Trans-Pacific View | Security | Southeast Asia

US-Malaysia Security Cooperation in the Headlines with Aircraft Mission Systems Transfer

A reported development provided a window on some of the ongoing functional cooperation between the two countries in spite of wider challenges for bilateral ties.

Prashanth Parameswaran
US-Malaysia Security Cooperation in the Headlines with Aircraft Mission Systems Transfer
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last week, details emerged regarding the transfer of aircraft mission systems from the United States and Malaysia. The development spotlighted an aspect of cooperation between the two countries in the defense realm amid wider challenges in the broader bilateral relationship.

As I have observed before in these pages, while the relationship between the United States and Malaysia has seen its share of challenges since the coming to power of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government in a shock election in May 2018, functional cooperation in certain areas has nonetheless continued to take shape. This includes the security side, where the two countries have continued to work on issues such as counterterrorism, human trafficking, and immigration.

Last week, this aspect of U.S.-Malaysia relations was in the spotlight with suggestions that Malaysia would be receiving aircraft mission systems from the United States. Affendi Buang, the chief of the Royal Malaysia Armed Forces (RMAF), told defense outlet IHS Jane’s on January 31 that the mission systems on the two aircraft would be provided by the United States via the Pentagon’s Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) as Malaysia seeks to convert two PT Dirgantara Indonesia (PTDI) CN-325 transports into maritime patrol aircraft (MPAs).

While few additional details were provided by Affendi himself, IHS Jane’s said the mission suite is likely to include the Merlin maritime surveillance system developed by Oregon-based Integrated Surveillance and Defense, Inc (ISD) – including a maritime surveillance radar, an electro-optical sensor turret, and an electronic support measures system – which has been installed on three CN-235s, two of which are in service with the Indonesian Navy and the other operated by the Indonesian Air Force.

Though specifics are still unclear, the development would not be without significance. While Malaysia had preserved the option to convert the transports into MPAs when it received the completed delivery back in 2001, it has yet to be exercised thus far and Malaysia currently operated seven CN-235s. The transfer of these mission systems would thus help realize a previously held objective.

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To be sure, the impact of this will be contingent on details that have yet to be revealed thus far. In terms of timelines, Affendi said work to upgrade the two CN-235s is expected to begin later this year, likely at PTDI’s facilities in Bandung Java, where the company is carrying out a service-life extension program for the aircraft as part of a maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) contract signed in April 2018. More could also lie ahead: two more platforms could also be converted into MPAs if more funding from MSI is approved.

Nonetheless, the spotlight on this development has highlighted the ongoing collaboration between the United States and Malaysia in the security realm despite the challenges that remain for the relationship. And such manifestations of cooperation will be worth watching to get a full sense of how U.S.-Malaysia defense ties are developing in practice.