately the myth is perpetuated by the officialdom, those people with stars on their pips and get escorted around. No wonder the layman are confused.

One of the biggest myth is that we can afford a high-and lo fighter mix. With a average annual budget of RM12 billion (an operating budget of RM9 billion and procurement budget around RM4 billion) lets face facts, we cannot afford many things, even things already in service!

RMAF Sukhoi M52-07
RMAF Sukhoi M52-07

Yes every now and then, we splurge around, 18 Sukhois, two submarines etc you get the picture but at the end of the spending spree, our Armed Forces remained under-funded leaving most of these assets on the ground, yards and hangars. Our pilots, tankers and sailors never attained the hours their counterparts in NATO countries routinely clocked in annually.

So why buy the planes, tanks and ships in the first place? Because we truly believed our own myths. The reality is that we cannot afford to fly, drive or sail the assets we do have to international standards. The various accounts from open sources can confirmed this although we might not like it.

So any talk about buying new fighters (ships and tanks) is really a pile of excrement. Unless, we bummed up our defence budget northwards, even the current fleet will remained hangar queens. Even the much highly regarded Hornet fleet also has its own share of problems, I am told.

KD Tun Razak during her trials in the Mediterranean prior to her commissioning in 2010.
KD Tun Razak during her trials in the Mediterranean prior to her commissioning in 2010.

One must remember that the cost of shiny new planes, ships and tanks etc are not limited to the initial procurement only but the whole life ownership cost. It is difficult to estimate actual ownership cost without getting the user figures but the rule of thumb is that for a 30 year period, one need to spent or ready the same amount invested to ensure that it is used or can be used to its full capability.

For example, if one spent RM1 billion on one weapon system one must expect to spend or ready the same amount and more to maintain and update it for the next 30 years. If no money is available to service or maintain it, the system can be on the books for 30 years also but will not be very useful if a shooting war takes place which was the reason for purchasing it in the first place!

If you don’t believe me, look at the figures for the Scorpene submarines. We spent around RM3 billion plus to buy the two submarines and we are spending around RM3 billion more to maintain them for the next five years. If we are lucky the same amount will be needed at every five year interval. The total ownership cost may well be above RM20 billion when the submarines are retired in another 25 years barring any plans to extend their service lives. Yes, submarines are an extreme example but its the only weapon system we have that the maintenance cost have been publicly announced, so I guess its the best example for this discussion.

Money or the lack of it is the reason we have seen weapon systems being retired prematurely. For example, the A version of the Machis and canibalisation of the Pinzgauers. We can assume that no one had calculated the amount of money to maintain them so the next best thing is to retire or canibalise them. Its cheaper in the short run of course but it was probably the best option when operating funds run short but the procurement budget is uncorked. And the biggest problem is that the same thing keep repeating every time the five year procurement is unveiled.

Ten years ago when the procurement genie was uncorked, the Flankers, MBT and Scorpenes were let loose. Ten years on, almost the same wish list is on the table. This time around its the Super Hornet/Typhoon/Gripen; AV8 and NGPV Batch 2.

A mock-up of the Lekiu batch 2 frigate. The project was cancelled in 2008 as the result of the economic crisis.
A mock-up of the Lekiu batch 2 frigate. The project was cancelled in 2008 as the result of the economic crisis.

But somehow the officialdom miss-look the fact that we still need to maintain the previous weapon systems we bought and the need to prepare the money to service the toys on the wish list. Did they miss the boat? Of course, how else can you explain the reason the operating budget continue to be squeezed dry? Yes, one can blame the floundering economy as the main reason but why is the chatter for new things when funds are available instead of increasing the operational budget? Initial affordability seemed to be the sole financial criteria.

So what will the Armed Forces give up to pay for current and future procurements? I have no idea but lets stop perpetuating myths all right? Maybe if we stopped, the powers that be will also faced up to reality. But I guess we need to run our own Mythbuster episodes to ensure this happens…

–Malaysian Defence

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About Marhalim Abas 2222 Articles
Shah Alam


  1. Much, much more than Mythbusters will be needed to wake-up or jolt the leadership. I can’t be bothered to sign up for Twitter but if I did, I would have quite a few defence questions for Najib. It’s probably too much to ask, but having an opposition to ask the right questions in parliment and a more defence conscious public would help. As well as having a military leadership with more sopine or back-bone.

    Many Pinzgauers have ended up in the scrapyard simply because of problems in mantaining the suspension system, a drive train with a tube type chassis. Simply put, the army’s mantainance culture needs a revamp. The Brit and Kiwi armies have had no such problems with their Pinzgauers. Apart from the costs, there’a a reason why the main utility lorry is an Isuzu [Handalan] rather than a MAN, Leyland or Iveco.

  2. The reality of the matter is that the current political-defence complex is entwined to serve their own selfish interests, a problem increasingly reminiscent of the power cliques around SE Asia. Hoping for a defence-conscious public under the current mish-mash of public freedoms, the Malaysian penchant for inaccurate yet devastating rumour-mongering, and general incompetence leads me to believe the solution to Malaysia’s future defence needs require excision of the cancerous political leadership, and its attendants in the Armed Forces. I do not propose a witch-hunt but as someone once said “… it pays to shoot an admiral once in a while to encourage the others.”

