Friday, August 12, 2016

Hardening of Malaysia's TUDM Gong Kedak air base the shape of things to come

Under cover: Hardened aircraft shelters at the western end of Runway 08/26 at Gong Kedak airbase house Malaysia's most advanced warplanes, the Sukhoi Su-30MKM.

At the air base where some of Southeast Asia's deadliest warplanes roost, there's not a wing in sight.

The warplanes are safe in hardened aircraft shelters (HAS), under cover where the sun doesn't shine.

Tengah Air Base? Perhaps Paya Lebar Air Base?

No. It's TUDM Gong Kedak, home to the Royal Malaysian Air Force's 11 Skuadron. This is the RMAF squadron assigned to fly Malaysia's most advanced fighter jets, the Sukhoi Su-30MKM.

The World War 2 era air base which 11 SKN calls home sits in the northern neck of peninsular Malaysia. The base underwent a massive transformation years ago to improve the resilience of key infrastructure. Tonnes of concrete, rebar and extensive earthworks were added to protect vital facilities such as aircraft hardstandings, command facilities, POL storage and ammunition dumps.

Blue print: Artist's impression of a Spantech HAS. Australian architects and engineers have made invaluable contributions to Malaysia with defence assets like fighter planes, rocket artillery launchers and ammunition depots housed in hardened facilities designed by Australians. Credit: Spantech Pty Ltd.

In the process, the landscape at the western end of Gong Kedak's single runway 08/26 was looped with aircraft taxiways that lead to triangular mounds of earth that covered reinforced concrete hardened aircraft shelters (HAS). Once sealed in its individual HAS, each Su-30MKM is immune to all but the heaviest ordnance and the most precise of attacks - or a lucky strike.

Hardened facilities at TUDM Gong Kedak are believed to be the most extensive and sophisticated at any RMAF air base. They were made possible by Spantech Pty Ltd, an Australian company that specialises in defence construction.

It's the shape of things to come in the Federation as Malaysian defence planners recognise the value and importance of protecting defence infrastructure that can generate and sustain Malaysian air power.

Spantech's growing list of projects in Malaysia includes ammunition storage and hardened vehicle shelters at the Malaysian Army's Kem Syed Sirajuddin in Gemas (above), where Astros II Keris MRLs are based. The ammunition depots protect the Astros II warshot, while some hardened vehicle shelters are thought to provide protected space in which Malaysian gunners can load and prepare their MRLs for operations and have these vehicles on standby for immediate deployment.

The extensive protection accorded to RMAF assets at Gong Kedak is not invulnerable to determined attacks.

We witnessed this during the first Gulf War when HAS in occupied Kuwait and at Iraqi airbases were routinely holed by precision-guided munitions designed to punch through hardened structures before detonating within.

However, such protection raises the stakes by forcing the aggressor to increase the quality and quantity of assets in the strike package and consider carefully the timing and direction of air or artillery strikes.

Blast resistant: Australian designed ammunition storehouses bear the brunt of a full-scale trial at Woomera testing range in South Australia in the early 1990s. Note the shock wave at the crown of the explosive plume. Singapore's defence engineers and scientists have carried out similar tests in places like Sweden to test and validate the design of blast doors for facilities like the UAF. Credit: Spantech Pty Ltd.

With HAS immune to strafing attack, bomblets from cluster bombs and blast effects from near misses, it would take the proverbial surgical strike to knock out each HAS or command node. Not easy even during peacetime conditions at a bombing range. Certainly more risky when the airspace around TUDM Gong Kedak will be defended by BVR-capable Su-30MKMs and ground-based air defence assets.

In addition, the ability to park one's warplanes under shelter increases strategic ambiguity because no country in the region has the ability to place the air base under 24/7 satellite surveillance. So unless one has boots on the ground, deep in Malaysian territory, one can never be sure if the HAS are occupied or empty.

The pace at which hardened facilities have been added to Malaysian army, navy and air force facilities is expected to increase in coming years. Indeed, one can expect that hardened infrastructure will become de rigueur as Malaysia modernises its defence facilities.

Malaysia may not have devoted the resources to nurture homegrown talent who can design hardened facilities, but this has hardly hindered the Malaysians from renovating defence infrastructure to increase their resilience against determined assault. If you're willing to pay for it, there are defence specialists who will design and build anything you desire.

Over in Singapore, the size, expertise and experience of our defence technology talent pool is often embedded as a sound bite in speeches that underline our ability to devise indigenous and sometimes unique solutions to defence matters. The design and construction of hardened infrastructure like the Merah loop areas in Changi and ammunition depots such as the Mandai Underground Ammunition Facility (UAF) are examples of such engineering projects.

This self-reliance is noteworthy and certainly worth developing further.

But the point should be made that one can import similar expertise from abroad, with no questions asked. Countries with the money to do so can rapidly accelerate their growth trajectory and level up, or surpass what our homegrown talent can deliver.


Locust said...

I think that it is only expected that neighbours will develop such defensive structures. Hence, our systems and munitions have to evolve in tandem; not that it has not as many of the long range ones are still under wraps. Note: SAF likes to show its shiny defensive assets and not its extra shiny offensive ones as the average joe in neighbouring countries tends to not understand the implications of the lack of strategic depth.

As for Malaysia, it is the least they could do to compensate for the gaps in air defence. Against a more capable air power, RMAF will have no choice but to use its air assets sparingly, surrender air space and hide its limited aircraft most of the time.

It justifies our huge investment in the SAF to deliver knock-out blows.

Unknown said...

It's to note that Malaysian competitors are not only limited to south but also from her west and north. All of them are building up/modernising their Air assets. Hence, it's reasonable for them to implement such programs to close their gaps. However, as technology advanced will such be still relevant? Also, strategically are they able to keep up with the development(military) in the region?

Unknown said...

I would consider the shelters as passive defence structures and nothing to be surprised about. The current accuracy of precision weapons mitigates such passive defences to almost useless in the even of a first strike.

Distance is their ally and not the structures themselves.