Interview: MAJ. GEN. NG CHEE MENG
Singapore’s Chief of Air Force
By Wendell Minnick
The Republic of Singapore may be one of the world's smallest countries, but its Air Force is half the size of France's. And between Feb. 14-19, the country's Air Force chief, Maj. Gen. Ng Chee Meng, will be a central player in the Singapore Airshow, the biennial aerospace gathering that is among the region's biggest.
A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a fighter pilot, Ng hails from a legendary military family. As air chief, he succeeded his older brother, Maj. Gen. Ng Chee Khern, who is now the director of Singapore’s Security and Intelligence Division, and serves alongside his younger brother, Rear Adm. Ng Chee Peng, chief of the Singapore Navy.
Q. What are the roles and responsibilities of the RSAF in the air defense of Singapore and in boosting regional security?
A. The RSAF’s core mission is to safeguard Singapore’s sovereignty by keeping our skies safe. While our core mission remains unchanged, developments in the security landscape post-Sept. 11, as well as new technologies introduced, have posed new challenges and opportunities that require the Singapore armed forces and the RSAF to transform to be more effective. The security environment is constantly evolving and has become increasingly complex with the global rise in nonconventional and nontraditional threats, such as transnational terrorism and natural disasters.
Close cooperation between various countries is required to effectively counter these threats. As such, we have participated in various multilateral initiatives and exercises aimed at enhancing security in the region. The combined maritime air patrols over the Malacca Strait and our participation in multinational efforts to counter piracy in the Gulf of Aden are some examples. Regular exercises with our international partners have also enhanced mutual understanding and interoperability. Such mutual understanding has proved to be useful when we have to work closely together during multinational operations, such as the stabilization and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Developments in network, unmanned and sensor technologies have also presented opportunities to us. In a battlefield of the future, the advantage lies in the ability to harness technology and maximize its capabilities. We are working toward a fully networked force that will magnify combat power, and these technological advances will help us overcome our structural and geographical limitations.
Overall, the RSAF has made good progress in its transformation. We will continue to be ready round-the-clock to fulfill the roles and responsibilities entrusted to the RSAF, and to contribute to the enhancement of regional security in line with our national interests.
Q. Since 2007, the RSAF has been transforming itself into a “3rd Generation” air force. How is that going?
A. The transformation is progressing well. The RSAF has completed its reorganization from an airbase-centric structure to a task-oriented force anchored by the five operational commands and a training command. This restructuring has provided us with the foundation upon which we can further develop.
For example, the new structure provides the RSAF with the flexibility to deal with increases in operational tempo; it enhances our capacity to assimilate new technology in support of Singapore Armed Forces’ operations in an increasingly complex and uncertain strategic environment.
It also enhances the RSAF’s integration with the Army and Navy, allowing the RSAF to contribute more decisively to the armed forces’ operations across the air, land and sea domains.
We have also achieved good progress in our force modernization efforts. In the past few years, major operations and exercises have demonstrated the 3rd Generation RSAF’s enhanced capabilities. For example, in the recently concluded Exercise Forging Sabre in December, we planned and executed integrated strike operations against a variety of targets under day and night conditions. Involving assets such as our F-15SG, F-16C/D and AH-64D, the exercise validated our ability to employ advance strike munitions such as the Joint Direct Attack Munitions [JDAM] and Hellfire missiles. It also saw our F-15SG employing the Laser JDAM against a variety of targets, including mobile targets.
Going forward, our focus will be on the operationalization of our latest acquisitions announced last year — the surface-to-air Python-5 and Derby [SPYDER] ground-based air defense system, as well as the Heron 1 UAV.
Another key thrust of the 3rd Generation RSAF is the development of our people. Our people have been instrumental to the success of the RSAF in the past 43 years — the RSAF has consistently proven its ability to deliver in operations, exercises and long-term force development initiatives; such successes would not have been possible without the commitment, hard work and professional competencies of our people.
I firmly believe that our people will continue to be a force multiplier for the RSAF and a key factor in the success of our transformation. Hence, nurturing our people has been and will continue to be an important focus for the years to come.
