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Sunday 21 May 2017

Malaysian 15 to 5 Armada Transformation Program - Meeting Mahan’s Perspectives while Adjusting to the Fiscal Environment

Written by Theodore Bazinis*

Alfred Thayer Mahan. Source
Royal Malaysian Navy vessels in formation
In his essay “Considerations Guiding the Dispositions of Navies’’, for the British journal National Review (1901), Mahan defined the ways that a nation should deploy and dispose its naval forces in times of peace. Τhe godfather of Sea Power, determined the constitution of the fleet, as a critical factor for naval power. Aiming to cope with a range of threats and challenges and fulfill its nation’s ambitions in maritime domain, a fleet should consist of adequate number of ships and of requisite types. Naval Strategists and Naval Policy Makers are charged to correspond in such a manner so that to achieve an ideal connection between naval procurements (which define the future constitution of the fleet) and ambitions, threats and challenges within a given fiscal context. Mahan determined four elements (abilities) which constitute a balanced fleet: (1) projection of sea power and overcoming a contingent or future enemy, (2) protection of vital sea lanes, (3) scouting and operating toward the coast and (4) exercise naval diplomacy.

Malaysia in maritime domain

Strategically located state, laying in one of the most important choke points (Malacca Strait) which divides South China and Adaman Seas, Malaysia is facing a number of challenges in maritime domain: (1) The need to enforce its claims to the disputed islands and features of South China Sea, (2) The emergence of China and India as sea powers, (3) Chinese claims in South China Sea which in turn provoke US and her allies (Japan, Australia) intercession and reaction in the region, (4) Maritime contest between China and Southeast Asian countries with contested claims in South China Sea (Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei) and (5) Fulfill its commitment to MSSMAA [1] to contribute in safeguarding the navigation along the Malacca Strait by potential threats of any nature (piracy, terrorism, insurgency, distribution of Weapons of Mass Destruction). 

Bases of the Royal Malaysian Navy. By Muffin Wizard. source

Concerning all above building and maintain potential naval capabilities is more than a comprehensible aim, it is a prerequisite to achieve the aforementioned strategic objectives. Evidently, in order to deal with the challenges associated by East Asian regional maritime security environment, Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) should meet and satisfy the four elements of Mahan’s theory.

What is the 15 to 5 program?

It is a strategic response of Royal Malaysian Navy that figures out threat and challenges in maritime domain, taking into account the security environment and the allocation of financial resources. The 15-to-5 program is a centerpiece plan that proposes a transformation process (or restructure) by reducing the current RMN’s 15 classes of vessels to just five categories: Littoral Mission Ships (LMS); Multi-Role Support Ships (MRSS); Littoral Combat Ships (LCS); New Generation Patrol Vessels; and submarines. 

The 15 to 5 program of the Royal Malaysian Navy

Current Royal Malaysian Navy forces consist of 15 classes of naval vessels that have been constructed in seven different countries –Germany, France, Italy, South Korea, Sweden, Britain and Malaysia with an average age of thirty (30) years. Through this program RMN seeks an alternative in order to adjust in fiscal reality without affecting its capability to address security threats and deal with challenges.

As RMN Admiral Ahmad Kamaralzaman noted “…We used to have 15 types of vessels from seven different countries with the average age of 15 years. After a study done we realized that the operating costs are very high… it is cheaper to buy new ships than to maintain the old ones that are already 30 to 40 years old. Although LMS is smaller it is capable of doing a lot of missions…In the past we wanted the best platform available to meet our requirements but in reality we can’t afford them. So we are looking at ways to meet the challenges…if the transformation program is endorsed by the government the replacement process will be done in stages. We will focus on building ships from 5 classes harnessing the abilities of local industries...” [2]


1. In July 2014 Royal Malaysian Navy and Boustead Naval Shipyard signed a contract for 6 Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) vessels, designed by French DNCS and based on the Gowind 2500 Corvette design. Keel for the first one was laid down in March 2016 and the second in February 2017. The first ship is expected to be delivered to the RMN in late 2019. Littoral Combat Ship is a vessel of 3000tn displacement, 111m length, max speed of 28knots and endurance of 5000nm. Equipped with BAE Systems 57mm Mk3 naval gun, MBDA VL MICA surface-to-air missile (SAM), anti-ship KONGSBERG Naval Strike Missiles, two J+S 324 torpedo launching systems, two MSI Defense Seahawk 30mm guns and THALES CAPTAS 2 Array Sonar, the ship is planned to meet operational requirements and operate in blue and littoral waters of Indian Ocean and South China Sea assuming a broad range of modern and post-modern operations. So, Littoral Combat Ship is expected to pass off as the spearhead of the Royal Malaysian Navy. 

Gowind 2500 Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) of RMN

2. An agreement signed last November between RMN and China regarding the purchase of four Littoral Mission Ships (LMS). According to Admiral Kamarulzaman the LMS will be smaller and less expensive than Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). Royal Malaysian Navy plans to acquire 18 of these vessels which will replace the Laksamana class corvettes, Vosper Patrol Coast (PC) boat, Fast Attack Craft (FAC) with Gun (G) or Missiles (M). Construction was assigned to Boustead Naval Shipyard Bhd and China Shipbuilding and Offshore International co Ltd with monitoring being led by the Malaysian Ministry of Defense, as well as China’s SASTIND (State Administration Science Technology and Industry for the National Defense). Although not much are known regarding technical and operational features, analysts estimate that the length of the ship will be about 70m, max speed up to 30-32 knots, equipped with a 30mm gun. LMS vessels are planned not only to execute surveillance missions, but also to be deployed in humanitarian and disaster relief operations. 

The concept of Littoral Mission Vessel of the Republic of Singapore Navy

3. With respect to the NGPV’s, Admiral Kamarulzaman has stated that the Royal Malaysian Navy is interested in procuring more (about 12) of an improved version of Kedah class corvettes. Currently, RMN operates six such ships which are its most modern surface ships though they carry limited armament.

Kedah class KD Kelantan in the Strait of Malacca. Photo by Nicolas Lopez, USN.
Notice that the vessels has a large space and very modern electronics to support a
variety of weapons but they are currently operating with limited armament.

4. No decisions have been reached yet for the Multi Role Support Ship (MRSS) but it is possible that RMN would seek to acquire two or three such vessels enhancing its capabilities in humanitarian assistance / disaster relief operations as also moving troops and equipment. Except the discussions with China, in November 2016, the Indonesian state-owned shipbuilder PT PAL signed an MOU with Boustead Naval Shipyard (BNS) to construct Malaysia's first multirole support ship (MRSS) in Indonesia, based on an enlarged Makassar class LPD of more than 150 meters [3].

KRI Banjarmasin, Makassar class LPD of the Indonesian Navy

5. Regarding the submarine fleet, RMN has acquired two Scorpene class submarines, constructed by French DNCS and its Spanish partner Navantia. Both of them are armed with Blackshark heavyweight wire guided torpedoes and Exocet SM 39 anti-ship missiles. 

Scorpene class submarine KD Tun Razak

6. Recently, the Malaysian Coast Guard delivered the first of the six New Generation Patrol Coast (NGPC) boats, the KM Bagan Datuk, constructed by local company Destini Shipbuilding. Such a vessel can provide flexibility in performing a wide range of operational duties and security missions (antipiracy, fisheries polishing, anti-smuggling, borderline surveillance). It is worth of mention that the class is equipped with the Fulmar UAV system. 

KM Bagan Taduk, first of NGPC vessels.  Notice that she is fitted out for airborne
drone trials with a launcher rail forward and an arrester net behind the mast.
Photo by JerryE /

Given current limitations, it remains to be seen if the Royal Malaysian Navy will actually be able to cope with financial demands and fulfill its aspirations. If the defense budgets declines in the coming years it is possible that the required funds will not be made available. Nonetheless is obvious that the so far planning and decisions made, lead Royal Malaysian Navy a step forward towards a capability boost which will in turn will safeguard Malaysia’s interests and enhance her role as a security actor in the region.

* Theodore Bazinis is a Political Scientist –International Relations (MA) and Researcher in the Institute of International Relations in Athens, at Maritime Strategy and Security Department.

  1. Maritime Security Sea Patrol Monitoring Action Agency, an agreement signed in July 2004 by Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand to secure navigational routes along Malacca Straits mainly from piracy. The agreement calls for intelligence exchange, sea and air patrols. 


  1. 15-to-5 is a much-overdue attempt at rationalisation, however due to budgetary considerations is unlikely to be realised in full in anything less than 2 decades. The annual procurement budget is only roughly about USD 1 billion for the RMN, so strict prioritisation is in effect. About 30%-50% of this will be soaked up by the DCNS Gowind frigate project alone until 2023 at the earliest, assuming delivery of 1 ship/year.

    1. Yes, the 6 DCNS Gowind frigates (LCS is a mere buzzword) will be the most capable surface combatants of the RMN for quite some time. This may be considered #1 priority for the RMN as funding has been contractually locked in at about USD 500m apiece. The greatest threat in the region remains piracy and terrorism, however...
    2. Hence, the 4 Chinese-built LMSs are crucial for antipiracy and EEZ patrols in the Sabah littorals. The utmost priority on everyone's minds is avoiding the ISIS infection and further incursion into Sabah, given the Lahad Datu and now Marawi incidents. These boats are expected to be similar to the Bangladesh Durjoys, replacing the AshMs with RHIB(s) and a TEU for mission stores. At about $50m apiece they offer the best value for operational requirements, and should be the #2 priority for the RMN. Expect procurement announcements of around 3-4 boats annually, without AShMs due to Chinese CMS-Western missile integration issues.
    3. IMHO the plan to purchase more Kedahs aka NGPVs would only be priority #4, highly dependent on redesigning them to carry Kongsberg NSMs which would incur more costs. Heli facilities and sensors are the Kedahs only real advantage over the LMSs, and the former is being partly filled in by NGPCs with their UAVs.
    4. The MOU for the MRSS contract means nothing really, though the Makassar design is indeed the most viable option. RMN indicated recently they are quite keen on acquiring at least 1 MRSS in the near future for much-needed HADR and EEZ patrol work, so priority is possibly #3 after the Gowinds and LMSs. Don't forget also that MRSSs need helis to work with, and at $30m for EC725 Caracals or $60m USD for AW159 Wildcats (expected to be RMN's future ASW heli) they are expensive!
    5. Submarines, being of little use in the antipiracy role, are far behind in terms of priority.

    Putting it all together, it may be safely projected that 2023 will see all 6 Gowinds and 18 LMSs launched (not commissioned). IMHO a best-case scenario will see the MRSS ordered, laid down and launched in the period 2018-2024, but more likely procurement will start only in 2020. Which leaves the thought of any procurement of "improved Kedahs" or even more unlikely, submarines, to beyond 2025 at best.

  2. Edit: Actually I made a mistake in the above post, the RMN's budget is MYR 1 billion not USD 1b. Which further cuts funding to only the Gowinds and LMSs, the latter only really funded from any operational savings.