How Kuwait Could Ruin China and Pakistan’s Chances For a Malaysian JF-17 Fighter Deal

Since the retirement of its MiG-29 and F-5E fighter jets from frontline roles in the late 2010s, the Royal Malaysian Air Force has been operating under its full strength of combat aircraft with just 18 Su-30MKM and 8 F-18D Hornet fighters between them forming two squadrons. The service has since considered a number of options for new aircraft including the possibility of acquiring new Russian fighters, with Moscow offering in 2020 to purchase MiG-29s and even the relatively new Su-30 fighters second hand in to help offset the costs of new acquisitions. Su-57, Su-35 and lighter MiG-35 fighters were highlighted as possible new aircraft for the Malaysian fleet, which could help to restore a more favourable balance of power following neighbouring Singapore’s acquisition of F-15SG and orders for F-35 fighters. It became increasingly apparent after 2020 that Malaysia was more likely to seek to keep its Su-30MKM fighters in service, which are still considered the most capable in the region, and supplement them with a new generation of light fighters with low operational costs. The Sino-Pakistani JF-17 has been considered a frontrunner for new contracts to replace the MiG-29 and possibly eventually the F-18. 

The JF-17 is prized for its relatively high endurance and capable avionics and armaments, which it combines with a low maintenance airframe that costs little to fly and can be kept at high levels of operational readiness. A new generation of JF-17s, the JF-17 Block III, saw its first serial production batch completed in 2020 and is expected to be made available for export in 2023. The new variant is considerably more capable with a superior engine, PL-15 air to air missiles with double or more range than those used by older variants, an AESA radar, and more sophisticated fifth generation level avionics among other features. Despite its frontrunner status, however, growing signs of U.S. influence in Kuala Lumpur, which was perhaps best exemplified by its unprecedented decision to extradite a North Korean citizen to America in 2021, is expected to increasingly influence its decisions regarding arms imports. With countries across the region facing considerable pressure to avoid Russian or Chinese armaments, the Royal Malaysian Air Force has increasingly shown an interest in acquiring more F-18 Hornet fighters. 

In service since 1983, only six countries still operate the F-18 Hornet including Malaysia, Canada, Finland, Switzerland, Kuwait and Spain, with all other than Malaysia having already ordered replacements to completely phase them out of service or considering options to do so. The Hornet began to be phased out of production in the early-mid 1990s, and as such there are few options for Malaysia to purchase new airframes. One possibility which had emerged, however, is to purchase second hand airframes from the Kuwaiti Air Force which fields 29 airframes that still have many years of service life remaining. Kuwait has already ordered replacements in the form of the F-18E Super Hornet and Eurofiighter T4.

Although the F-18 its considerably larger and than the JF-17, and uses twin rather than single engines, its operational costs are still relatively low as a lightweight aircraft. The American fighter has advantages in manoeuvrability, but compared to Block 3 variant of the JF-17 is avionics are at least three decades behind and its armaments less than impressive. The JF-17’s most notable advantages include much lower maintenance requirements, a far higher endurance, over double the air to air engagement range using PL-15 AESA radar guided missiles, and significantly superior situational awareness and electronic warfare systems largely due to its integration of an AESA radar. Despite the F-18’s overall significant shortcomings, political factors could lead Malaysia to acquire the aircraft should Kuwait agree to sell on its fighters and should Washington provide a green light for the deal. This will not only further the goal of undermining Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, but could also provide contracts to American firms to modernise the Hornets with Malaysia having previously contracted upgrades for its F-18Ds.

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