Monday, March 9, 2015
Singapore's significance to the U.S. Navy as 'Gibraltar of the East'
Rear Adm. Charlie Williams, Singapore American Newspaper, Mar. 2015
Ships, submarines and aviation assets from the United States Navy have for many years made routine port calls in Singapore, either while operating here in the Navy's Seventh Fleet or while sailing to other parts of the globe.
My own first deployment to Asia included a stop in Singapore in 1993, but as recently as last month's visiting destroyer, USS Michael Murphy (DDG 112), our Sailors have always considered Singapore a wonderful place to rest, relax and experience a bit of Asian culture. But the Navy's roots in Singapore are deeper than the occasional port call, and involve far more than you might expect.
Our presence dates back to the late 1960s, not long after Singapore became an independent nation, when a small logistics detachment supported visiting ships to the region. That mission continues today and now encompasses logistics support to U.S. ships at sea, coordinating exercises with navies throughout South and Southeast Asia, and operating the Navy's new littoral combat ships rotationally deployed here to Singapore.
Despite all this activity, our presence remains relatively small with no U.S. base of any kind in Singapore. Just as Singapore's global reputation vastly exceeds its size as a city-state, the U.S. Navy does quite a lot with a very small footprint here.
The U.S. Navy is located in northern Singapore just across the Strait of Johor from Malaysia, at a former British naval base which is now a commercial port known as the PSA Sembawang Wharves. We work alongside other naval services in Sembawang, including the British Royal Navy, Royal Australian Navy and Royal New Zealand Navy, each of whom have small detachments that support visiting ships under the Five Powers Defense Arrangements with Singapore and Malaysia.
Once known as the Gibraltar of the East, the British base HMS Sembawang was built in 1938 on the eve of WWII to protect British Commonwealth interests in maritime Southeast Asia. After having been occupied by the Japanese during WWII, the base reverted back to the British after the
war. Singapore converted HMS Sembawang into a commercial port in 1968 and the British withdrew the vast majority of their military forces in 1971 as part of their East of Suez policy. From 1974 to 1989, the Royal New Zealand Navy had the largest foreign military presence in Singapore until it also downsized to a small logistics detachment.
In the early 1990s, the United States and Singapore began negotiating ways to allow U.S. military access to select, government-owned facilities in Singapore, including PSA Sembawang Wharves. As part of an agreement reached in 1992, the U.S. Navy's Commander Logistics Group Western Pacific moved its headquarters from the Philippines to Sembawang. Though we've been here as residents ever since, this move did not establish a new U.S. base in Singapore and access continues today via subsequent agreements reached in 1998 and most recently in 2005.
Many of the places where our Sailors and their families live and work today have not changed much through the years, and would be instantly recognizable to British, Aussie or Kiwi sailors who served here in the past. The recreation facility on Deptford Road, named the Terror Club after the British ship HMS Terror stationed in Singapore during WWII, was once the Dockyard Officers Club. Many families live in the historic black and white houses built in the 1930s for naval shipyard workers. With names like Wellington, Falkland and Admiralty, even the streets are steeped in history.
The relatively small staff in Sembawang provides world-class logistics support to ships, Sailors and Marines operating throughout the Seventh Fleet, from the international dateline to the waters off of India, and we do so on behalf of Americans living abroad in Singapore and at home in the continental United States. Our staff also conducts official missions with nations in South and Southeast Asia throughout the year, developing relationships and training with their navies to help us work together as professional mariners at sea.
The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, is known for saying that the value of a global Navy rests in being able to respond to events, "Where it matters, when it matters." The Air Asia tragedy is the most recent example of Admiral Greenert's comment in practice. Answering Indonesia's request for support, the Seventh Fleet deployed two U.S. Navy ships, the destroyer USS Sampson and the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth, from Singapore to join the multinational search efforts in the Java Sea.
Ultimately, one way to reflect the value of the U.S. Navy is in our ability to extend American interests well beyond the reach of the United States.
Having a continuous presence in Singapore helps the Navy fulfill this mission, and we are deeply appreciative for the continued hospitality we receive from our strong partner in the Lion City. We are also grateful for the continued and great support from the American community in Singapore, helping a very small part of a global U.S. Navy to have a very large impact.
A former commanding officer of USS Stethem (DDG 63), commodore of Destroyer Squadron 15 and chief of staff for U.S. 7th Fleet, Rear Admiral Charlie Williams serves as Commander Logistics Group Western Pacific in Singapore and is 7th Fleet's Executive Agent for theater security cooperation activities in South and Southeast Asia.