By William Choong,
IN 1990, Mr David North became the first Western journalist to fly one of the most advanced Soviet aircraft then - the Sukhoi-27. The former United States Navy fighter pilot and editor-in-chief of Aviation Week and Space Technology made a quick assessment: The Su-27 was more comparable to America's improved performance F-15 Strike Eagle, rather than to the earlier model F-15.
Apparently without the privilege of flying one, Professor Azmi Hassan - a geostrategist at the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia - made a similar claim: US-made fighters like the F-5, F-15 and F-16, like those in the Republic of Singapore Air Force, 'cannot beat the Su-30', an advanced variant of the Su-27. Also, the Russian Su-30 is better than the US-made next-generation F-22 Raptor, Prof Azmi wrote in the Utusan Malaysia last month.
The thrust of his article was simple: Malaysia should purchase 18 Su-30s to replace its ageing inventory of MIG-29 aircraft.
But the article left out some obvious facts: For one thing, Malaysia already has 18 Su-30s. And to argue that the Su-30 is better than the F-22 - a stealth aircraft with cutting-edge capabilities - is patent nonsense, say experts.
To some extent, one could compare the airframe performances of two aircraft from roughly the same generation.
It has been reported extensively that the Su-30 beat American aircraft such as the F-15 in Red Flag exercises in the US, thanks to its manoeuvrability and high angle of attack. In a widely watched YouTube video, for example, a US Air Force pilot concedes that Su-30s in the hands of competent Indian pilots will 'regularly defeat' earlier versions of the F-16 and the F-15. (He did, however, highlight some of the Su-30's weaknesses).
But the assertion that the Su-30 is better than other US-made aircraft is too simplistic, argues Mr Dzirhan Mahadzir, the Malaysia-based correspondent for Jane's and a former lecturer at the Malaysian Armed Forces Defence College. 'This is the kind of statement that amateurs or those with limited knowledge of military issues make,' he said.
One cannot pitch one aircraft against another, given that air forces fight in 'systems', or suites of capabilities. These include airborne warning and the ability to rearm, refuel and deploy aircraft into combat quickly.
It is a truism that a platform - that is, an aircraft - does not equate to an effective capability, notes Dr Alan Stephens, a visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales and a former pilot with the Royal Australian Air Force.
'It's the total system that matters. For example, if the Battle of Britain were refought today with the Luftwaffe flying Hurricanes and Spitfires and the Royal Air Force (RAF) flying Bf-109s, the result would still be the same,' he said, referring to the RAF's excellent early warning radar network and superior leadership.
Individual skill is another important factor, argues Professor Bernard Loo, a defence analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. 'A half-past-six weapon in the hands of a skilled operator is better than a top-notch weapon in the hands of a half-trained monkey,' he says.
[Great! We're calling M'sian pilots monkeys! :-) ]
'The bottom line,' he adds, is as follows: 'Unless and until the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) uses its combat platforms in a coherent system, their possession of technically superior platforms will not change the strategic situation in South-east Asia one iota.'
More importantly, Prof Azmi's argument that 18 Su-30s will make the RMAF the dominant air power in the region is faulty. Even if it is valid - and many experts beg to disagree - the statement misses the whole point about air power.
As early as 1921, air power strategists such as Giulio Douhet, an Italian air force officer, argued that air power, like other forms of military force, was merely a means to an end in a strategy to crush an opponent's will. To paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, mere hardware is nothing without an overarching grand strategy.
Moreover, there has been growing circumspection about air power, particularly after the Vietnam War. In his 1996 work, Bombing To Win: Air Power And Coercion In War, Mr Robert Pape argued that American air power had achieved little - and would achieve little - in coercing America's enemies.
Utusan Malaysia - an Umno-owned newspaper that has seen its circulation fall in recent years - has a penchant for making controversial statements. In October 2000, for example, a reporter asked then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew where the 100 AIM-120C air-to-air missiles (AAMs) Singapore was buying from the US would face. He replied: 'The missiles will face nowhere, but they are there to welcome whoever intends harm.'
[Such a stupid question. Air to Air missiles means the missiles are fired while in the air, and intended to hit a target in the air. That means, the missiles will be facing whatever direction the plane carrying it happens to be facing at any given time. LKY must be thinking, what an idiot. And even for Surface to surface missile (SSM), current technology really doesn't require them to face any direction as the guidance system would direct the missile to its target that would either be pre-programmed before launch, or may be modified in flight. M'sia must still be using ballistic rockets and calling them missiles.]
Nobody took exception to the remark until four days later, when Utusan carried a front-page story headlined 'Kuan Yew: Sila Serang Singapura', or 'Kuan Yew: Please attack Singapore'. (Interestingly, Mr Lee had referred to a letter to the New Straits Times by Mr Dzirhan, arguing that the US-made missiles put the Republic on a par with Malaysia's AA-12 Adder AAMs).
[Gotta love the Utusan journalist for their creativity. Hope they don't creatively start wars.]
It is bad enough that Prof Azmi's commentary is full of faulty logic and bereft of any theoretical heft. It would be worse if his comments were to impair the otherwise good political and military relations between two neighbours.