The Red Hawks: Singapore’s Apache squadron

Chen Chuanren learns how the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s 120 Squadron has adapted its AH-64D Apache Longbow to new threats and increased integration with the army


When Singapore acquired eight Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbows in 1999 and another 12 in 2001, it was the most expensive helicopter programme in the region, worth about $1 billion at that time. The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) became the third international user of the Apache Longbow and the first in Asia-Pacific region. Fifteen years on, the RSAF Apaches from 120 Squadron ‘Red Hawks’ continue to adapt to modern-day threats and are becoming more integrated with the land forces to shape the land battle.

No.120 Squadron is based at Sembawang Air Base, which houses all RSAF helicopter units. Initially deactivated in September 2005 upon the decommissioning of the Bell UH-1H, the squadron was reactivated on June 26, 2006, after the arrival of the Apache Longbow on January 23, 2006. Today, the squadron is led by Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Eric Ng.

Concurrently, the RSAF continues to operate the Peace Vanguard (PV) detachment for its access to training opportunities and live firing area throughout the year.

Vanguard values

Based in Marana, Arizona, the PV detachment was established in 2001 with the assistance of the Arizona Army National Guard. The RSAF off cially stood up the unit on April 9, 2003, and the detachment remains the main platform for RSAF attack helicopter training, with access to year-round realistic training aids for live firing sorties and vast exercise areas around 20–25 times the size of Singapore. In comparison, the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Queensland, Australia, is about four or five times the size of Singapore and can only be utilised for around two months.

Lieutenant Colonel Ng said: “It is what we can do here [in the United States]. For example, we do our annual gunnery qualification at Boise, Idaho, where there are pop-up moving target, which trains our pilots to employ the right techniques when it comes to searching, acquiring and engaging ground targets.”

Pilots and engineers are qualified in Singapore before being sent to PV for around two years, and actively participate in various exercises in the United States, such as Green Flag East, Night Flag, Scorpion Fire and Mojave Fire, with active US Army and National Army Guard units.

Upgraded AH-64D Apache Longbow (s/n 069) participated in Exercise Wallaby for the first time this year.
Philip Munsel

Major Spencer Ler, 120 Squadron’s instructor and test pilot, said: “Training in Singapore focuses more on planning and synergy with cross services. In the US, we learn best practices, tactics, techniques and procedures, although some might not be applicable to us since they have been operating in the Middle East for the last 10 years. They have very good Joint Tactical Air Controllers [forward air controllers] and most are aviators. The way they talk you through and lead to the target is very insightful and we can appreciate what we see versus what the ground guys see, and correlate it into a 3D image in our minds. We can then share this with our local ground controllers and develop new tactics, which would be useful in a local context where there is dense vegetation.”

Ng added that a practical skill taken home was how the American Apaches conduct urban operations with their Joint Terminal Air Controller, gained from their experience in the Middle East recently. He said: “They uses gridded reference graphics to conduct strikes and the way the developed the graphics is something we thought would be good to bring back, which we did and shared with our own controllers.”

He also shared how the detachment was also tasked with acquiring and identifying the right target in a cluttered, overpopulated area near the Green Flag training area: “This skill is brought back to Singapore where there is the increasing possibility to operate in a cluttered environment.”

A key proof-of-concept exercise for RSAF’s four aircraft detachment is Exercise Forging Sabre, in which the PV detachment participates with its F-15SG, F-16C, F-16D and CH-47D counterparts. In the 2015 edition, PV’s Apaches demonstrated the ability to integrate with the Heron 1 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and fire its AGM-114K Hellfire missile, lased by the Heron 1 whilst being under the treeline. The PV will participated in this year’s exercise in the end of November.

Participation command

Between 2007 and 2008, the RSAF underwent a service-wide restructure to reshuffle from base-centric command to function-centric command. No.120 Squadron with other helicopter units is organised under the Participation Command (PC), whose main mission is to develop and deliver air power to ‘decisively influence the ground and maritime battles’.

