For the longest of time, radar operators in the Singapore Air Defence Command (SADC) and then the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) has been finding ways to booster our early warning and air defence capabilities. The lack of land meant that our radars can only be located as far out as our shores, can only see as far as the radar’s performance. The painful thing about radar is the fact that they function on the theory of line of sight, which meant that any flying object that is beyond the horizon, behind hills and buildings is theoretically hidden from the radar.
To overcome that, radar are placed as high as possible to increase the line of sight. Singapore’s rather flat landscape does not give her much leverage in terms of line of sight, the FPS-117 radar is placed in the island’s second highest feature, Bukit Gombak, which is at a meagre 133m. Its drawbacks are with long range detection, you take away radar resolution, which might result and poor detection and low refresh rate. These are supplemented by low cover radars like the Super Giraffe, and now the phased-array Giraffe AMB, again, the low placement of these radars give them limited range despite the clear radar returns. Then came the E-2C Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft in 1987. Its service ceiling at 34,000 feet gave air defenders a new perspective into aerial defence, however,it is not without its limitations. Its endurance of only 6 hours and lacks superior downward looking radar, now, a sample is parked outside Air Force Museum. Similarly after the introduction of the G550 AEW, it is still impractical and expensive to run these airborne radars around the clock.
After years of studies , the RSAF officially introduced the Aerostat radar system which will be into full operation next year. The Aerostat is essentially a huge airship-lookalike ballon, tethered by strong Kevlar cables to the ground. The balloon houses radar systems, and the detection range varies depending on the altitude the Aerostat is raised. The Aerostat is a beautiful combination of the features of the three radar systems mentioned above, which will provide early high resolution detection for any low to medium level threats around the clock. The American TCOM 55m Aerostat is one of the biggest made by the OEM, and can stay aloft for at least 2 weeks, something no airborne aircraft is capable of. At 2000ft, it can provide low level detection for as far as 200km. To put into perspective, the Giraffe AMB can only reach up to 60km. The sensors will provide real time air picture to the squadrons of Air Defence and Operations Command and at the same time, surface tracks will be pumped to Navy’s Information Fusion Centre at Changi Naval Base, where operators will track and sense-make any unaccounted vessels. This will provide additional early warning to surface combat vessels to counter any a la Mumbai-style or USS Cole attacks. This top down look down capability not previously available will now give the Naval operators additional eyes to look over the numerous key installations in the West. The Aerostat system has proven its worth in both benign and non-benign theatres, in Iraq and Afghanistan and border/drug control in the immense space of American/Mexico border.
The Aerostat is not what Channel News Asia describe as hot air ballon, similarly, if it reminds you of the Hindenburg, instead of hydrogen which will burn like a bonfire, the Aerostat is filled with inert gas helium and in the event of a tether breakage, it is equipped with a safety system that is specially tailored for Singapore’s dense landscape, ensuring that the ballon will descent safely without endangering the populous. The balloon will give the RSAF and SAF in a whole to better react to low level conventional and non-conventional threats, allow commanders to make better informed decisions. and as the song goes, “I can see clearly now”.
Ps: For the fun of it, this comment in Channel News Asia Facebook announcement garnered the most Likes. Those who had some time playing strategic game Red Alert would remember: