It was recently reported that New Zealand and Singapore are conducting a feasibility study into basing F-15SG multi-role fighters at Ohakea Air Base, on North Island. If the proposal succeeds, up to 500 Singaporean personnel would be stationed at Ohakea to support a detachment, if not a full squadron, of Singapore’s most potent combat aircraft.
The proposal, though still nascent, neatly captures a historical power shift. As noted by IISS-Asia Director Tim Huxley on Twitter, when Singapore became independent in 1965, Canberra bombers from New Zealand’s Air Force were defending the fledgling city state against the ongoing Confrontation from Sukarno’s Indonesia. Singapore had to acquire its own army, navy and air force practically from scratch.
New Zealand kept an army battalion on the island until 1989, the last of the Commonwealth powers to leave. Its navy still plays a logistical role, with Britain’s Royal Navy, in supplying fuel to the US Navy from Singapore, while a New Zealand Naval Task Group will sail there to take part in a Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) exercise this April. Yet half a century later, how the tables have turned in the air domain. New Zealand, with neither bombers nor fast jets in its air inventory, is now vying to host F-15s in service with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).
When Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee was asked if the initiative could spur New Zealand to re-establish an air combat arm, his blunt answer was 'definitely not'. It would be an exaggeration to say that New Zealand’s most prized air assets are an under-utilised airfield and empty skies, but it would not be inaccurate in the Singaporean context.
Singapore, by contrast, now possesses by far the most formidable air force in Southeast Asia. The RSAF will soon complete delivery of 40 F-15SGs on order from the US, formed into two Singapore-based squadrons, out of five fighter/ground attack squadrons in total. Some RSAF F-15SGs are based in Idaho for joint training with the US, and it is unlikely this arrangement would be affected if the New Zealand proposal eventuates.
Chronically short of space, Singapore has a web of overseas military training arrangements in place, conducting its basic flight training in Australia and advanced jet training in France. It is also looking to conduct training in Guam. The most significant of these arrangements is with Australia, poised for a major expansion under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), as I wrote about in depth last year. Singapore’s army already trains in New Zealand under a 2009 Defence Cooperation Arrangement, centering on artillery live-firing at the Waiouru Training Area. Although Ohakea lacks nearby instrumented weapons ranges, access to unrestricted airspace, over land and water, would potentially enable the RSAF’s F-15SG pilots to hone their skills in maritime strike missions, as well as the F-15’s better-known air superiority role.
It is unlikely that New Zealand was Singapore’s first choice for basing F-15s overseas. RAAF Darwin was probably the preferred location. That would have given Singapore access to the nearby Delamere Air Weapons Range, and an easier pathway to interact with Singaporean units training in northern Queensland during two large-scale annual field exercises that will involve up to 14,000 personnel. Darwin would also be a better geographical fit for Singapore than Ohakea, being within ferry range for the F-15SG. Ohakea is more than double the distance, requiring refueling en route. The RSAF could employ its aerial tankers for this purpose in emergency. Otherwise, staging F-15s through Northern Australia to and from New Zealand could potentially offer the RSAF the best of both worlds from a training perspective. Singaporean F-15s are no stranger to the Northern Territory, as regular participants in the biennial Pitch Black exercise.
Air combat training was discussed between Australia and Singapore during the CSP negotiations, but is not currently part of the expanded defence relationship.
One factor may have been noise, an existing issue for fast-jet operations at Darwin. Although RAAF Bases Darwin, Tindal and other defence facilities in Northern Australia are being modernised, capacity may have been another constraint on the RSAF option, because the RAAF’s basing infrastructure must accommodate not only Australia’s scaled-up air fleet but also an enhanced US Air Force and US Marine Corps aerial presence under the Alliance Force Posture Initiative.
As an indicator of the RSAF’s interest in trying out the concept, a pair of F-15SGs were at Ohakea this week for New Zealand’s air tattoo. More substantively, the two defence ministers met in January and agreed to meet annually. Singapore’s defence chief then visited Ohakea in February. A joint statement released by the defence ministers sent a clear signal of intensified defence relations to come. In a personal statement, Minister Brownlee went as far as to flatter Singapore as 'New Zealand’s closest defence partner in Southeast Asia'. Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper only describes the city state as Canberra’s 'most advanced' defence partner in the sub-region.
So, is Brownlee’s description of the partnership as a 'strategic alliance' justified? While Singaporean F-15s based in New Zealand would certainly elevate the defence relationship to a new level, caution is needed in applying the 'strategic' label to tactical take-aways for the RSAF. A strategic case can be made for the kind of geographical depth that New Zealand and Australia offer a vulnerable city state like Singapore. But Brownlee was also clear that Ohakea 'would be a Singapore operation entirely'.
While both capitals are keen to couch the bilateral defence relationship in the broader context of the FPDA and ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus framework, a basing agreement without a substantial bilateral training component (as is the case with the Australia-Singapore CSP) does not meet the threshold of 'strategic' cooperation, however capable the F-15SG is as an air dominance platform. As was the case 50 years ago, the plain geo-strategic fact is that substance of defence cooperation counts for much more in Southeast Asia than it does in New Zealand.