Since 2005, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) has been steadily reinventing itself as a ‘third generation’ force in accordance with an overarching Singaporean Armed Forces vision. This long-term, carefully planned approach reflects Singapore’s understanding that as a small city-state it is always potentially vulnerable to coercive diplomacy whether by neighbouring states or more distant great powers.
To counter this, since independence in 1967 the country has placed great emphasis on maintaining strong, competent armed forces irrespective of whether the strategic environment is threatening or not.
The ‘first generation’ RSAF (1967-1985) focussed on being able to defend Singapore island from air threats. Some equipment like the Bloodhound surface-to-air missile (SAM) system was inherited from the British. Others like new F-5s and refurbished Hunter fighters and Skyhawk attack aircraft were acquired.
This first generation RSAF was constructed in accordance with a so-called ‘poisonous shrimp’ deterrence strategy. First President Lee Kuan Yew thought that while Singapore might be small and vulnerable, the armed forces should be able to credibly threaten any larger opponents with a great deal of pain if consumed.
The ‘second generation’ RSAF (1985-2005) moved beyond air defence to focus on being able to gain battlefield air superiority. The RSAF was now to be part of a joint force, protecting land and maritime units from hostile air threats. F-16 A/B fighters, E-2 AEW&C aircraft and I-Hawk SAMs were acquired and the Skyhawks further upgraded.
The deterrence strategy analogy changed as being a ‘shrimp’ seemed to accept defeat as inevitable in any conflict. Now the RSAF was to be part of a ‘porcupine’ strategy that could keep an attacker at arms length.
Today’s ‘third generation’ RSAF (2006-2030?) is intent on becoming a high technology, networked force fully integrated with land and maritime units. This joint and integrated force will seamlessly exchange information across extensive digital networks, gaining information superiority and making tactical decisions faster than an adversary. The deterrence strategy analogy has changed to reflect this; now being likened to a ‘dolphin’ where having speed, agility and intelligence are crucial to driving off attackers.
The ‘dolphin’ deterrence strategy fits within an overarching national security strategy called ‘Total Defence’. This larger grand strategy is needed because firstly, Singapore’s small population cannot sustain a large full-time force so all male Singaporean citizens must undertake two years of national service in the armed forces, police or emergency services; and secondly, security today involves non-conventional threats requiring a multi-dimensional response.