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Royal Malaysian Navy: Slow Progress on Capability Growth

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Despite the fact that Malaysia is a country consisting of two halves, namely Peninsular and East Malaysia, which are separated by the South China Sea, the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) is fairly undersized for the scale of its tasks – consisting of only 39 surface ships and 2 submarines. The smallness of the RMN becomes even more acute when given the fact that Malaysia forms one half of the vital Straits of Malacca and the scale of Malaysia’s 200 NM EEZ claims – which includes portions of the disputed Spratly Islands that are also claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei. Matters for the RMN are not helped by the fact that a significant portion of the surface fleet has seen more than 20 years of service with the result that these ships spend more and more time undergoing maintenance and repair. Since the 1990s, the RMN has been planning continuously to increase its fleet size and capabilities, but much of its plans have been stymied or set back by the approach of the Malaysian government towards defense development, where planned defense programs are either carried out or postponed based on political convenience.

Two cases illustrate this, the first being the RMN’s multi-purpose support ship (MPSS) requirement. This was originally scheduled to be implemented in the time frame of the 8th Malaysia Plan (2001-2005) but has yet to be realized at all – despite the loss to a fire in 2009 of the Royal Malaysian Navy’s sole amphibious operation capable ship, the Newport class LST KD Sri Inderapura. Instead the Malaysian government keeps deferring the program on an annual basis despite the RMN stressing upon the urgent need for the MPSS program. The second case is the cancelled Batch 2 Lekiu class frigates. In 2006 the Malaysian government had signed a letter of intent with BAE Systems for the construction of two follow on ships to the existing 2 Lekiu class frigates already in service in the RMN. The batch two ships were to be built locally at the Labuan Shipyard and Engineering dockyard. However in August 2009, it was reported that both the Malaysian government and BAE Systems had reached an agreement not to continue with the deal due to cost-cutting measures by the Malaysian government.

Balancing these setbacks in force development has been the procurement of two Scorpene submarines and the establishment of an underwater operational capability. However the circumstances surrounding the procurement continue to be an ongoing source of political controversy in Malaysia. The RMN has inadvertently been caught up in it and the soon to be announced follow on program to the Kedah class Next Generation Patrol Vessel (NGPV) currently in service, the RMN Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). Despite the LCS moniker, the six ships planned to be built under this program will be of conventional hull design rather than the unconventional designs of the US LCS program.

Despite these developments, the RMN is to enter 2012 with deep cuts to its requirements. For the 2012 defense budget, the Royal Malaysian Navy requested MYR4.39 billion (US$1.4 billion) for procurement and equipment purchase but was only given MYR759 million (US$243 million) instead. This cut will not affect the LCS program which being funded under a special allocation – however the result is that the RMN will have to defer some of its planned programs for 2012 such as the procurement of 6 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters and the upgrading of the armament of the Kedah class NGPVs.

In terms of operational organization, the RMN consists of four operational commands with Fleet Operations Command overseeing 3 area commands. A fifth operational command – Submarine Command – is in the process of being established to oversee not only submarine operations but also training, support and administration in regard to the RMN submarine force. Fleet Operations Command, located at RMN Lumut, is also responsible for all RMN overseas missions. Currently the RMN has only one overseas operational mission, namely “Operation Fajar”, an ongoing mission to escort merchant shipping belonging to the Malaysian International Shipping Corporation through the piracy infested waters near the Gulf of Aden.

The mission was sparked by the seizure of two MISC vessels in September 2008 by pirates and since then the RMN has been carrying an indefinite anti-piracy escort mission in the region. Initially ships from the RMN fleet carried out these escort missions but the costs along with the wear and tear on the ships assigned to such led the navy working with MISC to provide an alternate solution. This is in the form of a converted MISC merchantman to function as a naval auxiliary ship in the region. As such, the container ship Bunga Mas Lima was converted to a RMN auxiliary ship on 1 June 2009, following completion of modification works to the ship for its task.

