Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Thoughts on RMAF airpower

Protected nest: Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16C 612 emerges from its hardened aircraft shelter. The RSAF has invested heavily in passive defences to protect its warplanes, air base infrastructure like POL facilities and comms lines as well as air defence assets. Radars and runways, however, remain vulnerable.

Thanks to this year's Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Open House, thousands of Singaporeans probably sleep better at night having seen the aerial might that protects our skies.

The RSAF went all out to impress. It presented its most comprehensive order of battle ever displayed - including squadrons not previously publicised - and showcased capabilities like the Air-Land Tactical Control Centre (ALTaCC) for the first time.

There is, however, a fine line between feeling reassured and feeling complacent.

The RSAF has indeed made noteworthy capability jumps as it transformed in tandem with the wider effort to develop and operationalise the Third Generation Singapore Armed Forces (3G SAF).

But other air forces in our neighbourhood have done so too.

Up north, the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF), our Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) partner, has also bagged a number of notable achievements. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
* Introducing the first warplanes in SEA equipped with infrared search/track (MiG-29 and Su-30MKM).
* Introducing the first 4th Gen warplanes with thrust vectoring engines (Su-30MKM)
* Introducing the region's fastest and largest anti-radiation missile
   

On the operational front, the RMAF in partnership with Malaysian carriers in 2013 planned and deployed for the largest airlift ever flown by an ASEAN nation. The airlift, codenamed Ops Piramid, involved flying home several thousand Malaysians from Egypt in August that year.

On the tactical front, Malaysia appears to be ahead of the RSAF in the area of Combat Search and Rescue. Its EC725 Caracal helicopter fleet represents a capable CSAR capability, especially when paired with PASKAU special operations troops. It should be remembered that a CSAR capability is double-edged: CSAR assets can be a life-saver for friendly aircrew. Such assets can also be tasked to find and recover non-Malaysian aircrew downed on home ground.

And while a count of tail numbers in the RSAF and RMAF orbat would see the Malaysians fall short of Singapore's frontline inventory of warplanes, one should not be too quick to discount the potency and resilience of RMAF airpower during operations. The macho sentiments that events like ROH tend to generate among the impressionable should therefore be reined in.

It is not generally appreciated, outside professional military circles who study this sort of data, that Malaysia has upwards of 50 airports and airstrips to which the RMAF can disperse to in time of conflict.

As hot war scenarios do not erupt overnight, one can deduce that the Malaysian Armed Forces will work towards exploiting a period of tension (POT) by adjusting its military posture accordingly.

Dispersing aircraft and helicopters for out-of-base operations will preserve their combat capability and potential only if the following critical factors are fulfilled: the logistic trail must be there to arm, service and support their missions. The austere base must also be defended from enemy interference and comms links with higher HQ must be maintained to enable air planners to marshal and deploy such assets at the critical time and place.

A POT would give the RMAF the window of opportunity to set up POL and munitions dumps across the peninsula or in East Malaysia. This would complicate an adversary's attempt at crippling the RMAF in pre-emptive strikes. The value of RMAF MiG-29s, derided by not a few Singaporean aviation fans for their smoke trails, comes from their ability to fly from austere airstrips thanks to the screens that protect the air intakes from FOD ingestion while on the ground.  

In recent years, the RMAF has practised deploying across the sea-air gap between East and West Malaysia. 

The RMAF's demonstrated ability to spread its wings on each side of the South China Sea serves as added insurance - or deterrence, depending on your point of view - for the RMAF. This is because an adversary can never be too sure that Malaysian warplanes are based where they usually roost during peacetime. Time and effort must therefore be expended to locate the dispersed airpower, if such assets are to be targeted and crippled in the opening phase of kinetic operations. 

Last year's Eks Paradise put to test just such deployment efforts. The war games involved almost all types of frontline RMAF fast jets. The name of the war games is deceptively tame. It is short for Paradrop, Deep Strike, Insertion and Extraction - mission scenarios that would keep most air defence teams wide awake.   

