National Complex for Defence Industry
The Mongol sack of Baghdad–the ‘Abbasid Caliphate seat of power– in 1258 was the culmination of their 60-year military invasion of Muslim lands in the Levant.
However, in just two years’ time, the Mamluks, formerly slave armies of the ‘Abbasids which arose to become the rulers of Egypt, turned the tide of war. Starting with the Battle of ‘Ayn Jalut where the forces of Sultan Qutuz defeated Kitbuqa’s army, they then proceeded on a winning spree in subsequent major encounters against Mongol forces.
What was the secret of Mamluk victory? It turned out that they had been developing their military science by observing and adopting the highly-mobile and fast-hitting tactics of the enemy: troops mounted on horseback, armed with either bows and arrows or crossbows and bolts.
While this goes to show that sometimes in defeating a superior opponent it is necessary to level the playing field by studying and adopting the rival’s strategy, weapons, and tactics, symmetric duel simply cannot guarantee one will trump the other in battle.
On the contrary, when the Mongols brought in incendiaries and gunpowder weapons such as the hand-cannon, the Mamluks upped their game with naphtha, deployed it as ranged incendiary weapons (alat al-nar) such as fire arrows (as’ham al-khata’iyyah), grenade-like fire pots (qidr), and fire rockets (naft tayyar).
When Raden Wijaya of Majapahit and his 20,000-strong army routed the Yuan forces of similar number sent by Kublai Khan to invade Java in 1291, both sides were already familiar with gunpowder weapons. The playing field was level, but the Javanese navy had an advantage over the Yuan’s: their naval sailing ships, the jong, has multiple-layered plank construction which acted as an armour impervious to artillery fire.
In the early 1500s, Tanah Melayu was already renowned for the existence of gun-founders, which Alfonso d’Albuquerque remarked “as good as those in Germany.” In fact, Portuguese sources such as d’Albuquerque’s own Commentarios and Tomes Pires’ Suma Oriental corroborated that in Melaka Sultanate’s preparation for war against the Kingdom of Aru in Sumatera its materiel had included around 8,000 pieces of ordinance.
In R.W. McRoberts’ analysis, Melaka had enjoyed the advantages of natural defences against any invading force: shoreline mangrove which would impede troop movement; distance between entry point and city; and inevitably larger number of defenders protected by fortifications.
The city would have held out against Portuguese invasion in 1511, had it not for the tactical error of dispatching its entire navy on the pretext of purchasing ammunition (bedil) from the Ottomans while simultaneously sparing no detachment for defence.
With their intact armada, the Portuguese made full use of sea bombardments and took control of the bridge over the Melaka river—the city’s nexus of communication, commerce, and administration. This ultimately forced Sultan Mahmud Shah to sound the retreat thereby opened a way for the invaders. The rest, as they say, is history.
The causes of such blunder can be traced to a number of things including internal conflicts contributing to strategic oversight, but the situation raises further questions: Did the Melakans run out of bedil during combat? What happened to the weapons industry in the region? Why couldn’t they source munitionslocally instead?
Thorough terrain familiarity and tactical improvisation can ensure the Malaysian Armed Forces’ (MAF) mastery over the country’s geography, crucial in dealing with any foreign intrusion. But if there is anything history can teach us it is the importance of keeping the defence industry abreast, to the point it becomes a kind of a national defence complex.
Not only such a complex can lower procurement costs for the government and ensure ready supply of parts, it can also reduce reliance on foreign suppliers therefore close the door of opportunity for scandals such as bribery and political kickbacks to arise.
With strategic partners, such a complex can also contribute to the creation of jobs, provide the necessary jump-start for any economy suffering from premature de-industrialisation. The defence industry can then pool the expertise, create the demand for science, and facilitate the transfer of technology.
Institutions such as MAF, National Defence University (UPNM), Malaysian Institute of Defence and Security (MiDAS), and Science & Technology Research Institute For Defence (STRIDE) can synergise their efforts to look into and fulfil the requirements and specifications of the complex.