KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- A Malaysian air force sergeant and a businessman have been charged with stealing and selling two Northrop F-5E jet engines worth $29 million.
Sgt. Tharmendran Nagarajah, 42, faces 10 years in jail for abetting the theft, and aviation scrap-parts dealer Rajendra Prasad, 37, faces seven years for selling them. Both pleaded not guilty.
The charges bring to an end the investigation into the disappearance of the two aged engines since the Royal Malaysian Air Force first noticed them missing in 2007. It wasn't until May 2008 the RMAF decided the engines had been stolen, according to reports by the national news agency Bernama.
The jet engines went missing while being taken for routine maintenance from the 12th Squadron base in Butterworth to an RMAF godown -- a warehouse -- in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysian media have reported that the engines were likely sold on the black market to a South American company in Argentina and were shipped through Uruguay.
The affair only became public in mid December, and the government has since refused a demand by opposition political leaders for a royal commission enquiry into the embarrassing theft.
The air force has also come out saying that the operational effectiveness of its F-5E fighters has not been affected by the missing engines.
The RMAF "has more than 16 of the single-seater F-5E jets and only seven are used for tactical missions," Armed Forces Chief Gen. Tan Sri Azizan Ariffin said after the annual parade and prize giving at the Royal Military College this week.
"Investigations are still being carried out by the police and the outcome will be announced soon. We are leaving the investigation to the police and will not interfere," he added.
But Azizan also said the theft was the "tip of the iceberg" and a recent audit found other missing military equipment, including jet fighter parts. He did not give details of the parts or equipment.
The RMAF is known to have bought the Tiger II version of the F-5E, capable of around mach 1.6 from its twin General Electric J85-GE-21A turbojet engines. They have a range of around 760 nautical miles and a service ceiling of almost 52,000 feet.
Northrop produced the plane in the mid 1960s, mostly for export to U.S. allies during the cold war. It was a low-cost, low-maintenance aircraft. Around 1,400 of the Tiger II were produced, many under license overseas, before production ceased in 1987. Hundreds are still in service with many national air forces.
The U.S. version, the T-38 Talon, was predominantly a trainer and around 1,200 were built.
Privately run news Web site The Malaysian Insider said Malaysia bought 14 of the planes in 1974 and decommissioned them in 1999. One crashed in the Malacca Strait near Perak in 1995. There are 13 now but only six are operational after they came back to service in 2003.
"The greater mystery," said the article, "is why would anyone want to acquire jet engines first made 30 years ago? Especially when the RMAF has the F/A-18Ds and the MiG-29Ns using far superior power plants made with better technology."
The J85 was originally designed in the late 1950s to power the McDonnell ADM-20 Quail, a large decoy aircraft designed to be released from a B-52 Stratofortress.
Its basic length, depending on the equipment attached, is between 45 and 51 inches long and nearly 18 inches in diameter. Military versions produce up to 2,950 pound-feet of thrust dry. Afterburning variants, such as the J85-GE-21A on the Malaysian Tiger II, can reach up to 5,000 pound-feet.
Importantly, it weighs between 300 and 500 pounds, giving it the highest thrust-to-weight ratio of any production turbojet in the world even today, according to some technical experts.