Saturday, February 27, 2016
US dashes Singapore's hopes for breakthrough in comprehensive awareness
These two flying machines look similar because they come from the same design house: an American company called Scaled Composites LLC.
Based in the Mojave desert in California, Scaled Composites lent its creative touch to the LALEE concept that was pursued by Singapore at the turn of the century.
The LALEE was conceptualised as more than a replacement for Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning planes - three of which remained on strength at the point of retirement.
LALEE is short for Low-Altitude Long Enduring Endurance. The platform was intended to be part of a system of terrestrial, airborne and space-based assets that would enable the RSAF to compile a comprehensive air situation picture of the air and sea space around Singapore, 24/365.
As a military asset, LALEE was neither chicken or fish. Some observers called it a high-altitude long endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial vehicle. But LALEE was designed to be optionally-piloted because Singapore's civil aviation authorities had yet to develop SOPs for drones flying race track circuits amid some of Asia's most congested airways.
The LALEE's sensor payload gave her the ability to scan the skies and seas for air and surface contacts. But she was a lot more than a radar platform. LALEE could also be equipped to sniff the electromagnetic spectrum, rebro comms at long range and so could have evolved into an Aries, Compass Call, Growler, Hawkeye, Poseidon and Rivet Joint rolled into one slender and seemingly fragile airframe .
The low-altitude referred to in her name was a reference to her operational height, which was below that of satellites.
So ground-based gap-filler radars such as the RSAF's Giraffe Agile Multi Beam (AMB) would complement air surveillance radars by covering blind spots masked by terrain. Herakles radars on Republic of Singapore Navy Formidable-class stealth frigates would extend the radar range rings out to sea (i.e. a kind of sea-based air defence).
Orbits flown by LALEE would extend the radar horizon even further with sensors operating at around 50,000 feet.
Finally, reconnaissance satellites would take up the high-altitude duty station and provide updates once every 90 minutes or so.
What's amazing about this concept, sketched out by defence planners from the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and RSAF under its 1990s era transformation effort, is that apart from LALEE, every piece of the puzzle is in place as of February 2016.
So what happened to LALEE?
It never got off the ground as the United States (US) was uncomfortable with Singapore's development plans for this ground-breaking concept.
At least on paper, it offered superior economics over manned AEW platforms and HALE UAVs which were sold by American military giants. The LALEE's capacity to generate power for sensors in the fuselage offered the end-user many payload options for aerial surveillance for an extended period of time.
In short, LALEE could have ushered a breakthrough in air defence surveillance that was born of necessity for Singapore's defence planners who had to work hard to surmount the city-state's lack of strategic depth, congested airways and a need to stretch every defence dollar.
At this point, we come to the proverbial takeaway from this project. The United States is a reliable defence partner. While Singapore is a close friend of the United States but not quite an ally, the reality is that Washington may not always be ready for tiny Singapore to punch above its weight.
Despite the smiles and handshakes, don't count on the Americans always being there for you. This is real politik between nation states that one needs to wake up to.
When Washington's legendary bureaucracy cranks into action, such unease results in export restrictions, With that clamp down, there was no way LALEE would fly.
And so, a Singaporean idea that could have counted as a revolution in military affairs has remained just a pipe dream.
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Posted by David Boey at 2:00 PM