Over the last two decades, Malaysia has made concerted efforts toward modernizing its navy. The 15 to 5 Transformation Programme has been the basis of the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN)’s recent restructuring agenda. This program focuses on acquiring new ships to replace aging ones, reducing cost and logistics problems, and building an efficient fleet, in part by reducing the number of ship classes down from the current 15 to just 5.

After a prolonged pause, Senior Defense Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced last month that the government has decided to resume the LCS project. In his statement, the minister explained that decision was made in order continue to support its local shipping industry, Boustead Group, and keep the jobs of approximately 8,000 workers and 400 vendors that comprise Bumiputera Small and Medium Enterprises. However, the rationale behind this decision is far broader. The RMN needs to continue with the LCS project in order to maximize its options to remain relevant and increase readiness. The LCS program would enable the navy to respond to a wide variety of challenges at sea.

First, the LCS project, which is an effort focused on “building capability base” for the RMN, is a form of response and preparedness vis-à-vis the relative threats around Malaysia’s waters. Malaysia is situated at the crossroads of east and west sea lines of communication, with the Malacca Straits acting as a major choke point. The country shares maritime borders with Indonesia, an archipelago nation, and Singapore, the only city island nation in the world. In the east, Malaysia shares water borders adjacent to North Borneo with the Philippines, another archipelagic country. In the west, the Andaman Sea is a hotspot for the influx of seaborne illegal immigrants, smuggling, and trafficking activities connecting to the Malacca Straits. The claim to Sabah by the Philippines also makes North Borneo and the Sulu Islands of the southern Philippines hotspots. And, of course, the South China Sea is contested between Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and China. The Malaysian navy’s resources are stretched in responding to these threats, making it vital to obtain LCS.

Second, the LCS project is a fleet recapitalization effort by the government to provide efficient platforms for operational requirements at sea. Modern electronics and weapon systems, countermeasures, and quick response capabilities are important features in the modern maritime domain. Ever-changing innovations and advances in the technology of both traditional and non-traditional threats make it challenging for states to ensure that their capabilities are up to date. Modern naval ships, i.e. destroyers, frigates, and corvettes, are fitted with anti-surface, anti-submarine, air defense, and electronic warfare capabilities. Currently, existing RMN ships are aging in terms of its capabilities as well as sustainability; most of its ships are over 25 years old and are reaching a point of diminishing returns when it comes to maintenance costs. With the growing mismatch in capabilities, this procurement project is a much-needed modernization component as it can provide an advanced platform to achieve combat effectiveness that the existing RMN is lacking.

Third, as much as diplomacy has become a useful tool for nations, maintaining updated military assets is equally sensible. In today’s context, war dynamics and naval battles have changed with the advent of diplomacy, but the Westphalian system is still relevant when defending a state’s national interest. A classic example of asymmetric deterrence employed by the weak against the strong may be seen in the case of Vietnam’s efforts to deter China. Wary of China and its activities in the South China Sea, After Beijing’s placement of an oil rig in waters was claimed by Vietnam in 2014, Vietnam purchased Kilo-class submarines from Russia, a move that has forced China to recalculate its actions in disputed waters since. Vietnam has also expanded its procurement of frigates and corvettes equipped with anti-ship and anti-submarine weapons; a move was intended to protect state sovereignty. As a maritime nation, combatant platforms are necessary to address continuous challenges at sea when the current platforms are becoming obsolete.

Fourth, maritime surveillance and law enforcement are a deterrent to crime at sea, but their success requires the vigorous commitment of RMN and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) to assert their rights and laws of the country in the region claimed.  This enforcement has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the RMN and MMEA have worked together to combat non-conventional threats in national waters. This practice of integrating civilian and military assets is common in many modern Western navies. Although the MMEA operates with a dual-task function itself, when it comes to certain aspect such as military operations other than war and search and rescue, substantive resources such as LCS are required to conduct any form of assistance operations in forward area operations (beyond Malaysia’s maritime boundaries). Due to limited capability within the MMEA, the navy is regularly called upon for support.

Fleet modernization is therefore vital not just for defending sovereignty of the country, but also conducting secondary functions such as law enforcement assistance. And if the navy fails to recapitalise the fleet, RMN capability will progressively deteriorate, and the gap between the RMN and the MMEA will close. Without major combatants such as the LCS, the navy will soon be limited to the same capabilities as the MMEA, resulting in a redundant misallocation of resources on government’s part.

The maritime domain is an important defense area for Malaysia due to the country’s geographical proximity to both eastern and the western maritime routes. According to its 2019 Defense White Paper, Malaysia is a maritime nation with continental roots. Although the government continues to fall short on funding for maritime affairs due to the pandemic, the defense and security of Malaysian waters should not be compromised. The LCS project was part of the 15 to 5 program implemented after a long research and study process by RMN. Therefore, with this vision in mind, it is only practical to continue this project for the benefit of Malaysia and the stability of the region as whole. Given time and the opportunity, the Boustead Naval Shipyard can resume the LCS project and complete at least a minimum of two ships, a feasible but still relevant increase in the RMN’s assets and capabilities at sea.

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.