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1965-1989 - Growth of the Armed Forces

Until Singapore's separation from Malaysia in August 1965, responsibility for national security matters had always resided either in London or Kuala Lumpur. In the two decades following the end of World War II (1939-45), Britain spent billions of dollars to rebuild its military bases in Singapore in order to honor its defense commitments to Malaysia and Singapore. Between 1963 and 1966, several thousand British troops were deployed to protect the two countries during the Indonesian Confrontation (Konfrontasi - Indonesia's 1963-66 effort to disrupt the new state of Malaysia, which Indonesian leaders regarded as a front for a continued British colonial presence in Southeast Asia). By 1967 the British Labour and Conservative parties had reached a consensus that Britain could no longer afford to pay the cost of maintaining a military presence in Southeast Asia. In January 1968, London informed the Singapore government that all British forces would be withdrawn by 1971, ending 152 years of responsibility for the defense of Singapore.

After the 1963 merger of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak to form the Federation of Malaysia, Singapore ceded control over its armed forces to the federal government in Kuala Lumpur. For a time, Malaysian army and air force units were stationed in Singapore, and Lee Kuan Yew's refusal to allow Malaysia to retain control over Singapore's military establishment after separation was one reason political relations between the two nations remained strained well into the 1970s.

Singapore's separation from Malaysia in August 1965 forced government leaders to begin thinking about the new nation's defense strategy and what armed forces would be needed to make that strategy a viable deterrent to potential adversaries. The task was made all the more difficult because of Singapore's strained relations with Malaysia and Indonesia. Lee appointed Goh Keng Swee to head the newly established Ministry of the Interior and Defence. By June 1966, the government had decided that instituting compulsory conscription was the best way to build up the armed forces. Government leaders were impressed with Israel's successful use of a small regular army supported by a large citizen reserve and believed that the development of this type of armed forces would encourage national pride and self-reliance.

Between 1967 and 1970, the army was expanded from two infantry battalions to two brigades comprising one tank regiment, six infantry battalions, and one artillery battalion. The first classes of officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) graduated from the Armed Forces Training Institute in June 1967. This group of about 500 men was trained by Israeli instructors and provided the army with a core of leaders for both regular and reserve battalions. Under the system developed by the army's general staff, officers and NCOs were assigned to stay with newly formed national service battalions for the two-and-a-half years the conscripts remained on active duty. During this period, qualified enlisted men were selected for training as section and platoon leaders so that when a battalion was transferred to the reserves, a stable leadership would remain with the unit until its demobilization. In 1970 the government divided the Ministry of Interior and Defence into two separate ministries responsible for home affairs and defense, respectively. By December of that year, the army's reserve brigade comprised three infantry battalions.

The evolution of the air force and navy occurred at a slower pace than was the case with the army. In 1968 British air force commanders and pilots began assisting the newly formed Air Defence Command to establish its own air units. The British helped to establish an air force pilot training program at the Flying Training School located at Tengah Air Base. The first class of pilots received basic military training and general flying instruction in Singapore and then was sent to Britain for fighter aircraft training. These pilots returned to Singapore in 1971 and were assigned to the Air Defence Command's two fighter squadrons comprising one ground attack squadron with sixteen Strikemaster and four Hawker Hunter jet aircraft, and one interceptor squadron with sixteen Hawker Hunters. In 1969 the Maritime Command established temporary headquarters on Sentosa Island where it remained until a permanent base was completed on Pulau Brani (pulau means island). The government had negotiated agreements with two private companies -- Lurssen Werft of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and Vosper Thornycroft of Britain -- for the joint production of the navy's first naval vessels. Two gunboats produced in Britain were delivered to Singapore in 1969 and were followed by Singapore-produced models of the same design, which entered service in 1970.

In the 1970s, the army, air force, and navy were expanded, new weapon systems were acquired from abroad, local defense industries were established, and military logistical systems were improved. In 1970 the army had 14,000 personnel on active duty and 6,000 in the reserves. Infantry training and equipment were considered adequate. However, the army's newly formed armored regiment was not yet operational, and the single artillery battalion was underequipped. The engineer and signal branches also were in the early stages of development. In 1967 the government had established the Sheng-Li Holding Company under the Ministry of Defence to promote stateowned -and-operated defense industries. By the mid-1970s, Singapore was producing ammunition, small arms, mortars, and artillery for the army and for export. In most cases, a Singapore manufacturer purchased the design and marketing rights for a weapon from European and American firms and then built the necessary plant for assembling the weapon. Tanks, armored vehicles, aircraft, and some surplus United States Navy amphibious craft and minesweepers were purchased to fill critical equipment shortages. Military logistical organizations established in the 1960s evolved into an efficient network of supply and maintenance facilities. These concerns included both interservice ordnance and transportation supply bases and intraservice facilities responsible for the procurement and repair of weapons and equipment used by only one of the service.

By 1980, the armed forces had 42,000 personnel on active-duty, and the reserves had expanded to 50,000. The army had become a well-balanced force with regular units organized into one armored and three infantry divisions under the operational control of a single division commander. The navy's twelve patrol craft, which were equipped with guns and missiles, gave Singapore a coastal defense force, and its six landing ships provided a limited capability to support the army in an amphibious operation. The air force, with 131 fighter aircraft and 2 surface-to-air missile battalions, was now large enough to fulfill both its air defense and ground support missions. Additionally, the air force had one transport squadron capable of airlifting a fully equipped infantry battalion anywhere in Southeast Asia and one helicopter squadron available for counterinsurgency or search and rescue operations.

In the 1980s, the number of army reservists more than tripled, although expansion of the regular armed services was constrained for budgetary reasons. By 1989 there were 170,000 army reservists. Only about 70,000 reservists, however, served in combat or combat support units subject to immediate mobilization. These units comprised one armored brigade equipped with AMX-13 tanks and M-113 armored personnel carriers, six infantry brigades, ten artillery battalions, one commando battalion, and an unknown number of combat support battalions. Most of the remaining 100,000 reservists probably either were assigned to units that would be used as fillers during wartime or served in the People's Defence and Civil Defence Forces. In the army, the number of engineer and signal battalions were increased by five and two, respectively, but the number of combat units remained basically the same throughout the decade. The air force added one squadron of F-5E interceptors, one early warning and reconnaissance squadron with four E-2Cs, and one transport helicopter squadron. Most growth in the navy occurred in combat support organizations. In 1989 the navy was in the process of establishing a new unit that would eventually comprise six missile-equipped corvettes.

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