Wednesday, August 21, 2013

National Day Rally 2013: RSAF Operational Master Plan expected to guide proposal to move Paya Lebar resident squadrons to Changi East after 2030

Updated on 21 August'13 with images of Paya Lebar Airport from our files.
Now you see 'em.... Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) warplanes taxi to their roost on the eastern side of Paya Lebar Airbase. The Operational Master Plan that steered the hardening of Paya Lebar drew comfort from the fact that the civilian airport inherited by the RSAF in 1981 sat astride low hills, which were eventually carved out to house dispersal areas for RSAF warplanes. Note the height of the surrounding terrain above the fighters. Aircraft shelters (non hardened) are thought to have been cut into the hilly terrain and have their sides held up by concrete retaining walls.  

What appears to be a straightforward swap between an established airbase, Paya Lebar Air Base (PLAB), with a brand new one in Changi East after 2030 isn't as easy as it seems.

The good news is that Headquarters Republic of Singapore Air Force ( HQ RSAF) has at least 17 years to plan for the future and military minds would know it doesn't take that length of time to plan, build and operationalise an airbase. [United States Navy construction battalions (SeeBees), for instance, could carve out an airfield from virgin jungle within weeks during WW2. A modern airbase comprises more than just the runway and hardstandings to park aircraft. But the squadron HQs, fuel farms and weapon magazines can be designed and built much earlier than 2030.]

Another positive is the fact that Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and RSAF planners tasked with designing the airbase will have an untouched piece of real estate to work with. The site is a blank canvas on which architects of our future air power can apply decades worth of lessons from Operational Master Plans (OMPs) which have improved the mission readiness and survivability of critical infrastructure at existing RSAF airbases.

As the OMP for the new airbase at Changi Air Base (East) - not to be confused with the current Changi Air Base (East) - gets drafted, challenges inherent in designing a military aerodrome on reclaimed land while factoring threat profiles expected from 2030 onwards should prompt the project team to think about the following:

1. The greenfield site for the new Changi Air Base (East) will give the project team immense latitude in designing base infrastructure from scratch, free from constraints and limitations the RSAF faced when it took over the civilian Paya Lebar Airport in 1981 and had to get it fighting fit.

Blast from the past: Paya Lebar Airbase during the mid 1980s displayed evidence of construction activity on its once verdant eastern side. We can see the uncompleted Hush House just after the Whiskey 4 crossing. The changes to the base are more stark when one compares pictures of Paya Lebar Airport taken during her opening year in 1955 (below). The image below is of particular interest as it reveals the gradient and elevation of the ground on the eastern side of what is now PLAB. Interestingly, the northern end of the PLAB runway where this picture was taken in the late 1950s has military architecture well worth a closer look.

New airport: The Whiskey 4 (W4) crossing at Paya Lebar Airport and the undeveloped eastern side of the runway are shown to good effect in the images above and below. The terminal building and future PLAB Jet Apron are still under construction in the image below. None of the RSAF servicemen and servicewomen who serve at PLAB today were born when these images were taken.

Building for future growth: Aerial view of the northern end of Paya Lebar Airport runway which captured construction work to extend the runway in the 1950s.

Final approach: The image above and the one below would be familiar to pilots who have flown into PLAB from its southern end. The rustic landscape south of the runway has been completely cleared. Residents of PLAB would note that the right hand corner of the image below now houses what appears to be quick reaction alert shelters cloaked by extensive camouflage measures.

2. From the perspective of a potential attacker, the location of the new airbase opens up new opportunities for rendering resident air power inoperable as a major impediment - PLAB's location amid civilian infrastructure - is gone. Highrise residential flats in the Hougang and Serangoon outside PLAB complicate firing solutions for tube and rocket artillery fire as well as mortar barrages fired at shallow angles as these civilian infrastructure stands in the way.

3. On a related note, having Changi Air Base (East) as the neighbour to the Republic of Singapore Navy's Changi Naval Base makes this slice of mainland Singapore a target rich environment. Unguided rocket barrages intended for the airbase which miss their target due to the large CEP could fall into the compound of the naval base.[If I was role playing the Red Team, I would feel encouraged and plan accordingly.] 

4. The RSAF airbase and RSN naval base in Changi sit in plain sight of Pengerang, in Johor. Not for nothing did British military surveyors build a fort on the commanding hill to support coastal artillery batteries emplaced in Changi. Technology may have changed but the advantages of the geography from Pengerang's lofty heights haven't. This is a point our military planners ought to keep in mind. 

5. The new airbase will be the largest RSAF airbase which is closest to the open sea. We have never had an airbase so close to an international shipping lane before. PLAB's location farther inland made it less vulnerable to seaborne attack, which could be launched within minutes without warning from men-of-war exercising their right of innocent passage through the Strait of Singapore during a Period of Tension.(Unless our Rules of Engagement indicate we can fire first at a potentially hostile warship, which would essentially make this island nation the initiator of hostilities. Go figure.) 

