Smaller Air Forces and the Future of Air Power - A Perspective from Singapore
(Source: Singapore Ministry of Defence; issued Jan. 07, 2009)
by Major General Ng Chee Khern,
Chief of the Republic of Singapore Air Force


Singapore is a small country. We are 42 km East to West, 21 km North to South. We have no natural resources. Without the luxury of space and resources, the RSAF has lived by two key principles throughout our history. The first principle is to be always open to international cooperation and collaboration. Through collaboration, we make ourselves useful to others and create partners, and we create mutual benefits for ourselves and our partners. The second principle is a never-ceasing drive to do our utmost to optimise, to be efficient and effective, to seek out force multipliers and to increase the speed of our OODA loop.

In essence, we have always sought to make the most of what we have. The two principles are complementary. We are more useful to others if we ourselves are a capable air force which others find credible to work with for mutual benefits, and we become better the more we work with others. Collaboration between air forces is similar to economics. The more open we are, the more we are likely to benefit from each other in the long term.

Making a Difference to Others through International Collaboration

It is fortunate that we have lived by these two principles of engaging extensively in international collaboration while making the most of what we have. Many security problems in the world today have become transnational in nature. As the problems transcend national boundaries, the solutions have to be international in scope too.

Singapore is strategically located where the Indian Ocean meets the Pacific Ocean, a crucial transit point of sea and air routes. Our location and availability of suitable facilities make us a natural choice as a transit node for our partners when they deploy to this region and beyond. Foreign aircraft and ships are frequently deployed to our air and naval bases on short term rotations. Singapore is a hub through which many air forces and navies from Australia, China, France, India, Japan, Russia and the US use regularly. Paya Lebar Airbase has also hosted numerous deployments by our partner countries under the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA).

The FPDA is the longest security arrangement that Singapore has been party to. When the FPDA was formulated in 1971, it was mainly a mechanism for Australia, New Zealand and the UK to play a part in defending Malaysia and Singapore in case we came under attack. However, today, the extra-regional powers have found the FPDA a useful arrangement for them to continue to stay engaged to the region. Over the past 37 years, the FPDA has played an important role in enhancing regional security, and it continues to be an important component of the regional security architecture. The FPDA member countries derive much mutual benefit and professional value from participating in FPDA exercises, which have progressed to become more joint and complex in nature. The FPDA has also demonstrated its ability to evolve and adapt itself to remain relevant to the changing strategic environment as well as the needs of its members, for instance in the FPDA's cooperation against non-conventional threats, especially in the area of maritime security. Most recently, the FPDA Defence Ministers agreed that the FPDA explore ways to build capacity in the area of HADR.

To promote maritime security in the region, Singapore has over the years forged many useful collaborations with partners within and beyond the region. The long-standing arrangements include the Indonesia-Singapore Coordinated Patrols, the Malacca Straits Sea Patrol and the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS), which consists of 22 participating countries. More recently, the SAF, together with its Malaysian and Indonesian counterparts, kicked off the "Eyes-in-the-Sky" (EiS) programme as a joint initiative to combat piracy in the Malacca Straits. Together with the Malacca Straits Sea Patrols, these are collectively known as the Malacca Straits Patrols.

The EiS is important as an open arrangement that could, with time, pave the way for cooperation not just among the littoral states but with other user states as well, subject to the consent of the three littoral states and in accordance with international law. There is scope in the future for Thailand and other countries not in this region to contribute to this arrangement. In addition, Singapore is actively collaborating with other members of the WPNS to share information under the Regional Maritime Information Exchange (ReMIX) and Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) initiatives, aimed at improving situational awareness to combat piracy and other maritime incidents.

By maintaining a high state of operational readiness and leveraging on the ability to inter-operate with our counterparts, the RSAF has made important contributions in worthwhile causes such as peace-support and disaster relief operations. Since 1999, Singapore has been participating in the various UN missions in East Timor and later, Timor Leste. We were among the first countries to commit our forces and over the years, we have contributed Liaison Officers, Staff Officers, medical detachments, helicopters and a company of peacekeepers. In 2002, one of our Army Officers was also appointed Commander of the UN Peacekeeping Force. In September 2006, two of our Staff Officers were attached to the currently ongoing United Nations Mission in Timor Leste.

In the aftermath of the Boxing Day Tsunami in Aceh, the RSAF together with our Army and Navy forces were able to quickly deploy transport and helicopter assets to support relief operations in the critical first days after the disaster, before the rest of international assistance arrived. We also offered our air and naval bases for use as a staging area for relief and reconstruction efforts in tsunami-hit countries. Singapore was an ideal place because it is situated near to the disaster area and has the necessary infrastructure support.

