Monday, February 8, 2016

Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) takes back seat as SG skyline is destroyed in Independence Day 2 movie trailer

Independence Day 2 movie trailer apparently shows the Singapore skyline being blown to smithereens (watch the trailer from the 24 to 27 second mark).

Guess this is one doomsday scenario even the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) can't prepare for. :-)

Tidbits on the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)

Enjoying your long weekend?

Here are some tidbits on the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) for you to mull over the holiday season:

The stealthiest asset in Fleet RSN is also its oldest: the former Royal Swedish Navy diesel-electric submarines.

Missile Gun Boats (above) were armed with two types of anti-ship missiles, which is a more diverse anti-ship warload than any other class of RSN man-of-war.

The aerials for Singapore's longest range experimental radar, developed by researchers from Singapore's Defence Science & Technology Agency and the Nanyang Technological University and ONERA from France, were mounted on the east breakwater pier at the RSN's Changi Naval Base. The 100-metre long aerials were used by the experimental HFSW long-range radar.

When the Singapore Armed Forces replaced the V-200 with the M-113 in the early 1970s, it gave up an armoured fighting vehicle with a turret-mounted 20mm Oerlikon cannon and 7.62mm co-axial machine gun and a roof-mounted GPMG for a 12.7mm heavy machine gun in an open cupola. It took SAF Armour more than 20 years to close the firepower and protection deficit. The gap was closed when M-113s were upgraded to Ultra standard and some vehicles were armed with the Rafael 25mm overhead weapon station.

The Singapore Army operates more Bronco variants than you have fingers and toes.

When the Commando Special Operations Force (SOF) ended the hijacking of Singapore Airlines Flight SQ117 on 26 March 1991, the unit's identity was secret. It took six more years before the SOF name was declassified on 20 February 1997 - which was some 13 years after SOF was formed in 1984.

The hitting power of the Army's Soltam 160mm Very Heavy Mortars was unmatched until the Bronco 120mm Super Rapid Advanced Mortar System entered service.

Two SAF weapons trace their genealogy to the Second World War: these are the 75mm gun on the AMX-13 (which the French adapted from the Krupp 7.5cm gun on the Panther tank) and the 30mm ADEN gun on RSAF Hawker Hunters (which was based on the Mauser MG213 cannon developed for the Luftwaffe to engage Allied heavy bombers).

The SAF operated the most powerful variants of these weapons:

  • Hawker Hunter
  • AMX-13 light tank
  • F-5E/F Tiger II

The anti-tank weapon with the longest range was not operated by the Armour or Infantry, but by the Singapore Artillery. That weapon system has now been retired as the SAF has other ways to kill MBTs at long-range.

With a max range of 80km, the RSAF Bloodhound had the longest reach among all former and existing RSAF SAMs.

The grass fields around Bloodhound surface to air missile batteries at Ang Mo Kio, Missile Site Bravo, were maintained as a buffer for the Bloodhound missile rocket boosters. The retirement of the Bloodhounds in 1990 freed this stretch of land for redevelopment. Nanyang Polytechnic and ITE Central now sit on this land.

If the control towers at RSAF air bases are put out of action, the business continuity plan will kick into action. Air base and flying activities can be monitored and controlled from where the sun doesn't shine, giving RSAF air bases a measure of resilience.

The RSAF's 160 Squadron retired its 35mm Oerlikons without saying what replaced the anti-aircraft gun. But the unit remains as an active air defence squadron. Guess what 160 SQN is armed with.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Malaysian airpower set to demonstrate technological edge at Singapore Airshow 2016

When the Royal Malaysian Air Force (Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia, TUDM) attends the Singapore Airshow 2016, Malaysian airpower on display will be the most advanced and most capable ever seen in the Lion City.

Military aviation fans may also note another interesting milestone to TUDM's upcoming display alongside the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF): TUDM as a guest air force will demonstrate technological superiority over the RSAF on its own turf for the first time.

The Su-30MKM fighter and A400M transport in TUDM warpaint stem from aircraft technology that is newer and more advanced than that seen on RSAF warplanes and transport aircraft at the Singapore Airshow.



Armchair critics will no doubt have a field day debating till the cows come home whether the Boeing F-15SG Strike Eagle or Sukhoi Su-30MKM is a more capable aircraft. In terms of the genealogy for both fighter types, however, the F-15 design (first flight 1972) is more dated than the Su-27 (first flight 1977) that eventually morphed into the Su-30.

And while the first flight comparison makes an interesting point to mull over - some would say it is irrelevant as later marque F-15s have far more advanced avionics that the 1970s-vintage birds - it is the Su-27's moniker as an Eagle-killer that is hard to sweep under the carpet.

As for trash haulers, the Airbus A400M Atlas is years ahead of the vintage Lockheed C-130B/H model Hercules transports in RSAF service.

Is there a saving grace? Possibly this fact: RSAF C-130s upgraded by Singapore Technologies Aerospace have been modernised to the state-of-the-art in terms of avionics, RWR and self-protection measures.

