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RSAF in Operations Other Than War - The Challenges
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by LTC Yeong Chee Meng, MAJ Aaron Tan MAJ Dean Tan & CPT Jerediah Ong
RSAF's Super Puma helicopters (in UN colours) supporting UNTAC from May to Jun 1993.
RSAF's Super Puma helicopters (in UN colours) supporting UNTAC from May to Jun 1993.


Apart from building up conventional capabilities, to fight and win wars, the developments in the security landscape have necessitated RSAF to progress towards a full-spectrum integrated force. Besides war fighting operations, which continue to remain the key focus of RSAF's training and development, the RSAF would also need to be able to conduct Operations Other Than War (OOTW). These OOTW ranged from Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations to Peace Support Operations (PSO). As Singapore contributes as a responsible member of the region and the international community, it is also confronted with challenges in such OOTW operations.

Due to its constraints of limited airspace, the RSAF has long set up overseas detachments and participated in multilateral exercises in various parts of the world. These detachments and exercises span from locations as near as Thailand to as far as the USA, and they range in duration from short one month long detachments to permanent ones over a period of five years or more. Although the primary purpose of these detachments and exercises is to cater for the training needs of the RSAF, as well as to learn from our partners, they have nevertheless provided the RSAF with valuable opportunities to build up defence relations and interact with the local governments and communities. All of these have helped to hone our cross-cultural skills, which is a valuable asset when conducting OOTW operations overseas. Notwithstanding this, several challenges still need to be managed.

The Increasing Demand for the RSAF in OOTW

The primary role of the RSAF is to deter war and, if that fails, to secure a swift and decisive victory as an integral part of the SAF. However, as a responsible member of the international community, Singapore (and the SAF) has in its more recent history been involved in more instances of OOTW. Some significant examples include the PSO missions in Timor Leste, missions in support of the reconstruction efforts in Iraq, Operation Flying Eagle (OFE) after the Tsunami in 2004, and relief efforts related to Hurricane Katrina. These missions are important as they save lives and preserve international peace and stability. This trend of greater involvement of the military in OOTW is also not unique to the SAF. The demand for national armed forces to support PSOs and HADRs across the world has increased in scope, complexity and frequency.

While the core business of armed forces is in the area of warfighting, in view of these demands, it is important for the SAF and RSAF to be ready for OOTW when called upon to do so. From the standpoint of operational readiness, such operations also provide opportunities for the SAF to exercise our logistic and operational elements to plan, orchestrate, co-ordinate and execute tri-service operations on a real-time basis, while dealing with the public media. Being able to execute such tasks effectively is important to the professionalism of SAF and instils confidence of the SAF into Singaporeans.

Given the nature of OOTW, air power is often the likely first responder because of its inherent advantages in the areas of speed, reach and flexibility. Unmatched speed and reach combine to equip Air Power with the critical responsiveness to respond quickly to changing situations at far distances. This advantage in reach and responsiveness is further enhanced by superior mobility on the scene. Indeed, it is recognised that simply reaching the disaster area quickest is insufficient, and air platforms prevail in offering a myriad of transportation options that can be tailored to suit a variety of roles, ranging from ferrying of personnel, to evacuation, to Search-and-Rescue (SAR) and to expedient delivery of supplies, such as food and medicine, often over difficult terrain.

We will first look at two case studies of OOTW to identify the challenges facing the RSAF before discussing possible options to address them.

HADR Case Study: RSAF's Participation after the Boxing Day Tsunami

On 26 Dec 04, the region around the Indian Ocean was shaken by one of the worst earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis in history. Aceh in Indonesia, Phuket in Thailand, Penang in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and India were all hit by the effects of the tsunami. As many as a quarter of a million lives were lost. Although Singapore was spared the fallout from the disaster, units in the SAF were activated to contribute to the aid efforts.

The RSAF's C-130 transport aircraft was the first to respond, arriving in Medan, Indonesia on 28 Dec with emergency relief supplies. Within a week, the SAF had despatched 12 helicopters to both Thailand and Indonesia. In the following few weeks, the RSAF's Chinook and Super Puma helicopters, together with C-130, Fokker 50 and KC-135 transport aircraft, flew a total of 690 missions carrying more than 600,000 kilograms of cargo and ferrying some 4,000 people.

Besides the deployment of SAF's aircraft and LSTs, a Mobile Air Traffic Control tower was also deployed to Banda Aceh's Sultan Iskandar Muda Airport. This helped to alleviate congestion due to the heavy air traffic that confronted the local airport. The RSAF also provided air traffic controllers to help manage the hectic airspace situation.

