Monday, September 2, 2013

National Day Rally announcement on the closure of Paya Lebar Air Base: A note to our future Chief of Air Force

Most blog postings address a wider audience.

This one has been written for just one individual currently commissioned as a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) officer, possibly in the late 20s age bracket, almost surely a scholar holding the rank of Captain 1 or Captain 2 or a newly-minted Major, whose personal ability, future potential and track record will make him or - and I say this with full conviction, her - the RSAF's Chief of Air Force (CAF) in the Year 2030.

CAF 2030 will preside over the drawdown of Paya Lebar Air Base (PLAB) 17 years from today.

The project will involve the relocation of fighter and transport squadrons resident at PLAB, specialised RSAF squadrons plus mission critical defence infrastructure like the munitions dump, to a new airbase built on reclaimed land outside the present Changi Naval Base (CNB).

To the officer destined to be RSAF Chief of Air Force in the Year 2030:
As a young officer, the 17 years of lead time before PLAB units move to the new Changi Air Base (East) may seem like a long and comfortable time horizon.

In reality, that lead time will give your present HQ RSAF just ample time to help shape perceptions as the Air Force you will one day lead takes on its biggest effort to move house.

Even as you trust that the organisation knows how to plan for the future, your career trajectory in coming years should keep in mind the need for, and importance of, shaping perceptions of your internal and external audience. These thought-drivers are intended to help you understand the situation better:

1. We are guessing, but the announcement made during the National Day Rally 2013 may have been preceded by years of planning by HQ RSAF. Indeed, the RSAF officer who could be most familiar with the genesis of PLAB's closure may be your current Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant-General Ng Chee Meng.

You may, someday, like to acquaint yourself with the project LG Ng helmed when he was Head Air Plans which touched on this topic and investigated the downstream repercussions on RSAF mission readiness in some detail.

This was back in the late 1990s. Yes, your Air Force plans long term. So should you because your predecessors set the bar high.

2. Armed with the background and strategic justification behind the proposal, you should be better able to articulate why PLAB's closure is in Singapore's national interest to two main audience groups.

These are:
a) Your internal audience, which comprises several subsets:
i) RSAF personnel who need to be convinced that the Air Force's operational readiness is not compromised.

ii) Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel from the other Services who need similar assurance, knowing that these individuals (unlike RSAF personnel) will assess the situation without baseline knowledge of air ops. In the case of some army or navy personnel who work in silos even in 2030, poor awareness of the Air Force will make speaking to them as challenging as reaching out to civilians. This means your internal comms plan must be crafted with asymmetry of domain knowledge in mind.

b) Your external audience comprises Singapore residents outside MINDEF/SAF, who are the target audience for activities which foster Commitment to Defence.

Remember that by 2030, Singapore's aerospace sector would have risen to new heights, thanks to the enlarged Changi Airport and supporting industries.The challenge of attracting young Singaporeans to join the RSAF will make it imperative that youngsters in 2030 view the RSAF as a credible, First Class Air Force and therefore, an employer of choice. You would appreciate that these points are not mutually exclusive. Building mindshare that the optimisation of land use at a higher, national level, will not compromise lower level interests (i.e. force generation by RSAF 2030) will take a sustained, strategic public relations campaign. But more on that later.

c) The foreign audience - our friends and frenemies - will attempt to draw inferences from PLAB's impending closure to assess how it may affect their country's national interests and defence posture. They too need to understand that the ability of RSAF 2030 to generate and sustain air power needed to shape and dominate the future battlefield through decisive capability overmatch will remain unruffled with the PLAB drawdown. This aspect must be handled astutely or Singapore's deterrence posture may be compromised.

3. Help the RSAF maximise positive PR mileage from the drawdown. Our Air Force's tireless effort to put Singapore's interests first are poorly appreciated by Singaporeans. Even before Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the RSAF would give up PLAB for national development, Air Force planners had contributed to better land use by releasing the TACAN height template from PLAB to Changi Air Base, thereby allowing taller commercial buildings to dominate the skyline in the Central Business District and in Marina South. This was because the TACAN template's relocation from PLAB removed height restrictions that previously shackled land use optimisation.

