The Royal Malaysian Navy, and Malaysia’s Strategic Maritime Environment

First published: 22nd January 2017 | Imran Shamsunahar


From a regional perspective, the Royal Malaysian Navy is a relatively capable and modern naval force in Southeast Asia, albeit facing great challenges in terms of both declining defense spending as well as a worsening maritime neighborhood. The latter involves both state-on-state, conventional threats largely revolving around territorial disputes (namely that of the South China Sea dispute, in which Kuala Lumpur is a passive participant), as well as more non-traditional maritime issues which bedevil Malaysia, including piracy, militant groups, and terrorism. The seriousness of these issues is confounded by Malaysia’s unique geography. Hindered by limited resources, and aging surface ships, the RMN has adopted innovative policies to ensure Malaysia has the capability to adequately protect its maritime interests in the near future.

Malaysia’s strategic maritime environment

Malaysia’s unique geography ensures that the maritime environment will play a substantial part in any major decision made by Kuala Lumpur in regards to security and national defense. The country is effectively split into two halves by the South China Sea, that of Peninsular Malaysia in the West, and Malaysian Borneo in the East. At the narrowest point, the distance between both halves is approximately 600 km, while at its widest, 1,600 km. This creates an issue for the Royal Malaysian Armed Forces (RMAF), which find themselves having to split their limited forces between them.

This is a division which is not only simply geographical in nature, but also socio-economic and cultural. West Malaysia is the ‘demographic, political, economic and military core of Malaysia’, with East Malaysia largely isolated from these developments. This has created a sense of alienation and frustration among many East Malaysians, who feel that their impoverished states have been neglected. For a country which tends to be extremely sensitive to maintaining racial harmony among the country’s diverse populace, this creates a strategic imperative to ensuring that Malaysia’s maritime sovereignty and the access it provides is maintained.

The Royal Malaysian Navy’s Fleet Command Headquarters is located at RMN Lemut, located in the West Malaysian state of Perak. It currently has three main operational area commands, responsible for specific bodies of water. COMNAV I is located in Kuantan, and is responsible for the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia, a portion of Malaysia’s EEZ in the South China Sea, and the Singapore Straits. COMNAV II is located in RMN Seppangar, and is responsible for the coastline and waters of East Malaysia, including the country’s EEZ which stretches into the South China Sea. Finally, COMNAV III is located in RMN Langkawi, and is responsible for Peninsular Malaysia’s west coast and the vital Malacca Straits. The navy’s two Scorpene submarines are hosted in RMN Seppangar, alongside Submarine Command, which is responsible for both the operations of the submarines and the training of its crew.

The presence of the main headquarters of the RMN at Lemut is indicative of the west-centric focus of the RMN for the longest time. This certainly would have made sense when piracy in the Malacca Straits was a huge issue for the international community, but most scholars nowadays suggest that it is in East Malaysia where Kuala Lumpur will be facing their main security challenges in the coming years. These challenges can be broken down into two main areas, that of inter-state territorial disputes in the South China Sea, as well as rising trans-national threats emanating from the Sulu-Sulawesi Sea, including terrorism, piracy, and militant groups.

Looking East

The South China Sea dispute

Recent developments in the East has persuaded Kuala Lumpur that the main focus of their military attention in the coming years will be eastwards-orientated. As mentioned above, said developments can be broken down into two main areas: that of inter-state territorial disputes and aggression from trans-national, non-state actors. The former largely revolves around the South China Sea dispute. Malaysia is a passive player in the South China Sea dispute, laying claim to a portion of the Spratly Archipelago and its surrounding waters, and currently occupying five features in said Archipelago. The most notable of these features, Pulau Layang-Layang (Swallow Reef), a reclaimed island which currently hosts a naval base for the RMN’s patrol crafts as well as a runway capable of supporting a C-130 aircraft. Kuala Lumpur has become increasingly concerned about China’s increasingly aggressive and blatant acquisition of more and more maritime territory in the SCS, seen most evidently in its extensive land reclamation works and militarization of certain features within the sea in the last few years.

As noted by Malaysian strategic scholar Elina Noor, the importance of the South China Sea for Malaysia is twofold. As noted above, the South China Sea effectively splits both halves of Malaysia, and it is thus imperative for the RMAF to maintain access to ensure territorial integrity. As well, the South China Sea has huge economic importance for Malaysia due to its supposed abundance of natural resources, most notably energy. It is believed that the Spratly Islands alone hold between 4 – 6 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas. Malaysia at this point holds the fourth largest source of natural gas reserves in the world, at 83 tcf. However, the country’s production rate has decreased substantially in the last couple of years, with its reserves expected to last 36 years based on its production rate in 2008, a decrease from 51.2 years at its 2002 rate of production. Malaysia’s oil production has also decreased from a peak of 862,000 barrels per day in 2004.

