The South China Sea is an important maritime area for Malaysia. Besides being connected to the world’s major east-west trade routes, Malaysia is one of the claimant states of the Spratly Islands. The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN), however, is facing a growing mismatch between its naval capabilities and its interests in addressing maritime challenges in the South China Sea.

The RMN underwent intense development in the 1970s and expanded its forces in the 1980s. At the end of the 1990s, Malaysia bought its first submarine (Tunku Abdul Rahman), and the country commissioned its second (Tun Razak) in November 2009. The RMN also obtained four small Laksamana-class missile corvettes and Leiku-class frigates (KD Leiku and KD Jebat) in the late 1990s. Six large Kedah-class offshore patrol vessels were later put into service. In 2016, four littoral mission ships from China were supposed to add new flavor to the RMN’s naval modernization program—but thus far only one has been commissioned (KD Keris). Under the same program, the RMN was also seeking to acquire new generation patrol crafts (NGPCs) and second-generation patrol vessels which were expected to come into service in 2020 as well as littoral combat ships that were expected to be completed by 2023. But all of these projects have run into roadblocks due to ineffective administration.

The RMN also faces some hiccups in performance due to huge numbers of ageing assets. All of its combat and patrol vessels are from the 1970s and 1980s, and the majority of these ships are reaching the point of diminishing returns in terms of maintenance. KD Kasturi and KD Lekir underwent a service life extension program in 2014, but they currently only have 10 years left in their expected lifespans. Three multi-role support ships were supposed to replace the aging multi-purpose command support ships, KD Sri Indera Sakti and KD Mahawangsa, but implementation has stalled.

While poor shipbuilding expertise and technology are contributing factors in these glitches, cost remains the greatest challenge for the RMN in modernizing its fleet. The Ministry of Defence’s 2021 budget was recently allocated $3.8 billion, a 1.8 percent increase from 2020. Notably, the share of the budget dedicated to development expenditure saw a 46.1 percent increase. This is an important step that shows the government recognizes the need to invest in future capabilities. Nevertheless, innovations and advances in technology make it challenging for states to ensure their capabilities are up to date. Hence, acquisition of modern electronics and weapon systems, countermeasures, and quick response capabilities are important features for a maritime nation like Malaysia.

To this end, Malaysia needs to weigh its options to remain relevant and increase its readiness at sea. First it has to strengthen interoperability between the Royal Malaysia Air Force (RMAF) and the RMN, especially given that the RMAF has rapid response capabilities that the RMN lacks. At the moment, RMN is striking a balance between maritime surveillance and maritime patrol aircraft, unmanned aircraft systems, ground based radar, and missiles. In 2019, Malaysia received eight drones at no cost from the United States including the Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft system; several Boeing Insitu ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicles; and the AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven, a hand-launched unmanned aerial vehicle. Malaysia is also looking into acquiring single-type multi-role combat aircraft as well as light combat aircraft. The United States remains a dominant security partner because it has the required technology to address China’s supremacy in the South China Sea as well as to obtain maximum gain within fiscal constraints. But there are also opportunities to engage with other countries. Malaysia has expressed interest in sea surface surveillance platforms, especially the P-8A Poseidon. Thus far, India and Australia are the only operators of this maritime patrol aircraft in Asia, providing Malaysia a window of opportunity to engage with the Quad members. Malaysia has already developed some familiarity with the Indian Navy’s Boeing P-8I Neptune advanced maritime patrol/anti-submarine warfare aircraft stemming from its involvement in the search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. The AP-3C Orion from Australia was also involved in the search of the missing flight. Moreover, the AP-3C Orion has operated from RMAF Butterworth for a number of decades as part of the bilateral Malaysian and Australian Operation Gateway patrols. With limited capabilities, new partnership is a smart approach.

The RMN can also improve coordination and consolidate some of its functions with other maritime bodies, especially the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), to boost its strength at sea. The MMEA’s image, with its “white hull” vessels, is far less intimidating than that of a “grey hull”, making the coast guard a useful tool in performing law enforcement functions in the South China Sea. Besides practicality, the MMEA is also the sole authority capable of providing layered support to the RMN to tackle encroachment into Malaysian waters and perform coastal water law enforcement. Hence, close cooperation with the MMEA can help the RMN achieve the most coverage in terms of assets, providing effectiveness and flexibility in responding to intrusions and encroachment at sea.

The MMEA currently has six NGPC-class ships and one training ship, the KM Marlin, that can provide platform and escort support. As for its main ships, it has KM Pekan, KM Arau, and two Langkawi-class vessels that can carry helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles. It also has two fixed wing aircraft Bombardier CL-415MP amphibious platforms which joined in 2009, and multipurpose variants fitted with forward-looking infrared sensors and ST Airborne System’s Airborne Maritime Surveillance System 6000 which can detect small targets. These assets can be useful in protecting Malaysia’s offshore oil and gas concessions and combating illegal fishing. The MMEA also operates three Agusta Eurocopter AS365N3 Dauphin helicopters and three Agusta Westland AW139 helicopters. In February 2020, the government approved the purchase of four more helicopters worth $146 million. These helicopters will assist in safeguarding waters. In July 2020, the MMEA received two NGPCs – the KM Kota Kinabalu and KM Tok Bali – to help monitor and curb illegal fishing. The RMN and MMEA adopted new “Permanent Procedures (PROTAP) for Joint Operations” in 2016 for effective coordination and communication at sea. Both the capabilities and mature consolidation on standard operating procedures could support the RMN in safeguarding the South China Sea.

Other forms of consolidation efforts have taken place. For instance, the Eastern Sabah Security Command was established in 2013 as a joint effort of the Malaysian Armed Forces, Royal Malaysian Police, and MMEA. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Malaysia has succeeded in coordinating all of its important maritime bodies into a National Task Force in order to address illegal entry into the country. A similar approach could be adopted toward the South China Sea by roping in the Royal Marine Police and PASKAL, the special operations force of the RMN, for better use of assets and expertise.

The RMN is perceived to be a mature force in Southeast Asia. However, today financial constraints remain the underlying factor holding back the RMN from performing its tasks to the fullest at sea. There is a sore need for the RMN to improve and consolidate its maritime forces in the face of serious challenges to its strategic and economic interests in the South China Sea, before the mismatch between its capabilities and these challenges becomes too great.

About Tharishini Krishnan

Dr. Tharishini Krishnan is a senior lecturer at the Department of Strategic Studies and a Centre of Defence and International Security Studies (CDISS) research fellow at the National Defence University of Malaysia.