In PC, the Operations Development Group is a dedicated branch that, as the name suggests, drives development of participation in operations; Integrated Operations Branch provides cross-reporting channels between the various services, and an Army representative sits within most of its offices. Similarly, there are also aviators in the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.

Ng said: “Now we drive the design of the exercise objective together, to determine what we wish to achieve as a system.”

The command organises exchanges with various armour regiments. Ng explained: “Our operation is to hunt and destroy armoured vehicles, so if they understand our tactics they will be able to develop tactics on their own to be more effective. It is also knowing and building the rapport with the person on the other side.” He added that they have regular forums with other army formations, including the Commandos, Artillery and the Guards, a rapid deployment unit specialising in airborne operations.

Shaping the land battle at home and aboard

A hallmark Singapore Armed Forces air-land event is the annual Exercise Wallaby held in Shoalwater Bay Training Area. The exercise was first staged as an Army manoeuvre exercise in 1990, but Apaches did not participate until 2006.

Ng said: “Wallaby used to be predominately an army exercise and air assets are support elements. Air sorties, for example strike and projection missions, used to be segregated, and live firing serials were separated by time and would be hard to see integrated firing.”

Ler added: “Especially after the restructure, it is easier to plan for exercises, as it is more holistic and warfighting hubs are in place. The planners get to understand the strengths and weaknesses of both services, which is essential as we develop new TTPs [tactics, techniques and procedures].”

The effectiveness of the RSAF to call upon air assets into the training area is multiplied with the employment of 201 Squadron’s Air-Land Tactical Control Centre (ALTaCC), a mobile command and control cabin, linked with various air defence radars set up around the training area. With clarity over the airspace and land movements, ALTaCC is able to manage and optimise the airspace and deconflict firing from artillery and air defence weapons.

Apaches usually operate from Rockhampton Airport or Australian Army Defence Support Group Camp Rocky and various outfield deployment sites in the training area. RSAF engineers (AFE) said challenges in such exercises are the exposure to weather and elements, and the limited access to spares.

Daniel Koh, 120 Squadron’s AFE, said: “We would also have to prepare lights and headlamps, for example, to the outfield sites, since it would be pitch black if we were to do our maintenance there. We would need to be adaptable and innovative to generate our aircraft.”

This year, four Apaches were airlifted to Rockhampton Airport via chartered Antonov An-124. The helicopters were part of a Large Force Employment package, providing escort for the Super Pumas and CH-47D, and screening the terminal area for hostile targets, and participated in an integrated strike with the Guard’s Light Strike Vehicles. They demonstrated live firing of simultaneous time-on-target of two Hellfire missiles from two Apaches against two targets for the first time in this exercise.

A RSAF Apache Longbow returns to Rockhampton Airport after a sortie in Exercise Wallaby 2017.
Philip Munsel
An AFE loads an inert AGM-114 Hellfire missile at an outfield deployment site during Exercise Wallaby.
Chen Chuanren

Back home, Ng shared that the allweather Apache proved to be a valuable asset, especially in the unpredictable equatorial weather. In a local army exercise, a UAV was initially tasked with identifying and providing strike coordinates for the Apaches and fighters. However, due to low storm clouds, the UAV optics were unable to penetrate the cloud base and the Apaches stepped in to identify and strike the target by operating below the cloud base.

Ng said: “The army appreciated our contribution and the effectiveness of the Apache in inclement weather during the critical phase of the exercise.”

Singapore air defence operations

A unique function of 120 Squadron’s Apaches is their role in the RSAF’s Air Defence Task Force, set up in 2010 as part of a multilayered air defence umbrella to protect the island against conventional and unconventional air threats. In other words, the Apaches with their fighter counterparts hold Quick Reaction Alert duties 24/7.

