'Hijacked' aircraft intercepted as part of air defence exercise

The RSAF air traffic control tower behind an F-16D+ fighter jet at Changi Air Base, where the exercise took place. Two F-16C/D fighter jets closing in on a KC-135 (exercise-simulated civil aircraft) to intercept it and then escort it for landing at C
Two F-16C/D fighter jets closing in on a KC-135 (exercise-simulated civil aircraft) to intercept it and then escort it for landing at Changi Air Base yesterday. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
The RSAF air traffic control tower behind an F-16D+ fighter jet at Changi Air Base, where the exercise took place. Two F-16C/D fighter jets closing in on a KC-135 (exercise-simulated civil aircraft) to intercept it and then escort it for landing at C
RSAF air traffic controllers in the control tower preparing for the recovery of the exercise-simulated civil aircraft.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
The RSAF air traffic control tower behind an F-16D+ fighter jet at Changi Air Base, where the exercise took place. Two F-16C/D fighter jets closing in on a KC-135 (exercise-simulated civil aircraft) to intercept it and then escort it for landing at C
The RSAF air traffic control tower behind an F-16D+ fighter jet at Changi Air Base, where the exercise took place. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Multi-agency exercise shows RSAF capabilities and how it works with govt agencies to counter potential air threats

The moment an alert was received of a suspected "hijacking of a civil airliner" heading towards Singapore, two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled within minutes.

On the plane, the hijackers were subdued by passengers, while the fighter jets closed in on the aircraft, intercepted it and escorted it to land for follow-up action by the police.

This scenario, which involved an RSAF KC-135 aerial tanker playing the role of the commercial plane but without passengers, played out yesterday as part of the multi-agency Exercise Vigilant Shield. It took place at Changi Air Base.

With air traffic in Changi expected to grow in the coming years, the air defence exercise was important to ensure the processes involved in dealing with air threats remained relevant, said the exercise's chief planner, Lieutenant-Colonel Zanna Lee from the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).

"When we carry out operations, we must make sure the safety of the other civil airliners is also taken into consideration. And we will try as much as possible not to affect the Changi traffic," said the air warfare officer from the Air Defence Task Force.

When Changi Airport Terminal 5 is completed by 2030, it will have an initial capacity of up to 50 million passengers a year. It is more than twice the size of any of the main terminals.

Senior Minister of State for Defence Heng Chee How, who observed yesterday's exercise, said Singapore remains a terrorist target. "These are the things that worry us but, at the same time, it causes us to want to be ever vigilant... and to coordinate among the different forces.''

CRITICAL TO PRACTISE

Nothing beats having a real exercise to ensure that the agencies are able to coordinate because on the ground, there may be some differences in understanding, so this exercise was critical in helping our officers practise these processes.

SUPERINTENDENT CHONG CHUNG MENG, head of operations at the Airport Police Division. He headed the Singapore Police Force's response in yesterday's exercise, which involved the Republic of Singapore Air Force, the Singapore Armed Forces and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.

He said coordination was not only between the Singapore Armed Forces and the RSAF, but also with related agencies such as the Singapore Police Force (SPF) and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), "to make sure that our reflexes are honed and we are able to respond resolutely, swiftly, decisively".

Superintendent Chong Chung Meng, who headed the SPF's response in yesterday's exercise, said its role was to ensure the safe release of the hostages.

"Nothing beats having a real exercise to ensure that the agencies are able to coordinate because on the ground, there may be some differences in understanding, so this exercise was critical in helping our officers practise these processes," said the head of operations at the Airport Police Division.

Coordinated by the Air Defence Task Force, which was formed in 2010, the air defence exercise was meant to demonstrate the capabilities of the RSAF and how it works with other government agencies to counter potential air threats.

The previous two editions of the exercise were held in 2014 and 2016.

This year's comes after a potential bomb threat incident on board a Scoot plane on April 5 last year, which led to two F-15SG fighter jets being activated.

They escorted Flight TR634 back to Changi Airport. The Scoot plane, which carried 173 passengers and six crew members, was bound for Hat Yai in Thailand.

Captain Spencer Lee, the air defence coordinator in the Scoot incident but who was not involved in yesterday's exercise, said such exercises were important to identify and address potential gaps.

The Scoot situation was tense at first, when they did not know there was a potential bomb threat until the fighters were scrambled, he said, adding: "But our training kicked in and gave us the confidence to do things in a very procedural way, so that the necessary actions could be done as quickly as possible."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2019, with the headline ''Hijacked' aircraft intercepted as part of air defence exercise'. Print Edition | Subscribe