Sunday, September 30, 2012

Crippled wings: Time to relook Singapore's airbase security posture

You won't find Merah on Google Maps.

Despite its anonymity, it's a safe bet that this airbase-away-from-an-airbase is on the list of places to visit for foreign airpower analysts. If amateurs know, what more the professionals*?

If infiltrators embrace the intelligence preparation of the battlefield, detailed mission planning/rehearsal and elan that the 15-strong Taliban attack force displayed during the raid on Camp Bastion earlier this month, Merah would be hard pressed to resist a breach by even a small raiding party.

It is an irony that the deadliest Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) warplanes and helicopters are maintained and armed by engineers and armourers who carry nothing more lethal than a screwdriver during operations.

It is noteworthy that RSAF force protection troops were among the last to be equipped with the SAR-21 5.56mm assault rifle. They laboured for some time with M-16 rifles with iron sights** - rifles so worn out that their parkerized receivers were often worn away to a silver tinge by successive batches of full-time National Servicemen (NSFs).

For a period in the late 1990 till early noughties, we endured the illogical situation where our deadliest and most expensive warplanes were guarded by air force personnel armed with the oldest operational rifles you could find in the entire Singapore military. Had an aggressor called our bluff, the folly of this situation - having crown jewels guarded by ill-equipped jagas (jaga is a local term for night watchman) - would have been apparent to all.

It is baffling that RSAF Field Defence Squadrons (FDS) - so vital for defending the sharp end of Singapore's airpower - are treated almost like poor second cousins compared to Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) combat formations when it comes to rearming and equipping units with war material. Case in point: The V-200s used by FDS troops which are older than all the NSFs (and many Operationally Ready NSmen, i.e. reservists) who fight from these ageing vehicles even after the upgrade.

It is incomprehensible why our FDS - the Cinderellas of the SAF - are issued no side arm when scenarios for attacks on airbases will see them pitted against special forces armed to the teeth and then some.

Equally alarming is the almost complete lack of armoured vehicles in the FDS vehicle park. Apart from the V-200, FDS troops are asked to ride into action in soft skin vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz MB-240GD and MB-290 PSV.

If you believe in the motto "Airpower begins with Us", it will not take a great intellect to figure out who tops the target list should period of tension move from political bluster and diplomatic posturing to one of military action.

Whether by intention or strategic miscalculation, aggressors (both state and non-state actors) would want to have a go at RSAF airbases. Such infrastructure represents prestige targets where a successful action would lift one's market value up by several notches and make the world take notice.

Intruders who make it past the fenceline of an RSAF facility and penetrate into the heart of the Loop areas will find a target rich environment of expensive warplanes/helicopters and largely unarmed RSAF ground crew. It will be a turkey shoot.

This explains why case studies of asymmetric attacks on air force instructure (both successful and repulsed) should come under close scrutiny by defence planners here.

The September 2012 attack on Camp Bastion, the May 2012 attack on Pakistan's Mehran naval air station and the LTTE's raid on Colombo airport attack in July 2001 remind us why airbases have been described as the vulnerable strategic centre of gravity by airpower theorists. In all cases mentioned, the raiders had no air force to boast of, no proper staff college to study from and were not the kind of structured military force you would find in the IISS Military Balance.

These raids exemplify situations where air force war machines are not seen as elements to be feared, but targets to be attacked. Planned meticulously and executed with daring, an aggressor who fights with no exit plan usually gets his way.

When it comes to a situation of FDS versus special forces professionals who are trained, organised, armed and supported to create maximum mayhem, a special forces raid could cripple Singapore's wings more effectively than a raid by a hodge podge of warplanes attempting to whiz into Singaporean airspace on an air raid.

This is why the FDS force structure merits a serious rethink so that the warfighters charged with protecting Singapore's deadliest war machines get the tools they need to do the job. Warplanes and helicopters cannot be replaced on a whim. Considerations of cost aside, the lead-time needed to order, manufacture, deliver and commission a new aircraft makes the argument for a debilitating first strike against places like the Merah loop even more persuasive.

Over time, hardware can be replaced. What's irreplaceable are the pilots and groundcrew - which is why that multi-million dollar investment in trained fighter pilots must be fiercely protected. The RSAF must also be seen as having made best efforts in upping its active (i.e. FDS, area defence mines) and passive defences (camouflage, concealment, dispersal, intrusion detection sensors) so that any attempt at penetration will be stopped at the fenceline and the raid would have been in vain.

SAF force planners and RSAF publicists had better work fast.

When a special services group attains the critical mass, firepower and training needed to attack and overwhelm airbases, this special services group would offer their political masters a strategic option and represent a countervailing force against airpower.

