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The Spratly Islands, being the center of the claims within the renowned South China Sea (SCS) international dispute conflict is famous for its wealth of economic resources and also its strategic position. The importance of Spratly is undeniable. Further to this, the claiming issue is still pending despite various alternatives have been done to solve this problem. Therefore, it demands the respective nations to actively increase their presence and activities in order to strengthen their claim. Safeguarding those claims is very important for the prosperity and Malaysia’s future. Malaysia has several interests in the SCS. The most important factor is to preserve Malaysia’s claims. Within the SCS, Malaysia claims a number of maritime features in the Spratly Islands and occupies five of them. To date, there are a total of six countries, namely China, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Philippine and Taiwan that actively claiming their sovereignty over numerous islands and reefs bounded by the ocean. Claims made by these countries concerned have caused an overlapping of the maritime border, and this problem can lead to threats to the security of the countries involved. There are also external actors such as the United States and Japan which involved themselves in the effort of balancing the power within the region.
The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN), being the main maritime defense service in the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) organization, plays a major role in protecting maritime interests within Malaysia’s EEZ. The objective of RMN is to guarantee the sovereignty and integrity of national and strategic interests in any situation involving the interests of national defense. While in peacetime, RMN has a role as part of maritime law enforcement agencies of all forms of illegal activities such as intrusion by foreign fishing in the EEZ, piracy at sea and safety of shipping lanes. Gugusan Semarang Peninjau (GSP) is the name used by the RMN in referring to their occupying area. GSP contains five reefs which occupied by RMN namely Pulau Layang-laying, Terumbu Mantanani, Terumbu Ubi, Terumbu Peninjau and Terumbu Siput. These reefs are referred to the RMN offshore stations which were built on these particular reefs. These five stations are RMN Station (STN) LIMA, RMN STN MIKE, RMN STN UNIFORM, RMN STN PAPA and RMN STN SIERRA. All five stations that existed today were just coral reef a long time ago. It turned into an artificial island after the idea of development and promotion of the reef had been expressed by Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, Malaysia’s Prime Minister during the time. Since 1979 when Malaysian Map has been established, the total area of the Malaysian waters is 256 000² kilometers and it contains petroleum, gas and marine products such as fish and coral reefs. Thus, it is undeniable that these marine treasures become an important element in driving the economy national economy. The actions of the government to establish the settlements on the islands or reefs are justifiable to protect the interests of the ocean. The establishment of the stations on the islands or reefs in the Spratly Islands in particularly will result in the aggressive reaction from other countries which involved it the claim. Hence it is important to have the permanent establishment of MAF elements, not only limited to RMN ships in strengthening the settlement.
The aim of this essay is to highlight the current development and situation facing by the Malaysian government in the SCS, particularly in managing the GSP. Based on the situation raised, several modernizations and transformations are proposed to equip the GSP as the FOB for the enhancement of the MAF maritime capabilities in facing the threats.
In today’s modern warfare scenario, the maritime warfare capability is not only concentrated and limited to warships. It involves various dimensions and layers which cover from the space until the ocean’s deep, and these defenses capabilities require various deployment of capabilities, not only limited to the naval assets but the joint armed forces in total. For a small country like Malaysia, the involvement of joint forces is very important to support each other as the capability of each service is limited. Thus, it will be able to fill the gap which lacked in every single service. In the current development, China is increasing its military activities with the development of several artificial islands. These developments, supported by the declaration of Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) has significantly increased the China capabilities in the SCS. In addition, the presence of United States, with the allies like Japan with their Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in countering and balancing China presently has also increased the possibility of military confrontation within the area.
When we talk about Malaysia’s capability in the disputed area, four stations namely RMN STN MIKE, RMN STN UNIFORM, RMN STN PAPA and RMN STN SIERRA are currently built based on a modular platform mounted on the reef. They are made of small modules manned by the RMN personnel and equipped with the navigation radar for limited surveillance capability and also numerous small caliber guns for self-defense. The navigation radar, which is a type of commercial navigation is fitted in each station for the purpose of limited surveillance around the module as well as the navigation safety. There are no bigger caliber guns been fitted at these modules other than personal rifles and general-purpose machine gun. These stations are also equipped with the inflatable boats for the purpose of short distance patrol and search and rescue (SAR). This type of boat is very limited in term of capability to be operated during the bad weather due to small size. It has also limited endurance as the boat is only propelled by the outboard motor. However, there is a small amount of bigger boat called CB 90 used by some stations. This boat has better capability to be operated further and with better protection.
