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Lahad Datu: The realities behind military ops
Publication Date : 08-03-2013
One of the chief problems in this country, and globally for that matter, is that the vast majority of people have very little idea of how military operations are really run.
And it's not just due to what many call the Hollywood influence, but also even books, magazines and comics all focus on what is known as the “pointy end of the spear”, namely the combat aspects while ignoring the unglamorous but essential aspects of logistical, medical, administrative, engineering and transportation in the military.
Understandably, such topics are dry and not as exciting as combat operations and equipment and hence the lack of material as such. But anyone who wants to comment on military operations and criticise why some things are done or not done, should understand wholly all of the other factors behind military operations before commenting.
I'm going to address three of the questions being posed publicly in regard to it.
What use are our submarines when they cannot prevent the Lahad Datu incursion?
The first thing anyone needs to understand is that militaries are multi-mission organisations. They have equipment for any eventuality, ranging from a full-scale war to border incursions or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief among others.
The Royal Malaysian Navy's (RMN) submarines are not suited for the role of preventing border incursions, but they do play a key role in other tasks and missions.
The RMN doesn't much like to talk about what its submarines actually do as navy chief Admiral Abdul Aziz Jaafar sees maintaining operational security on our submarines activities as vital. And before anyone starts screaming “cover up”, just remember every nation in the world generally keeps the operational activities of their submarines a secret.
All I can say on the role of the RMN's submarines is for anyone to look at the history of submarine operations and you will get an idea of what our submarines are for.
Every piece of military equipment has specific roles and while the trend is towards multipurpose platforms, sometimes there are missions that a platform is not suited for.
The RMN's CB90 combat boats are great for chasing down pirates and border raiders. But put those boats up against a frigate in a war and the CB90s will be blown out of the water.
Likewise, a submarine isn't much use for preventing border raiders, but they are the perfect tool for sinking any ship from a frigate to an aircraft carrier.
The point is that a military cannot specifically equip itself and purpose itself towards a specific role or mission. It has to cover every possible eventuality and thus there is always a situation where there will be some part of the military inventory that will not be of much use in a particular situation.
Why do we use AirAsia commercial aircraft to ferry soldiers to Sabah. Does the RMAF have no aircraft?
First, the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) does have aircraft to transport troops. But bear in mind that like all air forces, the RMAF has a finite number of aircraft.
The RMAF has 14 C-130 Hercules, each of which can carry around 90 soldiers, assuming all aircraft are available, which is always never the case in any military since some aircraft may be down for maintenance or be tasked for other missions. This means we have a lift capability of 1,260 troops in one go.
Now we know that the military has moved anywhere from two to five battalions of troops from Peninsular Malaysia to Lahad Datu (one battalion has around 700 soldiers). So if you do the math and look even at a minimum number of two battalions totalling 1,400 soldiers, we are short of aircraft.
Yes, we can fly multiple flights, but the issue is time and getting the soldiers there quickly, and hence the Government charters AirAsia, with which it has a standard arrangement for such contingencies.
The use of such charters isn't unusual. The United States and other countries also carry out the same usage of civilian aircraft for transporting large number of troops.
Some will now ask why we do not have enough aircraft. But bear in mind the number of transport aircraft a country possesses is a trade-off on economy.
An air force has to also spend on other aircraft and equipment. At the same time, each aircraft entails a support requirement of maintenance personnel and parts.
By using AirAsia, the RMAF's C-130s are free to transport other things such as the Condor armoured personnel carriers, which you cannot put on any ordinary plane. The RMAF is also transporting other crucial equipment and other necessities such as food and water.
Why do we need so many troops, don't we have enough in Sabah?
The security forces are conducting a sweep- and-cordon operation, which naturally entails having a lot of manpower. In addition, while we have troops in Sabah, they have to maintain their own positions and tasks.
It would be foolish for the country to pull troops away from current positions and tasks in Sabah and send them to Lahad Datu when we do not know if additional militants will show up elsewhere in the state.
Furthermore, there is a need to secure other parts of Sabah, even more so in light of the current situation, and hence the additional deployment of troops.
Dzirhan Mahadzir is a freelance defence journalist and analyst based in Kuala Lumpur. He was a guest lecturer at the Malaysian Armed Forces Defence College from 1999-2003.