LIMA 2023 soldiers on, despite bleak global economic outlook, geo-political flashpoints

This week will see the ‘last push’ and frenzied activity as builders, contractors, suppliers, carpenters, and vendors put the finishing touches on the exhibition booths and hospitality chalets at the Mahsuri International Exhibition Centre and Resorts World Langkawi, for the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace 2023 (LIMA 2023) exhibition.

After a one-instalment hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the biggest show in the mystical island’s biennial calendar returns, showcasing the latest whizz-bang and gadgetry in modern warfighting.

This edition, from May 23-27, marks the 16th of the show, which began in 1991.

Among the highlights are the five aerobatic teams that will perform the daily air demonstrations. They include the world-renowned Russian Knights, Al Fursan from the United Arab Emirates, the Black Eagles from South Korea, August 1 from China, and Indonesia’s Jupiter aerobatic team.

The air display segment will last roughly two hours, daily.

South Korea’s Black Eagles will be of particular interest to Malaysians, as the team flies its home-grown Korea Aerospace Industry’s (KAI) T-50B Golden Eagle.

The combat capable version of the T-50B – the FA-50 – recently won the competition to replace the ageing BAE Systems’ Hawk 108/208 in Royal Malaysian Air Force service as its Fighter Lead-In Trainer, and light attack aircraft. That deal is estimated to be worth RM4 billion.

The contract calls for a total of 36 aircraft to fulfil the RMAF’s requirement for at least two squadrons. The initial batch will comprise 18 aircraft, with options for 18 more.

The RMAF’s version of the FA-50 is the latest Block 20 variant, with the new, advanced PhantomStrike Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar from Raytheon, new avionics and sensor suite, and the addition of a retractable/telescoping in-flight refuelling probe in the starboard leading edge root extension (LERX) to improve its endurance and loiter time.

China’s August 1 aerobatic team is another major draw for enthusiasts. The team uses the domestically-developed J-10 ‘Vigorous Dragon’, built by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group. It is believed that the team is currently equipped with the ‘C’ version, which was reportedly designed specifically for the team, but it remains unclear if the transition to the new variant has been made beyond the testing phase.

Unconfirmed reports say that the C version has an upgraded AESA radar, a far more ergonomically advanced cockpit layout, large-format digital displays and an improved heads-up display (HUD).

A significant improvement is the change in powerplant, from the standard Russian-supplied Saturn Lyulka augmented turbofan, to the indigenous Shenyang WS-10 engine.

However, despite these ‘draws’, some analysts are sceptical about this year’s show, set against a bleak global economic landscape, the war in Ukraine, and the simmering tensions in the South China Sea.

“There’s a number of factors stacked against this year’s edition of LIMA,” said an observer.

“Russia’s campaign in Ukraine means that it can ill-afford to divert crucial military assets from the Ukrainian theatre to Langkawi. If the (Russian) Knights do show up, that alone is a huge plus for the organisers.”

The on-going Russia-Ukraine conflict began on Feb 24, 2022.

The simmering tensions in the heavily disputed South China Sea, and between China and Taiwan, together have resulted in an uptick in the sabre-rattling and rhetoric between Russia and China, and the West.

The geo-political flashpoints, set against the backdrop of a sluggish global economy ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, pose some serious challenges to the organisers.

Despite this, they remain bullish about capturing a slice of the global arms market, which in 2022, was estimated at a whopping US$154 billion.

LIMA 2023 is expected to bring in around 500,000 trade and public visitors.

Trade days for the aerospace component of the show are from May 23-25, while the two public days are May 26-27. The maritime segment of the event – at Resorts World Langkawi – is open to the public from May 23-27.