Chief of Defence Force,

Chief Executive, Defence Science & Technology Agency,

Chief of Air Force,

Deputy Secretary (Policy),

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,

A very good afternoon to all of you.

Introduction

I am very happy to be here. It has been five years since I was similarly here for (the inauguration of) the Heron 1 UAV in 2012, and these five years has made significant progress. We are here again to commemorate today at this ceremony the Full Operational Capability (FOC) of the Heron 1 by 119 and 128 Squadrons. It is a significant milestone and the FOC of the Heron 1 brings the RSAF's unmanned aerial capabilities to the level of advanced militaries globally.

I know that many of you were involved in this journey over the last five years. To achieve FOC, we have set exacting standards for the squadrons. Mission capabilities for the Heron 1 as well as our airmen operators were rigorously validated to make sure that we create the capabilities of the Heron 1 and SAF's network of sensors and fighting systems.

Mission Capabilities of the Heron 1

Many of you already know that the Heron 1 is among the most advanced unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) systems in its class, able to perform several missions simultaneously with a suite of state-of-the-art sensors and enhanced range. It can fly more than 24 hours, three times longer than the Searcher UAV it replaces. Its imaging sensors switch efficiently from wide-area scan to zoom, and guide munitions to targets using its laser designator precisely and quickly. The Heron 1 can be deployed with fighters and attack helicopters, amplifying the SAF's precision strike capabilities. Apart from these conventional operations, it can also be deployed against terrorist threats, because its persistence enables it to cover a wide area of surveillance.

119 and 128 Squadrons have validated the Heron 1's capabilities in major exercises. I witnessed this during Exercise Forging Sabre in Arizona in 2015, where we all saw the Heron 1 fulfill its mission requirements. And I think when you see the platform achieve what it is meant to achieve, it not only gives the operators and squadrons involved the confidence but also to the SAF units which the Heron 1 supports.

At home, the Heron 1 has already been deployed in multi-agency counter-terrorism exercises, as well as peace time units to provide valuable information for decision-makers on the ground. Through these past few years and these various activities that 119 and 128 Squadrons have been involved with, the personnel there have gained considerable expertise and depth.

Committed Professionals in the FOC Journey

But as we have advanced platforms across the SAF, where we have to level up, it is not only the operators but we do this as a team. Various units, whether it is the pilots, the Air Imagery Intelligence Experts, the Engineers, DSTA scientists and engineers, all contributed to this FOC journey. So, this is really a team effort in this leap in capability from the Searcher to the Heron 1. I think we can consider this a significant achievement for all of us, and (for) which we have (had to) overcome many challenges along the way.

The UAV Pilots operationalised the first Automatic Take-Off and Landing system. I am told it is very smooth. It is a very interesting system. This sophisticated flight control system helps the pilots take-off and land the Heron 1 automatically, so that they can focus on the mission. With training, our UAV Pilots have mastered and operationalised this new and useful capability. The Heron 1, a bigger class of UAVs than its predecessor also requires us to have better airspace integration between manned and unmanned aircraft.

Our scientists and engineers from DSTA also faced and overcame technical challenges. They have to improve the Ground Control Station to be more intuitive for UAV pilots. They operationalised the enhanced datalink system - because we are talking about a bigger bird - so that it loads more information, so that even in a congested network, high quality data collected by the Heron 1 can be streamed back undisrupted.

The engineers of the 1st Air Engineering and Logistics Group (1 AELG) were tested, they had to master and maintain this platform. When it was first delivered, 1 AELG was not able to repair complex defects on composite materials. A team led by ME4 Lin Rongkai of 811 Squadron developed the procedures to do such repairs in-house. It was a significant improvement, so that instead of the nine months downtime where you sent defects back to the manufacturers, these defects can now be repaired in-house in just three days. For this work, the team won a two-star award at the International Exposition of Team Excellence Symposium last year.

The Air Imagery Intelligence Experts had to learn how to process the large volumes of real-time information, (a) significant step up from what the Searcher UAVs were used to, in (a) much more voluminous situation. Personnel from 119 and 128 Squadrons have also been deployed to the Imagery Analysis Teams in Kuwait as part of the SAF's contributions to the counter-ISIS coalition. I met some of them when I visited the Combined Joint Task Force Headquarters last year, and the commanders there gave great confidence in our abilities and our contributions.

There is also another significant first that the Heron 1 has allowed us to do, which is to deploy Full-Time National Servicemen (NSFs) as UAV Pilots. As you can well imagine, we have the same exacting standards for NSFs as we do with for the Regular counterparts. The NSF UAV pilots serve as co-pilots and they assist their more experienced counterparts. The training is challenging and those who make it through to qualify gain valuable experiences and professional exposure. And I am told it is a very popular vocation, so much so that some NSFs have extended their NS to help the Squadron see through this FOC milestone. This ownership, this belief in what they do, makes a difference. That is what we want more NSmen to feel.

Conclusion

So as we gather here today, I think we can congratulate yourselves and we have come a long way since 1979 where the SAF first launched its Mastiff Remotely Piloted Vehicle. Over the years, we built up steadily our experience on successive and more advanced platforms. Today's milestone for the RSAF's UAV capabilities was achieved through close collaboration and hard work by all involved in the FOC journey.

Let me commend UAV Command and the RSAF, for achieving the FOC of the Heron 1. I wish all the men and women of UAV Command every success in reaching new heights of professionalism and expertise with the Heron 1. Congratulations.

Source: Ministry Of Defence (MINDEF)