For two weeks between November 28 and December 13, 2017, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) brought all its American detachments, along with unmanned and army units, to bear at RSAF’s most complex military exercise. As part of an event codenamed Exercise Forging Sabre, multiple units descended upon the desert of Phoenix, Arizona, for the biennial exercise. They included 10 Boeing F-15SGs of Peace Carvin V (Mountain Home AFB), 10 Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Fighting Falcons from Peace Carvin II (Luke AFB), six Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbows from Peace Vanguard (Silver Bell Army Heliport), three Boeing CH-47D Chinooks from Peace Prairie (Texas National Guard), and three IAI Heron 1 UAVs from Singapore.
Unlike most operational and tactical exercises that focus on fighting tactics, this Air Combat Command (ACC)-led drill is a proof-of-concept exercise, validating new integration doctrines and stepping up current ones. The key focus of Forging Sabre is to capitalize on the function of the integrated command post using intelligence from ground and air sensors and applying them to coordinated strike missions.
At 20 times the size of Singapore, the Barry M. Goldwater Range, south of Luke Air Force Base, provides over-land live munitions firing, which is extremely hard to come by for the RSAF to conduct realistic munitions training. This year, to increase the physical complexity and area of operations, planners opened a second zone, all with simulated airstrips, buildings, and hiding structures for moving "enemy" vehicles. In all, the strike area has increased from about 400 square km to 1,100 square km. Despite the doubling of real estate, key to the RSAF is not to increase its footprint and assets in the same fold, but rather to act on valuable intelligence and make sound decisions.
Forging Sabre has validated the ability for the RSAF to integrate multiple information, command, and weapon systems into a single functional entity. This year, the Army’s M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) provided additional strike options for the battlespace commanders, and smoothed integration processes.
“With multiple moving targets and zones, it is not something a single shooter or service can manage," said air director Colonel Liew Boon Ping. He also leads RSAF’s Integrated Systems Development Group, responsible for bringing together command and information systems, and integrating it across the RSAF.
A key enabler in Forging Sabre is the IAI Heron 1. Three aircraft were deployed to Gila Bend airfield this year. The squadron came with enhanced experience and capabilities as they flew concurrent missions to scan the "battlefield" for hostile targets and piped real-time imagery to the command post at Luke AFB.
The intelligence from the Heron 1 has shortened the time of the sense-to-kill chain, which in turn increases the operational tempo of the aircraft, and their survivability, due to minimized time in the combat area. The RSAF successfully validated the Heron 1's ability to cooperative-lase targets with the F-15SG in 2015, enabling the fighters to engage more targets in a single strike wave.
The Army has also fielded a new Target Acquisition and Designation System (TADS) for the artillery observers (STORM). The TADS has a high-definition day-and-night thermal imager and an increased range of 10 km to designate targets at a greater standoff range and accuracy. The STORM team had successfully laser-guided a GBU-12 to a static target and provided forward air control service to the RSAF fighters.
As part of the Forging Sabre scenario, Blue Air fighters are to fight their way into Red Land with aerial battles against Red Air fighters, which could also employ complex tactics and electronic warfare. Providing the bulk of offensive strike capabilities is the Boeing F-15SG from the 428th FS Peace Carvin V detachment, which could employ the whole range of Paveway II and Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) munitions.
New to the exercise were the GBU-31 2,000-pound JDAM, which was only certified in May 2017. Singapore's Ministry of Defence says such large-caliber bombs enable the RSAF to conduct strikes more effectively, destroying larger fortified targets with a single GBU-31. In all, eight GBU-31 were expended in Forging Sabre, including four in a simultaneous night strike mission.
The GBU-54 Laser-JDAMs are preferred over the GBU-10 against moving targets, as they provide greater flexibility, firing envelope, and maneuverability for a high-accuracy strike.
“In this exercise, the F-15SGs are also tasked to do air defense as well the protection of airborne assets. We can also swing role to limited air-to-air roles after we have dropped our munitions,” said F-15SG pilot Lt. David Ong.