Ler said: “It is the ability to be activated as an air defence asset that is the most critical in peacetime operations. We complement both the short-range ground-based air defence missiles and the air defence fighters as part of the air defence umbrella. It wasn’t easy initially for the aircraft systems designers and engineers. At that time, the role was not at the forefront and we remain to the only user to use it as air defence. We have to adapt profiles from the fighter platforms to suit the Apache.”

Maintaining the Apaches

No.120 Squadron has a pool of regular AFEs, supplemented by conscripted national servicemen technicians. Most of the time, they conduct the before flight servicing, supervised by an AFE.

With dwindling birth rates in Singapore, the RSAF faces a shrinking pool of national personnel posted to the service. Koh highlighted that the squadron qualifies both second-line engineers and technicians to be trained for dedicated crew chief tasks, and vice versa, to ensure manpower for cross-deployment. For example, more AFEs will be transferred to the second line during recovery phase from exercises, where second line duties are more prominent.

Situated just north of the equator, Apaches based in Singapore are subjected to harsh and humid weather, as well as saline conditions from the sea. Koh said it requires additional attention and innovation to maintain the platform in such conditions: “For a start, in Peace Vanguard we conduct aircraft wash only every 60 days, but in Singapore we have to do so every month.”

The squadron also noticed sensors for the monocle gun sights began to degrade and fail sooner than expected due to the humid environment. In response, the logistics team developed a process to wrap these sensors with drying agents, which will prolong the serviceability of the systems. This process is institutionalised in the squadron and has saved the RSAF significant resources.

Some of the degradation rates are beyond the manufacturer’s expectations. On September 30, 2010, AH-64D serial number 069 departed for a functional check flight. Major Ler (then Captain) and his co-pilot proceeded to carry out the maximum power and contingency power check for both engines. As they were about to do so on engine number two, they experienced a failure in engine number one. Engine number two failed 75 seconds later and cockpit power was lost. The pilots attempted auto-rotation to the base, but had to make a forced landing on an open field. The impact of the landing caused the tail to break off from the main fuselage, but thankfully the pilots emerged unscathed.

Investigations showed the anti-ice start bleed valve (AISBV) in the GE T700-GE-701 turbo shaft engines had corroded internally, which led to malfunction of the guide vanes that channel air to the aircraft engine and caused the engine to fail. The chance of both AISBVs failing at the same time is said to be a million to one.

Future Apaches

The damaged aircraft was sent to the United States for repairs, and by April 2017 aircraft 069 was back in Singapore sporting featuring upgrades. As part of a fleet upgrade and modernisation programme, it was retrofitted with new communications and electronic countermeasure suites similar to Israeli Defence Force’s (IDF) AH- 64I Saraf.

Singapore’s Ministry of Defence said the Apache upgrade programme involved: “equipping the AH-64D with a Helicopter Integrated Electronic Warfare System [HIEWS] to enhance survivability and SATCOM for more robust communications”, adding that the programme would take a few years to complete.

One obvious feature added was two SATCOM domes installed on the outer wing stubs of the Apache to ensure a 360-degree link. The HIEWS is likely to be based on the Elbit’s integrated electronic warfare suite or Passive Airborne Warning System, featuring new radar warning receivers on the rear and nose of the aircraft, although on looking closely the chaff/flare dispensers are not as extensive as the IDF counterparts.

Aircraft 069 was deployed to Exercise Wallaby for the first time this year, together with the upgraded CH-47SD. Since the exercise is usually a proving ground for the RSAF to test and employ new tactics and systems, it is very likely that the PC exercise tested communication links using the new SATCOM systems on both platforms.

With Indonesia’s first AH-64E Guardians due for delivery by end of 2017, Ng is also optimistic that his squadron will have joint exercises with their Indonesian counterparts and developments are taking place.

An Apache receives fuel at an outfield deployment site. The ability to be deployed in such an area prolongs the ability for the Apache to support ground forces further in the exercise area.
Chen Chuanren