At these rates Malaysia is expected to become a net energy importer by the middle of this decade, which wouldn’t bode well for a country where the oil and gas sector accounts for 40% of Malaysia’s revenue. There is thus a huge economic imperative for Malaysia to ensure continued access to the South China Sea and its energy reserves, which Kuala Lumpur hopes can help slow down the declining trend in the country’s oil and gas reserves, as well as boost national income. Indeed, an informative online map on the website of think tank Council on Foreign Relations noted that the most oil rich areas of the South China Sea fall within the waters north of East Malaysia and Brunei (albeit apparently currently ‘uncontested’). Although the RMN would stand no chance toe-to-toe against China’s People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which dwarfs not only the RMN but the combined fleets of all of the Asia-Pacific, it would be in Malaysia’s interest to ensure a minimum ability to deter the Chinese from making more blatant maritime grabs in the near future.

The Sulu-Sulawesi Sea

Besides the more ‘traditional’ challenges of state-on-state rivalries over territory, Malaysia’s East is also experience more direct threats from maritime-based non-state actors. This was certainly true in the Sulu-Sulawesi Sea, the one million square kilometer body of water which borders Malaysia, Indonesia, and the southern Philippines. The sea had seen a recent upsurge in piracy and kidnappings of Malaysian and Indonesian citizens by the Abu Sayyaf Group, a militant group based in the southern Philippines. The group itself is part of a larger phenomenon of Islamist militant groups operating in the generally lawless southern Philippines. Besides the presence of Abu Sayyaf in the Sulu Archipelago, there is also the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao province to contend with. Current worries about the possibility of ISIS establishing a foothold in the southern Philippines has increased the imperative to bring order to the Sulu-Sulawesi Sea.

Although this sea has always been a rather lawless area, due to the presence of grinding poverty on its shores and the absent of effective government, the recent upsurge in violence has become more apparent recently. The Sulu-Sulawesi Sea holds huge strategic importance for its neighbors, with an article in The Diplomat noting that ‘every year more than 100,000 ships pass through the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas carrying 55 million metric tons of cargo and 18 million passengers.’ It is estimated that over $40 billion worth of cargo passes through the Sulu Sea annually, and it is vital for a region suffering from a slowing Chinese economy to ensure intra-regional trade is maintained. To give an example of how damaging piracy in the sea can be, consider that in the beginning of this year Jakarta had to enforce a moratorium on coal shipment to the Philippines (valued at $700-800 million annually), but eventually reversed course after the economic loss was too great.

Lawlessness in the Sulu-Sulawesi Sea has not only affected Malaysia’ economy, but also very sovereignty. On February 11 2013, around 200 armed Filipino followers of Jamalul Kiram III, the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, landed in the district of Lahad Datu, in Sabah state, to press their ancestral claims to disputed land in Northern Borneo, whom they believed rightfully belongs to Kiram III. After several weeks of fruitless negotiations with the Malaysian authorities, Malaysian forces were sent in to clear them out. Although the invasion force was effectively neutralized, the resulting firefight cost the lives of 10 Malaysian security forces, as well as six civilians. The standoff caused public outcry in Malaysia, with many suspecting that the militants were able to infiltrate Sabah as easily as they did due to lax enforcement in the area.

Militarization of the East

Given these increasing maritime challenges facing Malaysia in their eastern territories, there are already indications of an eastward shifts in Malaysia’s military efforts in recent years. As mentioned above, Malaysia has agreed in August of this year, to coordinated maritime patrols (in which each country would patrol within their respective borders) in the Sulu-Sulawesi Sea alongside Indonesia and the Philippines. The more specific details on the how the patrols would take shape were agreed upon in an earlier meeting in May, where among the things discussed included areas ‘such as standard operating procedures, communications, and intelligence-sharing.’ There was also reportedly agreement on the establishment of command posts in each respective country to facilitate intelligence sharing and coordination.

We have also seen an increasing shift in military resources into East Malaysia by Kuala Lumpur. The most notable of them was the decision to permanently base Malaysia’s recently acquired Scorpene submarines in COMNAV II, at RMN Seppangar, alongside Submarine Command, which is responsible for both the operations of the submarines and the training of its crew. The decision to base Malaysia’s most modern naval equipment in Sarawak was obviously heavily influenced by the proximity of the base to the South China Sea and the occupied features. The importance of the base can be ascertained by an announcement by Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein in early 2015 that the government is considering placing an air defense system at the port (although there has been little news concerning this since then).