The Eagles were paired with the 425th FS (Peace Carvin II)’s F-16C/D Blk 52s, which also contributed to both air-to-air and air-to-ground sorties. Some F-16s were seen with Northrop Grumman AN/ALQ-131 Electronic Countermeasure Pods, which are likely used for Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defence (S/DEAD) missions as the strike package takes out "hostile air defense systems."
Six Apache Longbows from the Peace Vanguard detachment made a short hop from their base in Marana, Arizona. This year, the Apaches swapped their AGM-114K laser-guided Hellfire for the AGM-114L radar guided Hellfire, with the former used with satisfying results with the Heron 1 in 2015. This year, the RSAF validated the technique for the Heron 1 to provide laser designation, before being acquired by Apache’s Target Acquisition and Designation Sights. The Apache launched the Hellfire after a lock from the Longbow radar. Notable were two new upgraded AH-64Ds, fitted with a pair of satcom fairings on the wing studs and enhanced self protection suites known as Helicopter Integrated Electronic Warfare System (HIEWS) by the Ministry of Defence. Although it is not known to what extent the new systems were tested, they would contribute to significant data transfer within the battlefield and tactical coordination between the command post and fighting platforms.
Despite more assets and munitions flying, terminal air control and assets deconfliction has matured significantly, as have enhanced command and control capabilities.
“We had been very sequential, where fire missions were linear, deconflicted by time and space,” said Liew. “We now have also plotted possible traverse area of the HIMARS rockets to the C2 system and allow the RSAF to carry out near concurrent engagements with land forces, and have live assets movements monitored.“
The F-15SG and Future Forging Sabre
The RSAF will soon mark the 10th year of F-15SG operations, with the first rolled out in October 2008, although training began at Seymour Johnson AFB long before the delivery. The RSAF has taken delivery of all 40 of its F-15SGs, acquired through both Foreign Military Sales and direct commercial sales with Boeing. The last eight aircraft were registered under FAA registration as N361SG 05-8361, N363SG 05-8363, N366SG 05-8366, N368SG 05-8368, N373SG 05-8373, N376SG 05-8376, N378SG 05-8378, N837SG 05-8371. A number of these new fighters were seen at Exercise Forging Sabre this year.
Although reaching full operational capability on Sept. 18, 2013, the F-15SG continues to clock milestones through its career, as seen last year where it was certified for the GBU-31 JDAM. A key munition to look out for is the AGM-154A/C Joint Stand Off Weapon (JSOW). It was sold as part of the F-15SG package, but the RSAF has yet to publicly recognize its capability on the F-15SG. If used in a Forging Sabre exercise, it could destroy targets without entering "hostile" airspace.
The RSAF established the second F-15SG squadron, 142 Sqn, in early 2016, with the additional role of operation conversion unit to raise and sustain new F-15 pilots. With the potential closure of Paya Lebar Air base around 2030, the RSAF is exploring new training options for the Eagles. In April 2017 it began short training detachments at Guam’s Andersen AFB, alongside USAF’s 44th FS F-15Cs. The service is also studying thefeasibility of sending a detachment in Ohakea, New Zealand.
With the delivery of the new Saudi F-15SA, the cutting edge capability of the F-15SG is being overshadowed. It will be no surprise for local defense agencies like the Defence Science & Technology Agency (DSTA) and Singapore Technologies to update the warplane’s capabilities.
The full potential of the F-15SG could not be achieved until the delivery of the upgraded F-16C/D/D+, which began in early 2016. The upgrade will give RSAF F-16s the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar, Link 16 Multifunctional Information Distribution System and the certification for AIM-9X, JDAM and GBU-39/B small-diameter bombs.
The famous F-15 and F-16 pairing will give the RSAF unprecedented aerial- and surface-tracking capabilities, tighter tactical coordination and exponentially increase strike possibilities between the two aircraft types.
Forging Sabre 2019 and 2021 could see the debut of the new upgraded F-16C/D, a fully upgraded fleet of AH-64D Apache Longbows and the possible early arrival of the CH-47F Chinook, all of which would be equipped with tactical datalinks and communications systems. These Forging Sabre events will truly see the RSAF integrating all platforms not only through processes, but also as a network of systems.