Contributing to Peace and Security beyond Southeast Asia

The initiatives discussed thus far are centred in Southeast Asia, but Singapore's contribution to peace and stability extends beyond our immediate region. Both Singapore and Australia are active members in the Proliferation of Security Initiative (PSI). Australia was one of the key participants in the PSI maritime interdiction exercise, Ex. Deep Sabre, which Singapore hosted in August 2005. Singapore also participated in 2006's Ex. Pacific Protector, a multilateral air-ground interdiction exercise held in Darwin, which included participants from Japan, New Zealand, the UK and the US. This exercise simulated the interception, escort and subsequent search of a commercial aircraft suspected of carrying WMD-related materials. In November 2005, Singapore hosted the 2nd Regional Special Forces Counter-Terrorism Conference, following the inaugural conference held in Australia a year earlier.

In the Middle East, RSAF C-130s and KC-135s have participated in peace support operations in Iraq since 2004. In addition, Singapore recently sent two five-man teams to undertake humanitarian and reconstruction projects in Afghanistan as part of the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan Province, central Afghanistan. We have also conducted relief operations in places as far away as the US, when our Chinooks based in Texas were deployed to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Hence, Singapore has been actively building up a web of cooperative relationships with partners in various parts of the world to combat terrorism and piracy, as well as to save lives and livelihoods through peace support and humanitarian operations. The ability and willingness of the RSAF in being able to work with partner nations and air forces in these OOTW operations both within and beyond our region underscores our commitment to play a useful role in the international community. As a small air force, we have taken the approach to collaborate in these operations with like-minded partners to make a useful and significant contribution to peace and security in various parts of the world. Our participation reflects our moral and political support to the international efforts. We are glad that despite our small size, we have been useful to our partners in these operations.

Making Ourselves a Capable Air Force: Overseas Training

While we engage in international cooperation, we are always conscious that others would find it useful to engage us only if we have useful expertise and assets to bring to the relationship. Hence, we have always striven to better ourselves. One of the inherent constraints that the RSAF faces in building up our capabilities is the lack of training airspace in Singapore. The way we have overcome this is none other than to reach out to our partners from all over the world; to train and exercise with precisely the people whom we see ourselves operating with.

We have been able to work effectively with many partner nations and air forces partly because of the generous access to training airspace our partners have provided us. A large proportion of the RSAF's flying training - in fact close to 50 percent - is done overseas. In Australia, the RSAF has a training squadron in Pearce Airbase and a Super Puma detachment in Oakey. With the generous support of the Australians, we have also been able to conduct large-scale air-land exercises together with the Singapore Army in Rockhampton, something that cannot be done in Singapore due to the lack of training areas. Elsewhere around the globe, we have detachments in France and the US, and we deploy regularly to Australia, India, Indonesia, New Zealand, South Africa and Thailand.

With many detachments based overseas, bilateral and multilateral exercises are common features in our training calendar. In Ex. Pitch Black in Australia, we have the opportunity to exercise with air forces from Australia, Thailand and the US. In the US and Canada, the RSAF takes part regularly in the Red Flag and Maple Flag series of exercises, involving air forces from countries such as Canada, France, Italy, the UK and the US. Closer to home, RSAF F16s, F5s and E2Cs are regular participants in the annual multilateral Cope Tiger exercises in Thailand. These frequent interactions with advanced air forces have greatly accelerated our learning curve and ensure that we can hold our own even when operating with the best in the world.

Through overseas training and joint exercises, the RSAF has not only been able to greatly increase our capabilities, but also been allowed to build strong relationships with defence partners. This policy of constant engagement has allowed us to develop a good understanding of how other air forces operate, while achieving greater interoperability with many of our partner countries in the world.

Leveraging on Our Internal Strengths

While we reach out to our overseas partners, we have also leveraged on internal strengths within our system to ensure that the RSAF develops into a militarily effective force. Part of this hinges on having the right political and societal conditions. We have been able to build up our capabilities in a relatively short space of time due to a stable political environment and socio-economic conditions that are conducive to our development. A vibrant economy has helped to sustain the rapid growth of Singapore's commercial and defence science industries, which in turn provided the human capital and technical expertise to develop new capabilities.

Most importantly, the SAF has benefited tremendously from a stable political environment, strong commitment to security, as well as sustained and steady financial backing. In this aspect, we have been fortunate to have political leaders who possess a deep understanding of the capabilities and limitations of military power. Regardless of how the economy performs, up to 6% of Singapore's Gross Domestic Product is dedicated annually to military development. The stable political environment and rapid economic progress over the years have thus allowed the RSAF to remain focused and take a long-term planning approach in our force structuring and capability development efforts.

