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Malaysia boosts firepower
- Kuala Lumpur to buy 18 Sukhois in $900-million deal

Kuala Lumpur, May 19 (Reuters): Malaysia moved today to buy the most powerful combat aircraft ever operated by a Southeast Asian country, announcing a $900-million deal with Russian supplier Sukhoi.

Malaysia had agreed in principle to buy 18 Sukhoi Su-30MK fighters, defence minister Najib Razak said.

Aerospace analyst Gerard Frawley said the deal would encourage other air forces in the region to upgrade. “This will be a quantum leap in Southeast Asian air power,” he said. “The Sukhois will greatly outperform anything operated by Malaysia’s near neighbours, notably as ground-strike aircraft but also against air and naval targets.”

Najib said the contract was likely to be signed this year and the Sukhois would be delivered in mid-2006. “This is a result of our modernisation programme,” he told a news conference. “There is a need for combat aircraft, especially multi-role combat aircraft.”

Boeing Co is also in talks to sell Malaysia up to 18 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters, although that $1-billion deal has become hostage to political fallout from the Iraq war and the economic impact of the SARS virus.

Malaysia has been planning to buy both planes. Najib declined to comment on the prospective Boeing deal.

While Boeing is left waiting, several European leaders who agreed with Malaysia’s anti-war stance have begun visiting the country to build diplomatic ties and win lucrative contracts.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to visit Malaysia before October.

Malaysia may partly pay for the planes with the sale of commodities but this will be decided at a later date, Najib said. Malaysia is expected to sell palm oil in a counter trade to part finance the Sukhoi purchase.

London-based academic Tim Huxley said Malaysia had to consider a range of defence threats, albeit distant ones, including potential flare ups with northern neighbour Thailand or disputes with several countries, including China, over rights to the Spratly Islands.

The country has also traditionally been keen to keep up with neighbour Singapore, which is planning a purchase of its own batch of new-technology fighters. Frawley, editor of industry monthly Australian Aviation, pointed to the long range of the Su-30MK, which is similar to aircraft that Russia operates at home and has sold to China, India and, in a less advanced version, Vietnam.

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