Wednesday March 6, 2013
A look at maritime security in Malaysia
By DZIRHAN MAHADZIR
Given current events in Lahad Datu and the fact that the infiltration of the country originates from the sea, it is unsurprising that people are asking questions about the state of security in the nation's maritime zones, the organisation of our security forces in relation to that, as well as how the country maintains security in such areas and prevents untoward incidents and infiltrations.
On paper it would seem an easy task to accomplish but the reality is different. First off, one has to take into account the geography of Malaysia - the country has a total land mass of about 330,000sq km and 4,675km of coastline (peninsular Malaysia 2,068km, East Malaysia 2,607km).
Its waters (including the Exclusive Economic Zones claimed) amount to about 574,000sq km.
Thus it can be seen that the waters that Malaysia has to maintain security and sovereignty over are nearly twice the size of peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia combined, and that is just the beginning. As it is, the waters of Malaysia are not co-joined, having Indonesian and international waters in between peninsular and East Malaysia - and one could also joke, Chinese waters, given the fact that China claims virtually all the waters in that area as its territorial waters.
Also, the distance between Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia (roughly 1,200km) means that enough ships and personnel have to be stationed in both parts of Malaysia specifically for that part, and it would take a while for any assistance from one part of Malaysia to reach the other part.
Now add to the fact that there are crucial areas for Malaysia which demand specific attention, such as the 200 nautical mile Economic Exclusion Zone, the Spratly Islands (called by the Malaysian military as the Gugusan Semarang Peninjau - GSP operational area), the Malacca Straits and of course, the waters between Sabah and the Philippines. So you can see that this is a huge security task.
Some might ask why should the nation bother over so much of these waters particularly the EEZ where nobody lives and instead should just focus on security in the coastal areas and the 12 mile territorial water zone.
The answer to this lies in the economic resources in those waters. Not only are there extensive fish resources but also possible natural resources in the form of oil, natural gas and minerals that will provide for the economic well being and prosperity of the country which taps them.
As such, it is vital that Malaysia maintains its presence there and enforces its sovereignty in those areas to deter others from exploiting or claiming its resources.
At the same time, in doing so, Malaysia cannot neglect maintaining the security and safety of its people on the coast and in the territorial waters of Malaysia. The problem of course is the size of the area involved.
In maintaining security in the maritime zones, there are four organisations involved - the Royal Malaysian Navy, Royal Malaysian Air Force, Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and Marine Police. The primary responsibility naturally goes to the Royal Malaysian Navy. Its chief Admiral Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar has laid down an operational tempo of six to seven RMN ships patrolling Malaysian waters at any given time.
To the layman, this may seem small but it has to be borne in mind that firstly the RMN numbers around 40 ships, and a continuous six ships on patrol basically means that there will be six ships on patrol plus another six getting ready to take over, while yet another six will be having a period of crew rest and ship maintenance after being relieved by the six ships currently patrolling.
Therefore, a six-ship commitment actually ties up 18 ships.
Some might ask what of the other 22-odd RMN ships? Well, these ships will be tasked with other missions and tasks, such as training, exercises or specific duties if not being repaired, maintained or refitted.
Other than its ships, the RMN has its Naval Air Wing of six Super Lynx and six Fennec helicopters, along with its PASKAL (Pasukan Khas Angkatan Laut) naval special forces - which right now are hunting down the Sulu militants in Sabah - to support its mission of ensuring the safety and sovereignty of Malaysian waters.
The biggest challenge the RMN faces is obtaining sufficient ships to replace its aging fleet, with Admiral Aziz having reiterated often on the need for funding to buy additional ships for the navy, given that some of its ships are more than 40 years old.
Working closely with the Royal Malaysian Navy is the Royal Malaysian Air Force which conducts aerial surveillance on its own and in support of the RMN.
In one notable incident in April 2010, ships belonging to China's maritime enforcement agency entered the waters around Pulau Layang-Layang in the Spratlys and were intercepted by a combination of the patrol craft KD Serang and an RMAF C-130.
Cooperation between the two services has always been strong and recently both services have called for the purchase of maritime patrol aircraft that will be operated jointly by the RMAF and RMN. This would greatly enhance the capabilities of both services in monitoring and securing Malaysian waters.
At the next tier is the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, (MMEA) which will largely take over the civilian enforcement of Malaysian maritime zones.
The MMEA, having reached operational status in 2005, is still in the process of development although it has taken over enforcement in Malaysian territorial waters and in the future, will be able to conduct enforcement of the EEZ, freeing the RMN to focus more on the military aspects of its mission.
As always, the main constraint for the agency has been the availability of funding for the agency's ship purchases, particularly in regard to long-range patrol vessels capable of patrolling the country's 200-mile EEZ zone.
Finally there is the Marine Police under the PDRM. Since 2011, the Marine Police's role has been limited due to the government decision to formalise the MMEA's status as Malaysia's sole maritime enforcement agency.
This limited the Marine Police to policing ports and rivers. This has had the effect of clearing some of the inter-agency overlap issues which had existed between the MMEA and Marine Police since the MMEA's inception,
The main issue now in regard to security of Malaysia's maritime zones is the pressing need for additional funding to allow the RMN, RMAF and MMEA to buy the equipment they need to fully carry out their roles.
Having spoken to the high command of all three organisations, they are certainly well aware of the issues and requirements needed to fully protect Malaysian waters but are stymied by the lack of funds.
The fact is that no matter how good the military or government organisation, it can easily be undone by the politician. One look at the US military, which is facing severe cutbacks to its capabilities to conduct operations due to US Congress unable to agree on funding them, clearly illustrates that.
If the Government wants to ensure that Malaysian waters are adequately protected, then it must finance the means to do so adequately.
> 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, teaching various topics pertaining to strategy and military history. He regularly makes presentations on the Malaysian Armed Forces and Malaysia's defence developments to visiting delegations from military institutions, such as the US National Defense University, USAF Air War College and the Australian Staff College. Among the publications he has written for and writes for since 1998 are Defence Review Asia and Janes Defence Weekly.