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SGP roundelSingapore's Helicopter Assets

With Singapore recently announcing their plans for replacement of the current helicopter fleet, we look at the force’s helicopter assets through the years, culminating in the sizeable fleet that currently forms the back bone of the Participation Command. We had the unique opportunity to check the current inventory at Sembawang air base a couple of years ago.

Singapore used to be part of the Sri Vijaya Empire between the 7th and the 13th century; there is evidence that it was already used before that, as a trading post by Chinese merchants. At that point in time it was known as Temasek. It was not the only trading post in the region, most trading routes of that time went via Sumatra. However, its strategic position on the southern end of the Malaccan peninsula meant that rivalling kingdoms fought for the region and combined with the regional rise of the Islam, the trading post was subdued by the Malaccan Sultanate in the 13th century. In a short time, the fledgling trading post grew in importance until it was destroyed by the Javanese in 1377, having the population fleeing to the Malaccan mainland. Being a trade centre, it did not take long for the colonial powers of the 16th century to realize its importance and indeed the Portuguese exerted their power to gain control over Malacca in 1511, forcing the Muslim traders out. With the Dutch settling in Indonesia creating Batavia (Jakarta), they eventually took over from the Portuguese as ruler of Malacca in 1614.

The namesake of the Republic is open to some debate. The most widely accepted explanation for it is that Vijaya king Parameswara saw a beast rising from the sea and exclaimed it was a lion and therefore wanted the city to be called Singapura. This means “Lion City” in Sanskrit. However, etymologists have suggested that ‘sing’ actually means stone and that ‘stoney place’ is a more logical explanation. Either way, the proud figure of the lion has been used as the symbol of Singapore until the present day and is depicted in the roundel of the air force as well.

Turmoil in Europe during the 18th century meant that Dutch influence declined being subdued by the French, the Brits saw their chance and took over strategic Dutch posts all over southern Asia. After the Napoleonatic wars, the British Empire returned these assets to the Dutch but that was met by some resistance within the empire. Sir Thomas Raffles was one of them and he started negotiations with the Sultan of Johor, being keen on expansion of British influence in the region. When Raffles arrived in Singapore in 1819, the Sultan had died and his empire dissolved, the son of the Sultan eventually claiming power. Raffles cunningly co-opted this successor to the Sultan and provide several spoils for him, including the title of Sultan. Several other people of local importance were treated the same way. This support meant he could invest in the trading post and eventually he bought back their assets in 1824 amalgamating Singapore into the East India Company.

The Dutch and British divided the region into spheres of influence with the south Malaccan area being placed under British rule in the Straits Settlements in 1826. Raffles allowed forms of self governance for the wide variety of Chinese, Indian, European and Malaccan inhabitants. The trading post gained in importance throughout the 19th and 20th century and became a very wealthy and multi-cultural free haven. Alas, on 15 February 1942 Singapore fell victim to the Japanese invasion during the Second World War after a period of heavy bombardments that started on 8 December 1941. The Japanese launched their attack from the ill-defended land side of the island, thwarting the heavy defensive positions aimed at the seaboard.

After the liberation in September 1945, the British returned and the city became a Crown Colony on 1 April 1946. Gradually, it grew in importance and independence, the first step being the administrative self control in 1959 resulting in general elections in May of that year and signature of a constitution on 3 June 1959. This was followed by a short period as part of the Malaysian federation, after the 1 September 1962 referendum. This lasted until 1965. On 9 August 1965, after a period of tension between the Singaporese government and the Federal Malaccan government, it was ousted from the federation. On 1 September 1965 Singapore became member of the United Nations and on 12 December 1965 it declared independence. The Republic of Singapore was born.

Birth of the air force

Obviously, British influence and military presence until 1971 meant that Singapore’s national defence system was non-existant at the time. On 1 September 1968, the Singapore Air defence Command (SADC) was formed. Training aircraft were first loaned from the Singapore aero club and the Flying Training School was formed in 1969 at Tengah air base using a single Ce172H augmented in May 1969 by eight more powerful Ce172K Skyhawk aircraft. The school received BAC Strikemaster jet trainers after that.

