Sunday, February 26, 2012
The aerial display: A leading indicator of the RSAF's wish-list?
Once every two years, even amateur defence watchers can glean reliable clues on Singapore's air force procurement priorities just by looking at the airshow flying display line-up.
It is not rocket science. This leading indicator proved accurate years before the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) picked a new high performance warplane and an advanced jet trainer to spearhead its transformation into a Third Generation fighting force.
The downside to the flurry of airshow-linked marketing activities is the lack of show presence from the losers whose birds have disappeared completely from the flying display list. This means more work on the part of the airshow organiser to stamp the Singapore Airshow's status as a regional and not just a Singapore-centric event.
Runner-ups for the RSAF's Next Fighter Replacement Programme have all but disappeared from the Singapore Airshow's flying display after United States aviation and defence giant, Boeing, won the long-running evaluation in 2005.
French aviation firm, Dassault Aviation, no longer hawks its Mirage-series or Rafale fighter jets in Singapore after its Rafale was bested by the Boeing F-15T Strike Eagle (which was subsequently renamed the F-15SG as the "T"-for-Temasek suffix suggested a trainer role). Dassault's absence is all the more striking as it had sent Rafales to Singapore for four airshow seasons since 1998. Since the 2006 airshow, Dassault has realigned its focus to market its Falcon-series of business jets and the company's footprint at the Singapore Airshow has downsized noticeably from its heyday when it ran neck-to-neck with Boeing's Strike Eagle.
The same can be said of BAE Systems' Typhoon fighter jet. The Eurofighter was part of the trio downselected by the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) but was eventually dropped as the warplane's development timeline did not meet MINDEF/RSAF operational requirements.
In hindsight, the Asian Aerospace 2004 flying display marked the highpoint for aviation buffs. That year's airshow saw two downselected NFRP candidates - Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle and Dassault Aviation Rafale - sent to Singapore to dazzle airshow spectators. BAE Systems made up for its lack of aerial presence (Typhoon wasn't ready for its Far East outing) with a 1:1 scale mock up of the Typhoon and an energetic marketing campaign that included media junkets to the United Kingdom and outreach sessions with Singapore schools (both of which have since died).
It was much the same story for the RSAF's Advanced Jet Trainer programme, which sought to find a replacement for the TA-4SU Super Skyhawks now fielded as Advanced Jet Trainers in Cazaux, France.
The first edition of the Singapore Airshow in 2008 saw two leading contenders take to the skies. These were the Korea Aerospace Industries T-50 Golden Eagle and the Aermacchi M346 Master from Italy. The Italian bid eventually won and Aermacchi sent two M346s to this year's SA 2012. But none of these trainers took part in the flying display.
To be sure, only an idiot would buy a new warplane just by watching it perform at an air display. These shop windows are expensive to stage but are seen as essential adjuncts to behind the scenes marketing campaigns where warplane specifications, specific operational requirements and contract details are banged out during closed-door talks.
With the big ticket flying machine contracts all inked, fears voiced by aviation and defence enthusiasts that lack of support from airshow participants would kill the flying display appear to be coming true.
Makers of the Rafale and Typhoon no longer see a need to send their fighters to perform in Singapore. Ditto for the AJT makers now that the M346 has won its Singapore bid.
Singapore Airshow 2014 (SA 2014)
With nothing on the horizon except for replacements for the RSAF's KC-135R Stratotanker aerial refuelling tankers, the Singapore Airshow organiser must redouble efforts to ensure SA 2014 is worth the ticket price.
If not for the presence of Australia's Roulettes and Malaysia's Smokey Bandits aerobatic display teams, the performance by the RSAF's aerobatic combo comprising an F-15SG and F-16C may have been the only thing to keep spectators riveted.
Show organiser Experia should make full use of the two-year lead time before SA 2014 to plan and deliver a world-class flying display. As things stand, the RSAF's key fast jets have all come into service and unless Experia can convince tanker makers to have their lumbering birds take part in an air display, it is going to take some work to convince fighter makers to show their stuff during SA 2014.
By that time, one hopes the elusive F-22 Raptor - hinted as a show stopper in SA 2012 ads - will make its presence felt.
Even without the promise of multi-million dollar RSAF contracts, Experia could take the cue from this year's show to woo more regional air forces to take part in SA 2014.
Say what you want about the ageing MiG-29 Fulcrums but Malaysia's Smokey Bandits team was a crowd favourite at SA 2012. If comments on the Smokey Bandits' Facebook page are to be believed, one fan even flew all the way down from Penang to watch them fly. If this isn't a ringing endorsement of the team's crowd appeal, I don't know what is.
The 100,000 spectators clocked during SA 2012's public days makes the event is a major attraction on Singapore's event calendar.
With some forward planning, coordination and string-pulling with MINDEF/RSAF, perhaps war games staged by the Five Power Defence Arrangements could be arranged to conveniently coincide with airshow season to coax FPDA members to also send their war machines to SA 2014.
At the same time, airshow participants need to realise that the public days are a valuable opportunity to reach out and build mindshare with future customers. It is a pity many companies view public days as chill-out time and do not bother to send all but their most junior execs to man their booths. Some go to the extent of roping up their booths and barricading chalets to keep the public outside.
Even Lockheed Martin, which won repeat orders from Singapore for its F-16 Fighting Falcon and also sold HIMARS rocket artillery to the republic, kept itself out of reach from the public. Its exhibits were displayed in its exclusive chalet some distance from the main hall. Lockheed's failure to make its presence felt in the main hall is the company's loss.
Boeing did things differently: its footprint at SA 2012 comprised a chalet for private meetings and a stand in the main hall. Boeing staff were observed patiently explained its products and services, repeating themselves time and again as new visitors thronged their stand. All visitors were welcome, regardless of their buying power.
The last trade day of SA 2012 saw a sizeable number of Singaporean students attend the "trade only" event in their school uniform. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) probably did its part in boosting attendance numbers by sending bus loads of full-time National Servicemen and young regulars to the airshow. It was indeed insightful observing how different companies treated this young audience.
The RSAF pilots who performed at SA 2012 were in their teens when word of NFRP first galvanised defence contractors to put on a big show at Asian Aerospace. Every and any attempt to build goodwill with young Singaporeans will payoff years from today as Singaporean officers typically rise to squadron command in their mid-30s. In airshow terms, this means that the teenage student or young RSAF officer cadet that an airshow exhibitor ignored during SA 2012 could conceivably drop by within the next few shows as a potential customer.
This sort of career trajectory is probably uniquely Singaporean and defence contractors would do well to treat visiting members of the public well as the same bloke may some day sit across the negotiating table for that big ticket contract. Today's airshow irritant could end up tomorrow's customer.
Posted by David Boey at 6:00 PM