One should bear in mind that the RMAF's ability to survive as a force-in-being will threaten its adversary. This is because the amount of attention and assets needed to mount and sustain a 24-hour watch against air strikes delivered by the likes of F/A-18s and Su-30MKMs is considerable and disproportionate to the size of threats that could actually be fielded against the defenders. 

The history of warfare abounds with instances where embattled yet determined air warfare professionals have stood up successfully against a bigger and technologically superior enemy.

During WW2, the island of Malta could initially muster only Gloster Gladiator biplanes to challenge air raids from the combined might of the German Luftwaffe and Italy's grandly named (but largely impotent) Regia Aeronautica. Malta stood firm. The island was later awarded the George Cross by the English King for its stout defence.

Over in Africa, a brush fire war in 1967 in the tiny enclave of Biafra commands our attention. The Biafrans, located in what is now Nigeria, fought (unsuccessfully) for their independence. 

On the Nigerian's ledger: MiG jet fighters and Ilyushin bombers. 

War of the flea: Saab Minicoins flown by foreign mercenaries in support of the Biafra insurgency draw blood at a Nigerian airfield in yet another demonstration that asymmetry in airpower has never deterred determined pilots. 

Biafra's answer: Small piston engine sports planes called Saab MFI-9 Minicoins, armed with rocket pods and piloted by determined Swedish mercenaries. It was the aerial version of the classic guerilla strategy that advocates the war of the flea, and the Minicoins drew blood with lightning raids that shot up Nigerian airfields.

Malaysia's decision to add AH-6 light attack choppers to the MAF brings to mind the exploits of the small yet hard-hitting Biafran "air force". The AH-6s are derived from the Little Birds favoured by US special forces to penetrate contested airspace, wreak havoc and scoot before the enemy can respond. One can imagine these birds operating from austere helipads to shadow and hit enemy columns as they advance into Malaysian territory.

At the other end of the capability spectrum, the RMAF's Su-30MKM's potency lies not just in the air combat regime but in deep strike. Fitted with Russian ECM pods, the so-called Growlerski is optimised to challenge and take out western air defence networks.


The Malaysians have made the effort to keep its smaller fighter force acquainted with fighter aircraft types that do not wear RMAF warpaint. In recent times, Malaysians have conducted DACT with warplanes such as the F-22 Raptor and F-15 Eagle, providing their pilots and air defence teams with invaluable exposure and experience flying with (and against) such fighter types.

Conversations with ATM officers reveal a cadre of professionals deeply committed to the tasks they may be assigned and not the least intimidated by real or perceived technological or numerical shortcomings.

They may not have much to shout about, but still water runs deep.


Acknowledgements:
Am grateful for the contributions from retired ATM officers in the preparation of this blog post.

8 comments:

Lala said...

Sounds quite jialat leh...

Donald said...

I don't think anyone plans a war expecting the other side to just roll over and die once they see you right?

It's important to have a healthy respect for one's potential adversaries.

Pigmoon K said...

Salient points. But of course some are still in denial.

You should read their comments on FB.

David Boey said...

@Pigmoon K,
They're welcome to chime in here too.

James said...

David, another insightful and sharp piece from you, well done for this and all yr previous 😀

I can't help but reflect upon our ability to do the same, like dispersal of our assets, like regeneration after 2nd (3rd 4th) waves, etc

Benjamin Ong said...

Heard that vietnam is interested in buying cruise missile from India.Our neighburs might have express their interest as well

David Boey said...

Hi James,
Will let other feedback bubble to the surface before responding in generic, non opsec compromising terms...

Unknown said...

Thank you for an interesting and informative article. If I may, I am always astounded by the modern and impressive military arsenal that SAF has. However, they also remind me of the Americans during the Vietnam war. Most modern wars (with the exception of some wars like the Falklands War, Gulf War and initial phase of the Iraq War) tend to be a long drawn out war of attrition. Too much reliance on the latest and the best may with battles but not necessarily a war.