Sunday, January 4, 2015

Indonesia-Singapore defence relations: A special, longstanding friendship that has lasted more than 40 years

Among the many badges that adorn the uniform of the chief of Indonesia's search and rescue (SAR) agency is the Pilot Wing from the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).

Those who wonder how it got there should look at the distinguished career trajectory for Marsekal Madya Henry Bambang Soelistyo, head of BASARNAS (Badan SAR Nasional, the Indonesian SAR agency).

Go back in time to 2010 when Soelistyo then had one-star on his TNI air force general's uniform. As co-chair of the Joint Air Force Training Working Group (JAFTWG) between the Indonesian air force and the RSAF, which alternated their meetings between Indonesia and Singapore, Soelistyo gained firsthand experience planning, discussing, refining and implementing a host of programmes between the TNI-AU and RSAF.

The JAFTWG talks led to joint air force war games, courses, exchanges of personnel and visits that forged closer and more meaningful defence relations between our respective air forces.

Special friendship
These paved the way for the continued advancement of TNI-AU-RSAF air warfare manoeuvres codenamed Elang Indopura, maritime surveillance exercises in the CAMAR Indopura series and the SAR exercise codenamed MANYAR Indopura. Our air exercises have grown in size, scale and complexity, thanks to the efforts of planners from both sides keen on constantly expanding the envelope and building on past successes.

In addition, Singapore hosted simulator training for Indonesian air force pilots in Singapore (Super Puma, F-5 Tiger II, G-FET and EC-120 Colibri) while Indonesia conducted simulator training for RSAF C-130 Hercules aircrew.

It is safe to guess that a good number of pilots from both countries now involved in the multi-national search for AirAsia Flight QZ8501 honed their flying skills from these exercises.

But it was not all work.

The task of directing and coordinating large fighter aircraft formations from both nations, flying at high speed, at low level and on many occasions with live ordnance, demands a high level of trust and confidence from all ranks involved in such war games. Along the way, friendships are forged as our people spend face time with one another, talk things through and weigh various options for tackling complex war game scenarios.

Rising star: The future chief of BASARNAS, then a one-star TNI air force general (seated, centre) with TNI and RSAF colleagues who formed the Joint Air Force Training Group in 2010. 

Such interactions contribute valuable yet intangible credits to Indonesia-Singapore defence ties. Indeed, the personal ties have done much to foster a special friendship between the TNI and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

And so, when TNI-SAF come together for joint operations, many personnel draw upon that special friendship which serves as a catalyst for the ability of our two armed forces to group together quickly and execute missions safely.

Benefits flow two ways.

In December 1997, it was the TNI-led search effort and TNI-AL divers who recovered the flight data recorder and voice recorder of Singapore's SilkAir Flight MI185 from the Musi river in Palembang.

The period from 2004 to 2006 recorded three SAF HADR operations in Indonesia. These were:

December 2004: The SAF deployed three Republic of Singapore Navy Endurance-class tank landing ships, six RSAF C-130 Hercules aircraft, six Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, two Super Pumas and more than 1,200 SAF personnel to Aceh as part of the tsunami relief mission. This was codenamed Operation Flying Eagle. The main deployment stretched almost four weeks.

March 2005: Nias earthquake assistance. The RSAF deployed three Chinook heavy-lift helicopters. These airlifted 70 stretcher cases to Medan and ferried some 870 rescue workers to affected areas over two weeks. The SAF medical team treated about 800 patients in one week in the Gunung Sitoli area.

May 2006: Central Java earthquake relief mission. The SAF sent a 35-person medical team to join a TNI field hospital. Emergency supplies and a surgical team were also attached to Indonesia's Bantul District Hospital. The SAF medical teams treated over 1,400 people and performed 32 emergency surgeries over eight days.

In January 2007, we once again worked alongside the TNI in the search for Adam Air Flight 574 which crashed in Sulawesi. One RSAF Fokker 50 aircraft conducted 20 air search sorties between 3 and 17 January 2007. The RSN deployed four sets of underwater locator beacon detectors and six personnel as BASARNAS scoured the sea for the aircraft's flight data recorder, which might unlock clues as to how the plane crashed.

There is another joint TNI-SAF mission involving an RSAF drone, which was deployed to scan dense, ancient jungle on a hostage rescue mission in the 1990s. This was executed at a faraway place called Timika. It was hush-hush during its time. But if you happen to see UAV Command's colours, look at the streamer carried by the Colours party (see below) and ask yourself how it got there. Yes, Team 525, you did well and those who know are proud of your achievement.

The TNI and SAF have achieved much together over the past four decades, ever since our first joint naval exercise codenamed Eagle.

Such friendships do not happen by chance.

Credit for this special friendship - a bond between ASEAN's largest and smallest member - goes to armed forces personnel from both sides have worked hard to build and sustain such ties.

And despite occasional hiccups in our bilateral relations, it is heartwarming to see senior officers continue to cherish our longstanding camaraderie at a personal level - whether spoken out loud or demonstrated by the simple, low key gesture of having a badge on one's honours row.

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