A "boon and a bane” may be the best way to describe the four new Airbus A400M airlifters operated by Malaysia. Ordered in 2005, the first one was delivered in 2015 and the fourth last year.

They are a boon to the military because they are proving to be outstanding airlifters, Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein says. Despite this, military officials say privately that the US$740 million spent on them could have funded other, more pressing requirements, such as airborne early warning and maritime patrollers.

The contradiction has become clear recently as the military has struggled to fund the acquisition of fighters, training jets and maritime patrollers, and upgrades of a slew of aircraft and helicopters. Funding for new maritime patrollers has been approved, but the first one will not be in service by 2020. The military has still not chosen a type.

Royal Malaysian Air Force Chief Gen. Affendi Buang is full of praise for the A400Ms. He says the A400M fleet ensures that the service is well placed to undertake a wide range of military and humanitarian operations within Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Analyst Thomas Benjamin Daniel with Institute of Strategic and International Studies says the government tends to be careful in announcing defense purchases just before elections. Malaysia’s next general election is due by August.

“As compelling as an argument can be on the need to spend on defense, it is not going to resonate well with average Malaysian wage earners who perceive that they are having to spend more and save less to support themselves and their families,” Daniel says.

The military has much aging equipment and ammunition that needs to be replaced or upgraded. So procurement is not exclusively driven to concerns over China’s attempt to gain control over almost the whole South China Sea, the body of water that separates West and East Malaysia. Yet it is still a factor.

“It’s undeniable that their [China’s] policies and actions in the South China Sea, especially in waters claimed by Malaysia, are a major concern,” says Daniel. “While we [Malaysia] can never match China in terms of capacity, there is a dire need for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and maritime enforcement assets to better monitor its activities and, if need be, intervene.”