The key challenge of the HADR operation was to provide the needed aid and relief to locals and the government when and where it was required. To this end, the familiarity with the TNI, which was built up over many years, played a big part in facilitating the smooth and effective execution of the HADR efforts. Through the conduct of these intense operations, even stronger bonds of co-operation and friendship were formed between the SAF and the TNI on one hand, and between the two nations on the other. Much respect and trust were also established between the SAF and the locals who received the much needed aid.

Other challenges were also encountered in the course of the conduct of these missions. While skill sets developed in peacetime training could be applied to the actual operations, the conduct of these operations in an unfamiliar territory, following the devastation by the tsunami, required the crew to be nimble and adaptive, in situations such as the preparation of the helicopter landing sites. Another example of innovation was in the deconfliction of the use of the congested airspace, whereby our air planners, working with our TNI counterparts, recommended that helicopters flying south from Banda Aceh to Meulaboh fly over the sea at even altitudes while helicopters making the return trip were to fly overland at odd heights. Yet another challenge was the conduct of operations in the environment of the UN, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and the civilian population, to achieve a non-military objective. This required our crew to be culturally sensitive and understand the dynamics of such an international and non-military setting.

PSO Case Study: RSAF's Participation in Timor Leste

The RSAF conducted the first helicopter detachment in support of UN missions in 1993 under the mission of United Nations Transitional Administration in Cambodia (UNTAC) in support of the Cambodian elections. Four Super Puma helicopters and sixty-five servicemen were deployed to Cambodia for one month in May 1993. The detachment provided transport for the election officials, ballot boxes and medical casualties and also conducted aerial policing for UNTAC.

Working with NGOs, like the Singapore Red Cross during Operation Flying Eagle in Aceh, require exposure and training.
Working with NGOs, like the Singapore Red Cross during Operation Flying Eagle in Aceh, require exposure and training.
More recently, RSAF supported the UN mission in Timor Leste with a detachment of four UH-1H helicopters under UNMISET. Following the 30 Aug 99 "popular consultation" in which the East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia, the situation in East Timor (now called Timor Leste) deteriorated very quickly with a significant increase in militia activities. This prompted the UN to authorise the Australian-led International Force in Timor Leste (INTERFET), which transited to the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) in Oct 1999 and its successor mission, the UN Mission of Support in Timor Leste (UNMISET), in May 2002. In Oct 2002, an RSAF detachment of four UH-1H helicopters was deployed to provide UNMISET with an air lift capability for one year.

Similar to the case of OFE, the conduct of operations in a pseudo - civilian setting to achieve peaceful objectives posed some challenges and required some adjustments in the training for such operations. RSAF personnel had to understand the way the various foreign forces and non-military agencies operate, and the operational and cultural differences among them. The detachments also had to learn to adapt to the local operating environment. Additionally, the lines of command and control in PSOs may be dynamic to cater to the operational needs in-theatre. A case in point was that the helicopter detachment, which was situated in Suai, supported missions directed by both the parent Sector Control, and also the Peacekeeping Force (PKF) HQ situated in the capital Dili. Commanders had to be aware of the needs and be able to meet the various requirements of both the Sector Control and PKF HQ. A good understanding of the myraid of organisations participating in such missions and command/control issues is important to ensure mission effectiveness.

Tackling the Operational Challenges of OOTW

Managing conventional training and OOTW

Through participation in PSO and HADR operations, our personnel were able to interact with personnel from other countries and learn about different cultures and operating environments. At the political level, it allowed Singapore to contribute in the international arena and widened our policy space in the region and beyond.

Having considered the key observations from both PSO and HADR operations, and against the backdrop of the increase in OOTW operational demands, it is important that the RSAF build upon these lessons learnt to better equip itself for future missions of such nature. While the RSAF's primary mission is to deter, fight and win wars, there is also a need to be prepared for OOTW. To enhance effectiveness in OOTW, the RSAF would need to strengthen our ability to address the operational and defence relations challenges associated with OOTW.

Given the finite resources1 available to the RSAF, there is a need to manage between OOTW and conventional operations. This challenge may become a regular feature of RSAF operations, as OOTW becomes a part of the full-spectrum of operations that the 3rd Generation RSAF will be expected to fulfill. Although some may observe that the build up of our operational capabilities could be used to undertake OOTW operations and the conduct of OOTW could contribute to operational readiness, there are fundamental differences between the two and it should be acknowledged that training cannot be fully commonalised. For example, the missions flown in OOTW are typically limited to a few types (for heli HADR, this includes troop lift and underslung ops), which is only a portion of the entire spectrum of conventional operational capability. There is a need to maintain close oversight on the level of training proficiency to avoid dilution in overall competencies.

