Singapore possesses Southeast Asia’s most powerful air force, but maintaining its edge in an increasingly volatile region requires constant assessment of new technologies and ideas.
In an interview with FlightGlobal, Chief of the Republic of Singapore Air Force Major-General Mervyn Tan discussed future plans and emerging capabilities, on the year of the RSAF’s fiftieth anniversary.
FlightGlobal: What emergent capabilities are the RSAF most interested in developing?
Tan: Our regional security environment is becoming increasingly complex, uncertain and volatile. The geopolitical tensions, threats from terrorism and extremism, as well as those posed by hybrid warfare continue to be issues that we need to address.
The systems and capabilities that the RSAF have inducted over the years provide us with a range of capabilities that can be useful in a wide range of scenarios to meet the demands of both conventional and unconventional threats in an evolving security landscape. Nevertheless, to ensure that the RSAF remains relevant and capable of defending Singapore against emerging threats, we are constantly looking out for new capabilities and technologies that allow us to maintain our operational edge. Today, fourth industrial revolution technology has opened up new possibilities for the RSAF to be more effective and more efficient, allowing us to do more with a leaner force. We are pushing towards greater use of robotics, data analytics and artificial intelligence. One example is our exploration of such technologies in the design of smarter airbases that will allow us to be more effective and efficient in generating airpower for the SAF. As we explore and adapt emerging technologies to enhance the RSAF, we will continue to monitor the threat developments closely and induct new systems when required to ensure the RSAF’s capability to meet Singapore’s defence needs.
FlightGlobal: What is the RSAF’s current thinking on the Lockheed Martin F-35? Singapore has expressed interest before, but this seems to have gone quiet over the last two years.
Tan: As a small country with no strategic depth, Singapore will always need superior air capabilities to protect its interests and borders. Hence, we have been taking a long-term perspective in our planning to ensure that we will always have a capable fighter fleet to defend Singapore’s skies. The RSAF’s F-5s have been drawn down after reaching the end of their operational lifespan and the F-16s have several key components that are facing obsolescence. After careful studies, we have concluded that the most cost-effective approach will be to upgrade the F-16s to extend its lifespan, while evaluating the F-35 as a potential candidate to strengthen our fighter force and maintain our combat edge into the future.
MINDEF is still evaluating the F-35 JSF. Decisions to acquire new and advanced capabilities are important and will be made after careful and thorough evaluation. We have to ensure that our investment not only meets our defence requirements, but is also cost-effective.
FlightGlobal: Can you provide some details of the F-16 upgrade programme? How is it progressing?
Tan: The RSAF’s F-16s have been in operations since 1998 and remain the backbone of our fighter fleet. The F-16 Upgrade will resolve obsolescence issues and incorporate new capabilities onto the aircraft to keep them operationally effective to defend Singapore. To ensure the RSAF’s operational readiness, the F-16 upgrade will be carried out in phases. The upgrade programme commenced in 2016 and we can expect to roll out the first batch of the upgraded aircraft in the next few years.
FlightGlobal: Singapore is understood to have retired the Northrop F-5E Tiger II. Can you discuss the historical importance of this aircraft to the RSAF? Also, what happened to the retired aircraft?
Tan: The arrival of the F-5Es in 1979 marked a significant milestone in the RSAF’s history. Not only was it the RSAF’s first supersonic aircraft, the aircraft was also a significant boost to our fighter capabilities which had comprised mainly the Hawker Hunters and refurbished A-4s from the United States Navy. It was also a defining chapter for our engineering community and defence partners as the efforts taken and lessons learnt to support the operations of the aircraft and system throughout their life cycle helped set the foundation for the technical and engineering standards in the RSAF and our defence industries. The F-5s had reached the end of their operational lifespan and had since been withdrawn from operations after more than 30 years of service. Some of the F-5s are preserved for heritage and education.
FlightGlobal: What is progress with Singapore’s new Airbus Defence and Space A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport capability? How will new tankers benefit Singapore and its allies?
Tan: Having air-to-air refueling capability allows the RSAF to extend the endurance of our fighter aircraft to safeguard our skies. The A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) will enable the RSAF to be more effective and capable in meeting our operational demands. It has better endurance, fuel offload, cargo and passenger capacity compared to the ageing KC-135R. It is also more manpower efficient requiring a smaller crew to operate. The platform provides the RSAF with greater operational flexibility, and will enhance Singapore’s ability to contribute to international humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HARD) and peace support operations. In addition, the A330 MRTT’s ability to refuel both drogue-refueled and boom-refueled platforms will also enhance our interoperability with other air forces. Training will be commencing soon for the first batch of aircrew and maintenance crew. The A330 MRTT is on track for delivery to the RSAF in 2018, and its operationalization is expected to be achieved in the following few years.
FlightGlobal: It is understood that the RSAF may look to obtain a new maritime patrol aircraft. Can you discuss this, and what capabilities the new aircraft would include?
Tan: Our Fokker-50 Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) have been providing maritime air surveillance to protect our sea lines of communications since they began operations in 1995. The Fokker-50 MPA remains relevant to the defence of Singapore and we will continue to operate the aircraft for as long as it is operationally and economically feasible. We will explore further upgrades or procure new systems when necessary to ensure we remain capable of meeting Singapore’s security needs.
FlightGlobal: Singapore’s C-130s are well maintained, but are aging. When can we expect a campaign to replace these aircraft?
Tan: The RSAF C-130s enable the SAF to undertake a wide spectrum of operations. In addition to being a key asset for the SAF’s airlift requirements, our C130 fleet have also contributed significantly to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations such as the delivery of aid to victims in earthquake-hit Nepal and to the evacuees from Marawi in the Philippines.
To ensure our C-130s remain operationally relevant and capable, we have upgraded the C-130 fleet. The upgraded C-130s are equipped with new avionics and glass cockpits to improve its human-machine Interface, as well as with new self-protection suites for enhanced survivability. Nonetheless, we are constantly reviewing our capabilities. We will explore further upgrades or procure new systems when necessary to ensure we remain capable of meeting Singapore’s security needs.