Saturday, July 7, 2012
Republic of Singapore Air Force I-Hawk anti-aircraft missile batteries to mark 30 years of operations
If your business or schoolwork was done on a 30-year-old computer, people are more likely to notice the age of the system than be impressed by its computing power.
If you protected Singapore's skies with a 30-year-old guided missile system, the same thoughts might cross the mind of pilots tasked to fly against the weapon system.
The Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) Improved Hawk (I-Hawk) surface-to-air missile batteries, which mark their 30th anniversary this month, may be old but are a force to be reckoned with.
RSAF I-Hawks have populated order of battle data sheets for the past three decades. The American-made weapon system is older than teenage full-time National Servicemen and indeed many of the RSAF regulars assigned to the I-Hawk missile squadron. In terms of computing power, the latest smart phones many of you use pack more juice than the I-Hawk command and control system when first delivered to the Singapore Air Defence Artillery (SADA) in the early 1980s.
The past 30 years have seen an interesting evolution for our I-Hawks. Today's Improved Homing All-the-Way Killers - the missile's full name - are no pyrotechnic antiques, thanks to improvements in weapons technology and modifications to concept of operations that guarantee hostile pilots will get a closer look at the dart-shaped missile than they bargained for.
Improving the Improved Hawk
From the get-go, Singapore's defence scientists and weapons engineers sought to reduce the footprint of a fully deployed I-Hawk missile unit by assessing how the system, which relied on several types of towed radars to scan airspace, could reduce its TO&E.
Gaps in operational capability, such as the weapon system's ability to detect, identify, track, engage and destroy low-level targets amid ground clutter, were identified and addressed. The air force did this by using Ericsson Super Giraffe radars to serve I-Hawk missile batteries even though neither Raytheon, the missile's manufacturer, nor the United States Army, had tried this configuration.
It is understood that because the Americans did not believe or support the proposed modification, Singapore had to buy several I-Hawk systems configured to full US specifications as a precondition for purchasing components of the weapon system (namely launcher and HPI) that RSAF air defence planners and Singaporean weapons engineers wanted to specially configure. This is why the RSAF ended up operating I-Hawk batteries in two configurations known colloqially as the American and Swedish fire units.
The RSAF added Super Giraffe radars to its I-Hawk missile batteries right from the start, pioneering what became known as the Swedish configuration of its Improved Assault Fire Unit (IAFU) in a nod to the Giraffe's Swedish origin. The Super Giraffe radar cabin, mounted on Mercedes Benz 6x6 trucks for enhanced cross-country mobility, doubled as a missile battery command and control post where I-Hawk air defence officers and NCOs would direct and fight the air battle.
The American and Swedish Improved Assault Fire Units IAFUs that resulted from the air defence study spearheaded by Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), Headquarters RSAF and SADA added another credible layer to the multi-layer integrated air defence system, whose mission of defending Singapore skies in peace and war in a FIR criss-crossed by a heavy volume of civilian air traffic remains a complex one.
RSAF's multi-layered air defence
When the 80km-plus Bloodhound SAMs were stood down, the 40km x 18km high kill zone guarded by I-Hawks 24/7 formed the first line of missile defences that protected the Lion City against air attack. Today, Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) warfighters have added Aster anti-aircraft missiles aboard Republic of Singapore Navy's Formidable-class stealth frigates to the national air defence network. This move underlines the importance of the Third Generation SAF to train and fight as an integrated fighting force with close collaboration and cooperation between land, air, naval and intelligence forces.
Long after staff officers responsible for the I-Hawk enhancements retired, the momentum from those early mods and determination to deliver an air defence guided weapon system that the RSAF can confidently use to deploy, detect and defend our skies continued unabated.
Old analogue hardware used to guide I-Hawk missiles to their target has been replaced by a fully digitised system which helps the system perform its assigned mission more reliably, even under threat of Enemy interference using soft or hard kill options.
