Transcript of speech delivered by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the RSAF50 Parade at Tengah Airbase on 1 September 2018.
Chief of the RSAF, distinguished guests and friends from ASEAN, airmen and airwomen, past and present, ladies and gentlemen, a very good morning! Today, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) celebrates its 50th birthday.
30 years ago, I had the privilege of celebrating your 20th anniversary with you, at Paya Lebar Air Base. Today, I am very honoured to be at Tengah Air Base and to be here with all of you, including several former Chiefs of the RSAF, to celebrate your Golden Jubilee.
Looking Back – the RSAF’s Growth and Transformation
The RSAF has come a long way from your modest beginnings.
You started off as the Singapore Air Defence Command (SADC) exactly 50 years ago, 1 September 1968. The Command was set up with great urgency, after the British Government announced that they could no longer afford to maintain a military presence East of Suez, and so were accelerating the withdrawal of British forces from Singapore.
We needed to create an air force quickly. Singapore was and still is a small country with no strategic depth. We have no room to fall back, to trade space for time, or to regroup in the event of an attack. An effective air force would be our first line of deterrence and defence.
So the pioneer officers began to build the SADC from scratch. The “SADC HQ” was one cubicle in the Ministry of the Interior and Defence, shared by two officers and one clerk. The two Cessna aircraft used for basic flight training were borrowed from the Singapore Flying Club. Eight Alouette III helicopters arrived later to form 120 Squadron – our first operational unit – with only ten servicemen: four pilots and six technicians. We also bought second-hand aircraft like the Hawker Hunter jet fighters from the British.
What our Pioneers lacked in resources and manpower, they more than made up for with their passion and determination. Many servicemen went overseas for training with our partners under the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA). Being so short-handed, officers had to pull long shifts and to pitch in to do daily air base maintenance tasks: painting runway markings by hand, manually lighting the “goosenecks” – the kerosene tins used to mark runways at night.
I would like to thank all the pioneer servicemen and servicewomen who are here for your dedication and sacrifice. We are honoured by your presence today, and especially by the participation of a pioneer contingent in the march-past later on. Because of your efforts, by the time the bulk of the British forces withdrew from Singapore in 1971, the SADC had become a credible force. We had one squadron each of Hawker Hunter fighters, Strikemaster trainers, Alouette helicopters, and transport aircraft. When the SADC took over Tengah Air Base, where we are today, in September 1971, eight Strikemasters performed a flypast and a wing over manoeuvre, to salute and bid farewell to the departing British Royal Air Force unit. It was a memorable handover. Even more remarkable was the fact that there was no panic in Singapore. We all went on with our everyday lives. And it showed clearly that the Singapore Armed Forces, including the SADC, had built itself up into a credible force, and maintained confidence among Singaporeans.
A few years later, in 1975, the SADC was established as one of three independent services of the SAF, and renamed the Republic of Singapore Air Force.
Today, the RSAF is a professional, well-trained and well-equipped air force. We exercise with partners all over the world, including our friends in the FPDA, and ASEAN, France and the US. For example, the RSAF participates in the annual Exercise Red Flag – Nellis with the US Air Force at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. We carry out Exercise Bersama Lima, a joint exercise with the air, naval and land forces of the FPDA. We do Exercise Elang Indopura with Indonesia’s Air Force, the TNI-AU. We take these exercises seriously. We do our best to bring value, and at the same time to learn from our partners.
Of course, we also make sure that our equipment, technology and systems are up to date. As the Air Force grew, we improvised with what we had, and progressively built up and renewed our equipment. This is a continuing and unending task. It must be pursued consistently and resolutely, with adequate resources, conscious of our defence needs and the international context. We do not simply go for the most expensive and newest. But we always acquire what makes the most operational sense for us. Sometimes, we even buy second-hand equipment, such as the KC-135 air-to-air refuelling tanker aircraft. Recently, the RSAF launched the SPYDER system, the first of our Next Generation air defence systems to be integrated into our Island Defence Air Network of ground based air defence systems and radars. From 2020, we will receive the Airbus H225M Medium Lift and the Boeing CH-47F Chinook Heavy Lift Helicopters, to replace those we have had since the early 80s and 90s. Whatever we acquire, old or new, we always strive to extract maximum value from the acquisitions, by integrating them into our existing system of sensors, radars and command and control networks.
A first class air force is not just about the latest technology and equipment. It is equally, if not more, important that the RSAF upholds discipline, team work and commitment, core values which our pioneer officers embodied and passed on. The RSAF must continue to attract men and women with the right heart and spirit. Serving in it requires a deep sense of commitment to the nation. Often, your missions and training take you to faraway places, or require you to be active day and night. Many of you are separated from families for extended periods of time. And there are extraordinary circumstances which require officers to answer to the call of duty at short notice, such as the recent DPRK and US Summit in Singapore.
The RSAF showed the world during the Summit that you are operationally ready. You were tasked to defend our skies by forming a protective “dome” over Singapore. You had at any one time, more than 20 aircraft in the air or ready to take off at a moment’s notice; there were more than 10 ground-based air defence systems standing guard, and unmanned aerial vehicles on standby, and some flying. This was a live operation, not a dry exercise. It was a complex task which required close coordination with the SAF, with the Home Team, and foreign aircraft and assets too – in the military jargon, it was both a joint and a combined operation. We only had two weeks to prepare for it. Many of you had to cancel leave plans and forfeit vacation bookings. But you stepped up to the challenge, and showed Singapore and the world your capabilities and dedication.
Over the last 50 years, the RSAF has helped to keep the peace, and has done well.
Ultimately, the RSAF’s success is not measured by the number of battles it has won, but by the peace that you have guarded and maintained – day in, day out, year after year. Because every day of peace that Singapore enjoys is a testament to the effectiveness of our deterrence, our diplomacy, and our defence.
On behalf of all Singaporeans, I would like to say a personal thank you to all the RSAF servicemen and servicewomen, past and present, for your commitment and contributions to keeping Singapore’s skies and our region safe. I would also like to thank your families who have supported you, and cheered for you as you fulfilled your duty to Singapore – Our Home Above All.
I wish you all a very happy birthday on your 50th anniversary. May you continue to soar to greater heights! Thank you.
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