After fighters, the purchase of new airborne early warning aircraft is a priority for the Singapore air force. But will it choose the unmanned option?

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) faces unique challenges in its mission to defend the tiny city state from the air. These have been thrown sharply into focus by recent changes in the global security landscape.

A faithful US ally, Singapore finds itself in the midst of significant South-East Asian political uncertainty, against the backdrop of the US-led war on terror. It has also been forced to address internal security issues after the recent arrest of 13 suspected terrorists, highlighting the growing importance of airborne surveillance platforms as a means to police Singapore's coastline and territorial waters, and prevent piracy and illegal immigration.

The perceived security threat, coupled with Singapore's unusually transparent procurement procedures, a track record of following through stated acquisition plans and a lack of enthusiasm for direct industrial offsets, has made the country one of the most attractive export markets for Western defence contractors despite its size.

The RSAF has a short history. It was established as the Singapore Air Defence Command in 1968 and renamed the RSAF in 1975. Current chief of the air force Brigadier General Lim Kim Choon joined the service a year later and was appointed to the top job in April 2001. He remains a qualified Lockheed Martin F-16 and McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawk pilot.

Lim says the air force is "very pleased" with replies to its recent request for information for its flagship multirole fighter competition.

Singapore expects to select the winning aircraft in 2004 and order at least one squadron of 20-24 aircraft. The six competitors will be narrowed to three before a formal request for proposals (RFP) is issued later this year.

The competition is a key early export battle pitching the Dassault Rafale against the Eurofighter Typhoon, while also in the running are the Boeing F-18E/F Super Hornet and F-15E Eagle, F-16 Block 60 and Sukhoi Su-30/35.

The new fighters will replace the A-4s which Lim says will "soon be reaching the end of their operationally useful life". The RSAF's Northrop F-5s, upgraded in the late 1990s, "will continue to serve for a while yet", he says.

Singapore took part in the US Joint Strike Fighter concept demonstration phase as a "Level 3" participant but Lim says the air force "has not made a decision on continuing its participation in the [development] phase".

Rather than insisting on direct industrial offsets as part of the fighter acquisition, Singapore prefers to leverage its military purchases to gain the expertise it needs to become a major partner in international aircraft development and upgrade programmes. Bidders in the fighter competition will be expected to demonstrate that both their company and their home country's government are prepared to make a long-term commitment to their relationship with Singapore, and put forward proposals for technology transfer.

Some of this transfer will result from Singapore's need to understand the technical capabilities of its chosen aircraft, although the winning manufacturer will also be expected to support Singapore's efforts to enhance the capabilities of both the aircraft and its weapon system throughout its service life.

As far as the current fighter fleet is concerned, Lim says, the RSAF is open to the idea of upgrading the avionics in its F-16s. However, it has made no commitment so far to purchase the "Falcon One" upgrade package being developed jointly by Singapore Technologies Aerospace and BAE Systems, despite agreeing to provide an aircraft for a prototype conversion. "The RSAF has an interest in the cockpit upgrade since the emerging technologies in the upgrade may have possible and relevant applications on RSAF fighter aircraft such as the F-16C/D," says Lim.

New systems

"For example, the RSAF is interested in exploring new systems, such as the mission computer and multifunction colour displays, to evaluate the effects of man-machine interface features and requirements as well as of data integration for an advanced cockpit configuration. In addition, the RSAF sees the F-16 as a suitable platform for examining such concepts for future aircraft configurations," he adds.

Also on the fixed-wing side, Singapore has begun looking at options for upgrading or replacing its four Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platforms. Previous upgrades to RSAF E-2C mission systems enable the aircraft to "continue meeting the needs" of the air force, but he acknowledges that a study of possible replacements is underway. "As part of this study, the RSAF is making the necessary effort to evaluate the capabilities and cost-effectiveness of all AEW&C solutions being offered in the market," he says.

If sanctioned, replacement of the 15-year-old E-2Cs would follow the acquisition of the new fighters to replace the A-4s. Likely to be under evaluation to meet the requirement are the Boeing 737 equipped with the Northrop Grumman MESA radar, an AEW&C version of the Fairchild Dornier 728, and a Raytheon-led offer of the Airbus A321 equipped with the Elta Phalcon radar.

Although Singapore is understood to favour a manned platform for the AEW&C role, another option would be to make the jump to a distributed network employing high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned air vehicles (UAVs). The RSAF is enthusiastic about the long-term potential for using UAVs in this and other roles, but feels the technology has yet to mature.

"The recent war on terrorism in Afghanistan highlighted the utility, if not proved the effectiveness, of UAVs as another instrument of airpower," says Lim. "Drawing from the US Air Force's experience of employing UAVs in Afghanistan, as well as from the RSAF's experience in operating its own UAVs, the broad trend is towards increasing the use of UAVs at least in certain areas.

"These areas include airborne early warning, battlefield area surveillance, and even targeting, especially in a high-risk mission or a high-threat environment," he adds. "However, the extent to which UAVs will replace or complement man-ned platforms will depend on how quickly technology matures in this area."

In May 2001, it emerged that the RSAF, together with the Singapore ministry of defence, Defence Science and Technology Agency and Singapore Technologies Engineering, is working on a long-endurance surveillance UAV called Lalee, which could be considered a long-term replacement for the E-2Cs. US designer Burt Rutan has been drafted in to help complete preliminary design work on the aircraft.

"Unmanned aircraft like the Global Hawk and the Lalee UAV, which is being worked on by Singapore, with their long operating endurance and hence persistence of presence, can play useful roles, particularly in battlefield area surveillance," says Lim.

Helicopter selection

The most pressing procurement decision the ministry of defence faces is the selection of a naval helicopter to equip six French frigates due to enter service with Singapore's navy from 2005. Responses to an RFP were handed in at the end of January. Shortlisted are the Eurocopter AS532SC Cougar, NH Industries NH90 and Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk.

"We intend to make a decision this year for the naval helicopters," says Lim. Although the RSAF has looked at the economic advantages of procuring a larger number of a common helicopter type for the utility, as well as naval, roles, there is no immediate plan to expand the requirement, Lim says.

"Certainly, there will be economic and even operational advantages, in terms of logistics, maintenance, training of both aircrew and technical crew, and operational flexibility, to have a land variant of the naval helicopter as a possible replacement for the older utility helicopters when these are replaced," he says. "However, whether this would eventually materialise will depend on how well the various helicopters meet the differing role requirements demanded by the RSAF."

The RSAF will receive the first of 20 Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters later this year after recently firming up 12 options taken as part of its original 1999 order for eight aircraft. Singapore will be the first Asian country to field the Apache Longbow, and has selected the General Electric T700 to power its aircraft.

"The RSAF acquired the AH-64Ds as part of its overall effort to build a modern, broad-based, and balanced capability," says Lim. "Delivery of the first helicopter is scheduled towards middle of this year. In preparation, the RSAF's initial core group of pilots and technical crew on the AH-64 have started their training in the USA, and should complete their training in time for the delivery of the first helicopter."

He adds: "The RSAF is also working closely with the US Army and the Army National Guard to set up facilities at Silver Bell AHP, Marana, Arizona, where the RSAF AH-64s will initially be based."

Source: Flight International