To stretch this dollar and make every dollar count, we have a rigorous planning and procurement process, coupled with a strong culture to hold down O&S costs. This has allowed us to have a sustained and rapid force renewal and modernisation - to be able to acquire and develop the best that money can buy and to know when to retire assets that are no longer cost-effective. For example, over the past 10 years, we have drawn down the UH-1H, Fennecs, A4 Super Skyhawks, radars and C2 systems. In their place, we have phased in the F16D+, Chinooks, Apaches and two new radar systems, and we will soon phase in our F15s, Naval Helicopters and will look to replace our E2Cs. Because we are small, we aggressively retire old systems that are no longer relevant, so as to free up the manpower and logistics resources to develop modern capabilities.

This process of renewal is part of a mindset to emphasise quality over quantity. In operations and combat, there is no substitute for having the best. The concentration on quality is underlined by an organisation-wide emphasis on achieving the best in our equipment, training and people. By not settling for second best, we aim to achieve a decisive qualitative edge.

The emphasis on quality over quantity is evident in the manner we have built up a balanced force structure. We have more than 100 multi-role fighters supported by airborne early warning platforms and air-to-air refuelling tankers, together with a sizeable and versatile fleet of transport and helicopter aircraft. The RSAF is a well-balanced air force. An air force with balanced and diverse capabilities is versatile and will be effective in a greater range of operations - from peacetime defence against terrorist and low-intensity threats, peace support operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, to the traditional missions of deterrence and war.

The Future of Small Air Forces

Having gone through the key principles that have shaped the development of the RSAF, I will now share some thoughts on the challenges today and the RSAF's responses to these challenges.

The first challenge is in the evolving strategic landscape characterised by the Revolution in Strategic Affairs (RSA). This RSA has seen the proliferation of irregular warfare and operations involving weak and failing states, militia groups and terrorists. The operational challenges in the application of airpower will therefore widen.

The second challenge lies in fully exploiting new technologies and concepts. Emerging technologies in the domains of unmanned warfare, precision weapons, sensor and information systems will improve the OODA loop of those able to exploit the technologies. These advances in air power can be especially important to small nations such as Singapore. UAVs, precision weapons and C4I systems, if properly harnessed and assimilated within our force structure, will shrink geography and help us overcome the lack of strategic depth inherent in many small countries.

The response of the RSAF in meeting these challenges is to transform. The RSAF is transforming into what we have termed the 3rd Generation RSAF, a full spectrum and integrated force. The response to being effective in the widened spectrum of demanding political and operational environment is to be full spectrum. This entails developing our people to not only be good in their military skills, but also to understand strategic imperatives and be politically savvy, to be good "strategic corporals and captains".

The response to being effective in exploiting the new technologies is in being more closely integrated. The new technologies respect no Service-domain boundaries - for example, the Air Force's precision weapons and UAVs can be equally critical to the Army's success; the Navy's long reach can complement the objectives of the Air Force and the Army. In addition to Service stove-pipes, we have identified the need to break down functional stove-pipes, in particular the operations-intelligence and the operations-logistics stove-pipes.

If we bridge the operations-intelligence divide well, we will conduct operations with timely and accurate intelligence updates, and we will proactively gather intelligence with a thorough understanding of the information that operations require. If we bridge the operations-logistics divide well, we will conduct operations with proper understanding of logistics capabilities and limitations, and logistics support for operations would be responsive and effective. Hence, the result of integration would be an Air Force able to bridge divides across Services and across functional expertise areas.To achieve focus in operations across a wide spectrum, and to become more integrated, the RSAF has embarked on the most fundamental restructuring of its organisation set-up in the last thirty years. This involves moving away from a geographically-based airbase set-up to create a series of functional commands for greater mission or task focus.

Under this restructuring, five functional commands have been set up. They are: Air Defence and Operations Command, Air Combat Command, Participation Command, Air Power Generation Command and UAV Command. To achieve the desired level of cross-Service and cross-domain integration, each of these commands will be manned by Officers from the Army and the Navy, in addition to Air Force Officers from different functional backgrounds.


As a small air force, the RSAF has contributed to peace and security by actively engaging international partners in relationships which have been mutually beneficial. We do not take these relationships for granted. Hence, we continue to modernise and improve the RSAF so that we would continue to be a useful partner to other air forces in operations in the future, both within our region in Southeast Asia and also in other parts of the world.

In fact, large parts of this article were not just about the RSAF, but how we are deeply embedded and integrated with the rest of the Singapore Armed Forces and the Singapore government in contributing to peace and security. Our efforts to improve our capabilities have been greatly helped by the generous offer of training airspace and basing by our foreign friends and partners.

We have also continued to actively seek out opportunities to cooperate in bilateral and multilateral training with partner nations so that when we are called upon to operate together, we would not be found wanting, and would be able to work in easy familiarity and confidence with others. We will continue to foster good relations and create mutual benefits with our friends within and beyond the region.

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