Ex-Kuwaiti Hornets to join RMAF fleet, Su-30MKMs to be upgraded to ‘Super Flankers’ under bold, ambitious plan

With the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) expecting to introduce a new type as its next generation Multirole Combat Aircraft (MRCA), what will be the fate of the 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKM Flankers currently in service?

Enter the ‘Super Flanker’

The 18 Su-30MKM Flankers, which first entered service in 2007, still has room for growth, with the addition of newer sensors, avionics, and systems.

Currently, the ‘apex predator’ in the Flanker family is the Su-35, and Su-30SM variants, now in limited service with the Russian Air Force. Dubbed the ‘Super Flanker’, both variants incorporate new sensors and systems, including a new radar, electronic countermeasures (ECM), radar homing and warning (RHAW) gear, data link, radios, inertial navigation, cockpit displays, and infrared search and track (IRST) systems.

These sensor suites and improvements could easily be retrofitted and integrated into Malaysia’s 18 Su-30MKMs – bringing them to ‘Super Flanker’ standard – thereby expanding and enhancing their capabilities and combat survivability. The upgraded Su-30MKMs can then supplement the new MRCA, increasing the number of aircraft in the RMAF’s fighter inventory.

The RMAF is expected to acquire an undisclosed number of the new MRCA – sources say the Su-57E Felon – which will equip one squadron. The initial batch of aircraft is expected to arrive under the 14th Malaysia Plan, as reported by Twentytwo13 yesterday.

The cost of upgrading the Su-30MKM, in the region of RM2-3 billion, could be spread out if the programme is done in tandem with the Indian Air Force (IAF), which is planning to conduct a similar ‘mid-life’ update of their fleet of Su-30MKIs. The IAF has specified new radars, mission control, and weapon systems, reflecting India’s push for self-reliance in defence manufacturing. The upgrade will include the integration of indigenous systems, such as a new radar, and electronic warfare capabilities, improving air-to-air, and air-to-ground targeting.

Desert Hornets for Malaysia

On Dec 22, 2021, deputy defence minister Datuk Seri Ikmal Hisham Abdul Aziz told the Dewan Negara that Malaysia was interested in acquiring – “lock, stock, and barrel” – 33 examples of the C and D versions of the Hornets belonging to the Kuwaiti Air Force (KAF) to supplement the eight the RMAF has on strength. KAF had announced that it was replacing its legacy Hornets with Eurofighter Typhoons and Super Hornets.

Kuwait purchased 39 legacy Hornets in the mid-1990s following the first Gulf War. In 2018, it finalised a deal worth US$1.17 billion for 28 of the more advanced Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, to replace the older C/Ds.

However, the plan to acquire the Kuwaiti Hornets stalled after some delays, brought on by the political imbroglio in Kuwait, and production issues with the Super Hornet’s manufacturer, Boeing.

Delays in the delivery of the Super Hornets to Kuwait affected RMAF’s planned acquisition of the legacy Hornets from Kuwait. The project has been on the slow burner since 2021. The Super Hornets were finally delivered to Kuwait that same year.

In 2023, Malaysia’s then defence minister Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, again announced that the RMAF was looking to acquire 33 Hornets from KAF’s stocks. Earlier this month, the RMAF sent a delegation to Kuwait to resume talks. Twentytwo13 has learnt that the deal is finally on.

The initial roadmap for the RMAF’s current MRCAs – the eight F/A-18Ds, and 18 Su-30MKMs – called for the phasing out of both types by 2032, and 2035, respectively. However, under the revised plan, both types will soldier on well into the 2040s. Under the same plan, the Su-30MKM will be upgraded to ‘Super Flanker’ standard, using the Indian Air Force upgrade of their Su-30MKI as the baseline. The RMAF’s eight Hornets meanwhile, are fresh from their latest SCS-29C upgrade, undertaken by G7 Global Aerospace, under the LPM12Y programme.

These measures will effectively deal with the ‘capability gap’ that had been plaguing the RMAF, especially in light of the heightened tensions due to the overlapping claims in the South China Sea, China’s posturing against Taiwan, and the uncertainties in the Korean peninsula.

Jet tankers for RMAF

Another possible development in the RMAF’s force modernisation programme is the addition of two jet tanker transports to the air force’s tanker fleet.

Twentytwo13 learnt that the air force is looking at adding two dedicated jet-powered tanker transports to its fleet of tankers. The task of providing in-flight refuelling is currently being shouldered by the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules, and the Airbus A-400M Atlas.

The RMAF uses the ‘probe and drogue’ method of in-flight refuelling (IFR), which limits its ability to support other air forces that use the ‘flying boom’ method of IFR. Aside from interoperability issues, the Hercules and Atlas are limited by range and speed. The introduction of the new tanker aircraft will address both issues.

Currently, the most common tanker type in service is the Airbus A330 MRTT (multirole tanker transport). It is in use by the air forces of Germany, Singapore, and Australia. The United States has several types in service, such as the KC-46A Pegasus, a platform converted from the Boeing 767 jetliner that is slowly replacing the long-serving KC-135 Stratotanker. In 2023, Congress temporarily halted the retirement of the KC-135, pending a procurement plan from the United States Air Force for a next-generation stealth tanker.

The primary IFR method on the MRTT is the ‘flying boom’ method, but to support aircraft using the ‘probe and drogue’ approach, a hose and reel system developed by Chobham Aerospace, can be quickly fitted to these aerial refuellers. The RMAF is expected to retain the ‘flying boom’ capability on its jet tanker fleet to enhance interoperability with other air forces.

The introduction of these enhancements, upgrades, and new ‘force multipliers’ will certainly be a game-changer in the region. The RMAF has been languishing for years, forced to do ‘more with less’.

Funding remains a critical factor. However, one thing is certain. If the money is not forthcoming, the RMAF’s ability to effectively counter new and emerging threats, will be seriously degraded.

Main image by Pravin Menon

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