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Military 101: Revisiting RMN’s Brilliant 15 to 5 Transformation Program

RMN Frigate KD Lekiu Jebat Navy Ship

RMN has a difficult mission to perform which is to protect Malaysia’s maritime interest and protect almost 4,700 kilometers of coastline from any unwanted intrusions. And yet, its fleet is insufficient and aging compared to a small country like Singapore where it only has a coastline of 200 kilometers to protect and has a very modern, capable fleet. Image source: Wikipedia

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If you recalled back in April 2022, there was a massive breakout of 500 Rohingyas from a detention center up north which saw some of them getting killed as they tried to cross a busy highway. Pretty sure a huge number of them escaped for good. This excludes the 180,000 Rohingyas who have already entered the country as illegal refugees.

Continued Rohingya Intrusion

There are about 2 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and all of them are looking for an opportunity to get away to another country where they will be able to start a new life. The problem is there are not many countries out there rolling out the red carpet welcoming them and that includes Malaysia.

Dozens of hungry and weak Rohingya Muslims were found on a beach in Indonesia’s northernmost province of Aceh on Sunday after weeks at sea, officials said.

The group of 58 men arrived on Indrapatra beach at Ladong, a fishing village in Aceh Besar district, early Sunday, said local police chief Rolly Yuiza Away. Villagers who saw the group of ethnic Rohingya on a rickety wooden boat helped them to land and then reported their arrival to authorities, he said.

“They look very weak from hunger and dehydration. Some of them are sick after a long and severe voyage at sea,” said Away, adding that the men received food and water from villagers and others as they waited for further instructions from immigration and local officials in Aceh.

Away said it wasn’t clear where the group was traveling from or if they were part of the group of 190 Rohingya refugees that has been adrift in the Andaman Sea. But one of the men who spoke some Malay said they had been at sea for more than a month and had aimed to land in Malaysia to seek a better life and work there.

(Source: AP News)

Some of them try to reach as far as Indonesia or Thailand where they can rest, replenish, and able to get another chance to enter Malaysia. Illegal intrusion from Rohingya refugees is just one of the maritime threats that the RMN is facing with its aging fleet of vessels.

RMN Singapore Navy Formidable

One cannot deny that Singapore Navy has the most modern and capable navy ships in its fleet and this includes its flagship, the Formidable class frigate which is based on the French-made La Fayette-class frigate. 5 of the 6 ships in active service were built in Singapore and carry the US-made Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Image source: Wikipedia

Regional Defence Updates

One needs to be aware of the changes that are happening in the region that will require urgent modernization & upgrades for RMN.

Singapore Receives 2 Invincible Submarines

With a smash of champagne bottles against their hulls, two new Invincible-class submarines were christened by the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) on Tuesday (Dec 13).

Named Impeccable and Illustrious, the submarines are the second and third of four customised Type 218SG submarines built by ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) for the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).

Designed for operations in Singapore’s shallow and busy tropical waters, the Invincible-class submarine features an X-shaped stern rudder for more precise manoeuvres, and propulsion systems based on fuel cell technology.

This allows it to stay submerged for about 50 per cent longer than the Archer-class submarines.

The 70m-long submarine also has a higher payload of eight torpedo tubes, and can travel at a surface speed of more than 10 knots – about 19kmh – or more than 15 knots when submerged.

(Source: CNA)

This means the Singapore Navy will have an edge over Malaysia and others in the region with a higher number of submarines and operating in a smaller operating area.

Indonesia Military Rapid Modernisation

Indonesia’s Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto has recently met his counterparts from various countries in a bid to finalise several military equipment acquisition deals.

On Nov 25, Mr Subianto met with his French counterpart Sebastien Lecornu in Jakarta when they discussed the purchase of two French Scorpene-class attack submarines.

Indonesia already ordered 42 of France’s Rafale fighter jets worth US$8.1 billion in February. Besides the Rafale fighter jets from France, Indonesia signed a contract last year to order two Airbus A400M aircraft.

In a bid to replace ageing equipment, Indonesia has increased its defence budget. Last year, the budget was 118.2 trillion rupiah (US$7.2 billion) and this year it went up to about 133 trillion rupiah.

