Monday, October 24, 2016

Exercise Torrent VII 2016: Republic of Singapore Air Force RSAF alternate runway exercise

Cleared for take-off: Every type of frontline RSAF warplane was represented at Exercise Torrent III, held on 1 November 1992. Seen here are A-4SU Super Skyhawks, which accelerated for take-off immediately after making the right-hand turn onto Lim Chu Kang Road after emerging from Tengah Air Base. 

The following essay was published in The Straits Times on 1 December 2008, to mark the successful staging of the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Exercise Torrent VI, which tested the Air Force's ability to launch and recover warplanes from an alternate runway.

This essay will be updated this year to reflect upcoming changes in the number and location of runways on mainland Singapore, in time to come.

Do look out for the revised essay and daily updates as we crank up the tempo ahead of Ex Torrent VII. Have witnessed Torrent III, Torrent V and Torrent VI. Will share pictures from these exercises in the run-up to the upcoming war game.

Hit the road, jets
By David Boey
For The Straits Times
1 December 2008

The 20 minutes of air activity at the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) exercise at Lim Chu Kang Road yesterday ranked as one of the air force’s shortest war games.

Despite its brevity, however, the conversion of a public road into an improvised military airstrip during Exercise Torrent VI provided a vivid demonstration of the degree to which Singapore’s air power resides with the RSAF’s Air Power Generation Command (APGC).

Some 400 personnel from the command took 48 hours to transform the 2,500m long road into a runway. 

Twelve warplanes – representing all of the RSAF’s fighter types in service and one E-2C Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning plane from the RSAF’s Air Combat Command (APGC) – broke the speed limit along Lim Chu Kang Road as they showcased the air force’s little-known capability to launch and recover aircraft using a public road.

Even less known is the fact that the groundwork for Exercise Torrent was laid more than 30 years ago. The capabilities the RSAF demonstrated yesterday can be traced to the Operational Master Plan (OMP) for RSAF air bases that the Ministry of Defence drew up in the mid-1970s. Dr Goh Keng Swee, the architect of the Singapore Armed Forces, was defence minister and Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister. Singapore’s defence planners recognised even then that attacks against air bases could clip the RSAF’s wings.

The RSAF’s warplane fleet would count for nothing if runways were damaged and its air power grounded. Lack of air cover would, in turn, jeopardise the mobilisation of SAF units during the critical hours of an emergency when large numbers of citizen soldiers reporting at mobilisation centres would present the enemy with a target-rich environment.

The OMP mapped out how the RSAF would plan, develop, test and revise operational concepts for air bases during periods of tension and hostilities. This led to the formation of specialised, non-flying squadrons in the early 1980s. These included squadrons tasked with runway surface repairs, disposal of enemy ordnance such as unexploded bombs or munitions with time delay fuses, as well as the maintenance of essential services such as power, fuel and water. A network of fibre optic cables was buried in hardened conduits to reduce the air force’s reliance on radio communications which can be intercepted and jammed by a technically competent foe.

At the same time, the number of runways available to RSAF warplanes was doubled, from six in the 1980s to 11 today – more if you count narrow taxiways that the fighters can also use. This includes a runway built on Pulau Sudong.

Roads that could be converted into runways were identified and plans were drawn up for the RSAF to practise operating from such improvised runways. Buildings, such as warehouses, that can serve as temporary aircraft hangars were also identified. Complementing such infrastructure were war games that allowed RSAF personnel to think about how they could maximise air power generation from all the runways.

Taking off is a simple enough matter. Far more complex is the safe and orderly launch of combat aircraft in the right sequence, armed with the right weapons and put in the take-off queue according to operational priorities.

With more than 100 combat aircraft in the RSAF’s fleet – not to mention hundreds of weapon, fuel tank and sensor configurations for each aircraft – this was no simple task. The APGC’s tagline, “Air power starts with us”, sums up how the sharp end of the RSAF relies on, and is sustained by, robust air base infrastructure.

The RSAF helicopter fleet has also practised out-of-base operations , deploying and rearming choppers from places such as open fields and golf courses. Only a handful of air forces, including those of Finland, Korea, Sweden, Switzerland and Taiwan, practise such capabilities.

A clear signal of the importance of such capabilities occurred in April 1986, when RSAF fighters soared off a road for the first time. The landmark war game, held when Singapore was recovering from the 1985 economic slump, underlined the nation’s commitment to investing in defence even during tough times.

The RSAF has staged Exercise Torrent six times in the past 22 years. The speed with which the air force has transformed itself into a Third Generation fighting force becomes evident when one considers that the only common elements between the first and latest exercise are these: the road itself and the professionalism of the RSAF’s personnel.

Everything else, from the warplanes used and to the RSAF’s uniforms, has evolved or been upgraded. Even the term Mindef uses to describe Lim Chu Kang Road has changed. It is now called an “alternate runway” as opposed to “emergency runway”, a term which probably connotes that something dire to the aircraft's function may have occurred.

Lim Chu Kang Road is a key element in Singapore’s defence infrastructure. Its absence from databases that purportedly rate military power shows that simply counting soldiers and war machines as a measure of a country's military muscle is inadequate.

Such capabilities inject uncertainty into the calculations of hostile powers that may want to cripple Singapore’s air power. A larger number of runways means the enemy would have more targets to hit. This in turn would call for the enemy to deploy more military assets – be it rocket artillery units or air strikes. And the larger the attack force, the higher would be the chance it will be detected by the SAF’s intelligence network. A larger force would also be more vulnerable to the comprehensive suite of the SAF’s defences.

Combat readiness aside, Singapore also places emphasis on defence diplomacy as a key element in maintaining peace in its neighbourhood. This is why foreign military observers were invited yesterday to see Exercise Torrent VI. Closer to home, defence diplomacy includes overtures to community leaders, who helped residents in the vicinity understand, and appreciate, the RSAF’s mission.

One hopes that no one makes a strategic miscalculation that would force Singapore to deploy its airpower islandwide, because the torrent of air strikes the RSAF can muster will be robust, continuous and devastating.


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