LIMA after 32 years, a retrospective: Where are we now?

The 16th edition of the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition (LIMA 2023) ended recently, to mixed reviews.

Held on the back of the Covid-19 pandemic, the fact that the organisers managed to pull it off was, in itself, a miracle.

Organisationally, there were some shortcomings. The line-up of aircraft on static display was not as impressive as in previous editions, and parking for the public was too far from the main exhibition hall at the Mahsuri International Exhibition Centre. Visitors also complained of poor toilet facilities and exorbitant food prices.

But the bigger question has to be how far we have come since the first edition in 1991.

The inaugural edition was held exactly 32 years ago.

The brainchild of then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the idea was to use this platform to capture a sizeable chunk of the global arms market, while acting as a catalyst for Malaysia’s entry into aerospace manufacturing and industry.

But after 32 years, Malaysia’s aerospace industry is still struggling to reach its optimal cruising altitude.

Instead of being at the forefront of cutting-edge technology, Malaysia still languishes as a third-party supplier of aerospace components, parts, sub-assemblies, and aerostructures.

While Malaysia has carved a niche for itself as a dependable and competent parts supplier to some of the biggest names in the industry like Airbus, Boeing, and BAE Systems, the question is, why are we still lagging behind other countries like South Korea and Turkiye?

Both these countries kickstarted their aerospace industrialisation programme when they ordered the General Dynamics (now Lockheed Martin) F-16 Fighting Falcons from the United States in the early 80s and 90s.

Under the terms of the agreements, Lockheed Martin provided technical assistance to support the introduction of the type into the fleets of both nations.

In Turkiye’s case, Lockheed Martin agreed to open a second assembly line for the F-16 – nicknamed the Viper – in Ankara. This was one of four assembly lines for the F-16, the other three being in Fort Worth, Texas, Greenville in South Carolina, and at the SABCA plant in Belgium.

The biggest differentiator in both Turkiye and South Korea’s case is that they both built up their education, industrial, and manufacturing base in tandem with their aerospace programme. Both nations used the opportunity from their F-16 programmes to build their industrial and manufacturing capacities, to a point where they are now able to initiate their own, independent, indigenous aircraft projects.

Blessed with the building blocks provided by Lockheed Martin, both nations built up their capabilities in diverse areas such as aircraft design, avionics, radar, sensors, telemetry, weapons systems, instrumentation, flight control systems, powerplant, and flight testing and validation.

Today, Turkiye and South Korea have achieved maturity in their aircraft development capabilities, with both nations having developed, built, and currently testing advanced, fifth-generation, stealth fighter designs, with an eye on exporting them worldwide.

Malaysia’s inability to develop a sustainable aerospace programme that goes beyond the manufacture of components, parts, sub-assemblies and aerostructures, stems from the lack of four important ingredients – money, talent, a solid technological foundation, and a clear, well-defined aerospace roadmap.

To give a rough idea of the sort of capital expenditure needed to develop an aircraft, South Korea initially budgeted roughly US$8 billion for development and manufacturing costs for its indigenous KF-21 stealth fighter, ‘Boramae’. That initial figure was brought down to US$7.2 billion though a refinement of the mission requirements, and a rationalisation of the development and manufacturing processes.

Recently, defence publication Jane’s reported that South Korea’s Defence Acquisition Programme Administration (DAPA) had lowered the number further, by US$0.4 million. The programme will now cost US$6.8 billion, citing an unnamed source within the agency.

The KF-21 programme is a joint development between South Korea and Indonesia, with the former contributing 80 per cent of the funds, and the latter providing 20 per cent.

Boramae was rolled out in April 2021. The maiden flight of the prototype was achieved last year, with mass production scheduled to begin in 2026. Initial service entry with the Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) is expected to be in 2028 and full delivery of the 120 airframes to the air force will be completed by 2032.

KAI is eyeing the export market, with Poland being a strong candidate, especially after winning an earlier deal with another one of its products, the FA-50 light combat aircraft.

In terms of talent, Malaysia still struggles to reconcile the talent output with the realities of market demand. Put simply, jobs in the field of aerospace are hard to come by in Malaysia. To address this would again, require a massive injection of capital and a complete overhaul of our education system, with greater emphasis on STEM subjects and English.

The other problem is that Malaysia has unfortunately missed the boat.

Singapore, with its strategic location, became the focal point in the region to create an aerospace hub. Its education system, and the government’s farsightedness, supported the growth in this sector, which began in the late 70s. Today, Singapore’s aviation and aerospace sector contributes about five per cent of the GDP and provides more than 200,000 jobs across various disciplines.

Another well-established player that enjoyed a head start, is Indonesia. Its foray into the embryonic aerospace field also began in the late 70s with the establishment of Industri Pesawat Terbang Nusantara (IPTN), now known as Indonesian Aerospace. From manufacturing aircraft under licence, it has now grown into a complete, integrated solutions provider, and a systems integrator.

Malaysia’s disjointed effort at cobbling together a comprehensive and competent aerospace roadmap has suffered a series of false starts and stumbles. It has reached a point now where trying to break into the markets dominated by established players, would be foolish and impractical.

Unless the right project comes along.

Main image: Defence Ministry, Malaysia

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