Sunday, August 31, 2014

Singapore's "stealth fighters"

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For something as large, noisy and closely watched as F-15SG Strike Eagle warplanes, one would think it would be difficult tweaking the headcount without someone noticing.

Alas, if one goes by recent reports in the defence press, Singapore's military has apparently "quietly" expanded its fleet of F-15SGs by adding between eight to 16 additional Strike Eagles to the 24 warplanes it said it purchased.

If it indeed true, such a stunt development is not without its costs in two key areas:
1) Transparency
2) Applying common sense in protecting our operational security.

The trend was outed by aircraft spotters whose meticulously kept notes on Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) war machines signaled that aircraft tail numbers - these are unique alpha-numeric identities assigned to individual aircraft - do not seem to tally. When plane spotters noted masking tape used to cover such codes, this further stoked their curiosity as to why the RSAF had taken such measures for its F-15SGs.

And so plane spotters collaborated with and between one another, across borders and over several years, to join the dots. Such sense-making resulted in the reports that surfaced recently.

According to the reports, Singapore could have between eight to 16 more F-15SGs than the 24 it is said to have purchased from United States warplane maker, The Boeing Company. Despite the somewhat pedantic discussion of aircraft numbering protocols, the jury is still out on the exact number of platforms fielded by the RSAF. Such ambiguity does wonders for deterrence because potential adversaries will have to hedge against the possibility that the RSAF warplane fleet is larger than orginally thought.

The cryptic statement from the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) did little to clarify the issue. A MINDEF statement to Jane's Information Group said:"The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) bases our procurement on the assessed long-term defence needs, and the RSAF has purchased sufficient F-15SGs to meet our defence requirements."

Make no mistake: News that Singapore's war machine may pack a heftier punch is indeed reassuring.

However, there is something to be said about applying common sense and logic to military secrets that can be protected, and order of battle developments that are best declared openly.

In the case of our F-15SGs, all the masking tape and new registrations in the world has not hidden the additional assets from plane spotters who have the curiosity to discover, the energy to pursue and the contacts to verify. This lesson, if lost on MINDEF/SAF staff officers who engineered the masking tape thingy, could have potentially damaging ramifications to Singapore's security posture in the areas of transparency and credibility, as well as opsec management.

One would hope the recent news flows solidly debunk the idea that no one would notice new registrations on SAF assets. Indeed, there are people who count not just  RSAF tail numbers but the number plates of SAF vehicles too. [Please click here for a guide to SAF number plates.]

So if the desired end state of obscuring the true size of the RSAF's F-15SG cannot be achieved by hiding aircraft identities, why do so when it raises questions on the level of transparency that comes out from Gombak Drive?

It's also worth pondering the kind of logic that applies to opsec guidelines. Surely someone must have recognised the futility of the exercise (new numbers, masking tape, obscure media statements) before the new aircraft hit the ramp and took to the skies?

What if the same tactic was applied to a war machine that MINDEF/SAF really needs to keep under wraps because such assets represent a combat edge? What if the trend is outed in the same manner, thus blowing the cover for something that should not have seen the light of day.

We may sound schizoid in saying this after venting about the issue, but MINDEF/SAF has a proven track record (pun intended...) for keeping its real secrets watertight. Not just large war machines, mind you, but entire units staffed over decades by a sizeable number of servicemen and servicewomen, with not a squeak revealed to those who do not need to know.[Click here for an expose on the RSAF's 200 SQN]

Perhaps other considerations swung into play when the RSAF upsized its F-15SG fleet without telling the whole world about it.

One consideration could have centred on the request by the United States not to be seen as stoking an arms race in the region by pumping more high-value assets into Asian skies. The F-15SG is, afterall, the most advanced variant of the United States Air Force's most lethal and combat-proven warplane in service and an infusion of more Strike Eagles to the RSAF - which in effect bolsters regional tie-ups such as the Five Power Defence Arrangements and the ASEAN family's air defence shield - may ruffle feathers farther up north.

When all is said and done, Singapore has adopted the adage of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Those who know would realise the RSAF's ability and mission readiness to pack a punch just got deadlier thanks to its new "stealth fighters".


Unknown said...

Two reasons why not that much effort was taken to obscure the number of F-15SGs.

1. We are buying from the US. They are terrible about keeping the secrets of others, because they have a very open system and because they don't really care. Eventually this would have leaked, so trying to construct a whole fortress of secrets around it would have just been an embarrassment.

2. We have several different audiences: public and public. I don't think we intend to keep F-15SG numbers completely secret, otherwise they would not deter, while we don't want to look like we are in an arms race or "insensitive" in public. I am sure that the people who needed to know our F-15SG numbers here and abroad already knew them. Covering the numbers is just to avoid public controversy, not to achieve surprise against the enemy.

Andrew Leung said...

I hope they also ordered 40 F35s and an aircraft carrier.

Chew said...

The problem with a lack of transparency in such purchases is that Singapore's neighbours may well take this askew and assume a worse case scenario. Military minds are notoriously panaroid and it may be safe to say that a military officer would probably not face a court martial if he was paranoid about a rival's potential firepower.

earlyfalloutboy said...

Unknown 3.48PM: "Covering the numbers is just to avoid public controversy."

Question is, why is the RSAF proud to showcase the F-15SG platform to the general public but not the number of them?

I mean, if they think the public might not be in favour of 30 or 40 F-15SG, why would they think that having any at all would be well received?

Shawn C said...

With few exceptions, I don't think there's any military force on the planet that doesn't have a few secrets, and the SAF has always kept a few capabilities quiet. In the case of the F-15SG, it does look like the secrecy is unnecessary - if a few plane spotters/journalists can sherlock out MINDEF's efforts to obscure procurement numbers, then I'm pretty sure professional intelligence analysts would have worked the numbers out a lot sooner. BTW, when the F-15SG was selected by the RSAF back in 2006, there was a statement that up to 56 aircraft may be acquired in total.

But perhaps it's because it's an ingrained part of MINDEF/SAF's to always have a few aces up their sleeves. Showcasing the F-15SG in flybys and open houses is one thing, but not revealing the real numbers keeps people guessing - especially when at least 8 are supposedly permanently deployed for training in the US. Oh, and you've never seen those Strike Eagles carrying their full kit, like the JSOW.

The most famous example of the SAF's unwillingness to reveal an 'open secret' is of course the Centurion Tempest tank. It's well documented that Singapore bought around 60+ used Israeli and Indian tanks in batches up till the mid-1980s, but no official or unofficial image of these vehicles has ever emerged - that's excellent OPSEC considering the number of NS tank crews who must have trained on this system over the last three to four decades. For years it was speculated that the SAF choose not to confirm their existence to not 'stir up' the neighbours, yet even after the Army bought Leopard 2s, these mystery beasts have stayed out of sight.

Next up is the Douglas A4 Skyhawk. Just how many did the RSAF operate at their peak? Over 150 ex-USN airframes were sold to Singapore from 1973 to 1983 for conversion to A4S and later A4SU versions, and open sources claim that the RSAF first operated the A4S version till 1989 before retiring/replacing them with A4SU.

earlyfalloutboy said...

Btw, when is AFOH? Waiting for the announcement.

Andrew Leung said...

The USAF wants to retire their A10 Warthogs. We should get some A10s to protect our tanks and troops. An AC130 Spooky gunship will be a good addition for sustained air cover at night. We can get some Army personnel to be trained as pilots and airmen.