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On Target: The Singapore deployment: How Australia filled the ‘East of Suez’ void

Brian Weston 'On Target: The Singapore deployment - Australia fills the 'East of Suez' void' in Australian Aviation March 2019

The announcement in January 1968, that Britain would withdraw from its interests ‘East of Suez’, by 1971, was to have long-reaching consequences as it led to Australia electing to play the prime role in the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), subsequently negotiated between Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the UK.

Britain commenced its rundown of forces East of Suez by disbanding three RAF fighter squadrons: Nos 60 and 64 Squadrons operating Gloster Javelin all-weather fighters and No 20 Squadron operating Hawker Hunter ground attack fighters. When Headquarters Far East Air Force was disbanded on 6 November 1970, only the two RAF control and reporting units (CRUs), and No 74 Squadron, with BAC Lightning F6 interceptors at RAF Tengah, remained.

The RAF CRUs were located on an excellent radar site at Bukit Timah, Singapore and at Western Hill, the prominent peak on Penang Island. Singapore decided to retain the Bukit Timah site for its use but as RAF Western Hill was difficult to support logistically, Malaysia elected to establish a new radar at what was now Air Base Butterworth (not RAAF Base Butterworth).

RAF Western Hill which had been integral to the air defence of the Penang region, and with a number of RAAF personnel on strength, was disbanded on 31 August 1971. Four days previously, the writer flew A3-85 on the last mission controlled by RAF Western Hill – callsign ‘Barat’. Later that day, No 3 Squadron RAAF flew a formation of six Mirages over the unit to salute its service. Over the next few weeks, RAF Westland Whirlwind helicopters ferried equipment from Western Hill to Butterworth for shipment to the UK.

With Singapore having no national air defence capability, Australia filled the void left by the disbandment of No 74 Squadron RAF on 31 August 1971, by deploying, on a continuing basis, a half-squadron of Mirages to Singapore. The permanent Mirage deployment operated from what was now RSAF Tengah and was supported from Butterworth with domestic and logistic assistance provided by the newly established RAAF Support Unit, Tengah (RAAFSUTG).

With the nascent RSAF fighter capability of ex-RAF Hawker Hunters taking over the expansive tarmac, facilities and hangarage of No 74 Squadron RAF, Australia negotiated the dedicated use of a hardstand at RSAF Tengah, with a double Bellman Hangar and suitable adjacent facilities for operations and maintenance personnel.

Very quickly, the Mirage deployment at RSAF Tengah evolved into a pattern where each of Butterworth’s two Mirage squadrons took turn and turn-about to support the Tengah deployment for a period of three months. Typically, within the three-month deployment period, one-half of the squadron was deployed to Tengah for the first six weeks with the other half of the squadron deploying for the second six-week period. Hence, during a six-month period, a Mirage squadron pilot at Butterworth could expect to spend six weeks at RSAF Tengah.

This pattern continued until June 1982, when the extensive redevelopment of the RSAF base at Tengah saw the RAAF Mirage deployment move from Tengah to RSAF Paya Lebar, with the writer having the privilege of commanding the last Mirage detachment to operate from RSAF Tengah. But the permanent Mirage presence at RSAF Paya Lebar was short-lived as following the repatriation of No 75 Squadron to Darwin in October 1983, No 3 Squadron had the capacity to mount only periodic deployments to RSAF Paya Lebar.

With a new fighter looming ‒ the F/A-18 Hornet ‒ the permanent RAAF fighter presence in South-East Asia was coming to an end, and a timely end with both Malaysia and Singapore having steadily developed their respective national air capabilities.

In 1986, No 3 Squadron returned to Williamtown to re-equip with the F/A-18 leaving their Mirages at Butterworth, for the newly stood-up No 79 Squadron. When No 79 Squadron disbanded in 1988, 30 years of continuous RAAF fighter/strike presence in South-East Asia ended.

But the RAAF did not depart entirely with some 50 personnel and their dependants remaining at RMAF Butterworth to support FPDA exercise commitments and RAAF AP-3C aircraft carrying out essential maritime ISR operational commitments. A new era of another 30 years of the RAAF at RMAF Butterworth commenced.

This long Australian presence was recognised on 25 June 2018 when the Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon Marise Payne, visited RMAF Base Butterworth to participate in the inaugural Malaysia-Australia High Level Committee meeting on Defence Cooperation. The meeting also marked the 60th anniversary of the RAAF presence on the base. Around 100 former ADF members travelled to Butterworth where Minister Payne noted “Generations of ADF personnel and their families have worked and lived at Butterworth. The number of former personnel attending the anniversary is testament to the special place it holds in many people’s hearts.”

Many who served there would agree.

Brian Weston, a Board Member of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation, commanded No 75 Squadron at Butterworth from 1980 to 1982

Brian Weston is a Board Member of the Williams Foundation and this On Target article appears in the Australian Aviation magazine.

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