• Royal Malaysian Air Force floated a tender Tuesday 
  • Earlier reports suggest India's HAL Tejas is the top contender
  • Three weeks ago, Chinese jets breached Malaysia's airspace  

Malaysia has decided to step up its air capabilities after being threatened by the recent Chinese incursions into its airspace over the South China Sea. 

The country's Ministry of Defence on Tuesday floated a long-awaited tender to acquire new light combat aircraft and advanced fighter trainers, three weeks after PLA planes breached its airspace, reported The Defence News.

An announcement published on the ministry's website said the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) plans to acquire an initial 18 aircraft to replace its aging fleet. 

Though the announcement did not include other details, Janes, a source for defense news, reported that RMAF wants eight of these jets to be primarily configured for Fighter Lead-In-Trainer (FLIT) while the remaining would be Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). The tender closes at noon on Sept. 22.

The modernization comes under RMAF's 'Capability 55' Plan launched in 2018. This envisages procuring 36 LCA/FLIT platforms in two phases, with 18 aircraft set to be purchased in 2021 and the rest in 2025.

Currently, RMAF operates seven Aermacchi MB-339CM jet trainers and 18 BAE Hawk 108 and 208 LCAs. However, the fleets, which entered service in the mid-1990s, are worn down by attrition. 

Air Force chief Gen. Tan Sri Datuk Seri Ackbal Abdul Samad said last year that the fleet of Hawks would not be upgraded. 

In December 2018, Malaysia had issued a request for information for its FLIT-LCA program from various manufacturers. Following this, it received eight responses from foreign platforms. 

This included Boeing T-7 Red Hawk, KAI FA-50 of South Korea, Leonardo M-346 Master of Italy, HAL Tejas of India, the China-Pakistan PAC JF-17 Thunder, Hongdu L-15 of China, Yakolev Yak-130 of Russia, and Vodochody L-39 NG of the Czech Aero. 

A report by Eurasian Times said RMAF was particularly impressed by India's HAL Tejas, which had put up an impressive performance at the 2019 Malaysian Air Show at Langkawi.

Other top contenders include Sweden's Saab JAS 39 Gripen, China-Pakistan PAC JF-17 Thunder, and the South Korean KAI FA-50.

Though the country's plans to upgrade its air force have often been hit by budgetary issues, the recent Chinese incursions added impetus to RMAF's need to modernize.

Earlier the month, 16 People’s Liberation Army warplanes had breached Malaysian airspace. The planes flew to the vicinity of the shoals administered by Malaysia in the South China Sea Monday, forcing the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) to scramble its fighter jets. Kuala Lumpur had described the incursions as "a serious threat to national sovereignty and flight safety," while China called it "routine flights."

Malaysia scrambled fighter jets to intercept the Chinese air force transport planes that appeared off Borneo File picture of a Malaysian fighter jet intercepting Chinese air force transport planes that appeared off Borneo. Photo: Royal Malaysian Air Force / Handout