A blog on Singapore defence and the SAF that goes Above & Beyond The Obvious -The views expressed on this blog are my personal views and/or opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinion of the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD). Follow us on Twitter @SenangDiri
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
National Day Rally 2013: RSAF Operational Master Plan expected to guide proposal to move Paya Lebar resident squadrons to Changi East after 2030
Updated on 21 August'13 with images of Paya Lebar Airport from our files.
Now you see 'em....Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) warplanes taxi to their roost on the eastern side of Paya Lebar Airbase. The Operational Master Plan that steered the hardening of Paya Lebar drew comfort from the fact that the civilian airport inherited by the RSAF in 1981 sat astride low hills, which were eventually carved out to house dispersal areas for RSAF warplanes. Note the height of the surrounding terrain above the fighters. Aircraft shelters (non hardened) are thought to have been cut into the hilly terrain and have their sides held up by concrete retaining walls.
What appears to be a straightforward swap between an established airbase, Paya Lebar Air Base (PLAB), with a brand new one in Changi East after 2030 isn't as easy as it seems.
The good news is that Headquarters Republic of Singapore Air Force ( HQ RSAF) has at least 17 years to plan for the future and military minds would know it doesn't take that length of time to plan, build and operationalise an airbase. [United States Navy construction battalions (SeeBees), for instance, could carve out an airfield from virgin jungle within weeks during WW2. A modern airbase comprises more than just the runway and hardstandings to park aircraft. But the squadron HQs, fuel farms and weapon magazines can be designed and built much earlier than 2030.]
Another positive is the fact that Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and RSAF planners tasked with designing the airbase will have an untouched piece of real estate to work with. The site is a blank canvas on which architects of our future air power can apply decades worth of lessons from Operational Master Plans (OMPs) which have improved the mission readiness and survivability of critical infrastructure at existing RSAF airbases.
As the OMP for the new airbase at Changi Air Base (East) - not to be confused with the current Changi Air Base (East) - gets drafted, challenges inherent in designing a military aerodrome on reclaimed land while factoring threat profiles expected from 2030 onwards should prompt the project team to think about the following:
1. The greenfield site for the new Changi Air Base (East) will give the project team immense latitude in designing base infrastructure from scratch, free from constraints and limitations the RSAF faced when it took over the civilian Paya Lebar Airport in 1981 and had to get it fighting fit.
Blast from the past:Paya Lebar Airbase during the mid 1980s displayed evidence of construction activity on its once verdant eastern side. We can see the uncompleted Hush House just after the Whiskey 4 crossing. The changes to the base are more stark when one compares pictures of Paya Lebar Airport taken during her opening year in 1955 (below). The image below is of particular interest as it reveals the gradient and elevation of the ground on the eastern side of what is now PLAB. Interestingly, the northern end of the PLAB runway where this picture was taken in the late 1950s has military architecture well worth a closer look.
New airport: The Whiskey 4 (W4) crossing at Paya Lebar Airport and the undeveloped eastern side of the runway are shown to good effect in the images above and below. The terminal building and future PLAB Jet Apron are still under construction in the image below. None of the RSAF servicemen and servicewomen who serve at PLAB today were born when these images were taken.
Building for future growth: Aerial view of the northern end of Paya Lebar Airport runway which captured construction work to extend the runway in the 1950s.
Final approach: The image above and the one below would be familiar to pilots who have flown into PLAB from its southern end. The rustic landscape south of the runway has been completely cleared. Residents of PLAB would note that the right hand corner of the image below now houses what appears to be quick reaction alert shelters cloaked by extensive camouflage measures.
2. From the perspective of a potential attacker, the location of the new airbase opens up new opportunities for rendering resident air power inoperable as a major impediment - PLAB's location amid civilian infrastructure - is gone. Highrise residential flats in the Hougang and Serangoon outside PLAB complicate firing solutions for tube and rocket artillery fire as well as mortar barrages fired at shallow angles as these civilian infrastructure stands in the way.