Obviously, the British played an important role in establishing and instructing the early air force. The first jet training was in fact conducted in the UK and the graduates returned to Singapore in November 1970 to man the first fighter squadrons. Moreover, the first two jet squadrons were equipped with British jets; one with sixteen Strikemasters and four Hunters, and 140sq with sixteen Hunters.

With no British military presence anymore, a gap existed in search and rescue. This was countered by the purchase of Singapore’s first military helicopter, the Alouette III, that arrived in 1969 to equip the first helicopter squadron, 120sq. The armed forces did not solely rely on the British for advice. Help was sought and found from Israel with Israeli Defence Force advisors arriving as early as 1968. The military infrastructure left behind by the British was used to great advantage. The SADC was restructured and renamed Republic of Singapore Air Force in 1975, changing the roundel from a plain red/white/red disc into a red/white yin/yang symbol. The Royal Air Force withdrew all its assets east of the Suez between the late sixties and 1971. The bases at Singapore fell under the command of the Far East Air Force.

Participation command

The air force has long been organized along basic air base/wing/squadron lines. This might seem logical from a geographical point of view, with base commanders being responsible for everything that takes place on base and various squadrons with different tasks under one roof. However, this hampers functional cooperation between units with the same tasks, for example rapid transport units. It was focussed on ease of day-to-day control in peace time instead of rapid deployability using various assets from different units and bases. Because the Singapore air force is deployed on an ever increasing number of international missions and to incorporate modern command structures, the air force has recently made the transition to five functional commands. This is the largest reorganization since its birth in 1975. For the record, the other four commands are, Air Defence and Operations Command (ADOC), Air Combat Command (ACC), UAV Command, and Air Power Generation Command (APGC).

Although the helicopters are organized into separate squadrons they all are part of the Helicopter Group which is one of the subordinate groups under Participation Command (PC). The other groups within PC are Divisional Defende Group, Tactical Air Support Group and Operations Development Group. These groups work closely together to provide integral support and solutions for other branches of the armed forces or non-military agencies. It feels like dealing with one organization to them. The commander of the Helicopter Group directly reports to the commander PC, keeping the chain of command short. The main role of PC is to deliver effective air power with the objective to decisively influence ground and maritime battle. In practice, this basically means a “one stop shop” when air power is needed for any given operation. With this doctrine, Singapore’s air force, participation command in particular, plays a pivotal role in Singapore’s current military strategy.

An obvious question to the commander of Singapore’s participation command, Brigade General Wong Huat Sern, is how they cope with the widespread assets with helicopters on two locations in the USA and one in Australia as well. “For combined training with these assets and troops, we use the vast training grounds available in Australia. We either deploy our troops and helicopters or lend Australian Chinooks to train with our Cougars that are based there too”. Obviously, this is a complex operation in its own right but Singapore itself offers little in the way of practice space. “Moreover, we train inter-operability during many international exercises, Cope Tiger in Thailand for example”.

Each helicopter type is based at Sembawang, so mixed operations are possible to some degree in Singapore as well. We must not forget that the fighter and transport aircraft are also part of Participation Command. “This enables us to deploy any force needed under one command, minimizing planning and coordination efforts”. The general is no stranger to Sembawang, having been the base commander for about five years after which he became head of Air Operations at HQ RSAF. His last post before taking the helm at Participation Command was head of Joint Operations in the joint staff. Having seen both sides of the table he knows the planning and staff ropes as well as the day-to-day operational proceedings at an air base and specific needs of large multi-asset-operations. Although he speaks on behalf of Participation Command and diplomatically avoids giving strong personal opinions, he is obviously very proud to have this position in RSAF, nearer the real action. There is an unmistakable twinkle in his eyes when we talk about helicopter operations.




