Singapore has air bases in four different continents. Despite its small size, the country maintains an impressive military presence.
By John Pennington
Singapore may soon gain the use of an air base in New Zealand. With bases already in Singapore, Australia, France and the United States, the city-state’s military aviation prowess is impressive – and it continues to grow.
Singapore spends an estimated 3.4% of its gross domestic product on defence, equating to US$9.7 billion in 2016. While Singapore ranks sixth among all Southeast countries concerning the number of aircraft it has, those numbers do not tell the whole story. According to Flightglobal, the country has a well trained, well run and well-equipped air force, arguably the best in Southeast Asia.
Indeed, vast numbers do not necessarily equate to power or strength. While Singapore’s population is much smaller than every other Southeast nation, its air force is formidable. The F-15 jets the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) has are only sold by the US to them, Israel, Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. The country is renowned for its military precision and proper training.
Singapore has always felt the need to maintain a strong military presence amid geopolitical tensions and threats from abroad. “There’s a saying that the stronger you are, the fewer enemies you have, and I think that’s true,” Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng He said. “Compared to five-to-eight years ago, I have a less tough job of convincing people that we are vulnerable. Particularly because over the last five years, our region has changed,” he added.
However, with so little space available in Singapore itself, the city-state has had to collaborate with other countries to maintain their fleet and train their pilots.
While there are bases in Singapore, the RSAF is also hosted in bases abroad.
There are already four bases in Singapore: Changi Air Base (East and West), Paya Lebar, Sembawang and Tengah. Sembawang air base houses mostly helicopter squadrons while Tengah is seen as the most important because it hosts more squadrons than the others.
Paya Lebar houses flying units and aircraft; the US Air Force and the US Navy also use the base. However, this air base will relocate from 2030. At the same time, the government has planned expansion to Changi and Tengah.
The RSAF is also hosted in bases outside of Singapore. For example, France’s Cazaux air base hosts an RSAF squadron and an M-346 training plane. Singapore also has a growing presence at US air bases including Mountain Home Air Force Base and Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.
In Australia, pilots train at Royal Australian Air Force Base Pearce and three other bases. Fighters are also sent to train in other bases in Malaysia, South Africa and Thailand, further showcasing the number and scale of strategic relationships Singapore’s Air Force has built.
New Zealand could become the latest country to have a Singaporean presence
Now, Singapore is working with New Zealand and may base some of their fighter jets there as part of a broader future military collaboration. Their existing relationship dates back to 1971 when both countries joined the Five Power Defense Arrangement (FPDA) along with Australia, Great Britain and Malaysia.
Singapore needs more room to be able to train its fighter pilots. The air bases in the country are not sufficient. Therefore it needs partners who can help provide the additional space the RSAF needs. New Zealand makes sense due to its relative proximity, its history of collaboration and cooperation, and it has space available. Both countries’ air forces can learn from each other as part of the process, and Singapore has the money to make it happen.
As New Zealand Defense Minister Mark Mitchell said, the two nations have “similar values” and “it could be a good fit”. There is a possibility that the base could become permanent, although he added, “at the moment it’s just going through a process. It’s a feasibility study.”
A similar deal last year with Australia, in Canberra, did not go as planned. Domestic concerns, including landowners who would have been forced to sell their land to make way for the expansion, prevented it from going ahead. The sort of partnerships that Singapore needs takes time to build, and although there are mutual benefits for both parties, domestic issues can be stumbling blocks.
Working with New Zealand’s government and conducting preliminary studies is a sensible approach. Neither party wants to come up against the same issues that stopped the Australia-Singapore arrangement in its tracks.
Simultaneously, Singapore is trying to expand its air bases at home
Enlargement of the Tengah base to accommodate the assets from Paya Lebar is scheduled to be finished by 2030. Closing Paya Lebar down will free up 800 hectares of room for homes, offices, factories and parks. It is one way of meeting the challenge Singapore faces due to its geographical constraints.
However, the planned expansion is not without difficulty and logistical issues. Farms and cemeteries must make way for the development, and a local road will be rerouted, despite its environmental significance.
“Government agencies have, as far as possible, tried to minimise the impact of these works, and affected stakeholders will be given advance notice to make alternative arrangements,” a joint statement by the Ministry of National Development, the National Environment Agency, and the Singapore Land Authority claimed.
Even though Tengah air base will expand significantly, it will not meet the country’s needs by itself – hence the links with other nations.
Singaporean military prowess and a change of focus
Establishing a military presence that dwarfs their neighbours was a goal when the country came into being in 1965. At the time, the threat came from Indonesia and Malaysia. Then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew wanted to make sure Singapore could defend itself against its neighbours, and even an attack from both at the same time.
Times have changed, and now the Singapore Armed Forces are focussed on shipping, terrorism and humanitarian crises. It has to protect the country’s shipping lanes and ports. It still needs a large air force to do this efficiently and to act as a deterrent to any would-be attackers.
The country simply does not have enough space for its fleet and for the amount of fighter training required to maintain its military might, therefore setting up bases and working with other air forces is essential.
Singapore cannot maintain a fleet without air bases, yet it cannot create bases at home for the fleet it needs. By spreading out the fleet and its personnel, Singapore keeps an operational air force running with bases all over the world.
Despite the geographical constraints at home, Singapore has found a way to achieve its goal of maintaining its status as one of the world’s leading air forces. It is a mighty impressive diplomatic feat.