Premature to blame RMAF Hawk crash on aircraft age, poor training, maintenance

Accidents happen. However, the loss of a Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) Hawk Mk. 108 last night couldn’t have come at a worse moment and presents a public relations ‘hot potato’ for the RMAF in several ways.

Already, armchair critics are saying that keeping the aircraft flying is tantamount to gross negligence, due to the Hawks’ age. Others are pointing accusatory fingers at the maintenance culture, and even the training standards of the aircrews.

Last night’s crash at 10.07pm in Butterworth involved a single Hawk Mk. 108 from No. 6 Squadron. The jet, serial number M40-08, was crewed by Major Fareez Omar and Captain Mohamad Affendi Bustamy.

Mohamad Affendi was killed in the incident, while Fareez sustained injuries. He is reported to be in stable condition.

The fact that this mishap came on the heels of a damning report by Transparency International, just provides more ammo for detractors.

The Government Defence Integrity Index (GDI) 2020 report is an international index related to corruption in the defence sector. Malaysia scored just 45 per cent, which earned it a ‘D’ rating.

Aircraft accidents are never attributed to a single cause. There are usually several contributing factors.

Is the Hawk old? The short answer is, ‘yes’. The design, as an advanced jet trainer, dates back to the 1970s. Malaysia purchased two different iterations of the aircraft to fulfil two significantly different roles – a light combat aircraft (in the form of the single-seat, radar equipped Mk. 208), and as a lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT) and light strike aircraft – the Mk. 108.

While the basic airframe is largely the same as the original design, the jets operated by the RMAF are equipped with advanced avionics, a modern ‘glass’ cockpit with multi-function displays, and in the case of the Mk.208, an AN/APG-66H pulse-Doppler, multimode radar.

The contract between the Malaysian government and BAE Systems for (the then) new-build Hawks was signed in 1990. Deliveries of 10 Hawk Mk. 108s and 18 Mk. 208s began in 1994.

So, is age a factor in this incident? Not necessarily. Other aspects could have played a role – ingestion of FOD (foreign object debris), bird strike, weather and other meteorological conditions, mechanical failure, spatial disorientation … the list is endless.

Typically, aircraft manufacturers design airframes to last anywhere between 30 and 40 years. The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, for example, has been in service with the United States Air Force since 1955, having first flown in 1952.

The RMAF realised that the Hawk is getting long in the tooth, and as such, initiated the Light Combat Aircraft/Fighter Lead-In Trainer (LCA/FLIT) programme a few years ago, as part of its ‘CAP55’, force modernisation/rationalisation initiative.

As it now stands, the RMAF’s replacement programme for the Hawks is on track. The air force recently announced a tender for the supply of 18 aircraft (with options for another 18) to replace the ageing Hawks. The Hawks will soldier on until 2030, while the new LCA/FLIT aircraft are expected to enter service in 2025. A decision on the winner is expected to be announced soon.

Key to a type’s service longevity is proper maintenance, following a set of stringent, internationally mandated, protocols. This is an area that is highly regulated.

In the late 80s and 90s, the RMAF suffered a string of mishaps involving its venerable workhorse, the Sikorsky S-61 A-4 Nuri. Part of the problem was attributed to the retention of experienced maintainers who left the service for the more lucrative private sector.

Over the years, the RMAF and the government spent a considerable chunk of the defence budget on remuneration and benefits across the board to stem the migration of talent. That effort has paid dividends.

Year-on-year, it’s an almost even split between capital, and operational expenditure in the Armed Forces. As a result of this, the service has been able to retain its top talents.

Ground crews, maintainers and ordies (ordnance specialists) undergo regular training, both locally and overseas, to maintain currency. The RMAF’s best and brightest officers are sent to staff colleges all over the world as a part of their career progression requirements. This is a prerequisite for promotion.

At the squadron level, competitions are held to pick the best in each category – best squadron, pilot, and ground crew.

During the recent fleetwide competition called ‘Exercise Iron Fist’ in March, the Hawk squadrons acquitted themselves well, with No. 6 Squadron emerging as ‘Top Gun Squadron’.

The last year has also seen a flurry of bilateral and multilateral exercises, to test the RMAF’s readiness and capability, and to ensure interoperability with other air forces from around the world.

The RMAF conducts regular exercises with United States Navy fighter squadrons each time a carrier battle group transits the South China Sea on deployment. These are called ‘PassEx’, for ‘Passing Exercise’.

This year, ‘Exercise Bersama Shield’ was conducted under the aegis of the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA). Aircrews from Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand took part in a week-long ‘furball’ to hone their skills in air combat maneuvering, offensive counter air, and defensive counter air operations.

These, and the other engagements exhibit a high level of operational tempo that demonstrate the air force’s ability to sustain combat operations, despite issues beyond its control.

The crash of M40-08 was, unfortunately, one such example.