6. The new airbase will not be complete without measures to improve its ability to generate and sustain air power, under time pressure and perhaps under fire.

Safe haven: And here we have a prime example of what we believe is a standalone RSAF aircraft shelter. The aircraft shelter itself isn't believed to be hardened and is thought to comprise a metal roof held up by H-piles. Noteworthy is the use of extensive earthworks and camouflage netting to screen aircraft hardstandings from outside observation. The same role is served by the fence line which is shielded with woven plastic strips. An improved design to this 1990s-era shelter might eventually be found in Changi East to house RSAF warplanes based there after 2030. The HAS on the northeastern end of TAB are thought to be of a different design - housing warplanes more compactly but with a higher level of protection. 

Landscape artists: This Google Earth image plucked from cyberspace of Paya Lebar Air Base shows the extent landscape changes made by the RSAF to camouflage and conceal its warplanes based there. These revetments were cut into elevated ground on the eastern side of PLAB's runway (see first black and white picture above for a better idea of the terrain). Seasoned users of Google Earth would probably have their customised library of images of places of interest.

7. Despite the constraints that Paya Lebar Airport's civilian infrastructure posed to RSAF staff officers during the 1980s, the low hills on the eastern side of the PLA runway allowed the air force to loop taxiways into the hills and scatter fighters in aircraft shelters dug into the elevated ground (see image above). Changi's flat terrain and relatively shallow water table, being so close to the sea, offer no such advantages. Our defence engineers do, however, have extensive experience designing aircraft shelters for the RSAF and might employ an improved design of the anonymous structure you see above for the new airbase.

8. Despite the promise of STOVL fighters such as the F-35B, the new base will still need ribbons of concrete as taxiways and one main runway. The argument that fighters like the F-35B can take-off vertically during operations is ill-informed when one considers the considerable penalty in aircraft warload when performing as a jump jet. A long runway will be necessary to support large transports, which regularly call at PLAB in support of Singapore Armed Forces deployments overseas.

9. Yet more thought has to go into where supporting infrastructure will be based. These include the Aeromedical Centre, Air Force School, Flight Simulator Centre and so on. PLAB is a thriving eco-system that has used more than 20 years of ops to achieve steady state operations between resident and non-resident units. This synergy cannot be achieved overnight just by giving PLAB units a new mailing address in Changi.

10. Questions will also hang over the fate of Singapore Technologies Aerospace, which serves a vital role in sustaining RSAF airpower. However, the 17 year gap between now and 2030 gives ST Aero and its mothership, ST Engineering, more than ample time to mull over choices. To put things into sharper focus, that 17 year window is longer than the ST Engg group has been in business (it was formed in 1997).

You may also like:
National Day Rally 2013: Quick take on proposal to move Paya Lebar Air Base. Click here


Anonymous said...

The TAB hardened shelters that you mentioned appear to have vegetation on them. What's interesting is not just the fighter sized ones but the AWAC sized ones are apparently hardened.

Anonymous said...

Moving PLAB as oppose to moving TAB is more logical. Initially i read that TAB was to give way for tengah housing development was not quite the right planning to do. Moving PLAB is sound. I was even thinking the PAP gov. do not want to develop paya lebah and the surrounding unos/aljunied potential super GRC because of political reason and make a convoluted decision to develop tengah instead and have TAB moved! What the ... i thought!

Yes, moving PLAB is the natural decision.

by 2030, with the advent of ballistic missile technology and proliferation (a waning USA and rising of regional asiatic powers)The need for BMD defence comes to the fore. You are right, it seems like this concentration of Changi air and naval bases present a juicy target for op fore.

Is it far fetch to place future STOVL assets on a couple of future endurance LHDs as mobile air base?

see you around in 2030 :-)

Anonymous said...

A post related to the F35 here:

Not a good review, I would say.

weasel1962 said...

The observation distance from Malaysia coast to CAB is 10+km. From Sengkang or Hougang to PLAB is <2km. From JB to PLAB is ~6km. Those that stay in certain high rise locations know exactly when a/c goes up and down at PLAB. It will far more difficult to visually observe CAB esp if the a/c takes off or land southwards. Also, the F-35s may not be based at CAB. Good article nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Tube/rocket fire striking US, UK, China and other international airline aircraft and passengers at Changi airport risks drawing neutrals into the conflict. Isn't that a better deterrent than residential blocks? Families staying in those blocks would prefer not to be in the line of fire.

championofdispersion said...

In other words -Eggs in one basket. Better to spread the risk.

But you really only need to airbases for fighter aircraft. One for F16 (then F35) and one for F15.

