Assoc Prof Jamus Jerome Lim: To ask the Minister for Defence whether the operational readiness of the RSAF will be significantly compromised if sorties taking off from Paya Lebar Airbase are clustered into a small number of windows within the day, even if the duration of each window will be relatively longer.
Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen:
As a small country with no strategic depth, it is critical for Singapore's survival to maintain a capable and operationally-ready RSAF. Without this crucial deterrence, Singapore's national defences can easily be compromised and with potentially catastrophic consequences. Our own history demonstrates and reminds us of this existential vulnerability. Within hours after Japanese forces invaded Peninsula Malaysia in 1941, General Yamashita sent an air raid over Singapore – 17 planes were involved. With air superiority established, Japanese forces advanced swiftly down and reached Singapore within days. The British forces had to retreat into Singapore and blew up the causeway to slow down the Japanese assault. But without an airforce then to protect our skies, residents on our island were still at the mercy of bombs that fell from Japanese fighter planes. The death and destruction that ensued was horrendous. As one survivor, Mr Conceicao, who was 17 years old at that time, vividly recalled “we saw hands, heads maybe, legs and parts of the human body lying about…this affected us throughout the course of the war and our life".
That we have a capable RSAF today able to defend our skies is taken for granted. It's a virtuous state of affairs, but one that can slip if ever the capabilities of our pilots and planes degrade. And to keep up their skills, RSAF pilots need to train adequately. We recognise the inconvenience and disruption to residents here. MINDEF/SAF has done as much as we can to keep the RSAF training tempo locally to essential levels and activity. Let me elaborate.
The RSAF has reduced its local training as far as possible. About half of actual flying training occurs overseas in countries that are willing to provide us those opportunities. On one of my visits to Luke Air base, where our F16s pilots train, I hosted the mayor and residents of the surrounding town to an appreciation lunch. I thanked the mayor for their support and understanding for our fighter detachment's training there, especially to tolerate the noise, just as our resident here do. He smiled, and replied, “it's the sound of freedom." Singapore is thankful that we have our good friends and partners in many countries who support our defence efforts.
Even for local training, a significant proportion is done through simulators. During actual flying, the RSAF has introduced measures to reduce the noise. First, most of the local flying is conducted over waters rather than land, and avoiding residential areas except during take-off, landing and transit to and from training areas. To illustrate, the northern end of the runway at Paya Lebar Air Base is approximately six kilometres from our territorial boundary. The fighter pilots have mere seconds after take-off to bank a sharp left in order to keep within our territorial airspace.
Sorties taking off from Paya Lebar Air Base and Tengah Air Base are already clustered where possible, in multiple groups, even when smaller number of aircraft are involved.
In addition to these routine measures, the RSAF does adjust its training tempo to accommodate sensitive periods. When national school examinations are held, the frequency of flights are reduced and night flying activities end earlier. During this COVID-19 pandemic where more residents are working and studying from home, the RSAF has kept the level of local flying activities to the minimum needed to maintain operational readiness. Flying is also spread across the week and on selected weekends.
This regular training both locally and overseas keep the RSAF sharp and able to protect us well. It's not against theoretical or imagined threats. Since the 9/11 twin tower attacks in Manhattan, the RSAF has put its pilots and Ground Based Air Defence systems on alert. On any given year, the RSAF responds to more than 350 suspicious air threats. In June last year for instance, there was a bomb threat on an inbound Scoot flight. Our fighters were scrambled and took to the skies within minutes to intercept the aircraft and escorted it back to Changi Airport. That case was reported in the news; many more go unreported for a variety of reasons.
This state of high operational readiness of the RSAF is only possible with regular and realistic training. I thank Singaporeans for their continued support to maintain an operationally ready and capable RSAF.