The September 14, 2019, drone and missile attack on Saudi oil facilities has revealed how high-end air defense systems were unable to defeat a large-scale and coordinated attack by cheap and small targets like unmanned systems. Attacks like this are a haunting reminder for Singapore and the rest of the region, where there are large industrial facilities and aviation hubs situated near thin borders.
“The theatre is changing and expanding before our eyes at an ever-faster pace. We are dealing with threats such as long-range ballistic missiles, maneuvering missiles, cruise missiles, short-range missiles, precision-guided munitions, mortars, sea-skimming missiles, UAVs, etc.,” said Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Ariel Karo, executive vice president of marketing and business development at Rafael (Chalet N51). “Add to that one of the fastest-growing threats that have emerged in recent years: drones. This new threat is cheap, effective, available and deadly, and can be used as swarms. Countries in many regions of the world have increased their air defense budgets, as it has become a real strategic necessity with multi-tier requirements.”
The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) has relied on a complex multi-layered air defense and detection system to protect its infrastructure. Some of these platforms are supplied by Israel, one of its strongest defense partners.
RSAF is one of the staunchest users of Israeli air defense systems. It was the first in the region to inaugurate the Rafael SPYDER surface to air missile, making RSAF the first in Southeast Asia to possess the capability to engage missiles, drones, and munitions. Linked to the island air defense systems (IADS), it is fed by other sensors such as the Elta EL/M-2084 multi-mission radar to detect small targets, the aerostat mounted Elta EL/M-2083 APR solid-state L-band active electronically scanning array (AESA) radar, giving it the ability to overcome geographical and manmade features, and detect beyond-the-horizon and against surface threats. The RSAF is also a user of the Gulfstream G550 airborne early warning aircraft, modified by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI, Chalet N41) with the EL/W-2085 radar.
The RSAF has been championing Israeli-made unmanned aerial vehicles for more than 30 years. Currently users of the IAI Heron 1 and Elbit (Chalet N65) Hermes H450, the RSAF is arguably the most advanced in Southeast Asia in UAV doctrine and manned platform integration. It is in the process of seeking a new replacement for the H450 and there will be no doubt that the Israeli platform will be evaluated for its combat and operational effectiveness.
For years, hoping to capture the increasing requirements in Singapore and the region, these companies have not held back in bringing their highest-end systems to the show. Rafael, for example, has exhibited its Iron Dome air defense systems and more recently its Iron Beam laser defense system, and Drone Dome military-grade UAV defense systems. Similarly, it was at Singapore Airshow that IAI unveiled a heavy fuel variant of the Heron 1 known as the Super Heron HF.
While Israeli companies continue to gain tremendous traction in Singapore, geopolitical and diplomatic reasons mean that its presence is limited to a handful of countries in this part of the world. It is a useful reminder that in recent years, tight-lipped Israel press releases would describe a sale to a ‘southeast Asian country,' and one should not automatically deduce Singapore because other states are buying more Israeli hardware now.
Israel has scored success in Vietnam, selling two batches of SPYDER SAM systems, radars for maritime patrol aircraft and as well as a possible Elbit avionics upgrade of Mi-17 helicopters valued at $110 million. It also sold four Hermes 450 to Thailand in 2018, in a package worth around $28 million.
Elbit recently announced a sale of an array of UAVs to an unspecified Southeast Asia state. The $153 million deal comprising more than 1,000 Thor multi-rotor vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) mini-UAS, and "scores" of Skylark-LEX, Skylark 3, Hermes 450, and Universal Ground Control Stations could be likely destined for Vietnam or even the Philippines.
Rafael added that one of the biggest challenges air arms are facing today is the ability to navigate and carry out their missions in GPS-denied environments due to the increasing phenomenon of GPS jamming and spoofing, a capability available to both state and non-state actors. The company has since introduced the world’s first artificial intelligence (AI) autonomous capability based on electro-optical scene-matching technology, which guides an aircraft or a munition to its target, independent of GPS.
This can be found on its Spice series standoff munition, which Karo said is seeing growing interest in the region from those who are looking to operate in a non-permissive, GPS-denied arena with long-range air defense systems yet ‘maintaining high mission assurance’ at the same time.