New commander of Singapore team prepares to support carrier’s Far East mission

Taking command of one of the smallest military units in the Forces inventory is Commander Tim Hutchins.

He’s been given the reins of the British Defence Singapore Support Unit, run for the past three years by Commander Paul Bastiaens as it prepares for a demanding 2021.

It’s the task of the unit – located at the northern tip of Singapore and comprising just 33 men and women (UK service and civilian personnel, plus locally-employed civilians) – to support British and allied forces operating in the region, in particular providing fuel (at Senoko) and port facilities at Sembawang.

Although Britain withdrew its military forces from east of Suez in 1971 – including the main hub of Singapore, which included the sizeable RN establishment of HMS Terror – the UK has maintained a small military presence for the past half century supporting the Five-Power Defence Agreement.

It was signed by Britain, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand, all of whom vowed to work together to safeguard the region with an exercise each October, Bersama Lima, to test their combined abilities.

Beyond that annual exercise, the unit has found its workload growing in recent years as the Royal Navy stepped up its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, with visits by HMS Argyll, Albion, Montrose, Sutherland and, most recently, survey ship HMS Enterprise.

The role of commanding officer comes with a hefty responsibility. The unit remains the UK’s only visible permanent commitment to the Five-Powers Defence Arrangement in the region

Commander Paul Bastiaens

During the past five years, an average of 120 allied vessels visited the support unit each year, and in 2017 under Cdr Bastiaens, 150 vessels.

Covid restrictions have produced surprisingly minimal changes to visiting numbers – but have reduced ship’s company shore leave.

Most vessels are from either the five FPDA nations or the US, but the unit has also supported ships from Brazil, Chile, Fiji, Greece, India, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Sweden – at times making it the busiest UK-military operated port in terms of frigate and destroyer movements.

“The role of commanding officer comes with a hefty responsibility,” said Commander Bastiaens, who’s now off to be executive officer of engineering school HMS Sultan in Gosport.

“The unit remains the UK’s only visible permanent commitment to the Five-Powers Defence Arrangement in the region.”

His successor faces the challenge of supporting the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier group which will sail to the Pacific Rim as part of its maiden deployment and there will be UK participation in the 50th anniversary Bersama Lima exercise.

“It is an outright pleasure and delight to take command here and an incredibly exciting time for the UK, Five-Powers Defence Agreement and UK Strategic Command to prove our worth,” Commander Hutchins said.