The base

The same pride and professionalism is found in our tour guide. All helicopters look very well kept and operational but the cleanest ones were presented to use for photographic use at first. “We do not want to show dirty helicopters to you”, but actually there were none! Bearing in mind that some of the Cougars are twenty years old, they look particularly immaculate. We are in luck, because there is a lot of activity with the Cougars especially, even a SAR scramble, signifying the round-the-clock character of the base’s operations. All helicopters operate out of sheds next to helipads and flight lines enabling flight line maintenance and constant availability of airframes. Each squadron has its own area and flight line. The Colibri helicopters of Seletar-based 123sq are regular visitors to Sembawang’s circuit as well.

The base has two main areas and the surrounding city gradually progresses towards the base perimeter. To get from one side to the other we actually have to leave the base gate and enter at another one because there is no room for a perimeter road on base. Compared to the very stringent security while accessing the base, registration of all electronic equipment is needed and mobile phones are to be left at base entrance, the atmosphere on base is really open and relaxed towards us. Bear in mind that Europeans toting lots of camera equipment are as rare to Sembawang’s personnel as their helicopters are to us!


Before becoming a helicopter pilot, recruits are required to follow the same route that all future RSAF pilots have ton take. This means they will start basic flying training on fixed wing aircraft at the Flying Training School before being channelled to either transport aircraft, fighters or helicopters. The helicopter pilots are also trained at Pearce, Australia in the S.211 jet trainer. So they take in about 100 fixed wing hours before transitioning to helicopters at Seletar where they will fly the EC120B Colibri for 95 hours before type conversion.

The operational conversion phase takes place at the actual unit itself, all units have a tailored curriculum aimed at the tasks needed for their specific helicopter types. This also includes advanced training such as the use of Night Vision Goggles, Search and Rescue operations and tactical helicopter operations.

The cable car rescue

One of the famous rescue operations of 120sq and indeed of all time was the rescue of thirteen people trapped in a cable car running from Sentosa island to the main island. The oil drilling ship Eniwetok was towed from Keppel Wharf but its large tower became entangled with one of the cables of the cable car system about 18.00 hours on 29 January 1983. Two cars plunged into the sea killing seven people and four were still dangling with thirteen on board in total. The RSAF rapidly deployed its Bell 212 helicopters from 120sq. In close cooperation with the fire and police services, they tried to rescue the people by lowering a cable with a hoist, which was a very demanding task given the strong winds. Moreover, the oil rig was forced more into the cable system by rising tide and strong currents and it had to be kept stable by four tugs.

The cars themselves were unstable and could easily fall into the sea. Besides that, it was dark and the whole operation had to be carried out under artificial light. After the first attempt, when he was simple blown off the cabin, the first airman of 120sq succeeded in opening the door on the second attempt and was able to rescue the first passenger. Another helicopter that was piloted by a Royal Australian Navy instructor took care of two more cabins. After a tediously slow but carefully executed operation that took most of the night, all passengers could be safely transported to the hospital. In all, the hoisting part of the operation took 3.5 hours.


Apart from the flying training the RSAF has gained a lot of knowledge from their allies around the world. Having to set up shop outside the tiny airspace of Singapore has not only been beneficial from a practical point of view for day-to-day training space but has also meant increased interoperability with other armed forces. Moreover, participation in high-end exercises, like Red Flag and Joint Readiness Training in the USA, has accelerated RSAF’s prowess to no small degree. Multinational co-operation under the flag of the Five Power Defence Arrangement with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom and regular regional exercises with Brunei, Thailand, and Indonesia, with American participation on some occasions, has made the RSAF highly adaptable to many theatres of operations and increased interoperability.

Being the most modern air force in the region means the RSAF is called upon regularly when disaster strikes or regional UN peace keeping operations are in need of support. Examples from the past are operations in Timor Leste (UNIMISET), Cambodia (UNTAC), Tsunami relief missions in Indonesia and Thailand and even disaster support in the USA.