Air superiority in the Asia Pacific region

I was reading this article in the Straits Times by Azmi Hassan, a geostrategist at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. He discussed the issue of Malaysia’s plan to scrap its MiG29N multirole fighters with the more sophisticated SU30s also from Russia. And he discussed briefly the strategic role of such aircraft in terms of air superiority and air power in the Asia Pacific region. So Malaysia is seeing itself as a major regional air power with its 16 MiG29s which it is considering to scrap and replace with SU30s.

There are three issues here which I would venture to touch briefly on, one, air power, two, Asia Pacific balance of air power and three, the perception of threat. When talking about air power, the concept is about controlling and dominating the air space with superior aircraft that can take down all the enemy aircraft. In other words you rule the sky and any challenger will be taken down, or at least one is able to challenge any other power in the sky with equal chances of success. What this means is that the country must have superior aircraft in numbers and capabilities as each aircraft cannot be airborne for more than a few hours, and neither does it have enough weapons to fire continuously. But there is a bigger element in the equation. The people behind the aircraft, the pilots and the technicians, to make sure that the aircraft can fly, and fly instead of sitting in the hanger for lack of parts/weapons or equipment malfunction. In short, to maintain air superiority requires more than just buying aircraft.

The second point about Asia Pacific balance of air power is a big vague concept. How big is Asia Pacific region and who are the major air powers in the region? You have the Russians, the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Indians, the Australians and of course the number one superpower the USA. How would Malaysia fit in in the scheme of things to tilt the balance of air power in the Asia Pacific region? Or is Malaysia and its 16 super multirole aircraft going to mean anything to the other powers?

That brings us to the third point, which is more relevant, perception of threat and air power or air superiority vis a vis its neighbours. Who is likely to pose a threat to invade Malaysia? Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand or the Philippines or India, China or the US? Assuming the big powers are ruled out of the equation as any move by them will be checked by the other opposing big powers and the world community, Malaysia could thus look at the balance of air power with its Asean neighbours. Here it is a question of intent and potential to invade and take over the country. In the current context, the two possible enemies to Malaysia are Indonesia and Thailand. Singapore is just a thorn, can cause pain but no capability to take over the Malaysia in any count.

Malaysia should thus be weighing its capabilities both in terms of numbers and superiority of its aircraft vis a vis Thailand and Indonesia. Now would 16 MiG29s be enough? What did the two neighbours have that would dictate that Malaysia must replace its MiG29s? Relatively the MiG29s are more than enough to maintain a reasonable balance of power to protect Malaysian airspace. The region is not Europe. None of the countries have the ambition and capability to launch a major war to overrun and take over another country. They need a huge war industry to support a major war.They are not even capable of building their own aircraft or build and supply it with bullets, bombs and missiles, how could they be considering war ventures like Britain, the Germans or the Russians? Japan is not going to run wild without being clipped in the wings at its first move.

Maybe there are other strategic reasons to want to achieve air superiority. There is the tiny thorn with more aircraft and more sophisticated armoury. To have more aircraft and more sophisticated aircraft than Singapore is not so much as achieving air superiority, but also a psychological victory, a case of national pride and ethos. Malaysia must always have more and better aircraft than Singapore. Azmi acknowledged that this is kind of impossible as Singapore has no budget constraints and will just buy the best aircraft for its own defence. The threats and possibilities of tiny Singapore being overrun and taken over by its bigger neighbours is a frightening and real possibility. Maintaining a capability to defence itself is very real. Singapore is not concerned about being a regional power, to tip the balance of air power in the Asia Pacific region. Those are the dreams of dreamers. Its defence policies and armed forces are mainly for its own defence and not any woolly idea of grandeur.

Whether it is to be seen as an air power in the context of Asia and Pacific, or just to make sure that it has one up over its neighbours, Malaysia must continue with the arms race. It must upgrade its hardware. Never mind the software. Singapore could use this as a bargaining chip in its purchase of military hardware. The big arms suppliers should sell Singapore more sophisticated arms to entice its neighbours to do a one up and buy more from them. And for this reason, Singapore could even ask for special discounts or for free weapons so that others will attempt to keep up with the Joneses. The alternative is for Singapore to downgrade its weaponry and Malaysia then has no need to upgrade for more expensive weapons and aircraft. If Singapore has no aircraft flying around, even propeller aircraft like the Chipmunks and Cessnas could control the air space and attain air superiority. It is a game of relativity. The concept of air superiority and balance of air power by little countries is more like a fantasy.