Friday, April 6, 2012

USAF-RSAF Commando Sling exercises to increase in complexity

U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet of VMFA-212 on the way back to MCAS Iwakuni from Singapore after a Commando Sling in 2003 (USMC Photo/LCPL John McGarity)

Singapore Defence Minister Dr. NG Eng Hen is current on his first official visit to the United States in his current portfolio, and in a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, have agreed to "increase the complexity of existing bilateral exercises such as Exercise Commando Sling to enhance interoperability and promote greater cooperation between both armed forces" (U.S Department of Defence Press Release).

The annual Commando Sling series began in 1990 to provide combined air combat training for United States and Republic of Singapore Air Force combat aircraft units. Pilots on both sides hone their skills in various scenarios ranging from one-on-one dogfights to advanced Air Combat Manoeuvring (ACM) missions involving multiple aircraft and mixed flights over the South China Sea. The exercises enable pilots on both sides to sharpen their air combat skills, allow American units improve procedures to conduct air operations at a non-U.S. base, and enhance partnerships between participating air forces and nations.

Republic of Singapore Air Force pilots greet U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot Capt. Robert Hilby of the 13th Fighter Squadron, who has just arrived at Paya Lebar Airbase, Singapore for a Commando Sling exercise, March 2012 (USAF Photo)

During a Commando Sling exercise American units deploy to Singapore's Paya Lebar Airbase with 6-12 aircraft and 75-150 airmen, and are temporarily attached to the Paya Lebar-based 497th Combat Training Squadron for the duration of the exercise. Slings usually involve units from the Pacific Command, however during the heyday in the late 1990s, CONUS-based USAF F-15 and F-16 units, Air National Guard (ANG) and even Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) and Air Education and Training Command (AETC) were also a regular sight in Singapore's skies, making the long trip to Paya Lebar to train with the RSAF. When the Royal Australian Air Force joins in, as they have done before on a number of occasions with F/A-18A/B Hornets, the exercise becomes Ex. Slingaroo.

In recent years Commando Sling exercises have been scaled back gradually with only three iterations conducted during FY2011, all involving the USAF's Pacific Air Forces units. This was in contrast to before, when up to six Slings took place annually. With the recent "pivot to Asia" announced by President Barack Obama, we should see a reversal of this downward trend. In fact, we may already have seen the start of the reversal in Dec 2011, when U.S Marine Harriers joined USAF F-16s and the RSAF in the first Commando Sling of FY12.

We can thus expect the tempo of Commando Slings start to increase again in the future, and with stateside USAF F-15/F-16 units deploying more regularly to South Korea, these units may start making appearances over Singapore skies. We may also hopefully see of U.S Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet squadrons, on six-month rotations at Japan’s Marine Combat Air Station Iwakuni under the Unit Deployment Program, make the journey down south for Slings again after a hiatus of a few years.

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