Singapore's air force is raising its international profile through plans to host a global air forces' summit

Andrzej Jeziorski/SINGAPORE

The island republic of Singapore has a reputation as an oasis of relative calm in a region rocked by economic and political upheaval. With a population of 3 million and no natural resources of its own, the island's economy depends entirely on foreign trade - which tends to encourage stability. Combined with bitter memories of how quickly the former British colony was overrun by Japan during the Second World War, this makes the islanders protective of their status quo.

As a result, Singapore allocates up to 6% of its gross domestic product to defence - a high figure by international standards. With a force of 300 aircraft - including 49 Lockheed Martin F-16A/Bs and C/Ds, a similar number of upgraded Northrop F/RF-5E/F Tigers and 80 re-engined McDonnell Douglas A/TA-4SU Skyhawks - the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF)is perhaps the region's strongest.

But Singapore's need for a potent defence capability also makes its armed forces keen to foster healthy international relations. The country is a member of the Five Powers Defence Arrangements - along with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and the UK - which guarantees the protection of Malaysian and Singaporean airspace. To promote dialogue with other armed forces, while raising its profile in the international defence arena, the RSAF plans a Millennium Air Power Conference (MAPC) during next year's Asian Aerospace show.

Asian Aerospace is the region's biggest air show and one of the world's top three. Scheduled for 22-27 February, the next event will also be the first show of the millennium. The RSAF aims to capitalise on this to attract delegates.


Brig Gen Rocky Lim (left), RSAF Chief of Staff, wants to gather an international group of air force chiefs and aerospace industry leaders "to reflect on the revolution in air warfare over the past 100 years -[and] to get an insight into how air forces will move in the next millennium".

Lim says the latest upheaval in air warfare has resulted from developments in information technology (IT). "If we look at military operations in the past, we would look at the role of the individual unit. Now, [using modern IT tools] we can look at the whole system," he says.

The latest IT applications allow decisions to be pushed down the chain of command by providing quick access to more information. Lim says: "It could change your entire doctrine of air warfare." Events such as the apparent intelligence failure which led to the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, however, illustrate some of the hazards of the new technology. Even at this level, the computer programmer's axiom, "garbage in, garbage out", still holds.

With the introduction of ever more sophisticated surveillance and information systems, stealth technology, smart bombs, stand-off missiles and the developing concept of unmanned combat air vehicles, even more radical changes in air warfare are likely to take place.

Apart from changes in technology, military planners face "new paradigms because of shifting social and military conditions", says Lim. With all this to consider, the RSAF hopes that air force chiefs and delegations from over 60 countries will attend the MAPC to exchange ideas on adapting to new technology and to new sociopolitical environments.

"I think with each war there is a re-evaluation of the efficacy of air power," says Lim. "The US Air Force, particularly, has come up with newer and newer concepts. If you look at the First World War, air power had little bearing on the ground battle. The Second World War revolutionised air power by linking it with the land forces."

Lim says modern air warfare came into its own in the 1991 Gulf War, where it was used to prepare and shape the battlefield for ground troops. Conversely, he is sceptical of the way air power has been used in Kosovo. "We do not believe that air power alone can win any conflict. We do not think you can 'de-link' it [from surface forces]." He believes that air power alone can be used to achieve "certain limited objectives", however.

The RSAF is 31 years old, and has gone through three distinct phases of development. First, as a fledgling air force, up to the mid-1970s, training pilots and air defence operators. Then growth, when it graduated from Hawker Hunters to A-4s and F-5s and introduced surface-to-air missile systems such as the British Aerospace Rapier, Raytheon Hawk and Matra BAe Dynamics Mistral. Third is the latest phase of consolidation and improvement.

"We grew numerically in the 1980s. Now we are trying to grow qualitatively," says Lim. Previously, the RSAF focused on training its personnel in the use of each weapon or aircraft as an individual unit. "Now we are cross-training, so we can work as an air defence system, looking at the best way to integrate air defence weapons with air defence aircraft."

Source: Flight International