The heavy machine gun can be fitted onboard this CB 90. In order to receive any heliborne support, all of these stations are equipped with helipad which capable to receive up to the medium-range helicopter. Among all five RMN stations within the GSP, RMN STN LIMA is the only station equipped with airstrip and shelter which able to accommodate and provide immediate assistance in the coordination with the other four RMN stations. This has proved the importance of RMN STN LIMA in the Spratly. Besides being a forward operating base, it also plays a role in organizing and coordinating all matters involving all stations within GSP. The rich natural resources and the marine life is precious, indirectly provide a clear picture of how important the existence of RMN STN LIMA in Pulau Layang-Layang. In addition, its importance is also reflected in the roles played by the station itself. The important roles can be seen through the security or safety of the island which is heavily armed with the 40/70 type guns as well as Very Short Air Defence System (V-SHORADS) for low-level air defense system compared with the other stations. The support of RMN in the station not only limited to the military operation but also the community who settled on the island, in particular with the tourism industry and marine studies.
The other supporting elements which fitted on this station is the Electronic Warfare (EW) suite capability managed by the Royal Signal Regiment of Malaysian Army. A control tower, functioned as the control center for any aircraft landing and taking off in that island has also been tasked as the observation tower to monitor visually any movement around this island. Apart from that, The Malaysian government initiative to develop Pulau Layang-Layang has received much attention from tourists, especially scuba diving enthusiasts. The government has started to develop special spots for diving tourists on this island without interfering with the habitat and other marine life. In addition to developing the diving sites, the development of infrastructure for tourism activities is also conducted. To support the living in that island, the government began to develop the construction of freshwater desalinization system and the electrical energy supply system through wind and solar. Among all the islands of the SCS, Pulau Layang-laying is the only island which opens for tourism. Access to the island is also very easy and fast with light aircraft with the construction of a 1367 meter-airstrip. The RMN warships, with the support from the Royal Malaysian Airforce (RMAF) surveillance aircraft, are also conducting routine patrol around the GSP as a part to enforce Malaysia’s EEZ rights.
Following the current development in the SCS conflict, in which the current issues remain pending without any solution, the armed conflict can be one of the most probable solutions that may be taken by certain nations to strengthen their claims. China, being the only major power involved in the dispute has already developed the areas without any consent from the other nations, and this has increased the concern of other countries such as Vietnam to enhance their military capabilities, as well as the Philippines and Taiwan. In the name of balancing the power, the United States has also involved in the issue with the support of allies such as Japan and Australia. The heavy presence of advanced military warships and other assets within this disputed area should be worrying to all nations including Malaysia. Since the establishment of the GSP back in the 1980s until the completion of all stations, not much development in term of increasing the defense capabilities has been done by the government to strengthen the defense and sovereignty of the GSP. The location and function of the RMN STN LIMA in the GSP is seen as strategic Forward Operating Base (FOB) to enhance the Future Maritime Capabilities for the MAF, hence the modernization and transformation should be considered.
The surveillance and defense of airspace in Malaysia are under the responsibility of the RMAF, which involve several air surveillance radars and monitoring systems that are placed all around Malaysia. This system namely the Malaysian Air Defence Ground Environment Sector Operations Center III (MADGE SOC III) (Figure 1) is an integrated air surveillance system comprises of several radars which strategically placed in both Peninsular and Sabah and Sarawak to ensure optimum coverage. There are also command and control (C2) centers for monitoring purposes. Apart of the radar systems that placed in both Peninsular and Sabah and Sarawak, there is still a gap which is identified by the lack of radar system placed in the middle of SCS facing the north in providing further early warning coverage for the MADGE SOC III. A complete air surveillance radar system, which is integrated to the MADGE SOC III can be placed in RMN STN LIMA to fill the gap.