Q. What are the processes that the RSAF follows to assess and procure new equipment? What are your plans for future procurements?
A. We make procurement decisions only after a comprehensive evaluation of our operational requirements. Working with the Defense Science & Technology Agency, we will survey the market for the most suitable platforms and equipment that meet our requirements in a cost-effective manner. Our current range of aircraft and equipment has served us well and continues to meet our requirements.
Q. Is Singapore still opting for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as your next-generation fighter?
A. With the constant emergence of new technologies, as a forward-looking air force we will continue to look out for suitable, cost-effective technologies and solutions to modernize and enhance our capabilities to meet our operational needs. For example, we remain a security cooperation participant in the system development and demonstration phase of the F-35 program, and will continue to evaluate it to determine if it meets our future operational requirements.
Q. When do you plan to replace or upgrade your C-130 transport planes?
A. Aside from the procurement of new platforms, we have other avenues to meet our operational needs. For example, our C-130 fleet is currently being upgraded. The upgraded aircraft will be equipped with new avionics, mission systems and self-protection suites. They will have digital glass cockpits, as well as modern navigation, communication and flight management systems. The upgraded C-130s will meet our requirements for some time to come.
Q. Singapore selected the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 as its next trainer jet. How far along is your advanced fighter trainer procurement?
A. As a forward-looking air force, we adopt a holistic approach to our transformation. We have embarked on a flying training transformation to produce more capable pilots to meet our operational requirements. One key thrust of this transformation is the replacement of aging training platforms with more capable and cost-effective trainers, like the PC-21 and M-346.
We awarded a contract to Singapore Technologies Aerospace in September 2010 to acquire the M-346 aircraft and a ground-based training system for our advanced trainer replacement program. These are expected to be delivered sometime this year.
Q. How far along is Singapore’s UAV program? A. Our program is making good progress. We have procured the H-450 UAV, which offers better endurance and improved onboard avionics, communication systems and surveillance capabilities. We have also acquired the Heron 1, a medium-altitude UAV, to replace the Searcher-class UAV, which has been in service since 1994.
Q. Do you see smaller UAVs with more advanced and compact sensors replacing some of the current fleet?
A. We see smaller UAVs as complementary to our existing fleet. For example, the Singapore Armed Forces has previously deployed the smaller Skyblade III UAVs to support Army battalion operations, providing them with real-time video images of its area of operations, both within and beyond line of sight. We will continue to keep tabs on the industry’s developments and leverage on the latest in unmanned technologies to fulfill our operational needs.
Q. Defense budgets around the world are being slashed. Do you expect similar defense expenditure setbacks?
A. In Singapore, we recognize that defense is a necessary investment for peace and stability, and to protect our vital interests. The Singapore Armed Forces takes a long- term view of our defense needs and force planning. Building an effective defense force takes many years and cannot be done in fits and starts. It will usually take quite a few years to bring a major new capability into service — from conception to bringing the system into operation with fully trained servicemen and supporting infrastructure.
Q. How have you worked around the training-space issues you have with neighboring countries?
A. Singapore has a very small airspace. We overcome our limitations through the use of advanced flight simulators, which are effective for junior pilots to acquire flying skills, as well as for experienced pilots to train on new operating procedures. These high-fidelity simulators provide for more focused training as missions can be closely monitored and accurately debriefed.
To give our pilots more hands-on experience with their platforms, we conduct part of our training overseas — for example, we conduct training exercises in countries such as Australia, France, India, Indonesia, Thailand and the U.S. We appreciate their continued support for our training requirements, which has allowed us to build up our operational readiness.
Budget: Singapore doesn’t disclose individual services’ budgets. Its defense budget for 2010 (latest available) was $7.6 billion.
Aircraft: 422, including F-16D Block 52+ Fighting Falcon fighter, F-5E/F Tiger II fighter, F-15SG Eagle fighter, C-130 Hercules cargo transport, CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter, Gulfstream G550, AS 332 Super Puma helicopter, KC-135 Stratotanker, AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter, S- 70B Seahawk helicopter, PC-21 trainer, Hermes 450 UAV, F-50.