3. On a related note, having Changi Air Base (East) as the neighbour to the Republic of Singapore Navy's Changi Naval Base makes this slice of mainland Singapore a target rich environment. Unguided rocket barrages intended for the airbase which miss their target due to the large CEP could fall into the compound of the naval base.[If I was role playing the Red Team, I would feel encouraged and plan accordingly.]
4. The RSAF airbase and RSN naval base in Changi sit in plain sight of Pengerang, in Johor. Not for nothing did British military surveyors build a fort on the commanding hill to support coastal artillery batteries emplaced in Changi. Technology may have changed but the advantages of the geography from Pengerang's lofty heights haven't. This is a point our military planners ought to keep in mind.
5. The new airbase will be the largest RSAF airbase which is closest to the open sea. We have never had an airbase so close to an international shipping lane before. PLAB's location farther inland made it less vulnerable to seaborne attack, which could be launched within minutes without warning from men-of-war exercising their right of innocent passage through the Strait of Singapore during a Period of Tension.(Unless our Rules of Engagement indicate we can fire first at a potentially hostile warship, which would essentially make this island nation the initiator of hostilities. Go figure.)
6. The new airbase will not be complete without measures to improve its ability to generate and sustain air power, under time pressure and perhaps under fire.
Safe haven: And here we have a prime example of what we believe is a standalone RSAF aircraft shelter. The aircraft shelter itself isn't believed to be hardened and is thought to comprise a metal roof held up by H-piles. Noteworthy is the use of extensive earthworks and camouflage netting to screen aircraft hardstandings from outside observation. The same role is served by the fence line which is shielded with woven plastic strips. An improved design to this 1990s-era shelter might eventually be found in Changi East to house RSAF warplanes based there after 2030.The HAS on the northeastern end of TAB are thought to be of a different design - housing warplanes more compactly but with a higher level of protection.
Landscape artists: This Google Earth image plucked from cyberspace of Paya Lebar Air Base shows the extent landscape changes made by the RSAF to camouflage and conceal its warplanes based there. These revetments were cut into elevated ground on the eastern side of PLAB's runway (see first black and white picture above for a better idea of the terrain). Seasoned users of Google Earth would probably have their customised library of images of places of interest.
7. Despite the constraints that Paya Lebar Airport's civilian infrastructure posed to RSAF staff officers during the 1980s, the low hills on the eastern side of the PLA runway allowed the air force to loop taxiways into the hills and scatter fighters in aircraft shelters dug into the elevated ground (see image above). Changi's flat terrain and relatively shallow water table, being so close to the sea, offer no such advantages. Our defence engineers do, however, have extensive experience designing aircraft shelters for the RSAF and might employ an improved design of the anonymous structure you see above for the new airbase.
8. Despite the promise of STOVL fighters such as the F-35B, the new base will still need ribbons of concrete as taxiways and one main runway. The argument that fighters like the F-35B can take-off vertically during operations is ill-informed when one considers the considerable penalty in aircraft warload when performing as a jump jet. A long runway will be necessary to support large transports, which regularly call at PLAB in support of Singapore Armed Forces deployments overseas.
9. Yet more thought has to go into where supporting infrastructure will be based. These include the Aeromedical Centre, Air Force School, Flight Simulator Centre and so on. PLAB is a thriving eco-system that has used more than 20 years of ops to achieve steady state operations between resident and non-resident units. This synergy cannot be achieved overnight just by giving PLAB units a new mailing address in Changi.
10. Questions will also hang over the fate of Singapore Technologies Aerospace, which serves a vital role in sustaining RSAF airpower. However, the 17 year gap between now and 2030 gives ST Aero and its mothership, ST Engineering, more than ample time to mull over choices. To put things into sharper focus, that 17 year window is longer than the ST Engg group has been in business (it was formed in 1997).
You may also like:
National Day Rally 2013: Quick take on proposal to move Paya Lebar Air Base. Click here