TACAN is not easy to explain. The PLAB closure will be visually more impactful, easier to see. But plan your PR campaign in totality so as not to short change HQ RSAF. This means you must be self-aware, so start by asking the right questions as a young officer.

4. With forward planning - of which RSAF has demonstrated (see S/no. 1 and 3 above) - the ability of RSAF 2030 to have resilient base infrastructure that can soak up an initial first strike and respond in full measure should be beyond doubt.

The guiding principles for protecting air power include elements such as camouflage, concealment, passive defences and dispersion. We are guessing that this led to the 1st Gen and 2nd Gen RSAF having around 40 air platforms per base from the total strength of around 200 air platforms across five principal airbases. As the number of air platforms (manned) falls in the 3rd Gen RSAF, that dispersal ratio will still hold even with four principal bases.

Keeping our air assets dispersed while improved ground sensors and reconnaissance assets in LEO adds to our sense-making ability that should give the RSAF a level of early warning unimagined in today's context.

Bear in mind RSAF 2030 should be able to call upon passive (earthworks and hardened structures) as well as active defences. The latter buys the RSAF time to respond and should contribute immeasurably to the survivability of base infrastructure. Make the effort to understand GBAD in some detail, particularly active defence technology, even though you may wear a pilot's wings.

And as defence science matures, the possibility that RSAF strike packages may one day combine manned fighters with UCAVs, which are less runway dependent, should serve as interesting food for thought. Bear these points in mind as you work towards earning your first "star".

5. Use that head start wisely. The full-time National Servicemen who will enlist in 2030 at age 18 were born last year. This leaves you with an enviable advantage if a strategic PR campaign is planned and phased in at intended intervals.

For instance, your colleagues should recommend touchpoints at primary, secondary and JC level/polytechnic which aim to build-up the future NSF's domain knowledge of the RSAF. This can be done incrementally as the student progresses through Singapore's school system. Students are a captive audience which are a PR professional's dream. If the campaign plan is applied intelligently, the NSFs of 2030 should enlist fully aware that the SAF they serve has an Air Force which is at the top of its game - with or without PLAB.

Likewise, outreach for NSmen and future enlistees can be tiered and initiated at strategic time intervals well before the PLAB drawdown so that in 17 years' time, the narrative can be elevated to a higher level of discussion and not remain mired in the five cents/10 cents issues of whether the RSAF did the right thing.

Check Six!


Anonymous said...

Locating the airbase next to a naval base, doesn't that make it easier to take out 2 targets at the same time with a single rocket, missile barrage ?

Is it tactically sound to put 2 eggs close together ?

Of course, the closeness of the airbase means it also provides anti-air support for the naval base, but it still makes it a 2-in-1 target.

Anonymous said...

We are going to upgrade to F35 and have to plan for the future 6th generation stealth fighters.

Anonymous said...

Off topic. I just want to know the life span of our kevlar helmets.
The helmet we are issued in BMT is expected to last 2 years in NSF, about 10 years in reservist unit and another 10 years in Mindef reserve.

Most online sources say that kevlar is warranted for 5 years but effectiveness is reduced by heat, moisture and humidity (for example, rain and sweat) because these cause the kevlar fibres to break down. Do a search. You will find that US police departments regularly replace their helmets and some in hot climates found that the effective life was shorter.

Anonymous said...

If moving Airbases is going to be so consuming effort for new CAF shouldn't the next office holder be drawn from Air Power Generation Command?

Anonymous said...

With so many tunneling machines in Singapore, CAB shud include underground hardened storage ,aircraft parking , command facilities. These can extend far beyond the actual base itself Maybe use of aircraft elevators like in aircraft carriers will be useful. Also shud include many dummy / decoy targets both above and below ground to keep frenemies guessing. Integrated AF / Army / Navy massive response to any attack on CAB shud be part of scenario planning

Anonymous said...

This is just shocking.