By Wendell Minnick
Feb. 18, 2008
MAJ. GEN. NG CHEE KHERN
Singapore’s Air Force Chief
The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) has undergone remarkable changes since Maj. Gen. Ng Chee Khern, a former F-16 pilot, became chief of the Air Force in March 2006. Along with the rest of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), the air service has been modernizing and upgrading its weapons and gear, seeking an edge over potential adversaries with precision strike munitions, advanced networks and unmanned systems.
Ng oversaw the establishment of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and Air Defence and Operations commands last year and the Participation Command in January. The Air Combat and Air Power Generation commands will be stood up by the middle of this year. In October, the service exercised an option to buy 12 more Boeing F15SG fighters, with delivery scheduled for 2010. Under the original 2005 contract, Singapore bought 12 F-15SGs to replace aging A-4 Skyhawks.
Q. What are the leading security drivers for the RSAF?
A. The main issues we have to respond to now encompass more than just big armies or hot conventional wars. Operations other than war, humanitarian assistance, counterterrorism — essentially, a lot of the threats are transnational, and we can only respond to it successfully if we are able to work with other countries. So we have organized ourselves to be able to make a difference in those kinds of operations. We deployed to East Timor some years back, and we were in Operation Iraqi Freedom with the C-130 and the KC-135. We responded to Aceh and a series of smaller natural disasters in Indonesia. And Hurricane Katrina. We were there because our Chinooks are in Texas [for training], so we went in with the Texas National Guard. So we have been involved in a series of smaller ones apart from the Boxing Day tsunami.
Q. What threats, beyond terrorism, are you preparing for?
A. We are responsible for the security of the country. We can’t take the normalcy in peacetime for granted. It may be 30 or 50 years before some major security threats of a more intense nature appears on the horizon. You don’t really want a situation where a bigger threat than you expected in normal times comes and you are wiped out. So I think in many ways, politics and geopolitics can change more quickly than you can build up a defense capability. The Singapore government has been willing to have a very sustained long-term view in giving the political and budgetary support to building up the SAF.
Q. How is the Air Force dealing with maritime piracy and threats to sea lanes of communication?
A. On the Eyes in the Sky program we started in 2005, there has been some difference these patrols have made. The number of incidents in the Straits of Malacca have, in fact, dropped. Lloyd’s [of London] has taken the Straits of Malacca off what they call the war zone list. Our involvement in the Eyes in the Sky is very much with the Republic of Singapore Navy. In fact, they take the lead and we fly the Fokker 50 Maritime Patrol Aircraft for them. We are a pretty integrated team.
Q. Tell us about your modernization efforts.
A. Back in 2000-2001, the SAF undertook what we now term a transformation into the third-generation SAF. And that’s premised on the three main technological thrusts that the revolution of military affairs has opened up for us — unmanned technologies in precision strike and navigation, as well as in what we call integrated, knowledge-based command and control, which is computing and sensing increases in capabilities.
And the Air Force has similarly organized ourselves to exploit those technologies, so we are buying systems that have those capabilities. We are organizing ourselves to be able to exploit those capabilities. We are also revamping our training to ensure that our people are able to exploit those technologies.
And in the last aspect of the people, I think one thing that is fortunate for us is that we are a relatively sophisticated city-state where most people on the street are technologically savvy, and therefore these sort of third-generation technologies are part and parcel of their civilian lives anyway.
Q. What about land-based air defense?
A. Air defense is a primary mission for the Air Force. We have a pretty robust multilayer air defense. Obviously the furthest layer of this is the fighters, and then the next layer, right now being the IHawks, and then the Rapier, the RBS 70 and the Oerlikon guns.
Most of this force structure is already more than 20 years old, apart from the fighters, so we are going through in the next several years a replacement program for most of them.
The SLAMRAAM is in the competition to replace the Rapier. We are looking at the VL Mica and the Spyder as a possible replacement. This will replace the Rapier, and then in the next several years, we will be looking at other programs that will replace the other components of air defense. Some of these systems that we will be procuring will give us radically better concepts of operations. Another major thrust in the air defense arena that we are undertaking is to network all of them in line with our command–and-control systems so that all the sensors and missiles are part of the network.
Q. What influences your procurement?
A. One of the key thrusts I have in force structure and procurement for the Air Force is to make sure that I build a range of capabilities that can be useful in a wide range of scenarios.
Another governing factor is greater strategic depth. I don’t know whether you look out of the window when you come in and land and take off from Changi. We are very small. In order for us to have a good defense capability, we need to extend the reach of our ability to anticipate threats, whether it is in the cognitive sense or physical sense.
Q. How is the Air Force finding room to conduct flight training?
A. First, we have a Flight Simulator Center — it is a visibly impressive center. We are the first in the region and one of the few Air Forces globally that has the networked system trainer. We built a system that enabled 12 pilots to fly together. We have a series of Air Mission Trainer simulators networked together, and there is a wide range of simulators for the fighters, transports, UAVs, air defense artillery, and even for the air traffic control guys.
The second major thrust — that actually we had embarked upon in the early ’80s — is to deploy regularly to regional countries with our aircraft. So our squadrons deploy up to two to three months per year to Thailand, Indonesia, India, Australia, sometimes even further, to places like South Africa. And the sort of training locations, the longer-term ones, we only embarked upon in the ’90s. We actually have three training locations in Australia: Perth, being the trainer; Tamworth, being also trainers; and then Oakey, being Super Pumas. We have one in France with the A4s. And we have three longish-term detachments in the U.S.: the F-16s in Arizona, Chinooks in Texas and the Apaches in Marana, Arizona. And come April next year, the F-15s will be based in Idaho, Mountain Home. We have six Seahawks, some of which will be attached to the U.S. Navy in San Diego.
Q. Is the F-35 an option?
A. [We are a] security cooperation participant in the [F-35] program. We are being briefed on the capabilities as they are developed. We are keeping a close watch on the program. No procurement decisions are needed as of now, but it’s a program that we are following up on very closely.
Q. There’s a lot of talk about procuring the Global Hawk.
A. For the UAVs, we are looking at a wide range. The Global Hawk fits at the really top end — 60,000 feet. We have received briefs on the Global Hawk. We remain interested in following developments in the capability. The U.S. DoD is working its processes to release the Global Hawk to friendly countries.
In other UAV programs, we have just taken delivery of some Hermes 450s. Those are operating in the 16,000 to 18,000 feet region, 16 to 18 hours of endurance. And we are looking to replace at least some of our Searchers initially, and that will be either more of the Hermes 450 or the Heron 1.
Q. What are your logistics capabilities?
A. It’s not often acknowledged or known, but the Air Force has a superb engineering or logistics capability. Our engineers are, in fact, the most schooled, the vocation that has the highest education qualifications all around. And over the last 20 to 30 years, they have built up such an incredible logistics capability for us that we sometimes take them for granted. They are superbly organized, very systematic, very long-range in thinking. Hence, in terms of what you meant in terms of logistics sustainability, we actually seriously never have encountered any problems with that. Their methodologies and abilities to forecast and work with the operations planners to anticipate the logistics needs has been just quite incredible. We have a relatively good safety record in our flying, and one of the big reasons is the engineering and logistics capability we have.