Bolstering Brunei’s Defences: A Small State’s Strategic Guidance and Procurement

by Paul Pryce. Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities on both sides of the pond, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces. His current research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.

The Darussalam-class offshore patrol vessel of Brunei that took part in Exercise Pelican 2011.

The Darussalam-class offshore patrol vessel of Brunei that took part in Exercise Pelican 2011.

Brunei Darussalam turned some heads with its recent acquisition of four Darussalam-class off-shore patrol vessels in 2011-2014 from German shipbuilder Lürssen Werft, as well as its demonstrated willingness to send these vessels on port visits and multilateral exercises, such as Brunei’s 2014 debut at the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC). Brunei might garner international attention once again in 2015 with a revision of its national security strategy.

In 2004, Brunei issued its first Defence White Paper, identifying this small Southeast Asian country’s most significant security challenges and the Brunei government’s commitment to resolving disputes peacefully through multilateral institutions. Though never identified explicitly in the document, this doubtless referred to negotiations on the delimitation of Brunei’s land border with Malaysia and numerous maritime disputes in the South China Sea. An updated Defence White Paper issued in 2007 re-iterated many of the same key points while emphasizing the need for Brunei to expand its maritime surveillance capabilities.

Brunei certainly followed through on the priorities identified in its strategic documents. Talks on the delimitation of the border with Malaysia have been progressing well since November 2014. Meanwhile, aside from the aforementioned acquisition of four Darussalam-class off-shore patrol vessels, Brunei has also enhanced its maritime surveillance with the purchase of four Itjihad-class patrol vessels from Lürssen Werft and a Singapore-manufactured Mustaed-class fast interceptor. Reports suggest Brunei is also currently shopping for six new heavy landing craft to replace its decommissioned fleet of Balkipapan-class landing ships.

Of particular interest, however, are the priorities identified in the 2011 Defence White Paper. Aside from acknowledging emerging trends in international security, such as the need to address cyber security issues and defend Internet infrastructure, the document identifies a need to strengthen the Royal Brunei Armed Forces’ (RBAF) capacity to defend the country’s airspace. Although the air branch of the RBAF, the Royal Brunei Air Force, does have some limited assets, it is by no means equipped to fend off any determined incursion into Brunei airspace. In fact, Brunei’s military aircraft is limited to a lone CN-235 transport plane and an array of 26 transport/utility helicopters of various designs.

The 33rd and 38th Squadrons of the Air Regiment, Royal Brunei Air Force, are equipped with air defence equipment, including Mistral and Rapier missile launchers. This leaves Brunei with some capacity to track and destroy hostile aircraft at low and medium altitudes. But the lack of any air superiority fighters leaves a glaring gap in Brunei’s defences. Such aircraft would allow Brunei to deter aggression by any other regional competitors, intercepting any suspicious aircraft or maritime vessels approaching Brunei territory.

Royal Brunei Armed Forces

Royal Brunei Armed Forces

Just as the strategic documents of previous years signaled Brunei’s intention to expand its maritime forces, the reference to defending Brunei’s airspace in the 2011 Defence White Paper may indicate a contract for air superiority fighters in the near future. The exact design remains elusive, however. During a visit to Busan, South Korea, Brunei officials requested and received a briefing on the capabilities of the KAI FA-50 fighter. That South Korean design has proved particularly popular among ASEAN members, as the Philippines signed a contract to obtain 12 FA-50 fighters in March 2014 and the Indonesian Air Force has also employed this design. With increased focus on interoperability of ASEAN forces, particularly as the establishment of an ASEAN Political-Security Community is expected by the end of 2015, the FA-50 would be an ideal choice for Brunei.

Yet, at recent arms shows including the Brunei Darussalam International Defence Exhibition (BRIDEX), Brunei officials showed a keen interest in both the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon and the Saab JAS 39 Gripen. Evidently, Brunei is still considering its options. This is understandable, given that the purchase of a modern air superiority fighter would be a procurement project of unprecedented scale for Brunei. The 2014-2015 defence budget was approximately $400 million US, while the unit cost of the JAS 39 Gripen is roughly $70 million US. Acquiring even a flight of four fighters would mean an estimated 70% increase in Brunei’s defence expenditures, although the impact could be mitigated by staggering the payments and delivery of the aircraft over several years.

KAI T-50i Indonesian Air force version after landing in an Indonesian Airbase (Photo by KAI, 2013).

KAI T-50i Indonesian Air force version after landing in an Indonesian Airbase (Photo by KAI, 2013).

Brunei is expected to produce a revised Defence White Paper in 2015, which might clarify the military’s objectives. If securing Brunei’s airspace figures less prominently in the document, it may indicate that officials are no longer actively seeking to obtain air superiority fighters, having recognized the challenges associating with maintaining such a fleet of aircraft. Alternatively, given Brunei’s focus on multilateral solutions to regional security challenges, the strategic update could include a call for ASEAN to adopt an approach similar to NATO’s “Smart Defence” concept. That is to say, much like NATO’s Baltic Air Policing Mission, those ASEAN members with more robust air forces could occasionally extend their patrols to Brunei’s airspace. Such an approach would not be unprecedented for Southeast Asia; faced with a rash of pirate attacks, Indonesia once relied upon the Indian Navy for joint patrols to secure Indonesian waterways. But an ASEAN air policing mission is unlikely, as few member states would be able to spare the necessary resources.

The 2015 update may also provide some insight into the extent to which the Royal Brunei Land Forces have developed a rapid response capability. This was another priority highlighted in the 2011 Defence White Paper and seemed to imply an interest in cultivating a Special Forces unit able to respond quickly to acts of terrorism or insurgency in Brunei territory. The Ghurkha Reserve Unit enjoys some special status within the military, but it largely serves in a ceremonial role and provides personal protection to members of the Royal Family. Officially, no other unit enjoys special status within the RBAF, though that does not necessarily mean Brunei has not made progress since 2011 in developing a training regimen and standard operating procedures for a future counter-terrorism unit.

All in all, the rapid development of the Brunei military reflects a regional trend. Whether Brunei continues to build on that momentum, however, remains to be seen. For those following Southeast Asia’s security dynamics, the degree to which Brunei is able to fine-tune its objectives in 2015 will offer much insight into whether the small state can punch above its weight or continue to take a back seat in ASEAN decision-making.

Update from 30.09.2019
In contrast to all expectations, Brunei has not revised its 2011 Defense White Paper in 2015 or later. The next iteration of its defense white paper is expected for 2021.

About Paul Pryce

Paul Pryce is Director of Social Media at the Centre for International Maritime Security and also serves as a Research Analyst with the NATO Council of Canada's Maritime Nation Program. Holding degrees from the University of Calgary and Tallinn University, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a diplomatic aide with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
This entry was posted in Brunei, English, International, Paul Pryce, Sea Powers, Security Policy.

1 Response to Bolstering Brunei’s Defences: A Small State’s Strategic Guidance and Procurement

  1. Philippine Air Force Set to Receive First 2 Korean FA-50 Jets

    The Philippine Air Force (PAF) is set to receive the first two of 12 Korean-made trainer jet fighters worth about $400 Million ordered by the government from manufacturer Korean Aerospace Inc. (KAI), which developed the aircraft with the American aerospace company Lockheed Martin.

    According to PAF spokesman Colonel Enrico Canaya, the jets, however, are not combat-ready and only capable of patrolling the country’s airspace.

    Read more on Defence Blog.

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