Flying start to stronger India-S'pore defence relationship

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and Air Vice-Marshal A.P. Singh on their way to board the Indian Air Force's Tejas Light Combat Aircraft during Dr Ng's visit to a joint training exercise at Kalaikunda Air Force Station in West Bengal yesterday.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and Air Vice-Marshal A.P. Singh on their way to board the Indian Air Force's Tejas Light Combat Aircraft during Dr Ng's visit to a joint training exercise at Kalaikunda Air Force Station in West Bengal yesterday.PHOTO: MINDEF

Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday described India-Singapore defence ties as "very strong and growing stronger", as he visited a joint training exercise between both countries' air forces.

Today, he and his counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman will witness the exchange of a bilateral agreement to enable more joint and multilateral exercises between both navies, particularly in the Andaman Sea.

Both ministers will also chair the second India-Singapore Defence Ministers' Dialogue in New Delhi.

Dr Ng, who is on a three-day visit to India, visited the Kalaikunda Air Force Station where he was flown in the Indian supersonic Tejas fighter plane - becoming the first minister or civilian from outside India to fly in the locally developed aircraft.

Kitted in flying gear, he met Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and Indian Air Force (IAF) personnel, and took a 45-minute flight during which he was shown the features of the plane, which has pride of place in the IAF. It is the first light combat aircraft developed in India, and took over three decades.

"Tejas is a very, very capable plane but I am not a pilot," Dr Ng told reporters. "The pilot, Air Vice-Marshal A.P. Singh, flew so well that it was like riding in a car."

"I can imagine why my pilots find so much value in training with IAF pilots," he said. "Superbly confident, supremely professional and really at the top of the game."

Indian defence sources said they had wanted to showcase the Tejas and give Dr Ng "a feel of the plane".

During the visit, he also viewed RSAF F-16 and IAF Sukhoi Su-30 fighter aircraft, and thanked India for the "realistic and challenging training opportunities for the RSAF to hone its operational readiness".

Around 100 RSAF personnel and six F-16 fighter jets are now at the Kalaikunda base for the joint military training. Bilateral air exercises have been held since 2004, and Dr Ng hoped these "will last very long".

Both countries have close economic ties, and defence ties have also deepened over the years.

Singapore's Defence Ministry said in a statement on yesterday's visit that "bilateral training has grown in scale and complexity over the years to involve advanced aircraft and high-end training missions".

RSAF's Detachment Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Tan Wuen Bin, said of the exercise: "The training allows us to hone our flying skills as well as operational readiness of all our air crew. We value the training opportunity here and we are looking forward to all the joint military training exercises over the years."

India's Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Air Command, Air Marshal Anil Khosla, said: "It is important for the RSAF and IAF to continue to build interoperability and foster mutual understanding through the high-end training missions at the joint military training."

When reporters pointed out that Indian pilots do not fly the F-16s, Dr Ng replied: "We don't fly the Sukhois too."

Said Air Marshal Khosla: "When you operate for one month together, you pick up all the good things from the other air force."

Dr Ng added: "It is like chefs using different equipment - you learn how to cook better."

Yesterday, Dr Ng also spoke on Singapore-India ties at the Brookings Institution India Centre in New Delhi, where he highlighted longstanding defence ties. Both countries' air forces signed a bilateral agreement in 2007, and their armies followed suit in 2008. The latest pact between their navies is "an abiding testament to the strong and comprehensive defence ties between our armed forces", he said.

India was also among the very first to recognise Singapore's independence in 1965, and they share a special bond underpinned by history and built upon over the years.

India has also deepened its engagement with Asean and its forums, and Dr Ng said: "Singapore believes India's inclusion strengthens the regional security architecture, as a stabilising force within the region. India adds a wider perspective and more robust balance beyond the US-China strategic rivalry at play."

Singapore and India share similar strategic perspectives and interests for a peaceful future, he added. "This is why both countries strongly advocate adherence to international law and norms, and the peaceful resolution of disputes."

India also wants to do more to promote regional security, he noted, saying he and Ms Sitharaman will discuss key challenges such as counter-terrorism and maritime security when they meet today.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2017, with the headline 'Flying start to stronger India-S'pore defence relationship'. Print Edition | Subscribe