The strategic location of this radar will surely enhance the air surveillance capability for the RMAF in supporting the MAF early warning capability. The introduction of Network Centric Warfare (NCW) capability in the MAF will also provide an opportunity to integrate several other systems to support the joint operation concept. The introduction of new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) into RMN inventories soon is seen also as the opportunity to integrate its surveillance systems with the MADGE SOC III system. The new generation Thales Smart-S Mk 2 3-D surveillance radar onboard the LCS has the maximum detection capability of 250 km. When fully operational, at least one LCS can be tasked permanently around the GSP in order to enhance the air surveillance capability with the integration to the RMAF MADGE SOC III stationed in STN LIMA. In the effort of enhancing the air surveillance capability, the RMAF might have the requirement of Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW & C) aircraft in their planning. The procurement of this type of aircraft is also seen as the advance air surveillance system which can cover a vast area due to the altitude and speed of the aircraft. These main air surveillance systems, if integrated, will provide a complete Recognised Air Picture (RAP) in ensuring coordinated surveillance with the other assets such as fighter aircraft and other RMN warships.
While the RMAF air surveillance system is concentrating on the airspace surveillance, with the support of the AEW & C aircraft and RMN warships, the dedicated maritime surveillance systems must be also considered to provide the Recognised Maritime Picture (RMP). Selected GSP modules can be fitted with the surface surveillance radar for surface surveillance. This is in support of the RMN warships which in the permanent patrol around the GSP. For example, the Thales Smart-S Mk 2 3-D surveillance radar onboard LCS is capable of providing the long-range RMP and can be linked and integrated into various platforms to have a complete situational awareness of the RMP. Being a maritime nation, the procurement of Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) is a must to enhance Malaysia’s capabilities to control its vast waters. A dedicated MPA with Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability is the perfect platform to conduct the maritime surveillance in this area. This type of MPA can be equipped with various sensors including optical, infra-red, acoustic, magnetic and static aperture radar which able to provide a higher resolution image for better RMP. This image can be networked into various platforms as part of the NCW. The employment of passive EW suite in a strategic location within the GSP is seen as essential to support the present active surveillance system. Currently, an element of Electronic Support Measure (ESM) from the Royal Signal Regiment is stationed at the RMN STN LIMA to conduct EW interception in the AO. The presence of this element will enhance the capability of MAF to intercept any EW from foreign transmitters, and at the same time will assist the database collection for the EW database center.
When we discuss the disputed area, it is the area itself which need to be protected against the aggression of other forces. Knowing this, Malaysia has to be really familiar of its Area of Operation (AO) which covers the GSP and the adjacent. Efforts must be taken to establish a complete operational environment around this area, in which, in case of emergency will be useful for the MAF to fully exploiting the environment for our interest and advantages. The National Hydrographic Centre (NHC) can be deployed to conduct detail surveillance of nature within this area in term of oceanography, meteorology, and hydrography. The data and statistics established by the survey will be soon useful for any mission to be planned especially in regards to the ASW and submarine operation itself. The submarine can be deployed to collect the data with regards to the events underwater such as bathymetry profile, underwater current, biologic composition etc. The defense of FOB in the GSP must also be enhanced to guarantee a complete protection in term of air defense, surface defense, the underwater defense as well as defense against sabotage. Currently, the stations in GSP are only protected by the manual gun system with the support of personal weapon. For the air defense, certain stations are only equipped with V-SHORADS like the outgoing Starburst and the present Starstreak for very low level and very short-range air defense. In comparison, China and Vietnam have located longer range batteries of air defense system to defend their areas.
