Friday, November 4, 2016

Republic of Singapore Air Force RSAF Exercise Torrent preview: Air Power Begins With Us

Generate & Sustain: Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16D+ fighters prepare to take-off from Lim Chu Kang Road during Exercise Torrent VI in November 2008. The 2,500m long road is one of several locations in Singapore that can be reconfigured for RSAF flight operations. 

Will be updating the essay below, published by The Straits Times in 2008, for Torrent VII.

Singapore's Air Power: It's not just about fighter aircraft

By David Boey
Singapore’s war planes remain young even as the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) marked its 40th anniversary on 1 September 2008.

The renewal of Singapore’s arsenal of war planes – perhaps the most visible sign of the RSAF’s ongoing transformation – should not over shadow notable changes to the way Singapore wields air power.

A review of the RSAF’s transformation to keep its airpower poised and deadly is timely. In 2006, the air force began restructuring itself into five “mission-oriented functional commands” to strengthen integration within the air force and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) units. This effort was completed by its 40th anniversary.

The Air Defence and Operations Command was first unveiled in January 2007, followed by the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Command, Participation Command (this coordinates air power with land and naval operations), and finally the Air Combat Command and Air Power Generation Command, both unveiled this August.

To appreciate the resources needed to project military airpower, consider this: the RSAF has more squadrons that do not operate flying machines than those that do.

Singapore also has more fighter pilots (including regulars and Operationally Ready National Servicemen) than it does fighter aircraft.

But people (defence analysts and journalists included) tend to be fixated with military aircraft and helicopters, with scant attention accorded to RSAF capabilities that generate and sustain air power.

The result is that one is more likely to come across reports on new RSAF acquisitions such as F-15SG Strike Eagle fighter aircraft, S-70B Seahawk naval helicopters and Gulfstream 550 airborne early warning aircraft, as opposed to a story on say, a runway lighting system bought by the RSAF. 

One rarely reads about RSAF squadrons tasked with airfield maintenance (they keep runways and taxiways combat ready), air logistics (aircraft maintenance), field defence (air base security), flying support (air traffic control and weather data) and ground logistics (such as vehicles and stores).

When one considers that there are about 500 different ways to load an F-16 fighter plane with weapons, sensors and fuel tanks, the complexity of the task at hand for RSAF air warfare planners and air force ground crew becomes abundantly clear.

To maximise damage against aggressors, RSAF ground crew must be able to recover aircraft as they return from combat, refuel, rearm and regenerate air strikes rapidly. During operations, ground crew must also check returning aircraft for battle damage and have the expertise to repair damaged platforms under immense time pressure.

A grounded fighter is a target: it becomes a weapon only when it gets airborne. 

The ground crew must also factor in enemy attempts to interfere with these vital tasks, for instance, attempts to crater runways to make these inoperable.

Air strikes can involve dozens of aircraft of armed for various roles such as air defence or anti-armour attacks. RSAF ground crew are trained – much like Formula 1 pit crews – to accomplish the turnaround time for war planes and helicopters quickly and safely.

The ability to rapidly regenerate air strikes is a valuable force multiplier. An air force that can get its war planes ready for action twice as fast as its opponent effectively doubles its combat muscle. This is why the RSAF has invested as much attention in building up “non flying” squadrons as it devotes to building up fighter, helicopter, transport and surveillance aircraft squadrons.

There is little point in buying top of the line combat aircraft if the know-how to maintain and modify these planes resides in a foreign country. Or if maintenance problems result in these aircraft becoming hangar queens, being under repair most of the time.  

No less important is protection of RSAF air base infrastructure against conventional attacks by artillery or enemy air attack, or by special forces units. Since the 1980s, the air force has taken steps to protect its aircraft by clever use of camouflage, concealment and dispersal at its air bases. Alongside the hardening of squadron facilities were moves to set up specialized units to repair runways and taxiways if these were damaged by enemy action. 

As air bases are the vulnerable centre of gravity that an enemy might aim to cripple, Singapore has also drawn up, and practiced, contingency plans to use roads as aircraft runways during emergencies. 

Without its fighter aircraft, the RSAF will not achieve victory. Without the dedication of the RSAF’s ground crew, the RSAF could face defeat.

So the next time you see and RSAF fighter soar overhead, spare a thought for the immense resources needed to generate and sustain airpower.

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