The modifications to the 699 TEU container ship (owned by MISC) included the installation of a helicopter landing deck, light weapons mounts, military grade communications and medical facilities, the ability to launch RMN’s small craft and a repainting of the ship to RMN’s colors. MISC personnel commissioned as Naval reservists form the ship’s crew. In addition a combined Special Forces team drawn from all three services of the Malaysian Armed Forces along with a medical team and an RMN naval helicopter detachment with a single helicopter are also stationed on the ship. The success of this has led to a second naval auxiliary, the Bunga Mas 6 being launched in August this year to operate simultaneously in the region with the Bunga Mas 5. One ship is escorting westbound shipping while the other will escort eastbound shipping. However budgetary and operational constraints prevented the RMN from having an additional helicopter detachment to operate, thus the RMN’s sole helicopter in the area will be deployed on one or the other ship depending on requirements.

The RMN’s three major operational commands are COMNAV I, located at RMN Kuantan, which is responsible for the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia and the South China Sea portion of it which includes Malaysia’s 200 mile EEZ claims there, along with the waters along the Singapore Straits. COMNAV II, located at RMN Sepanggar, is responsible for the entire coastline and waters of the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak plus the various seas surrounding them which form part of Malaysia’s 200 mile EEZ claims. COMNAV III, located at RMN Langkawi, is responsible for the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia and the Malacca Straits. The RMN splits some of its surface ships evenly between the three area commands while the remaining ships are deployed to areas depending on the operational or training requirements. Both submarines are permanently stationed at RMN Sepanggar in the COMNAV II area of operations.

While all three naval commands are of importance, COMNAV II is seen as the major operational challenge given that the East Malaysian state of Sabah, whose waters fall under COMNAV II, faces the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea and the Celebes Sea. COMNAV II’s portion of the South China Sea includes the disputed Spratly Islands. Malaysia currently maintains 5 military outposts there, the largest being Naval Station Lima on Swallow Reef, various works undertaken since its initial occupation in 1983 has led to the reef becoming an island about 7.3km long and 2.2 meter wide. This gives it a land space of around 6 hectares with a runway capable of supporting C-130 transport aircraft and a dock allowing the RMN’s patrol crafts to operate from there. Since 1999, Malaysia has not added any additional outposts in the Spratlys beyond the current five. The Spratlys and the South China Sea area around them are known to the RMN as the “Gugusan Semarang Peninjau” (GSP) operational area, which roughly translates to “Frontier Reconnaissance Island Chain” in English.

The importance of the GSP area is illustrated by the basing of the RMN’s recently acquired 2 Scorpene class submarine at RMN Sepanggar. The submarines have completed their weapons firing trial and initial operational capability training stage with the first fleet exercise involving the submarine KD Tunku Abdul Rahman taking palace from 29 July to 6 August 2010 in the South China Sea. The exercise – known as Operation Sea Training Exercise / Fleet Integration Training With Submarine 2010 (OSTEX/SUB FIT 2010) – involved 10 other RMN ships. These included the frigates KD Lekiu and KD Lekir and the Patrol Vessels KD Perak, KD Terengganu, KD Pahang and KD Kedah and 1000 personnel from the RMN and Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF).

Also participating were elements of the RMN’s Special Forces, diving and air defense teams. The RMAF fielded 2 BAE Hawks, a Beechcraft 200T Maritime Patrol Aircraft and an S-61 helicopter for the exercise. The exercise was staged from the RMN’s COMNAV 2 HQ at RMN. An RMN official press release on the activity stated that the purpose of the exercise was to assess the RMN’s fleet readiness, develop the capabilities of the RMN and RMAF in operations with submarines, to highlight the RMN’s presence in the South China Sea and to test contingency plans for the defense of the RMN posts located in the Spratly Islands.

The RMN though has held much of the training and firing exercises involving submarines well clear of the Spratlys so as not to inflame claimants there. Still of interest was the RMN openly stating its need to highlight its presence in the South China Sea and its contingency plans for the defense of the RMN’s outposts in the Spratlys. A similar OSTEX exercise took place in July this year, this time involving both RMN submarines along with 9 RMN surface ships. Originally the RMN held 3 different OSTEX exercises annually, one each in the Malacca Straits, Peninsular Malaysia portion of the South China Sea and East Malaysian portion of the South China Sea. However in 2010 budgetary restrictions resulted in the exercises combined into a single activity in the East Malaysian portion of the South China Sea. This has also been the case for this year, the choice of the location of the Ostex exercises in 2010 and 2011 clearly indicating the RMN’s concern over the Spratly Islands.