Reviewing Organisational Structure

In view of the challenges of maintaining operational readiness through conventional training, as well as participating in OOTW, there is a need to ensure proper focus in both these areas. In addition, the recent OOTW operations showed that command and control of the deployed units is vital. Linkages between the deployed units and the backend support are absolutely crucial for safe and effective operations. Hence, an integrated high readiness operational entity would be useful to provide better planning-control-execution synergy especially in the case of OOTW missions. The newly formed Air Defence and Operations Command (ADOC) will serve these functions. During OOTW, the command and control structure under a Joint Task Force concept may be different from the wartime structure that our people are used to. Hence, they must be clear and familiar with the different structures so that the OODA loop remains tight.

Reviewing Training

In any form of operation, even OOTW, there is a need to ensure that our personnel are properly trained in executing the mission well in-theatre and able to assist the host country in a positive manner.

Two aspects of training exist - internal and external. Internal training refers to how the RSAF prepares itself for OOTW operations, as compared with normal peacetime conventional training. While OOTW operations are not completely alien to the RSAF, there is a need to sharpen the knowledge and skills of our people in this area. While the core skills remains largely the same, our people must be knowledgable in the application of such military capabilities in the civilian context and cognisant of the impact of such activities to civilian life. Internal seminars can transmit the experience gained from previous OOTWs to the wider RSAF audience to educate them on the conditions, improvisions and decisions that are part and parcel of OOTW. Additionally, emphasis on uncertainty training in the RSAF would also be important. Not only would it be useful to respond to changing scenarios during war, it is also necessary for effective adaptation to new environments during OOTW. Understanding the higher intent also plays a key role towards handling uncertainties and more importantly, to achieve the strategic objective of the mission. In this regard, there is a need to develop the policy instincts of our people in order to perform the role of the "strategic corporal" more effectively.

External training refers to the establishment of linkages with foreign forces and agencies. This could take the form of subscribing to overseas command and staff courses, joint courses and seminars, and participating in multi-lateral exercises, so as to enhance our understanding of their culture and the intricacies with which they operate. Additionally, external training would also involve the education of our troops with a basic appreciation of the "rules of engagement" and considerations for civilian issues. Apart from that, our troops, especially commanders, need to be sufficiently equipped to be able to navigate through the myriad of governmental and non-governmental agencies, UN, local and international non-profit relief organizations, and finally local and international media. One does not acquire such knowledge and skills without exposure and training. In this regard, RSAF's participation in multilateral PSO exercises, such as Cobra Gold series, helps to elevate our knowledge in this domain.
Enhancing Knowledge Management

Given the vast amount of knowledge required for such operations, coupled with the rapid transition of officers within the SAF, the challenge of knowledge retention will naturally arise. This aspect of knowledge management (KM) needs to be carefully managed, so as to ensure that mistakes are not repeated and there is a repository of information for the training of our people. Setting up Communities of Practice and incorporating other Organisational Learning tools and techniques are possible ways for such knowledge and lessons learnt to be retained within the organisation. This KM process has already begun with the numerous learning and KM initiatives within the SAF, the setting up of an online knowledge portal as well as the promulgation of the OOTW Manual. These tools must allow rapid utilisation and comprehension by officers being activated for OOTW at short notice.

Our OFE experience showed that the KM system was able to progressively capture, document and then share the relevant knowledge with the relevant people at the right time. Archives of past events and knowledge/capabilities also enabled the more effective conduct of After Action Review (AAR) for improvements and rapid development and deployment of new innovative solutions.

Apart from IT initiatives, some "OOTW veterans" could also be identified to impart their real life experiences, and to leverage on their established network of contacts to enhance KM.

Capitalising on both IT systems and people, such an approach will allow the creation and retention of deep domain knowledge, as well as the accumulation and sharing of tacit and experiential knowledge of our people.
Operating in a foreign country requires the respect for cultural sensitivities.
Tackling the Defence Relations Challenges of OOTW

The RSAF has thus far built up a strong and capable fighting force, well suited for its conventional military roles. In OOTW, however, our people have to contend with the sensitivities and cultures of other nations in light of the application of military capabilities in a civilian setting. There is a need to adequately equip our personnel to handle these challenges.