  3. Its in my own angan2 that with existing budget, and in order to maintain some sort of defensive capability i believe he following should be considered:-

    1) reduce the army man power further from 80k to maybe 40-50k. As there is not really any threat of land invasion in the next 5-10 years, the concern is more to protect our economic interest at the EEZ and south china sea

    2)Retire the Migs and the hawks 200. Just operate the SU and Hornet/SH (if ever). As the the improvement in the capabilities, we dont really need that many unless again we are preparing for war

    3) Other cheaper source of weaponry. I guess we have to go for those that can get us more bang for buck though the trade off we may not be able to get the “BMW” class but more of “Mazda” or if lucky “Mitsubishi” class

    4) Close all this national weapon program. face it unless we really can produce at the same price as international price, no point doing it.

  4. Marhalim, if the government, however unlikely, were to release figures on how much it costs, per hour, to keep an F-18 or Su-30 in the air, I think there would be widespread calls from many in the public for the RMAF to go down the RNZAF route and disband it’s fast jet fleet and stick to just helicopters and transports….

    Marhalim: I believe one can get the cost per hour for the Hornets from the US Navy and as of the other US planes but I dont believe we will ever get it for the Sukhoi…

  5. i cant remember where i read it, its one of the malay dailies that stated Govt provided about RM200-RM270 million for the operation of the SU30. If memory serves me correct That would be roughly RM15.0 million per plane per year. assuming that each plane clock around 100 flying hours per year that would be RM150k per flying hours or at USD50k per hr.

    Marhalim: Operation has various meaning in Malaysia. It could be totally different thing altogether…I believed that they were talking about how much money is provided to maintain the whole fleet, not operational costs…or together…

  6. H.A.S. – it pays to shoot an admiral once in a while to encourage the others.”

    And a hell of a lot of politicans too….from BOTH sides of the political divide. Unfortunately many rakyat, whilst fully aware of the need for the ATM, do not want to be reminded that this ‘defence’ business is costly. It’s like having a health insurance policy – you probably won’t need it but the one time you do need it and you dont have it – you’re bu**ered!

    Marhalim, another factor that has to be taken into account with regards to speculating on the MKM’s operating costs is the thrust vector, which like the engines needs servicing, spares, etc. Add in the lower TBO and MTBF for the Saturn engines and other components like the landing gear, etc, I’m guessing the MKM/MK1 should be have at least 20-30% [minimum] higher operating and support costs to a western fighter in roughly the same weight class such as the F-15C. If I’m not mistaken it was reported somewhere that it costs the USAF about 10k USD for every hour an F-15 spends in the air.

  7. HAS, Azlan, Marhalim, Kamal,.

    Saudara, the government is not interested in improving our defence simply because they see the main treat as internal. That is why the PDRM and Kementerian Dalam Negeri has been getting more funding to buy new things and get more volunteers. Even the Maritime Force and Bomba now has newer and better helicopters than the TUDM!

  8. Dear Wan,

    Your assumptions could be true. But its good that these other branch of the security got new equipments. I mean before 1990, the Nuri seems to be everything for every body even for rescue operations in floods. Now, at least the bomba has 2 Mils, 3 A109s and 2 AW139 help ease things alot.

    Some how i tend to agree the threat is more internal rather than external although statement by Lee Kuan Yew yesterday does not help improve sentiments. I mean terrror groups and organised crime are getting better armed and sophisticated.

    Marhalim: LKY can say what he wants he got US12 billion dollars a year to back him up and not to mention Uncle Sam….

  9. LKY’s statement makes no difference. Of all ASEAN states, Singapore is the most vurnerable with no strategic depth, no natural resources, etc, that’s a big reason why they maintain a strong deterrence. Though almost every military has plans to ‘take the fight to the enemy’ in case of hostilities the difference is the SAF is the only regional military to actually have the capability and trains intensively to take fght to enemy territory. As Tim Huxley made clear in his book [can’t understand why some officials here made such as fuss about the book], Singaporean military modernisation has been aimed at us and to a lesser extent our cousins from ‘seberang’.

    [from Aviation Week 12/10/2001]

    F-16: $9,300 per flight hour
    F-15E: $14,300 per flight hour
    B-52: $23,100 per flight hour
    B-1: $32,700 per flight hour
    B-2: $89,300 per flight hour

  10. Brother! when you buy fighter jets just the “krangka” without the engine, so what do you expect of the kind of many stars mentality in the Armed Forces.
    Opportunity costs damn it! The way Malaysian prefer it- Humpty Dumpty! So it is not relevant anymore. That is why you find the recently retired … generals are all absorb with the Maintenance Industry as an extension of their service. Don’t tell me … is ignorant of the conflict of interest or he is still busy looking for missing jet engine or that Thamendran the sergeant is giving him a sleepless nite!
    Defence! apa yang nak di tahan kan jang. Defence Policy pun neither here nor there and nobody wants to talk about it except my friend Marhalim. Happy outing and keep knocking for 2011!

    marhalim: Thanks Datuk for the kind words..

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