I-Hawk Remote Engagement Section
The network of underground, protected fibre optic lines that link dispersed I-Hawk missile fire units, known as Remote Engagement Sections, keep RES missileers fully appraised of the air situation picture in their air defence identification zone even with no emitters close by to betray their presence to an Enemy with sharp ears. This fibre optic network is among the least appreciated of RSAF improvements but lies at the heart of efforts to harden Singapore against determined attempts to knock out or suppress our air defences.
Immune to jamming, the fibre optic network allows the air defence commander to wield I-Hawk fire units with maximum unity of command even under threat of enemy fire. The missile batteries have low or no electronic signature and can remain so till it is time for the I-Hawks to fly.
The I-Hawk missiles do not fight alone. Aerial intruders have to first punch through the RSAF's fighter screen flown by F-15SG Strike Eagles and F-16s before coming into the range rings of the I-Hawk, Spyder low to medium level SAMs and SHORADS such as the Igla (shoulder-launched and Dzhigit salvo launcher unit), Mistral, RBS-70 and radar-directed Oerlikon 35mm anti-aircraft artillery.
In the air defence arena, Singapore's small size turns out to be a defender's advantage - the range rings for all these weapon systems and RSAF sensors overlap and there are virtually no gaps to filter through, unlike larger countries with huge tracts to airspace to defend. The difficulty in countering all these air defence systems and the loss-exchange ratio that an aerial intruder must be prepared to endure adds to the deterrent value of the RSAF.
Unlike the vanilla I-Hawks delivered straight from Raytheon's factories and operated according to US doctrine, Singapore's modified IAFUs play the game differently, more creatively and are ready to meet and greet the Enemy day or night, under all weather conditions. Every mod and product improvement made by the RSAF had to be supported by a concept of operations that governed rules of engagement for IAFU configurations that were unique to Singapore.
After the upgrade, fewer emitters are slaved to each RSAF I-Hawk fire unit - those that are switched on may be decoys - and the High Power Illuminator that serves modified IAFUs armed with missile triplets on each launcher is about the only emitter needed for the I-HAWK to do its job. Being plugged into the wider range of RSAF sensors also allows the HPIs to up the pace of the air battle and the modified IAFU can service multiple targets at the same time.
Giraffe steps in
Adding new elements such as Super Giraffe radars to guard against low flying targets complicated the job of hostile fliers as the I-Hawk's kill zone was made more lethal for low level intruders. The Giraffes sharpened sense-making for RSAF missileers out to a range of 40km - which suited the I-Hawk fire unit wonderfully as the Super Giraffe's detection range matched the missile's maximum engagement range. With the truck-mounted Super Giraffe radar designed to scan a hemisphere of airspace from low to medium altitude, the Enemy pilot's job of sneaking in at low level was a risky business.
Having served faithfully for decades, the Super Giraffes have stepped aside for the Giraffe Agile Multi-Beam air defence radars that do the job even better, especially against intruders determined to deny an air defence system use of its eyes and ears.(Note: Unlike the SG radars, Giraffe AMBs may not be organic to the I-Hawk squadron but can share track data.)
The upgraded I-Hawk is a vast improvement from the 80s era weapon system and is able to make a positive and decisive impact in the air battle. With upgraded capabilities in sense making and battle management, the improved I-Hawks pack a punch and stand ready to give aerial intruders a warm welcome even after 30 years on active duty.
Such improvements are not happenstance as a weapon system or platform does not upgrade and renew itself automatically. Sustained efforts must be made by the Air Staff to challenge existing concept of operations and think through how the playbook can be improved to suit our specific operational requirements.
The ease with which integrated air defence systems in places like Iraq and more recently Libya were cut to size and rendered operationally ineffective shows that air defence strategists in HQ RSAF must be alert always to changing rules of this high stakes battle.
Happy Anniversary to the RSAF I-Hawk community, past and present, and our foreign friends for being there for this journey.
Posted by David Boey at 4:31 PM