At the time of writing, it is too early to say what programs will the RMN postponed or defer as a result of the cut to its 2012 procurement funding requests. At the moment a review is being carried out by the RMN following the 2012 allocation announcement in October this year. Among the programs that RMN wants to carry out under the timeframe of the 10th Malaysia Plan of 2011-2015 is the purchase of 6 ASW helicopters with the US strongly promoting the MH-60R Seahawk to fulfill that requirement. The six ASW helicopters are to add to the current RMN Naval Air Wing strength of six Super Lynxes and six Fennec helicopters.

Another program that the RMN is said to be keen to carry out under the 10th Plan is the up arming of the 6 in-service Kedah Class NGPVs with anti-ship and anti-air weapon systems. The vessels currently only have a 76mm main gun and 2 x 30mm cannon as their only weapons. With the cancellation of the Batch 2 Lekius, the RMN is expected to have to settle for a possible upgrade and SLEP of the existing 2 Lekius in service. And expected to be delayed yet again as a result of the funding crunch will be the MPSS ship.

The bright side for the RMN will be the expected signing in December this year at the Langkawi Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition (LIMA) of the agreement to build the six LCS – though it remains to be seen as to when the expected in-service entry of these ships will be. However in the meantime the RMN is expected to carry out its tasks for the next few years with its current existing fleet. For the Malaysians in the peninsular at least, Lumut would be THE Navy town where the premier Royal Malaysian Navy base is located. Thus many would not be aware that Sepanggar Bay at Kota Kinabalu in Sabah would become another premier naval base where the Command Naval Area 2 or COMNAV 2 is located after being transferred from KD Sri Labuan. This is where our submarines will be based and under COMNAV 3 also there are many units that you can read all about at the COMNAV2 website, though currently only available in English, including the Kuching Representative Naval Office (RNO/PWTL) and KD Sri Rejang in Sibu. This post however would concentrate on an isolated area of operations for the RMN, that is the naval stations in the Gugusan Semarang Peninjau that after the declaration of the Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) on 20 September 1979, have become outposts to validate Malaysia’s claims to the areas under the EEZ that are at least 156 nautical miles away from Kota Kinabalu.

Comprising five stations originally built on outlaying atolls, with the most developed now expanded to a full-fledged island that is now a popular diving spot in the region. This is in contrast from the origins of Layang-Layang Island when the island started to receive its first human population three years after a claim plaque was erected on the coral atoll. It was at the time on 21 June 1980, when eighteen hardy Paskal men went ashore on May 1983 to build the first encampment while braving the elements. This place is called Wisma Kaki Langit because at the time the only infrastructure available was a helipad for personnel transfer and the soldiers had to camp under the open skies on the bare reef. When the naval station proper was constructed six years later with the construction of a small living-cum-operations quarters, it was also decided that the enlarged island the atoll has become will also be developed as a tourist attraction so that the tourism potential of the island can be exploited. Thus by 1995, more buildings were added, including two air-conditioned accommodation blocks, an aircraft landing strip, which can be used by Hercules C-130 and CN235 aircraft, two hangars, a radar station, an air traffic control tower, watchtowers and a jetty has made the island a proper island station code named Station Lima for the naval men stationed there to safeguard our nation’s claim to the area. Patrols by navy soldiers in CB90H attack vessels and larger, faster patrol boats are carried out around the island. Several anti-ship and anti-aircraft guns are placed on several areas on the island and the RMAF personnel operate a Starburst air defense system to prevent low-level air attacks here.

