A Missile Race in Southeast Asia?

See also: Graft in Malaysia’s Defense Ministry

Russia's state-owned news agency RIA Novosti reported that Malaysia and Singapore, among other countries, may be sniffing around Russia's Iskander tactical missiles systems, available from the state arms exporter, Rosoboronexport. although the Soviet arms dealer said it wasn't planning to export the missiles until Russia's own armed forces have been fully supplied with them.

A call to the Singapore Ministry of Defense elicited no answers, and some analysts said it sounded like the Russians were merely trying to talk up sales of a new weapon and irritate the United States rather than being able to make any real arms sales.

Nonetheless, Nikolai Dimidyuk, a senior Rosoboronexport official, told Novosti that a number of countries, including Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and India had shown an interest in the missile system. Earlier, the agency said, Russia was reported to be interested in exporting the Iskander-E to Algeria, Kuwait, Singapore, Vietnam and South Korea.

According to the news agency, the Iskander-E is a tactical surface-to-surface missile complex designed to deliver high-precision strikes at a variety of ground targets at a range of up to 280 km (170 miles). It carries a single warhead with a payload of 400 kg to comply with the limits laid down by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

Southeast Asia has been a child's garden of delight for the world's gunrunners. According to the publication Foreign Policy in Focus in 2005, the region, which hasn't had an external war in decades but is rich enough to spend plenty on guns, was the world's second-largest arms market after the Middle East, representing about 20 percent of the world's purchases.

Although relations between Malaysia and Singapore have occasionally been tense, over the past several years there has never been enough of a problem to actually threaten a shooting war. Singapore famously is armed to the teeth and has more combat aircraft, and better ones, than Malaysia and Indonesia combined.

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The island state is a formidable garrison that has adopted what the country's leaders call a "poisoned shrimp" defense posture – the two far bigger Muslim-Malay nations might be able to swallow up the Chinese island but, Singapore says, doing it would inflict unimaginable casualties on the aggressor.

According to a Singapore Air Force website, Singapore, less than 700 sq km in size, bristles with F-16Ds, AH-64D Apaches, CH-47SD Chinooks, Marchetti S-211s, Puma helicopters based in Australia and A-4 Super Skyhawks in France. It now has four AWACS over-the-horizon early warning aircraft. In 2003, it joined the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, expected to be delivered in 2015. And early November, Boeing rolled out the first of 24 F-15 fighters ordered by Singapore as a replacement for some of its ageing jets. The F-15, designed 'SG' to mark its Singapore provenance, will give the country's air force a huge boost in capability by putting most of the region's capitals in striking range.

A huge flock of other aircraft, men and materiel are there to support the air wing. On the ground and in the water, Singapore is equally strong. Amazingly, in a country of 4.5 million, the country claims it can raise three fully equipped combat divisions.

Malaysia, on the other hand, fields a luckless military that has spent countless billions on ineffective weapons systems that often don't work or don't fit tactical requirements, with no coordination between systems, as generals and officials with the ministry of defence who are closely aligned with the United Malays National Organisation, fill their pockets with a vast amount of pelf.

If three separate contracts over the past several years are any yardstick, Najib Tun Razak, who became defense minister in 1999 and kept the portfolio when he became deputy prime minister, appears to have mastered the game far beyond the expectations of any previous defense leaders. Opposition figures say the three contracts, one for Russian Sukhoi jet fighters, a second for French submarines and a third for navy patrol boats, appear to have produced at least US$300 million for UMNO cronies, Najib's friends and others.

Najib relinquished the defence portfolio to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in mid-September, taking on finance instead -- an interesting move as it moved Najib away from the allegations over his role in defence procurement corruption and gave Abdullah some leverage over the military, which has shown signs of becoming restive as the country's political crisis threatened national stability. It also left Najib facing Malaysia's economic problems just as they moved from 'serious' to 'intractable.'

Certainly, any move to install a guided missile system on either side of the Johor strait, the narrow body of water that separates the two nations, would be a radical development that probably would not only kick off a major arms race but would undoubtedly irritate the United States, Singapore's main defense supplier and ally.

The question is moot for the moment, because Rosonbornexport said that despite the fact that several countries have shown an interest in purchasing the advanced system, the Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, in a major bout of rocket-rattling for Russia itself, said his country would deploy the Iskanders in Kalingrad, vetween NATO members Lithuania and Poland, to "neutralize if necessary" the US missile defense system that the Bush Administration is trying to install in Central Europe, according to Novosti.

Although the Iskanders have been tested successfully, apparently deliveries of operational weapons have been delayed since 2005 and there aren't enough to go around.

Most of the countries named by Dimidyuk have been hit by the global downturn. Malaysia, for instance, reportedly has decided to cancel a contract to buy 12 Cougar Ec725 helicopters, called Eurocopters because of their production by the European Union, because of falling revenues from crude and palm oil and slowing economic growth for the next few years. The contract for the Eurocopter has been criticized by opposition leader Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party as opaque and questionable. It was signed under Najib.

See also: Graft in Malaysia’s Defense Ministry