MP Gerald Giam
MP Dennis Tan

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song asked the Minister for Defence regarding the 16 People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft that flew through Singapore’s Flight Information Region (FIR) on 31 May 2021 (a) whether the RSAF tracked the flight of these aircraft; (b) whether the RSAF was successful in establishing communications with them; (c) how many of such unannounced entries into Singapore’s FIR by PLAAF aircraft have taken place in the past year; and (d) what are the plans to ensure the safety of flights to and from Singapore should tensions among rival claimants of islands in the South China Sea escalate.

Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong asked the Minister for Defence (a) what is the Government’s situational assessment regarding the flight of 16 People’s Liberation Army Air Force aircraft that passed through Singapore’s Flight Information Region on 31 May 2021 over waters which are disputed by China and Malaysia; and (b) whether plans are in place to ensure the security and safety of flights to and from Singapore should tensions among rival claimants escalate in the airspace over the South China Sea.

The Minister for Defence (Dr Ng Eng Hen): Mr Speaker, may I take the questions from Mr Gerald Giam and Mr Dennis Tan together, as they are related?

Mr Speaker: Yes, please.

Dr Ng Eng Hen: Thank you. Mr Speaker, the two questions asked by Mr Gerald Giam and Mr Dennis Tan as listed in the Order Paper conflate a number of issues that may inadvertently give rise to misinterpretations and misunderstandings unless they are clearly distinguished.

To avoid this, MINDEF’s reply will, therefore, separately address three distinct issues within their questions. It is important to emphasise even though they are somewhat related, these are three distinct issues. Let me list them: first, Singapore’s position on the rights of military aircraft to conduct passage and training under international law; second, the role and responsibilities of the authority managing a Flight Information Region (FIR); and finally, the Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) air defence system to protect Singapore against aerial threats.

In my reply, it will also be clear that the general principles Singapore adhere to govern our practices and specific protocols in response to all countries. Let me deal with the three issues.

First, Singapore respects the rights of military aircraft and ships to conduct passage and training over areas and waters in accordance with international law, and this includes the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This is the basis upon which the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) aircraft conduct flights and training, whether it is in the South China Sea or other regions.

This is also the basis for the conduct of exercises in the South China Sea, the ones that Singapore does bilaterally and in multilateral exercises. So, for example, Exercise Commando Sling which is between the SAF and the US Air Force, and the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Exercise between the SAF and the US Navy. Members may remember that we held a multilateral exercise in 2016 and this was involving navies of the ADMM-Plus countries, which sailed from Brunei to Singapore through the South China Sea, and exercised together en route.

You may also remember that during this year’s Committee of Supply, I had also informed Members of this House that the South China Sea will see an increase in military activity from other countries. Earlier this year, the French Navy deployed its ships to the South China Sea. Later this year, the UK will send the Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group with its fighter aircraft F35Bs. The Germans too intend to deploy a frigate to the South China Sea, the first time in almost 20 years.

Apart from international law and UNCLOS, countries that conduct military activities in these areas have to act in accordance with ASEAN instruments that they have signed on to, such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. And I think it is instructive to quote from some of the phrases that these countries have agreed to in this treaty.

This treaty calls for “mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations”, as well as for signatories not to “participate in any activity which shall constitute a threat to the political and economic stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity” of one another.

I have dealt with the first issue in terms of rights of military training; let me deal with the second issue.

As distinct from military activity, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) appoints a civilian authority to manage the air space of each Flight Information Region (FIR). And this authority is designated as the Air Traffic Services (ATS) Authority. The role of the ATS Authority is to ensure safe and efficient flow of air traffic, mostly civilian, within its FIR. In this role, it does not act as a watchdog over disputed areas nor should that authority adopt a partisan role on behalf of any party or for itself.

Civilian aircraft must file flight plans when going through the FIR of an ATS Authority. However, state aircraft, which includes military aircraft, are not required to file flight plans under international law, and this includes the Convention on International Civil Aviation. State aircraft are also not obliged to contact the ATS Authority so long as they fly with due regard for the safety of other aircraft.

Nevertheless, some militaries, including the RSAF, do file flight plans and contact the ATS Authority of that FIR, even when they are not legally required to do so. The RSAF routinely adopts this practice, primarily to assist the ATS Authority in coordinating and de-conflicting RSAF flights from civilian aircraft as part of their responsibility for operating with due care.

ICAO has appointed the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) as the ATS Authority for the Singapore FIR. In this capacity, CAAS has gained an international reputation for managing the Singapore FIR in a safe, orderly, impartial and expeditious manner. In the incident referred to in the Members’ questions, CAAS did not receive any flight plans from the PLAAF, nor did it communicate with the PLAAF or any of its aircraft. I have already mentioned that state aircraft are not required to do so. Nevertheless, had the PLAAF required air traffic services, it could have established communications with CAAS.

Mr Giam’s question also confuses the role of CAAS as the ATS Authority for the Singapore FIR with the role of the SAF to defend Singapore’s own territorial airspace. We should be clear that the RSAF has no mandate nor any role in the management of the Singapore FIR, which is carried out by CAAS, a civilian authority appointed by ICAO.

The third issue, Singapore’s air defence. Singapore is a small country with a high population density and, therefore, more vulnerable to air threats. The SAF accordingly maintains air defence units at high alert. The RSAF conducts 24/7 surveillance of our skies through both ground-based radars and aerial reconnaissance to detect unknown or suspicious aircraft that are close enough to pose a potential threat. On average, each year, the RSAF responds to more than 350 such incidents. The specific incident referred to by the two Members in their questions was not deemed to be such a threat.

Mr Speaker: Mr Gerald Giam.

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song (Aljunied): Thank you, Sir. I thank the Minister for the reply. Since state aircraft are not required to file flight plans when entering our Flight Information Region (FIR), how does Singapore ensure that these aircraft do not have hostile intent? I understand that there is no requirement for them to file these flight plans, but do other countries, by convention, file their flight plans for their state aircraft and is this incident the only time that no flight plans were filed when entering the FIR?

Dr Ng Eng Hen: Again, Mr Speaker, I think it is useful not to conscribe the question and direct it to any one country. It does not serve our foreign policy; it does not reflect our desire to be principled and neutral. So, again, the answer is with regard to any country and I think we must ask relevant questions. How do you determine whether a particular aircraft of any country is friend or foe? And that is the job of the RSAF. If you have mistaken a friend for a foe, there can be catastrophic consequences. And there are a number of aspects that we would detect, whether it is movement, whether, indeed, flight plans have been filed.

I have mentioned 350 such incidents and let me again emphasise, these 350 incidents have got nothing to do with the questions that the two Members have asked because they have framed their questions in a way that can actually give rise to misunderstanding and misinterpretations. These 350 incidents that we have had, many of which RSAF had actually to mobilise. And as Members will remember, there are a number of incidents in previous years. One was a private aircraft that got lost. And, of course, I suppose seeing an F-16 next to you is, for some, comforting, and it was gently guided to land in a safe area. There have been other instances which RSAF must use its judgement and there are strict protocols. These relate to what we call aerial threats. 

Mr Giam asked whether other militaries – I presume he was asking that – file flight plans. The answer is it is not uniform and, in fact, it is not the majority. Many countries do not file flight plans or contact the ATS Authority.

Ministry of Defence
6 July 2021

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