When a U.S. Air Force B-52 paid a visit to Malaysia a few days ago, one of the world’s weirdest air forces launched a full fifth of its fighters to greet the lumbering bomber.
B-52 60-059, nickname “The Devil’s Own,” is one of at least two bombers from the Louisiana-based 2nd Bomb Wing that arrived in Guam in late August.
Late last week or this weekend, 60-059 flew over Malaysia. Fighters from at least three of the Malaysian air force’s four fast-jet squadrons flew alongside. They included at least two Hawk 208s, at least three Su-30s and at least two F/A-18Ds. There was a photoship, but it’s unclear what type it was.
That mix of fighters—British Hawks, Russian Su-30s and American F-18s—is strange, to say the least. Most air forces try to minimize the number of different fighter types in service in order to keep down maintenance and training costs.
But non-aligned countries such as Malaysia sometimes try to maintain ties with a wide array of governments by splitting their fighter buys.
The Malaysian air force in any event suffers from a shortage of modern, high-performance fighters. There are just 18 Su-30s, eight F-18s and 13 Hawks in service. The Hawks in particular are old and tired.
Too few fighters of too many types. It’s a twofold problem that Kuala Lumpur is trying to fix. And when it does, the sight of three different fighter types, all from one small air force, forming up on an American bomber … could become much rarer.
The U.S. Air Force frequently deploys small detachments of B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers to bases in Europe and Asia as part of its Bomber Task Force construct. The bomber probe Russian and Chinese defenses, lure rival air forces into intelligence traps and train alongside allied air arms.
Malaysia isn’t a close U.S. ally but Washington and Kuala Lumpur have a problem in common. China. Beijing claims disputed islands across the China Seas and doesn’t hesitate to enforce its claims with displays of military might.
On May 31, a formation of 16 Chinese air force Il-76 and Y-20 transports and other planes overflew the Spratly island chain, where China in recent years has built three important air bases. The Chinese planes’ flight path crossed Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone but not its national air space.
It was, in any event, one of the biggest and most forceful Chinese intrusions in recent years. And it caught the Malaysian air force off-guard.
Most of Malaysia’s fighters, including all of its supersonic Su-30s and F-18s, fly from bases in the west of the country, near the borders with Singapore and Thailand. The subsonic Hawks are the only fighters permanently based in the east, where the Chinese planes flew their provocative mission.
Hawks managed to intercept and shadow the slow Chinese interlopers on May 31. But the Malaysians might not be so lucky next time. If Beijing ever sends high-performance fighters along the same path, the Hawks might not be able to catch up.
“That incident highlights the need for Malaysia to have more modern patrol aircraft, if anything,” Oh Ei Sun, a fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, toldVoice of America. “I think in general our air force equipments are really outdated.”
The Malaysian air force has opened a tender for 36 new light fighters. It’s part of a long-term plan to reduce the fighter fleet to just two types equipping five squadrons. Many of the designs on offer—the American T-7, the South Korean FA-50 and the Chinese-Pakistani JF-17—are supersonic.
The next time a B-52 visits Malaysia, the mix of fighters that greets it might not be so interesting. But it should be a lot more capable.
By : David Axe – FORBES