Understanding the local culture - High Culture Quotient Needed

Probably the greatest challenge faced by our forces operating in a foreign country is the respect for cultural sensitivities. The Air Force has numerous permanent and periodic detachments in many parts of the world. These detachments provide not only excellent training but also afford the opportunity to build up the cultural quotient of our people. Our recent success in OFE has underscored the fact that our understanding of the local Indonesian culture and ability to speak their language were key enablers of tighter interoperability. They were crucial in facilitating our effective contribution to the relief effort and in allowing us to play a useful interlocutor role between the Indonesian and other foreign agencies. Consequently, it is necessary to educate and equip our war-fighters with a higher degree of cultural quotient, especially in the cultures of our neighbours, and knowledge of the attendant sensitivities and nuances. One specific example is that the Indonesian locals preferred to see us with physical eye contact and not behind the cover of sunshades. Hence, it became an unwritten guideline during OFE not to wear sunglasses when working alongside them. Such tacit knowledge entails investing resources and effort to understand the cultural sensitivities, learn the language and foster cross-cultural friendship building.

To this end, prior to deploying for overseas missions, our personnel need to be mindful of the cultural sensitivities in the area of operations. Where possible, culture immersion programmes should be organised and basic language training provided. To facilitate a quick response to OOTW, a core group of commanders, who are ready to go at a moment's notice, could be pre-identified and pre-training considered for them. In addition, briefings and educational booklets would be helpful to prepare the personnel and serve as quick guides in-theatre. Such materials could be prepared during peacetime, ready for dissemination when needed.

Maintaining contact through community work

In the course of our detachments in the various parts of the world, we need to build up positive and harmonious relationships with our hosts and the general public. Activities can be arranged to foster a better understanding of the RSAF and the SAF. For example, an open house or some form of visits to our detachments can provide an insight into our operations and culture. Projects to reach out to the local communities, for example volunteer services, school projects, etc., could also reinforce better understanding of both cultures and people.

Ability to work with foreign media

Media operations is one aspect of OOTW that military commanders can expect to be confronted with. Recent advances in technology have enabled the media to report "live" from many places. This increases the likelihood that our ground commanders will be expected to give periodic updates on the work being carried out. Thus, besides performing the tasks at hand, our scope of professionalism has been expanded to include how well we communicate to the media and the public at large. Media training would be necessary to equip our commanders with the ability to work with the foreign media when the occasions arise and enhance public relations.

Taken as a whole, understanding the local culture, maintaining contact through community work, and enhancing the ability to work with the media would help to improve the cultural quotient of our deployed personnel and enhance their ability to act as good ambassadors of the country.


The geo-political situation of the world today suggests that conventional armed forces will be periodically called upon to participate in OOTW overseas. Singapore, and the RSAF, as a responsible member of the international community, had contributed in this regard. Through the successful conduct of OOTW, the RSAF has contributed to the strengthening of defence diplomacy by reinforcing the understanding between militaries as we worked towards a common goal. However, the challenges that may arise as a result of RSAF's participation in OOTW, would have to be properly managed to ensure that the RSAF can contribute in a manner useful to the host country. To this end, there is a need to enhance our competencies in both operational and defence relations aspects to bring about successful outcomes whenever the RSAF participates in OOTW.


1 Resources include time, money, manpower, equipment, etc.
LTC Yeong Chee Meng is currently a Branch Head in Joint Plans and Transformation Department. A Weapon Systems Officer (ADA) by training, he was formerly a Branch Head in Air Manpower Department and a Battery Commander in 3 DA Battalion. LTC Yeong is a SAF Merit Scholar and a recipient of the SAF Postgraduate Scholarship. He holds a Bachelor of Engineering (First Class Honours) in Aeronautical Engineering from University of Manchester, U.K., and a Master of Science (Management) from Naval Postgraduate School, USA.
MAJ Aaron Tan is currently an Officer Commanding in Air Logistics Squadron, Sembawang Air Base. An Air Engineering Officer by training, he was formerly a Project Lead in DSTA and an Offi cer-in-Charge in Air Logistics Squadron, Sembawang Air Base. MAJ Tan is a SAF Merit Scholar, and he holds a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Imperial College, University of London, U.K.
MAJ Dean Tan is currently a Section Head in HQ RSAF. A pilot by training, he was formerly a Squadron Pilot in 143 Squadron. MAJ Tan is a SAF Merit Scholar, and he holds two Bachelor of Science Degrees in Engineering and Economics respectively from University of Pennsylvania, USA.
CPT Jerediah Ong is currently an Offi cer-in-Charge in Air Logistics Squadron, Tengah Air Base. An Air Engineering Officer by training, he was formerly a Staff Officer in Air Logistics Department. CPT Ong is a SAF Merit Scholar, and he holds a Master of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell University, USA.
Last updated on 24 Apr 2010
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