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How Malaysian and French Elections could be Affected by the Submarine Scandal

Malaysia’s submarine procurement scandal was, by mid-April 2012, spilling onto the French political scene, highlighting a range of political and strategic dilemmas which ultimately impact (and reflect) on the national security capabilities of a number of Asian states. Apart from anything else, this scandal — and a number of similar scandals — highlights the stagnation of the international defense scene; it has become bogged down in politics, corruption, and endemic bureaucratic maneuver.

Significantly, the issue of the Malaysian submarine scandal had become a factor in the French Presidential elections of April 22 and May 6, 2012, and the Malaysian general elections, expected in May or June 2012. In France, the scandal highlighted the rôle of the Socialist Party, which was in government when the pattern of bribes to Malaysian officials — allegedly including the current Prime Minister, Najib Razak — and political kickbacks (to the French Socialist Party, from Malaysia) emerged.

Thus, the scandal could help determine who emerges in power in both Malaysia and France in 2012.

But the Malaysian and French problem over the 2002 order by the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) of two Scorpene conventional submarine (SSK) and one Agosta 70 conventional submarine (SS) is not a simple, isolated issue. The Indian Air Force (IAF), which on February 2012 selected the AMD Rafale for its Medium Multi-Rôle Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) program, is equally mired in political issues, and was seen as particularly vulnerable to both financial and economic corruption at the Indian end. Indeed, in both instances — the Malaysian submarine program and the bogging down of the Indian fighter order — the issues are linked to political-financial scandals, with the result that the defense forces of both states were severely penalized by the affairs. Costs have risen, on most systems, at a far higher rate than had been the case historically (making them major political and bureaucratic programs), and military capabilities have often been reduced to secondary importance.

Indeed, in Malaysia, the $1.2-billion initial capital expenditure for the submarine fleet has not resulted in a significant RMN capability to project power or defenses into the Indian Ocean, even if a three-boat fleet had ever been regarded as sufficient to give Malaysia a meaningful Indian Ocean power projection or defensive capability. At best, it was a process which began to give the RMN some skill-sets, rather than a substantive capability.

Other corruption, mismanagement, and technical disasters in the region in recent years have included the Pakistan Navy’s (PN) acquisition of Agosta 90B SSKs (known in the PN as the Khalid-class), and the Indian Navy’s potential acquisition of Scorpene SSKs (under the Project 75 plan); the Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan) Navy’s order in 1991 of six French Lafayette-class frigates; the Indian Army’s procurement of Bofors FH-77B 155mm field artillery system in 1989; to name but a few. More to the point, it would be difficult to find a major-systems defense procurement program in South or South-East Asia in recent years which lacked some elements of questionable legality or which were not driven by a political rather than a pure defense needs agenda.

What is becoming apparent is that the increasing program size for the major defense projects has made them extremely political, and, in many countries, ideal targets for corruption. At best, what has happened is that strategic needs have invariably become secondary considerations to bureaucratic form, even when financial corruption has not entered the equation. It is not insignificant to note that the majority of these cases involved populist, socialist governments, either controlling either the sale or the purchase of these systems, or both. It is not insignificant, then, that the conservative Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) of French Pres.Nicolas Sarkozy has been intent on ensuring that the Parti socialiste (PS) — which won control of the Senate in 2011 for the first time in more than 50 years and which is contending the 2012 Presidential elections through candidate François Hollande — was exposed as having benefitted financially from the Malaysian Scorpene submarine scandal, and illegally contributed to the financial wealth of several Malaysian leaders.

Clearly, however, the general publics of France and other major Western powers have become inured to such scandals when perpetrated by socialist or populist leaders, but this is less the case in some non-Western societies, such as Malaysia. There, the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has essentially controlled Malaysian politics since independence in 1957, is now being seen as coming to the end of its reign, despite its strong control over the media and the courts.

The symptom of rising costs for major defense systems, coupled with increasingly protracted procurement time-frames, and the resultant growing politicization of such programs, comes at a time when the strategic architecture is changing more rapidly than at almost any time since World War II. The world is now witnessing, at the very least, the most profound framework shift since the end of the Cold War in 1990. This — as with the end of the Cold War itself — raises questions in many electorates as to the purpose and direction of many defense programs. Certainly, alliance structures and — because of the emerging outcomes of recent major conflicts — military doctrine are undergoing major changes, a process likely to see increasing momentum. At the same time, there is an increasing devotion to certain programs and processes, simply because so much has already been invested in them, politically, because they were begun at a time of different force structure, doctrine, and threat appreciations.

Major weapons systems often last in service as long as a half-century; force structures remain in service for even longer; and doctrine evolves only gradually, often with tentacles and memories lingering for a century or more. Global and regional strategic realities, while often seeing periods of relative stability (such as the Cold War), can change rapidly. We are presently in such a period of change, and while technology can be developed to adapt to new threats and provide countermeasures and counter-countermeasures, the reality is that doctrinal intractability often inhibits the best use of technology, and therefore constrains the best use of budgets.

The result is often the continued and inappropriate uses of old approaches to defense technology and structures in the face of new strategic realities. But, politically, the allure of hidden funds from large defense programs has proven irresistible as a key to power, resulting in a resistance to change which is even more intractible than the military acceptance of new doctrines.

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.


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