Malaysia’s long-running requirement for a MiG-29 replacement is expected to turn into an order in the country’s 2016-20 planning period, with the Saab Gripen looking like a prospect because of the drop in oil prices that has created additional budgetary pressure on the oil-producing country.

Malaysia issued a brief request for proposals for fighters in 2011. With the two main parts of its territory separated by the South China Sea, it wanted a fighter with two engines, eliminating the Gripen.

But the price of crude oil, a key factor supporting the national finances, has halved since then.

“I don’t think the requirement for two engines is set in stone,” says Kaj Rosander, head of major programs for Saab.
The other contenders for the order are larger, have two engines and should be somewhat more expensive: the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and possibly the Sukhoi Su-30. Lockheed Martin appears not to be offering the F-35.

Malaysia needs fighters to replace MiG-29s under the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft program. It introduced 18 MiG-29s in the early 1990s; about 10 remain in service. The industry has been expecting Malaysia to order about 18 replacement fighters, but that figure is probably not firm. Malaysia adopts the common practice of five-year government planning periods, so the industry expects the order to appear in the next one, covering 2016-20.

Apart from two engines, the 2011 request for proposals, which was a preliminary document more like a request for information, specified a radar with an active electronically scanned array. Contracts for Malaysian manufacturing and exports to offset some of the value of importing the fighters are likely.

Saab expects Malaysia to adopt the increasingly common practice of specifying a required capability, measured as annual available flight time, rather than a certain number of aircraft. The Swedish firm thinks 16 Gripen C/Ds could provide the flight time that will probably be required.

The timing of the program is not ideal for Boeing. No decision is likely within a year, but Boeing’s Super Hornet program manager, Dan Gillan, said this month the company would have to decide in the middle of the year whether to support continued production of the type. To remain a candidate for Malaysia, the Super Hornet will need further orders from elsewhere.

Howard Berry, vice president for Super Hornet sales, emphasizes the payload-range capability of the Super Hornet, which has twice the empty weight of the Gripen C/D. It also has the advantage that the Royal Malaysian Air Force operates the F/A-18D Hornet, of which the Super Hornet is an enlarged derivative.

Rosander and Berry spoke to Aviation Week at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition in Malaysia last week, where Andy Lavin of BAE Systems also detailed the offer of the Eurofighter Typhoon. Officials from Dassault and Sukhoi representative Rosoboronexport were not available.

The clear advantage of the Gripen C/D is that it presents a relatively low challenge to the Malaysian budget. Malaysia wants all of the candidates to reduce the fiscal challenge by offering a lease deal, something that the Swedish company has experience in doing. The Czech Republic and Hungary lease their Gripens.

Saab must offer Gripens of the C/D version, because the enlarged Gripen E/F, which will replace the C/D in production, must first be built for Sweden and Brazil. But because the C/D is leaving production, an order would be needed within a year, which is unlikely. If Malaysia moves too late, then C/Ds could be supplied otherwise, Rosander says. He declines to be more specific, but the obvious source would be secondhand aircraft, perhaps supplied as interim equipment pending later deliveries of E/Fs.