(Source: CNA)

For consideration, outside France, India is the largest operator of the Rafale fighter jets with 126 units and is part of the options that the Indian Navy is considering as the fighter jets for their new aircraft carriers. 42 units of Rafale fighter jets for the Indonesian Air Force is not a small number and will be a formidable force when it comes to air interception and defense.

6 New OPV for Philippine Navy

Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) signed a contract with the Philippine Department of National Defense on June 27th to construct six units of new build 2,400 ton Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV) worth USD 573 million.

The Philippine Navy OPV has a displacement of 2,400 tons, a length of 94.4 meters, a width of 14.3 meters, a maximum speed of 22 knots, a cruising speed of 15 knots, a range of 5,500 nautical miles and will be built at HHI’s Ulsan shipyard until 2028. The vessel is to be equipped with a 76mm main gun, two 30mm secondary guns, a helideck capable of operating a helicopter and unmanned aerial vehicles.

(Source: Naval News)

This seems to be in the same configuration as RMN’s Kedah class which is primarily armed with naval guns and capable of holding at least one medium helicopter that is capable of SAR or anti-submarine warfare.

RMN Meko 100 German Navy KD Kedah

The German-made Kedah class offshore patrol ships are actually excellent ships considering that it is based on the MEKO-100 design that many navies around the world are using and are fairly new even though it is not armed with any anti-ship missiles although missiles can be fitted if required. Image source: Wikipedia

Current RMN Surface Fleet

The Maharajalela class frigate that forms the latest line of Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) that has an operating range of 9,300 km and had an impressive array of weapons from 57mm guns, anti-air, and anti-ship missiles is still an illusion at the point of time as the construction of the vessels have been delayed by almost 7 years to 2025.

In the meantime, the flagship of the RMN’s LCS falls on the UK-made Lekiu class frigates which were acquired in 1994 & commissioned in 1999 and have the same range and array of weapons as the Maharajalela class frigate including the Block 2 Exocet MM40 anti-ship missiles and has a hangar for one anti-submarine helicopter. Lekiu class frigate is complemented by the German-made Kasturi class corvette class armed with Block 2 Exocet MM40 anti-ship missiles which were commissioned in 1984 and had undergone Service Life Extension Program & sensors modernization in 2009.

INS Kolkata BrahMos Missiles Navy Weapon Pakatan RMN

One of the key considerations of a powerful naval ship is the type and number of anti-ship missiles like the BrahMos cruise missile that test-fired from the Indian Navy’s INS Kolkata is a key strength of the naval ships. RMN operates a number of anti-ship missiles in its inventory but most are equipped with Block II French-made Exocet MM38 anti-ship missiles. Image source: Naval News

RMN has a number of smaller but capable patrol boats such as the excellent Italian-made Laksamana class corvettes (commissioned 1995) armed with Otomat anti-ship missiles which are undergoing upgrades to extend their service life or the French-made Perdana class patrol boats (commissioned 1972) armed with Exocet MM38 anti-ship missiles. But these ships are old and in serious need of replacement.

However, the recent addition of the Chinese Keris class ships is only armed with 30mm guns and no missiles capabilities were added & smaller range of 3,700 km which is inferior to the German-made Kedah class corvettes that are armed with 76 mm guns and have a helicopter hangar that can carry one Super Lynx helicopter and has a huge range of 11,200 km.

In addition to smaller attack crafts, RMN also operates 2 German made support ships, KD Sri Indera Sakti & KD Mahawangsa that is able to carry troops and supplies for military operations but these were commissioned in the 1980s hence forcing RMN in 2009 to procure new auxiliary ships for support purposes.

Malaysian Coast Guard (MMEA) has some capable ships for patrolling Malaysian waters but none of them have missile capabilities. Ageing & obsolete equipment is one key reasons for RMN to come up with the 15 to 5 transformation program:-

The RMN’s existing Armada is made up of 15 different classes of ships that include frigates, submarines, corvettes, strike craft, support and auxiliary platforms. These ships were built in 7 different countries by several shipyards.

This presents us with complex logistical and training challenges. Apart from cost challenges to keep the ships available for operational commitments, the Armada also faces obsolescence. Most of our ships have passed the point in their service life where the returns in terms of availability and readiness vis-a-vis the cost required to upkeep them has begun markedly to diminish. Several ships are venerable, having already passed the 50 year mark.