Ubi Reef or Station Uniform was one of the stations which construction was started in the mid-80s for the purpose of monitoring and protection the territorial waters in international boundaries. It was built in early 1986 by Malaysian Shipping Engineering Corporation and in its early stage, was only a module built on top of a barge measuring 60 meters long and 30 meters wide anchored on top of Ubi Reef (Ardasier Reef) that is supposed to be the largest reef in Gugusan Semarang Peninjau. The station was officialy opened on 16 April 1986 and is located 16 nautical miles to the south west of Station Lima and 25 miles south of Station Mike. In 2000 the station was enlarged by filling in around the lagoon basin and a channel was built for safe passage of the visiting navy CB90 Combat Boat to enter and dock at the station. A beacon was also built about one mile to the east of the station to mark guide the boats into the lagoon. A buoy was also placed in the middle of the lagoon to assist in the berthing of the boats. In general, Station Uniform assets have been much enhanced to increase the operational readiness of the station.

The next reef to be populated was Station Mike or Mantanani Reef when a habitat module built by Malaysian Shipping Engineering Corporation was anchored onto the reef in the middle of September 1986 and was officially opened three months later. The 44 meters long Station Mike is located about 35 nautical miles to the north of Station Lima and is close to a Vietnamese settlement on Amboyna Cay only 40 nautical miles away. On 18 May 1994, the area around the islet was however declared a restricted area possibly due to its close proximity to competing forces.

The founding history of Station Sierra or Siput Reef started with the construction on a barge type module at Jerjak Island by PSCND. The module was specially designed originally as a floating vessel to facilitate towing at sea before it is anchored at Siput Reef. The towing was carried out in April 1999 codenamed Ops Sri Petaling whereby the module was towed under the element of disguise to avert notice by neighboring countries in an operation taking almost one month. The sailing and towing operations was undertaken with several RMN ships in escort until reaching the site and anchored about 16 nautical miles south west of Station Mike. Location selection and module positioning was done during high tide so that it can be more easily anchored during low tide and after found satisfactory, the module was landed and filled in with cement and rocks to strengthen its anchorage. These works were completed in early May 1999 and officially named on 10 May 1999. In its early operations, it was declared that the module was built for marine and scientific research to reduce pressure and misunderstanding by claimant nations. The station was further secured by the extension of Ops Sri Petaling for monitoring and defense in order to safeguard the station from any threats especially from nations objecting to Malaysia’s settlement on the islet.

Similarly Station Papa was also constructed by PSCND that was originally a module built on top of a large barge that was towed to its current site in the same Ops Sri Petaling in early April 1999 before being anchored in the middle of Peninjau reef and located 70 miles north east of Station Lima. Work on anchoring the module on the largest reef in amongst the station was completed and then officially opened on 10 May 1999. Station Papa was similarly declared as a maritime scientific research station to reduce claimants’ pressure and similarly secured like Station Sierra against any threats from competing claimants.

The presence of soldiers on the islets demonstrates the sensitivity of the situation involving the overlapping claims on the many islands within the Spratlys archipelago. Military personnel are needed to maintain Malaysia’s control of the islets and also to protect the rich marine life surrounding it. The islands are important strategic assets for the country and were believed to contain natural resources such as oil, phosphorous and natural gas. Meanwhile, the reefs are teeming with a beautiful and diverse marine life such as corals and many types of fish, which are great tourist attractions. The soldiers are entrusted with the task of ensuring that only fishing vessels with permits are allowed into the area and fishermen cannot catch legally-protected fish. They also make patrols to prevent intrusions by foreign fishing boats or other types of vessels into the territorial waters. Men stationed at the five islets normally on a three-month rotation monitor the movement of foreign ships and aircraft in the area, including military submarines that constantly ply the South China Sea and every incident of close encounters with foreign ships and aircraft are logged although no incident or confrontation has been officially reported. A trivia about these islets is that has been honored with a stamp series featuring their ecological systems. Yet these offshore EEZ bases mark our frontiers out in the South China Sea, unprotected from the vagrancies of weather and atrocious sea conditions! Cold and distant these sovereign territorial positions are guarded around the clock by RMN personnel, whilst our citizens are safely tucked in the peace and security of their homes.

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Royal Malaysian Navy: Slow Progress on Capability Growth. (2019, February 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 26, 2021, from
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