Thursday 20 October 2022

Unchecked Ambitions: Malaysia’s Drone Programme

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The Malaysian government seeks to turn the country into Southeast Asia's testing ground for drones, where international companies will design and produce unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for carrying out deliveries and to provide other unique services. [1] Considering these unmanned ambitions, it is perhaps all the more surprising that the Malaysian government has invested little in the acquisition of UAVs for its armed forces, despite the presence of an indigenous drone industry that has come up with several different military-grade drone designs since the early 2000s.
Only one of these types was to eventually enter service with the Malaysian Armed Forces in 2008: the Aludra Mk.1. Despite the reported sale of three UAVs to Thailand in 2009, Malaysian UAVs are not known to have found any commercial success abroad. [2] With the retirement of the Aludra Mk.1 around the turn of the last decade, Malaysia now only operates a number of ScanEagle 2s donated by the U.S., the Austrian S-100 and Spanish Fulmar X, and several commercially-obtainable Chinese VTOL drones – a meagre inventory even for Southeast Asian standards. [3]

Only the ScanEagle 2s are actually operated by the Malaysian Armed Forces, with the Fulmar X having entered service with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (Coast Guard) while the Chinese VTOL drone types see use with the Police Air Wing. This hodgepodge of UAVs is a far cry from the inventory once envisioned during Malaysia's unmanned ambitions at the start of the millenium, when the country was presented with the unique opportunity of becoming a South Asian giant in the design and production of UAVs.
In 2001, CTRM unveiled an optionally-piloted UAV designated as the Eagle ARV, which was based on the Australian Eagle 150B light aircraft. This project was launched in collaboration with the British BAE Systems. [4] Although it is sometimes reported that one system, consisting of three drones and a ground station, was purchased by Malaysia for aerial surveillance and environmental control, the Eagle ARV eventually failed to attract any customers. A lack of interest from the Malaysian Armed Forces has hampered nearly all UAV designs coming out of the country since.

The Eagle ARV in front of a Royal Malaysian Air Force F/A-18D 'Hornet'. Note the FLIR under the Eagle's fuselage.

In the years that followed, several more Malaysian UAV designs would see the light of day. However, faced with a government and military that placed little value in the operations of UAVs, these too failed to attract any domestic orders. In fact, in 2009, the Malaysian Sapura UAV company preferred to assemble its UAVs in Australia rather than in Malaysia, as setting up a production line in Malaysia was only feasible if the Malaysian government would actually start placing orders for the unmanned systems, which it never did. [2]
The Aludra Mk.1 by CTRM would thus end up as the only indigenous drone type acquired by the Malaysian Armed Forces, although it remains uncertain whether the limited numbers that entered service were actually purchased or just leased from the manufacturer. The Aludra Mk.1, along with leased ScanEagle UAVs, first saw operational use in 2013 during counterterrorism operations in Sabah State, Borneo. [5] A Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) was also developed for the Aludra Mk.1, although this does not appear to have have found its way to operational use in Malaysia. [6]
After the retirement of the Aludra Mk.1 around the turn of the last decade, the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) issued a tender for the provision of a new Tactical Unmanned Aerial System (TUAS) in May 2020. Malaysian companies are currently offering two drone types for this requirement, these being the Aludra Camar by CRTM (now Deftech Aviation) and the Deftech Wangsa developed in collaboration with Leonardo of Italy. The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) for its part was to receive twelve donated ScanEagle 2 UAVs from the United States in May 2020. [7] [8]

The Deftech Wangsa seen here with part of its nose removed.

A decade prior, in 2009, it was announced that Malaysia would become the first country in the region to produce its own medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs in collaboration with Adcom Systems of the United Arab Emirates. The MALE UAV that was to be produced was the Yabhon-R, now designated the Yabhon-Aludra. Offering an endurance of some 30 hours, the Yabhon-Aludra positioned itself as an ideal candidate for the RMAF's upcoming MALE UAV requirement. [9] A lack of concrete interest from the Malaysian Armed Forces prevented this promising collaboration of coming to fruition however.

As of early 2022, the Malaysia's MALE UAV requirement remained unfulfilled. [10] Deftech is currently collaborating with Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) to offer the Anka-S UAV for the RMAF's MALE UAV programme. [10] [11] Other UAVs reportedly under consideration are the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper, the Russian Orion-E, the Chinese Wing Loong II and CH-4B, the French Patroller-S, the British Watchkeeper WK450, and the Italian Falco. [12] The Anka-S has long been considered the favourite type to fulfill the RMAF's requirement, and appears to have finally been selected in October 2022. [13] The Anka-S would simultaneously provide Malaysia with an armed UAV capability, although this interestingly does not appear to be a stated requirement for Malaysia's MALE UAVs.

Deftech's UAV lineup. The Multirotor UAVs and the VTOL-0x series of UAVs are commercially-available Chinese-made drones.

With the upcoming acquisition of a MALE UAV system by Malaysia finally addressing the Malaysian Armed Forces's long-standing requirement for such a capability, the country is slowly on its way towards attaining the capabilities most neighbouring countries already possess for decades. In the future, Malaysia could also attempt to address the lack of tactical UAVs (like the RQ-11 Raven) in the inventory of its armed forces. Whether it will source these systems from its own industry or from abroad is unknown, but if Malaysia is to finally capitalise on its indigenous technology base, perhaps in collaboration with foreign UAV manufacturers, great feats will certainly await.

Surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles - Operational / On Order

  • Fulmar X [2017] (Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency. Operated from ships)
  • ScanEagle 2 [2020] (Royal Malaysian Navy)
  • TAI Anka [On Order] (Royal Malaysian Air Force)

VTOL Surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles - Operational


Target Drones- Operational

  • ALBA (Operated by Aerotree on behalf of the Malaysian Armed Forces)
  • SCRAB II (Operated by Aerotree on behalf of the Malaysian Armed Forces)
  • Banshee (Operated by Aerotree on behalf of the Malaysian Armed Forces)

Indigenous Fixed-Wing UAVs (Prototypes)

Indigenous VTOL UAVs (Prototypes)


Surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles - Retired

A Malaysian ScanEagle 2.

[1] Malaysia moves to become a drone hub for Southeast Asia
[4] Group of Companies Unmanned Systems Technology Sdn Bhd (The UAS) 
[7] Malaysia Confirms US Aid Package in Shape of Aerial Drones
[9] Malaysian Firms Manufacture Flighty MALE 
[13] Malaysia to buy P-27A and TAI Anka 

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