More recent news concerns the possibility of a new naval base being opened in the port city of Bintulu, in Sarawak. Noted for its oil wealth, in May 6th of this year Hishammuddin noted that the port would be part of a larger effort to ‘strengthen the maritime defense of Sarawak’, and that it offers a strategic location, as it is ‘protected from big waves and strong winds’. An article in the Borneo Bulletin noted that there were plans to establish a forward base from a decommissioned oil platform in Bintulu to save costs, and that said platform would be able to station drones, helicopters, and special forces.

Malaysia’s naval capabilities and future developments

From a regional perspective, the Royal Malaysian Navy is a relatively capable and modern naval force in Southeast Asia, but whose capabilities are severely hampered by both a lack of funding as well as limited assets. Hindered by limited resources, and aging surface ships, the RMN has had to adopt innovative policies to ensure Malaysia has the capability to adequately protect its maritime interests in the near future.

The current bulk of the RMN’s firepower is provided by its two Lekiu class frigates. These British built frigates were commissioned in 1999, and displace 2270 tons. They are armed with eight Exocet anti-ship missiles, sixteen Sea Wolf surface-to-air missiles, as well as a hangar for a Westland Super Lynx anti-submarine helicopter. Plans to augment the Lekiu class (this time locally built) with two more frigates were floated in 2006, but eventually shelved in 2009 due to cost. Instead, the two remaining frigates are expected to undergo a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP), with Malaysian-defense focused blog Malaysian Defense noting that both ships should already be underdoing SLEP sometime this year.

Besides the frigates, the RMN currently operates six corvettes, four Laksamana class and two Kasturi class. The Laksamana class displace 675 tons, and carry six Otomat anti-ship and twelve Aspide surface-to-air missiles. These Italian ships were originally built for the Iraqi Navy, but embargoed after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The RMN acquire these four ships in 1997 and 1999 respectively. The Kasturi class are larger, armed with Exocet anti-ship missiles, but lack anti-air defenses. These are probably the oldest ships in the fleet, having been commissioned in 1984. The Kasturi class went through an upgrade in 2009 to remain in service in 2020; both successfully undergoing SLEP and returning to the fleet by 2014. The Laksamana corvettes were also expected to go through SLEP, but there has been no news to this effect as of yet.

To aid Malaysia’ patrolling efforts, in 2000 the RMN decided to purchase six Kedah class offshore patrol vessels, commissioning them from 2006 to 2010. Displacing 1850 tons, the Malaysian built ships were based on the German MEKO 100 family of vessels, which are noted for their modular design, allowing a choice ranging from OPVs to small destroyers. Although the ships can carry two Bravo or Seahawk helicopters, they lack meaningful armaments, including SAM and SSMs. This is because the ships were built with the ‘plug and play’ concept. To keep costs down, the ships were commissioned fitted for but without any advanced weaponry. The idea is that said missiles can be purchased in a later date, thereby allowing the ships to be equipment with the necessary combat materials depending on the environment they are operating in. However, there is still no news about when exactly the Malaysian government plans to acquire said missiles. Until then, one naval blog noted, these ships are effectively oversized gunboats, more effective for low-key patrol duties rather than going toe-to-toe against conventional fleets. Given the aforementioned concerns about piracy in the Sulu Sea, one can argue that the Kedah class might still prove useful for the RMN.

Future acquisitions by the RMN will mostly be guided by an innovative plan introduced by the RMN referred to as the ’15 to 5 Transformation Programme’. With an inventory of aging ships and decreasing budgets, the RMN has had to be creative in ensuring Malaysia’s current seapower capabilities are maintained while streamlining the fleet and saving costs. Referred to as the ’15 to 5’ plan, it refers to the current 15 classes of ships from seven different nations currently in possession by the RMN. Since this represents a large cost in terms of maintenance and operations, the plan seeks to streamline the fleet to only five classes, while decommissioning older ships. The five classes would be the New Generation Patrol Vessel (the Kedah class), the Littoral Combat Ship, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Multirole Supply Ship, and submarines.

In 2013 the RMN announced the construction of six locally-built Second Generation Patrol Vessels (also known as the Littoral Combat Ship), which are effectively stealth frigates. A joint project between the Malaysian Boustead Naval Shipyard and the French DCNS, the ship’s hull will be based on French Gowind class corvettes, but much larger. The ships will have an overall length of 111 meters and a displacement of 3,100 tons, and will be armed with anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, alongside a helicopter with ASW capabilities. The first ship is expected to be commissioned in 2018.

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