Studies and experience have shown that traditional practices at prolonging their shelf life through efforts such as Service Life Extension Programme (SLEP) have failed to provide satisfactory returns compared to the investments made on them. In fact, in the long run, such efforts have proven to be more expensive than acquiring new ships.

Today, not only are our ships ageing, they also represent a mismatch between inventory and actual operational needs. As it stands, RMN’s Armada is hard-pressed to meet their operational requirements especially when taking into account the required maintenance, crew training, personnel turnover and operational tempo objectives.

(Source: RMN)

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South Korean Navy have shown that you don’t need an expensive anti-ship missile system when they deployed a 130mm guided anti-ship rocket for use aboard their PKX-B patrol boats. These guided rockets have an 8 kg warhead, a 20 km range, and are capable of simultaneously engaging 3 targets such as fast patrol crafts.

RMN 15 to 5 Transformation Program

In November 2018, the Chief of Navy, Admiral Tan Sri Ahmad Kamarulzaman floated the idea of transforming RMN into a very modern, capable navy, and one of the initiatives under this program is to reduce the existing 15 classes of navy vessels to just 5 key classes comprising 55 vessels by the year 2050 namely:-

  • 12 Littoral Combat Ships which will form the core flagships of RMN
  • 18 Littoral Mission Ships
  • 18 New Generation Patrol Ships
  • 4 Submarines
  • 3 Multi-Role Support Ships

Gowind DCNS LCS Ship Navy RMN

The proposed French Gowind design Maharajalela class frigates for RMN as the next Littoral Combat Ships will see the largest ships in the Gowind class and it has a good design backed by a well-known defense consortium. Image source: Ship Hub

Littoral Combat Ships (LCS)

For the moment, this is represented by the 6 French designed, Malaysian-built Maharajalela class frigate which is based on French’s Gowind 2500 corvette class design and once this is built, another batch of 6 more Maharajalela class frigate is expected to be built. Unfortunately, for now, none of the ships have been built and thus the gap of an LCS class is covered by the existing 2 Lekiu class frigates and 2 Kasturi class corvettes. There is a major gap presently in this class.

Littoral Mission Ships (LMS)

LMS is smaller & less expensive than LCS but in actual fact are large patrol boats that will replace aging corvettes and gun or missiles-equipped fast attack crafts. LMS may not be designed with missiles or large guns like the LCS but will have at least 30mm guns. This is presently handled by the 4 China-made Keris class offshore patrol boats that do not have any missiles but are equipped with 30 mm guns. The remaining 14 LMS will be built locally although RMN may decide to get them constructed by the same shipyard in China.

New Generation Patrol Ships (NGPV)

This will be based on the existing 6 German-made Kedah class corvettes which are similar to LMS but have more capabilities in terms of range, sensors, electronics, and weapons. Interestingly the original plan was to have 27 vessels from this class but after the 6th ship, the rest has been canceled.

Both NGPV and LMS are designed to be re-configurable vessels that can quickly be retrofitted and converted into small combatant ships (corvettes) in times of crisis.

(Source: RMN)

In this manner, Malaysia should explore getting naval ships from India namely the modern Indian-made Saryu class offshore patrol ships which can be cheaper but has a comparable performance and weapon as the RMN’s Kedah class. Both classes have one dedicated hangar for one anti-submarine helicopter.

Submarines

It is highly that RMN will procure another 2 more French-made Scorpene class submarines to be added to the existing 2 Scorpene class submarines for ease of operations, training, and maintenance. Ideally, 4 submarines will be a good starting point to counter the neighboring navies that have a similar number of submarines in their fleet.

However considering that all countries in this region have at least 3 active submarines and the biggest threat, China has 79 active submarines in its fleet, it is critical for RMN to have good anti-submarine capabilities to track and destroy rogue submarines.

