There was once upon a time in the 80s and early 90s where the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) was able to fly direct to the South China Sea, overflying Peninsular Malaysia, and at the same time, RSAF aircraft flying south west to Pekan Bahru in Indonesia, dropping live bombs and munitions at the Siabu Range, which Singapore help to construct.
Fast forward, these opportunities are rare and limited, Malaysia relinquished the use of the airspace in September 1998, and the agreement for RSAF to fly over Indonesia expired in 2001. Rather than having her wings clipped, the RSAF sought for new ways to let her pilots train, and to become the region’s most integrated and advanced air force
In a Mindef statement issued in 17 September 1998, the ministry stated that things will go on as usual “The RSAF has alternative arrangements to ensure that its operational effectiveness is not compromised and that its training will not be affected.”
Unknown to many that time, the RSAF had foresaw that this day would come and had already made contingencies. The RSAF stopped flying for a day to consolidate the revised flight route and they were back to business the next.
With Pedra Branca awarded to Singapore by the International Court of Justice in 2008, RSAF keeps her gateway to South China Sea, where the bulk of her fixed-winged assets conduct air combat training. In Singapore, the RSAF fighters hone their air-ground weaponry skills over Pulau Pawai. However, live munitions are only limited to gun fire, while the fighters dropped only practice bombs on the bomb courts.
Despite the advancement of fighter and weapon guidance, the RSAF continued to organise the Hot Shot Challenge, where pilots have to visually deliver unguided munitions against targets in Pulau Pawai, in aims to be the best Hot Shot squadron for the year.
“It is a tradition we have kept all these years…However, it is important that these fundamental skills are strengthened.. and becomes muscle memory.” said Exercise Director and Commander Fighter Group, Colonel Linus Tan.
Despite a limited airspace, the RSAF is able to integrate the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) into a segment of the competition. Known as the Tactical Employment Missions, pilots depart for South China Sea to fight off Red Force before linking up with UAV operators to search, identify and ‘destroy’ a moving target with a simulated bomb drop.
“Whatever we do, we optimise every opportunity of training; we don’t get complacent, as we have limited land and airspace.” COL Tan added.
Bringing these skills aboard
12,000km away from home in the United States, the RSAF F-16C/Ds and F-15SG took part in a Large Force Employment exercise, better known as Exercise Red Flag. RSAF pilots pit themselves against experienced and battle hardened foreign air forces including hosts, United States and Royal Air Force and Israeli Air Force.
Apart from conducting air-to-air combat training, live drop, Red Flag also trains pilots in Mission Oriented Training like simulated Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) missions. The RSAF won three awards in Red Flag-Nellis in August 2015, including “Best Overall Mission Commander” and “Best Personnel Rescue Warrior”.
Halfway around the globe in Exercise Wallaby, RSAF AH-64D Longbow Apaches sweep low over the Australian outback, unleashing 7-inch Hydra rockets and 30mm cannon fire, advancing together with the Army’s Armour Battle Group of Leopard 2SG main battle tanks and Bionix infantry fighting vehicles. The Apaches along with Chinooks and Super Puma helicopters train in Shoalwater Bay Training Area, an area 40 times bigger than Singapore’s only air-land integration training area.
The RSAF seizes every opportunity to train with space and realism. They have been permanently detached in the United States for over 25 years and return for Exercise Wallaby every year since 1993.
Putting Each Snapshot Together
Every two years, all these snapshots of exercises roll together and put to bear in Exercise Forging Sabre. The Tactical Employment Mission seen in Hot Shot Challenge is blown into a full scale ‘’battlefield’’ over the Barry Goldwater Range in Arizona. RSAF pilots would have to fight their way in with credible Red Force and unpredictable ‘’ground enemies’’.
“We have slices of different exercises in between the two years to keep the various competencies, in Forging Sabre we will bring all the different slices together and execute the whole sensor-shooter loop..which end of with a live bomb drop.” Said Senior Lieutenant Colonel Liew Boon Pin, Head Integrated Systems and Development.
In Ex. Forging Sabre, it was a mission set out in 2005 to tighten the strike integration between the three weapon platform, ie F-15SG, F-16C/D and the AH-64D. After ironing processes with various commands and services, the exercise complexity increases to put the concept integration on its paces.
UAV operators, air force officers, army soldiers sat beside each other at the command post, coordinating and working alongside as the battle progresses.
The Heron1 loitered overhead for hours, and spots six ‘enemy’ rockets on the move. Four F-15SGs were called in, linked up with the UAV for target acquisition. One F-15SG unleashed six live Laser-Joint Direct Attack Munitions (L-JDAM) onto the unsuspecting targets.
Maximising the training space and opportunity, over 98 munitions were dropped, including 16 unguided Mk84 bombs, which RSAF pilots trained so hard to deliver back home in Singapore.
Forging Sabre saw how the RSAF is able to overcome the lack of airspace at home to put everything they to bear, integrating UAV, attack helicopters and fighters with ground units for a successful cooperative lasing and destruction of enemy forces.
“You are no longer tied to your system to make it precise, you can actually leverage on other platforms / person to make your weapon precise. We have effectively de-linked our scope of operation.” Said SLTC Liew.
As the RSAF prepare to welcome her new Chief, Brigadier General Mervyn Tan Wei Ming this March, the RSAF gears up for more high-octane action in 2016. Apart from the aerial ballet of a F-15SG and an AH-64 Apache at the Singapore Airshow, the air force will take part in Exercise Cope Tiger in Thailand and the bi-annual Exercise Pitch Black in Australia, where it test interoperability with partner air forces and night operations.
Composer Zubir Said once quoted “ Hold up the skies of the land in which you live.” The RSAF has indeed rose Above All challenges and punches above her own weight, as the guardian of Singapore’s air space for over 47 years. We look forward to exciting and blue skies in 2016.