The employment of a multi-layer air defense system from short, medium to long range is essential in providing better defense against any air threat. A medium range defense system such as Aster 30 SAMP/T (sol-air Moyenne Portee terrestre or surface-to-air medium range/land)(Figure 2), combined with the Jernas short-range system is a complete match to ensure this protection. This is because, while the air surveillance radar systems are capable to provide long-range detection, this advantage must be also taken by equipping this type of advanced missile system into the integrated air defense, particularly in the projection of our forces in the disputed area. In support of the missile system, remote control gun system such as Oerlikon Skyshield (Figure 3) is also able to provide short-range defense against incoming aircraft or missile. This weapon system itself consists of two 35mm cannons with a rate of fire of 1000 rounds per minute, a fire control system, and a detached command post. This Skyshield system is easily deployed using trucks and other land transportation systems and it can be networked with other air defense system for wider and more effective air coverage, expanding its capability from point defense to area defense.
Being at sea, the protection against warships or submarines must also be considered. It is not the role of the FOB solely, but it is integrated with the other assets surrounding such as warships, helicopters, maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) and submarines. For the FOB or the station itself, the Naval Strike Missile (NSM) or Harpoon (Figure 4) which can be launched from land are the right choice to enhance this capability. While other platforms which operating inside the AO may also provide the protection of the FOB. In the defense against the foreign submarine intrusion, the coordinated patrol by the LCS with the variable depth sonar (VDS) and the MPA can be carried out in the possible submarine position or in the random area. STN LIMA can be equipped with a permanent helicopter detachment to provide support for any operation conducted such as patrol, search and rescue (SAR), personnel and logistic transportation and spotter. This permanent helicopter detachment will allow faster response in the event of an emergency in the absence of other air assets nearby.
The FOB and the stations are also exposed to possible sabotage by the foreign special forces. Effort must be taken to reinforce all modules with state of the art detection and surveillance system. The threats can be in many forms including fast boat, diver, swimmer, floating explosive, and remote-controlled vehicle. A sharp lookout system must be fitted to provide early detection capability of the approaching threats. The best system is to use human themselves as the lookout. However, new technology such as thermal imaging camera with magnification, night vision goggles and closed-circuit television (CCTV) (Figure 5) can enhance the detection performance especially at night where the human eyesight is poor.
The active occupation and strong presence of MAF elements and other related communities or agencies in the GSP will continue to project our maritime capabilities in the area. As discussed above, these joint elements from the MAF, when fully deployed are able to coordinate effective measures to strengthen the claim. In order to fully integrate the joint effort in this area, the Joint Force Headquarters (JFHQ) should be tasked to coordinate the operation under the joint operation. This single command and control will ensure better coordination in term of assets deployment and information sharing. Presently, the Pulau Layang-laying housed a resort and a survey center for the fishing department. The development of infrastructure including the resort and several diving spots were done to support these tourism activities. The government has developed the freshwater desalinization system and the electrical energy supply system through wind and solar to support the living in that island. In term of diplomacy, Malaysia has adopted soft diplomacy since the beginning, particularly when dealing with the major power involvement. However, the modernization of the GSP as a complete FOB will enable Malaysia to have more option in dealing with any conflict within the area. To balance the advancing of aggressive reactions, particularly from China, the Malaysian government with its playing safe approach has used a combination of diplomatic, legal, security and economic measures to secure its claims in the SCS while simultaneously ensuring that it preserves its special relationship with China. At the same time, this will allow Malaysia to continue its relationship with other countries including the United States. Being a member of ASEAN, it is a good example of a regional community that is trying to remain neutral by preventing any outside power from influencing any country within the region. This community is also able to absorb tension and uphold stability in Southeast Asia.
In conclusion, the modernization and transformation of the GSP as the FOB, particularly the RMN STN LIMA is essentially required to project our forces in strengthening our claims within the disputed area. This force projection will enhance and ensure optimum coverage of protection for Malaysia’s sovereignty as the FOB is strategically located in the middle of SCS between both Peninsular and Sabah and Sarawak. The single command and control under JFHQ will ensure better coordination in term of force deployment and information sharing, as well as enforcement of law around the disputed area. Malaysia’s soft diplomacy policy on the SCS issue could shift in the next few years if the flow of the conflicts changes. While diplomacy is the best solution when dealing with a superpower, Malaysia must not deny the importance of military capabilities if the diplomacy failed to solve the conflict. Hence, the modernization and transformation of GSP as the FOB must be considered to face these unexpected scenarios.
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