Saturday, January 22, 2011

RSAF leadership succession plan

(Please take part in the latest poll. Thanx)

If leadership renewal in Singapore's air force rolls out according to plan, we could one day see an officer without pilot wings leading Southeast Asia's largest air force.

When that day arrives, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) may have to deal with perception issues from an internal and external audience.

Defence watchers may realise that a half-baked publicity plan may dent the RSAF's image as an air force to be reckoned with and, in the larger scheme of things, the SAF's value as a hedge against aggression.

For an internal audience, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) should expect a replay of sentiments expressed when a non-flier assumed command of Singapore's largest fighter air base some years ago.

The tenure of that base commander proved successful. But the tour of duty was not without gossip from some quarters who asked if someone who could not fly could command a fighter base in peace and war.

Managing perceptions of an internal audience means taking into account how the Singapore Army and Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) will view the leadership renewal.

It does nothing for the RSAF's deterrent edge if the buzz within the SAF's three Services centres on the candidate's ability (or should we say inability) to pilot a warplane, rather than his domain knowledge, leadership qualities and strategic vision as Chief of Air Force (CAF).

In some RSAF flying squadrons like 111 SQN, the Commanding Officer's chair (CO) has been previously filled by non pilots. One should remember that the RSAF has more non-flying squadrons than those with aircraft and many outstanding RSAF officers have led frontline and support units without clocking a single minute as pilot-in-command.

For as long as manned platforms such as F-15SG Strike Eagles and Apache attack helicopters form the sharp end of the Air Force, warfighters will expect HQ RSAF to be led and staffed by a core of aviators who understand the platforms, warfighting concepts and technology.

Any deviation from such expectations must be managed astutely, preferably long before the said candidate assumes the mantle of responsibility. It does nothing for confidence within the Air Force if a future CAF is viewed more as an administrator rather than a warfighter well grounded in the theory and application of the concepts of air power doctrine.

In my opinion, an ill-advised form of damage control would take the form of a public relations exercise where the non pilot takes to the skies as a backseater. In a best case scenario, this PR photocall becomes a joyride. In a worst case scenario, the backseater could end up airsick - thus making the PR exercise a joke and providing more gossip for wagging tongues.

As the Third Generation RSAF fights as a networked force, steps should be taken to ensure all ranks understand and accept how Singapore would wield its airpower.

Gone are the days where the fledgling Singapore Air Defence Command (SADC) defended Singapore island with long range Bloodhound SAMs and Hawker Hunter day fighters, guided by GCI till the radar operator called Mixed Blips and a furball ensued.

Today's concept for Mission Air Defence includes Ground-Based Air Defence as well as shipborne assets like Aster SAMs and to a lesser degree, the Baraks aboard the Navy's Missile Corvettes. The sensors and strike assets available in the AFCP demand a leadership with a much broader-based domain knowledge than ever before.

At the same time, higher leadership must be aware of the capabilities and limitations of manned platforms. This is the gap that non pilots may struggle to bridge.

The external audience includes friends and frenemies who will interact with this future CAF.

To be sure, other air forces have appointed non-fliers as air force chiefs. Some navigators, for instance, have risen to the top post in certain air forces.

And if past is prologue, the RSAF will be acutely aware of the need to convince an external audience that the CAF without wings is not a CAF without ability.

Such a task for defence information officers is easier said than done.


Unknown said...

I hope that
leadership all over the world will succeed to be use right all over the world.

Tan Ah Kow said...

Before one can decide if a "no wings" is appropriate for the role of CAF, it is more pertinent to ask about the nature of the role.

Is the CAF an advocate, an administrator (train, prepare and equip) or a combatant commander?

With the SAF order of battle it is difficult to tell unlike say the style US Joint Chiefs and US combatant commander roles. Given the fact that the SAF is often dominated by the Army, it seemed the CAF role, whether the incumbent is a wing or wing-less officer is quite irrelevant. After all the CAF, if you go by rank, is a subordinate to the CDF, who is invariable -- except one case -- someone who not only have no wings but have no command or administrative experience in terms of Air Power.

Anonymous said...

My opinion is that if a CAF appointee knows the roles and responsibilities of his office well and is willing to take advice from combatants regarding deployment of forces and future force planning, having wings or not should not be a major issue.

Similarly we will see in the future, as UCAVs become operational, pilots might not even be officers, but specialists/NCOs instead, which is a debate still ongoing in militaries fielding large numbers of armed UAVs.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Boey,

Thanks for setting up the poll. Unfortunately the poll cannot distinguish between those who are from the RSAF and those who aren't. It's an interesting hypothesis (at least to me) to know if there's a perception difference between these two groups.

Having said that, the poll is not random and therefore hardly representative of the population it intents to examine. At best it's indicative; at worst it's misleading.

Regardless, the poll is an interesting exercise to encourage participation from your readers.


David Boey said...

Hi Eric,
Internet polls, like those conducted by media agencies, are never perfect. Statistically speaking, the sample set may be too small or not representative of prevailing sentiments.

Someday I'll write about how some special interest groups mobilise themselves to blitz online polls with the intention of skewing the results.

But the randomness of such polls does in a way reflect how people view a certain situation. For the CAF with wings/no wings, it is interesting to see that opinion among readers is split almost 50:50.


Anonymous said...

Well, the RSAF org chart already has names that sound like they were written by management consultants (or officers who went to MBA-school). What the *** are systems integration commands or participation commands ? A participation command sounds like someone who organises team-building events rather than someone who'll fire an anti-tank missile at the enemy

Ah Kow makes a good point, though. If in fact, the CAF's primary job is making sure that the RSAF gets the resources it needs rather than operational command during conflict, then it doesn't really matter whether he or she is a flier or not

Unknown said...

If the bulk of the RSAF comprises non-pilots rather than pilots, surely there would be merit in considering a non-pilot for the pinnacle post in the air force. It also interesting to observe that the pilot community does not have a monopoly on talent, and an equal if not greater number of talents reside in the non-pilot communiy.