Mistral 170 French Navy Helicopter Landing

One of the key characteristics of an excellent MRSS like the French-made Mistral-class amphibious assault ship is the ability to land several medium-weight helicopters at the same time on its deck and carry troops & equipment which will be necessary during military operations and disaster assistance. Image source: Wikipedia

Multi-Role Support Ships (MRSS)

RMN actually have specific requirements for their next-generation MRSS namely:-

  • Dedicated accommodation and support facilities for an embarked military force with the ability to carry additional troops/civilians in an overload situation for shorter periods. Sufficient cargo spaces for Embarked Force combat supplies or relief supplies.
  • Vehicle decks for the carriage of a mix of vehicle types ranging from a forklift to PT91 Main Battle Tanks together with the ability to load directly from the quay-side. 3 Spot flight deck capable of handling 3 medium-lift helicopter operations simultaneously for rapid transfer of troops, light vehicles, and their equipment.
  • A floodable well dock accessed through a stern gate – this dock is capable of transporting and deploying several Landing Craft Mechanize (LCM) which in turn can carry troops, vehicles, and stores between ship and shore. A relatively shallow draught enables operations in most regional ports.

(Source: RMN)

The proper MRSS that Malaysia had was the ex-US-made KD Sri Inderpura Tank Landing Ship but it was old and sunk due to a fire in 2009. Although presently RMN operates a mix of support and auxiliary ships, it is in dire need of proper multi-role support ships that not only provide on-the-sea supply to other RMN vessels but can also carry heavy-duty helicopters, armored personal carriers, troops, and equipment that can support amphibious landing.

RMN should look into procuring 3 French-made Mistral 140 which is based on the larger Mistral 170 which can carry up to 40 main battle tanks, 450 troops, and 16 heavy or 35 light helicopters. The smaller Mistral 140 is able to carry up to 10 helicopters, about 500 troops, and 30 vehicles.

However, it is likely that RMN may look at the South Korean-designed Indonesia-built Makassar class Landing Platform Dock ship which has an impressive range of 19,000 km and is able to carry up to 35 vehicles, about 350 troops, and 5 medium helicopters.

A smaller class of modern new navy fleet will also allow RMN to achieve this specific objective:-

With the new Armada, we will be able to deploy more vessels on operations to protect our interests at sea. Presently, approximately 5000 Ships Days at Sea are required annually for operational tasking, exercises and various contingencies.

Despite the same number of vessels from today (44 platforms), by 2030 we foresee increasing Ships Days at Sea to over 7000 – a 40% increase from the present level. This will be possible because of better availability afforded by newer vessels in the future Armada.

(Source: RMN)

RMN 15 to 5 transformation policy

A modern naval ship is well equipped, automated, and bristling with modern weaponry and is able to carry out multiple ranges of missions. A smaller range of classes will be easier to manage and train. Image source: RMN

Final Say

The 15 to 5 transformation program goes beyond just the hardware – it also includes changes to the resource intake, training & management and internal processes with specific KPIs to be met. An interesting area of change of processes is titled “Right Size Navy” where it is stated:-

Despite these enhancements and provided that we stay true to plan, our projections indicate that there is no necessity to request additional personnel. We plan to achieve this by leveraging on technology. Our incoming vessels will be designed with higher levels of automation.

This means that we will have an equivalent or more capable number of vessels but with a reduced crew. That translates into 20% to 45% reduction in personnel requirements from vessels with equivalent capabilities that they are replacing.

(Source: RMN)

On the shipbuilding, one of the reasons for RMN to come up with the 15 to 5 transformation program is to enhance the local shipbuilding capabilities so that RMN will be less dependent on foreign elements dictating the design & requirements of RMN in general:-

As a major domestic shipbuilding customer, the government, through RMN’s Fleet 15to5 Transformation Programme, can positively shape the direction of local shipbuilding industry. This can be achieved by transforming our naval shipbuilding and repair industry with a long term, predictable and continuous work order for local shipbuilders.

It will not only ensure the delivery of capabilities required by the navy, but will also result in lower costs of construction, a secure shipbuilding industrial future and retainment of investments made on infrastructure as well as skilled manpower

Having ships built mostly in foreign countries means the RMN is much more susceptible to foreign industry directions and variations in maintenance and logistical costs which result in having little to no control over the total cost of ownership. It also results in a constant outflow of Malaysian Ringgit, little domestic investment in infrastructure and skill sets, discouraging growth and contributing minimally to the country’s economy.

(Source: RMN)

The transformation with RMN should be one of the initiatives taken to make the Malaysian defense forces to be modern and an effective asset to the country considering the increase of intrusions and naval threats in the South China Sea.

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