Malaysia likely to get Russian stealth fighters under 14th Malaysia Plan

The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) is likely to select the Sukhoi Su-57E Felon fifth-generation stealth fighter as its next Multirole Combat Aircraft (MRCA).

Sources tell Twentytwo13 that the deliveries are expected to take place at the end of the 14th Malaysia Plan. In total, an unconfirmed number of airframes will equip one squadron. The RMAF will likely have options for follow-on orders.

Under the RMAF’s earlier timeline, outlined in its Capability Development 2055 (CAP55) roadmap, the Su-30MKM, Nato reporting name ‘Flanker’, will be phased out and replaced with an entirely new, fifth-generation fighter aircraft, by 2030-2035. However, under a new bold and ambitious plan, the RMAF is embarking on an aggressive, and accelerated force modernisation exercise.

The introduction of the stealth fighter, which analysts believe is the Sukhoi Su-57E Felon is just one part of the new plan. Other programmes lined up include the upgrading of the 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKMs to ‘Super Flanker’ standard, the acquisition of ex-Kuwaiti Air Force (KAF) stocks of the venerable F/A-18C/D Hornets, and the introduction of two jet-powered aerial refuelling tankers.

MRCA – Multirole Combat Aircraft

The RMAF’s MRCA requirement is for a twin-engined fighter with a high combat persistence, long loiter times, with air-to-air refuelling capability, and able to perform a variety of tasking, including air-to-air, air-to-ground, close air support, interdiction/strike, anti-shipping, and suppression of enemy air defences, among others.

Among the early contenders to fulfil this requirement were the Eurofighter Typhoon, France’s Dassault Rafale, Sweden’s Saab JAS-39 Gripen, and the United States’ Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. However, these aircraft are all 4.5-generation aircraft, and have been in service for 20 years. The Super Hornet, for instance, is nearing its 25th year in service. Its manufacturer Boeing recently announced that it was planning to shut down the Super Hornet production line in 2025. Most analysts agree that this current generation of aircraft may be nearing, or are at the end of, their growth potential.

Already, Britain, France, and Sweden are looking at the next generation of fighter aircraft. However, these sixth-generation designs – some incorporating Artificial Intelligence, ‘deep learning’, and the ability to operate in swarms – are still on the drawing board. The replacement for the Typhoon, called the Tempest, seems to be ahead of the rest of the competition, with Sweden only recently unveiling plans for their replacement for the Gripen. These designs are still 15-20 years away from becoming a reality.

Fortunately for the RMAF, two fifth-gen fighter designs are already flying – Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57 Felon, and KAI’s KF-21 Boramae.

Russia is already fielding the Felon, and is slowly equipping its fighter squadrons with the single-seat, twin-engined stealth fighter, under a low-rate initial production run.

The Felon is a fifth-generation multirole fighter, and the first operational stealth aircraft for the Russian armed forces. In addition to stealth, the fighter emphasises supermanoeuvrability in all axes, capacious internal payload bays, and advanced sensor systems, including an active phased-array radar.

In the Su-57’s design, Sukhoi cited the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor as the baseline for a supermanoeuvrable stealth fighter, but addressed what the design bureau considered to be some limitations of the Raptor, such as the inability to use thrust vectoring to induce roll and yaw moments, a lack of space in its internal weapons bays, resulting in limited payload-carrying capability, and complications for post-stall recovery if thrust vectoring fails.

The aircraft has a wide blended wing body fuselage with two widely spaced engines, and has all-moving horizontal and vertical stabilisers, with the vertical stabilisers canted outward for stealth. The trapezoidal wings have leading edge flaps, ailerons, and flaperons. The aircraft incorporates large leading edge root extensions that shift the aerodynamic centre forward, increasing static instability and enhancing manoeuvrability.

These extensions have adjustable leading-edge vortex controllers (LEVCONs) designed to control the generated vortices, and can provide trim and improve high angle-of-attack behaviour, including a quick stall recovery if the thrust vectoring system fails. To decelerate, the ailerons deflect up, and the flaperons deflect down, while the vertical stabilisers ‘toe’ inward to increase drag. Although the majority of the structural materials are alloys with 40.5-44.5 per cent aluminium alloys and 18.6 per cent titanium alloys, the aircraft makes extensive use of composites, with the material comprising 22-26 per cent of the structural weight, and approximately 70 per cent of the outer surface.

The Su-57 is powered by two Lyulka AL-41F1S augmented turbofan engines fed through ‘caret’-shaped intakes. Initial batches feature conventional convergent/divergent nozzles. However, sources tell Twentytwo13 that by 2030, the new variant, the Su-57M, will feature the Lyulka AL-51F-1 engines equipped with multi-axis thrust-vectoring nozzles, improving manoeuvrability in all speed regimes. It will also give the Felon true Mach 2, and ‘supercruise’ capability.

South Korea’s entry in the MRCA ‘furball’ is the KF-21 Boramae.

KAI’s KF-21 Boramae (formerly known as the KF-X programme) is a South Korean-led fighter aircraft development programme with the goal of producing an advanced multirole fighter for the South Korean, and Indonesian air forces. The airframe has a reduced RCS (radar cross-section), but at present, it does not have internal weapons bays like fifth-generation fighters. This, and other features, will be introduced later in development.

In April 2021, the first prototype was completed and unveiled in a rollout ceremony at the KAI headquarters at Sacheon Airport. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor in its basic shape and aerodynamic configuration. The Boramae features a twin-engined, twin-tailed design, with a single seat. There are however, plans to develop a two-seat, fully ‘missionised’ version, incorporating thrust-vectoring engines.

The first test flight was on July 19, 2022, with full-scale manufacturing scheduled to begin in 2026. At least 40 aircraft are planned to be delivered by 2028, with South Korea expecting to deploy 120 of the aircraft by 2032. It will also be available for export.

Both the Felon and the Boramae were odds-on favourites in the RMAF’s MRCA competition, and fit into the RMAF’s force modernisation plans for a number of reasons. In the case of the Su-57, Malaysia already has extensive experience in operating, servicing, and maintaining Russian aircraft, beginning with the MiG-29N Fulcrum in 1995. The infrastructure is already in place and there is familiarity with the way the Russians conduct business.

Sources tell Twentytwo13 that the Su-57 package being offered by the Russians to the RMAF included new-generation precision, and standoff weapons like the RVV-SDM (purportedly better than the AIM-120 C-7 beyond-visual-range missile), the RVV-MD (equal to the Raytheon AIM-9X all aspect, heat homer), and the Kh-35 Long Range, Air-to-Surface Missile (against sea, and ground targets).

KAI’s Boramae meanwhile, was a frontrunner because it seemed like the logical progression from the FA-50M Block 20 Light Combat Aircraft that the RMAF will soon operate. The initial batch of four FA-50Ms is scheduled to be delivered in October 2026. The remaining 14 will be delivered by the end of 2027, and the RMAF has options for another 18 aircraft. The introduction of the FA-50M entails a comprehensive maintenance, spares, and support package that could easily be expanded to include the Boramae.

Observers pointed out that there was a third possible entry – Turkiye’s Kaan fighter. The aircraft, however, was just rolled out earlier this year. It is looking at a rather long and protracted flight test and development programme ahead of it, and was therefore, not a real contender.

Another important consideration is cost. While no numbers have been firmed up, analysts expect the initial acquisition costs to be much lower than other US or European, ‘gold-plated’ fighters, like the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. And in Russia’s case, partial payment will most likely be made through palm oil.

Part Two will examine the other programmes in the RMAF’s force modernisation plan.

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