Special Operations Force (SOF)

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The Special Operations Force (SOF) is part of the Singapore Army’s Commandos arm. It is highly trained, and trains regularly with the United States Delta Force, U.S. Army Rangers, and Navy SEALs. They also practice free-falling in all terrains and weather conditions

Role

The Special Operations Force is made up of an unspecified number. It is an elite Special Forces which deals with situations such as hostage-taking. As with other such organizations, the identities of its personnel are closely guarded. The most prominent SOF personnel (due to high profile appointments after active service) is Colonel (Ret)Lo Yong Po, who often bears United States Navy Seal badges and service medals.

Non-active former SOF personnel can be spotted sometimes with a “SPECIAL FORCES” tab on the right sleeve of a combat uniform, or a smaller semi-circle badge on ceremonial uniforms, though most prefer to be discreet and choose not to wear the tabs.

Troopers are trained in jungle-warfare, reconnaissance and counterterrorism, and are deployable by land, airborne assault and amphibious assault, specializing in free-falling, diving and long-range land insertion. They are each cross-trained to operate all types of weapons and equipment, though each trooper is assigned a specialist appointment in his team.

History

Before SOF

On September 27, 1972, a flight engineer aboard a Boeing 707 operated by Greek airline Olympic Airways accidentally flipped a ‘hijack alarm’. The plane, Flight 472, had taken off from Sydney, Australia bound for Paya Lebar Airport in Singapore with 31 passengers and 11 crew members at 10:30 am, Singapore time.

Local authorities were not informed of the situation until four hours later. Following a flurry of conflicting reports, Australia’s Department of Civil Aviation warned Paya Lebar Airport “to be ready for a possible hijacking.”

Flight 472 landed at Paya Lebar at 6:25 pm and was immediately surrounded by police, before the authorities could confirm that it was a false alarm. Nonetheless, the incident highlighted the lack of hostage-rescue commandos at that time to deal with hijack and hostage situation.

Singapore Airlines Flight SQ 117 hijack

Singapore Airlines Flight 117 took off from Kuala Lumpur on 26 March, 1991. Four passengers who claimed to be members of the Pakistan People’s Party hijacked it, en route to Singapore and landed at Singapore Changi Airport. They demanded the release of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s husband and other PPP members detained in Pakistani jails. They wanted to refuel the plane so as to fly to Australia.

The hijackers issued a five-minute deadline, after which they threatened to kill one passenger every ten minutes if their demands were not acceded to. On the countdown to three minutes, the order was given to storm the plane. Elite Singapore Special Operations Force members stormed the plane, killing the four Pakistani hijackers and freeing all 118 passengers and 9 crew. The rescue of SQ 117 was over in just 30 seconds. None of the passengers and crew were hurt.

Incident in 2005

In June 2005, a regular with the SOF, Second Sergeant Ong Jia Hui, 24, drowned during training. An investigation discovered negligence on the part of instructors Master Sergeant Tan Kang Choon, Master Sergeant Julian Tan, Staff Sergeant Alex Chan and First Warrant Officer Ho Yin Choy. The incident also raised public awareness of the unit’s existence and the counter-terrorism training which was being conducted. The Minister of Defence Teo Chee Hean says it was the first such incident that ever occurred in the SOF.

Equipment and Weapons

The SOF uses weapons that include the SAR-21 Assault Rifle, MP5 submachine gun, M4 carbine, FN P-90 submachine gun, various shotguns, Vektor and SiG pistols, several kinds of sniper rifles and a wide variety of classified weapons.

The SOF also employs many typical equipment associated with counterterrorism to clear rooms and break open doors/locks, though much of it is classified.

Selection and Training

It takes approximately four years to complete SOF training, including training in overseas deployments and freefalls to qualify as an SOF trooper.

Operations

Operation Thunderbolt

Known operations include the 1991 rescue of Singapore Airlines Flight 117 at Singapore Changi Airport.

The SIA Airbus A310 was hijacked on March 26, 1991, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. It was later learnt that the foursome were armed with nothing more dangerous than fireworks and in-flight cutlery. Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) commandos stormed the Airbus at 6:50 am on March 27. The operation was over in 30 seconds and 123 passengers and crew were freed. All four terrorists were killed by gunfire.

This was the first time the SOF was revealed to the public. At the time, most Singaporeans had not expected that an incident as serious as the SQ 117 situation could happen in Singapore. For instance, when word of the crisis first broke, some thought it was a hoax.

The operation was unique on two accounts: First, it marked the first time Singapore resolved an aircraft hijacking with the use of deadly force. Second, it was the first time that an SAF unit had been sent on operations even before its existence had been officially acknowledged. The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the SAF did not take the wraps off the SOF even after the black-clad commandos were photographed storming the SIA plane. They would consistently refer to them as commandos. MINDEF only acknowledged the SOF’s existence on February 20, 1997. This was 13 years after they were formed and six years after they first went into action.

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