When that day dawns, one must be perfectly clear who deters whom.

*  The number in the time stamp for this post should mean something to those who know.
** One could make a similar argument for soldiers at ammunition depots - "The heart of the Army's firepower". In the 1980s and 90s, many pulled sentry duty armed with unwanted SAR-80 assault rifles that combat formations rejected.


Anonymous said...

base defense pass to rp loh, where got so many 'special forces' running around?? got ST enggr what,can outsource what ..they got talents

Anonymous said...

How about Sea Soldiers, the RSN's security troopers? Surely they're just as important as you make the FDS out to be.

David Boey said...

Hi Anonymous 7:31 PM,
Yes, the navy's Sea Soldiers are indeed important for naval base security.

This post was written in the aftermath of the raid on Camp Bastion.

Will look into a follow-up piece that examines the Sea Soldier aspect.

For the record, RSN units have not been on the priority list for small arms either. For awhile after the SAR-21 made its appearance, sentries on RSN warships carried M-16s mostly with 20-round mags.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

"Jaga" sums it up. The equipment of security personnel is usually lowest priority.
Camp Bastion attack was carried out by men dressed in US-issued camou-fatigues, cutting through the fence unobserved. It was well-planned and well-executed. Based on what I know, the terrain is flat in Camp Bastion - if there were sentries/observers, they should not have missed this group of attackers.

Anonymous said...

after camp bastion, jagas are going to become terminators.

LKYSecuritySystems said...

Gurkhas.The ultimate Jagas.

Expand the force to include a brigade size for the army (maybe transfer some from Police, I believe the force there is close to brigade strength anyway)

Probably cheap.

One Batallion per Airbase should more than suffice (Tengah, Changi, PLAB, Sembawang can be guarded by the Guards)

Gurkhas will also help shore up our standing infantry count and reduce the complement sent to Infantry (thereby increasing our own quality)

+ Technology. Our airbases are all within the city. Not exactly out in the ulus and exposed to saboteurs. Surveliance systems and electric fencing should do the rest.

The more pressing issue is assault from rockets in time of war. We will need likely Iron Dome, Magic Wand and possibly a CIWS like the Centurion or MANTIS.

Norman Clature said...

"Sea Soldiers" what a stupid name.

What next "Air Soldiers"???

Nathaniel said...

Camp Bastion is in a warzone. Security posture depends on the threat climate. It doesn't make sense either for airbases or air force camps to maintain what are substantial ground forces.

lonkangwarrior2 said...

Yeah but no one in their right mind will be screwing around with electirc fencing, some heavy duty cameras and a couple of (100)Gurkhas on the prowl.

...then again, Mas Selamat....:D

Anonymous said...

Till about 3 years ago, NS men at the FDS still trained with Vietnam-era AR-15s that sported 3-pronged flash hiders (space gun). Vietnam era webbing and steel helmets could still be found in the stores. Active NSF had to be re-trained to handle M-16/AR-15s.

Anonymous said...

Looks like someone's not happy with your post, David.

Anonymous said...

Why bother.. he can't even comprehend the theme of the article... rsaf base in afghanistan? What a fool

Hermit said...

My reply

Anonymous said...

It's not just about equipping - it's also about manpower. The manning people in the SAF simply do not understand the manpower requirements to guard an airbase 24 hours a day.

The manning situation was so desperate that my friends who served their NS in FDS had to do checkpoint duty for 12-18 hours a day - and they can't sit down in that sentry post.

I can't see how troops who work up to 2 work days in a single duty shift can hold off a determined intruder while waiting for the commandos to come.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the above post. RPs in the FDS are at the lowest pecking order in the airbases. On paper their strength is barely sufficient for routine duties. In practice, men are loaned to cover manpower gaps in other bases, provide the bulk for the RSAF NDP contingent, in addition to the usual medical cases. It is not uncommon for guard commanders, sentries and checkers to be on duty for over 12 hours each day. This excludes ration detail, traffic duties and special details.

Anonymous said...

Unmanned / unattended modern optical sensors which can automatically ( without a person constantly looking at the display )detect & alert unusual activity or attempted intrusions along base perimeter will go a long way to reduce manpower required to monitor perimeter.

But still need well trained, armed & equipped FDS reaction force to deal with any intrusions large or small.

Bright Eyes

Anonymous said...

fully agree. i served in tengah FDS from 04-06. just recently i went back for my ICT. right now, in internal gates we dont even carry weapons anymore. the only shit we have against potential intruders are one stinky telescopic baton.