Don't think the distances mentioned make much of a difference to observation or artillery to be honest. The whole of Singapore is vulnerable.

Probably more important to spread rotary wing assets IMO rather than keep them all in Sembawang.

With the increase number of main battle tanks, probably better to have an increase in attack helicopter assets (subject of course to manpower constrains) In which case may make sense to retain PLAB as a attack helicopter base (and secondary airfield for returning fighters based overseas.

AhBengKampungBoLiow said...

More easy to make room for housing in neighboring countries.

Cheaper for one thing. MRT line for easy assess. Special pass in and out of Singapore. No problem mah?

Military base bo pian leh. Certain number must be in Singapore.

Anonymous said...

You can't ask another country to give up sovereignty. When that country wants the land for its own use, will you leave? When its time to renew the lease, will you agree to the rate?

SingaporeNumberWanKalangGuniMan said...

Aiyahz no need to give up sovreignty mah.

Still Indonesia, call it 'special zone'.

Landlord Tenant.

Pay rent loh. Build HDB there OK what. Otherwise import sand, might as well build there.

Agee lah, percentage (tax) to be paid to local/Indonesian govt. As economic, habitat activities increase, Indonesia will gain what.

Win win.

Want to land plane land lah. In fact should join develop a second regional airport there. Get rid of Seletar. keep Paya Lebar.

Maybe can work out special legal system compromise for both countries. two countries one system.

Must have imagination a bit mah? Right or not?

AwangJantan said...

All Singapore airbases are vulnerable.

Move Paya Lebar might as well you move to Australia. Have plenty of land there.

You think your neighbour to the North don't know where your secondary runways are ah?

If want to kachow, hide Rocket in palm oil/rubber plantation, disperse like Hezbolah, own time own target. Hantam.

If I with Mahatir Mohammed Southern Liberation front I buy a lot of rocket Arti like Hezbolah.

Maybe can use Iron Dome to defend but you can take out every shell and rocket?

Some more if attacker is masquerade as non state aggressor, can be difficult for Singapore to take action.

You think maybe Singapore can cross over and take over Johor for security purpose also not so easy. Even if crossing achieved, aggressive IED laid on trunk roads and tacks can severely slow down tank and now motorised dependent Infantry.

Again, arti hide in Utan and fire into kill box, mampos, target rich environment among traffic jam. How you got enough mata mata to control traffic or not?

Singaporean like to talk big about their capability but don't look down on your neighbour OK. Malaysia maybe less money, toy not so kilat but Malaysia also boleh.

After all, think lah, who caught Mas Selamat for you? Recently who find your murderer police man? How fast?

Jangnan main main. Move air base, don't move no difference lah kawan.

Anonymous said...

Actually Changi is least vulnerable because there are multiple runways.

As the gentleman has pointed out above, Tengah and Paya Lebar are very vulnerable since they only have one main runway and a couple of secondary taxi ways/roads.

IF a war broke out, I would presume the whole of the Changi facility (International Airport and all) will come to military control and use.

That's tantamount to two airbases there.

Also when one talks about secondary air bases, secondary air bases may include Tyndal and Korat 9and maybe Kailakunda) where I believe we rotate squadrons through exercise frequently although I am not sure if we actually base them there on rotation.

(there are also I suppose, a good number of combat aircraft in the United States)

So centralizing the airbase seems a logical logistics and manpower efficiency step to take.

I don't think the Singapore government has not thought this through given ingrained kiasuism.

One thing that Singapore could benefit from is more AH64Ds.

Remember Gulf War, the Apaches were part of the first wave (with the Stealth fighters) taking out enemy eyes and ears.

Given vulnerabilities highlighted by our Malaysian friend above, helicopters could ensure we have firepower to handle some of the nuisance fire from 'arti'.

I believe the Israelis put choppers to good use against Hamas targets.

I suppose the future will involve centralized location during peace time and multiple mini locations disperse through the beehive during war. This is where the flexibility of the F35B will come to play.

What could be interesting is a way of transporting some of these important (aerial) assets underground to various dispersal points. A cheaper solution of course would be to heli-lift them like what the North Vietnamese did with MI6 Hooks.

Not sure if CH47D has sufficient lifting power for an F35B?

What might be important in a dispersal scenario therefore looks like rotary wing. Need enough copters to move assets and enough attack choppers to quell enemy fire coming in to hit air bases.

But with the population shortfall, it will be difficult to further expand numbers (pilots) in this area, unless of course some were brought in as 'special talent' from very friendly countries.

We've done it before with fighter pilots (Taiwanese I believe).

Anonymous said...

Not just fighter pilots, but even the CAF.

That's why you can find the full list of ex-chiefs at the Army museum, but not RSAF and RSN. Sad that we must wipe our history to please some people.