But RSAF C-130s, which are older than some of their aircrew, are from another generation compared to the A400M in terms of flying characteristics.

The lesson here is that technological advantages are never guaranteed.

Even for a country with a weak defence science and engineering sector, such gaps can be filled as quickly as off-the-shelf purchases are delivered.

Technological superior in single platforms is just one aspect of the larger matrix of factors used for assessments of military firepower and combat potential.

Whether the technology fights as a system is another point to consider. An air force's ability to generate and sustain airpower - with airborne early warning, with resilient air base infrastructure, the ability to fight as an integrated air defence network - should also be considered.

But for now, TUDM Kuat.

You may also like:
Malaysia launches Operasi Piramid: Largest long-range strategic airlift operation. Click here

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Lunch with former SMRT President and CEO Saw Phaik Hwa

My wife and I dined with Ms Saw Phaik Hwa, former President and CEO of SMRT Corporation Ltd, earlier this week.

Good to see Ms Saw in good health and high spirits. Her post-stroke recovery story was inspiring to hear.

Ms Saw and I first met in early 2012 at the suggestion of a mutual friend. At the time, I was keen to learn more about the dynamics between a regulator and private company as my former employer was coming to grips with such a relationship with the then newly-formed Casino Regulatory Authority.

I cherish the opportunity to hear Ms Saw recount the SMRT team's experience in crisis management after the December 2011 train disruptions on the North-South Line.

The experience providing PR advice and editing for Ms Saw's blog was invaluable. This marked the third time this blog had been approached by a high-profile corporate newsmaker for personal PR advice.

Thank you for the trust, the SMRT "war stories" and the opportunity to learn firsthand the intricacies of PR management after the December 2011 MRT train disruptions.

Lessons imparted are evergreen and the determination to serve passengers better, whatever the atmospherics, is undiminished.

You may also like:
Lessons from SMRT crisis comms from Saw Phaik Hwa. Click here 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Singapore must choose alternative energy source before LNG supplies run out

Many Singaporeans do not know or care to know that more than 90% our electricity is generated using liquefied natural gas (LNG).

In time to come, Singaporeans ought to know or will be forced to discover that the Natuna gas fields in Indonesia that is the main source of our natural gas will start running dry.

Estimates vary but even the most optimistic projections give the Natuna gas fields a lifespan of 30 years before supplies run out.

Thirty years is a short span of time needed to regear a national grid the size of Singapore's to accept a new fuel source.

This is why the Singapore LNG Corporation (SLNG) was set up in 2010 to import LNG from alternative sources like Qatar. It's a hedge that provides some measure of business continuity to LNG deliveries should supplies from Natuna be disrupted for natural or man-made reasons.

Options boggle the mind: Renewable sources of energy like solar, wind, water or nuclear energy? Or opt for the tried-and-tested, albeit non-environmentally friendly sources such as coal or oil to fire up electricity-generating turbines?

Among the renewable sources, perhaps the most contentious choice for Singapore is nuclear energy.

Nuclear power is admittedly a potential tripwire for public anxiety, anger or objection that could unsettle Singaporeans. It is one of those topics with no fence-sitters: One either agrees that it is safe or it is not.

It is as simple as that?

The nuclear narrative must inform, educate and convince stakeholders that much progress has been made in making nuclear energy safe. For instance, fourth generation (Gen IV) reactors harness the power of the atom differently from the 1970s era nuclear reactors that made world headlines after the near meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, after the earthquake there in March 2011.

Even so, the public information campaign might end up stirring more skepticism when people learn that the world's first user of Gen IV reactors is China. Admit it, such skepticism did spring to mind as the Made in China label has been tainted repeatedly by shoddy manufacturing.

The populist option is to sit back and choose something else.

Singapore cannot dilly-dally too long. It will take time to nurture a critical mass of local talent who can safely operate and maintain nuclear power plants.

What's more, any foot-dragging might see Southeast Asia's first nuclear power plant commissioned in a neighbouring country. Even if we choose to stand still, others will not.

While this may be great news for people fearful of anything to do with nuclear energy, an offshore nuclear power plant would solve none - repeat none - of the environmental concerns that the anti-nuclear lobby routinely touts as talking points.

Think haze.

If forest fires are poorly managed due to corruption and lax enforcement, would you really sleep well at night with a nuclear reactor and the entire supply chain open to mismanagement or sabotage?

Should an accident occur, how long do you think you have before prevailing winds bring the problem right into your home? Probably less than 8 hours for a plant in Sumatra.

Worst-case scenarios aside, one must also contend with the possibility that our energy resilience will be compromised if a nuclear reactor opens for business up north or down south first.

Such a scenario would unfold when spare capacity from the foreign nuke power plant is offered for sale to Singapore's electricity grid at hard-to-beat prices that fossil fuel plants cannot match.

When that day comes, the powers-that-be will find it hard to resist public demands for cheaper energy.

It will indeed prove ironic that as Singapore weans itself of reliance on fresh water from Malaysia, we might someday face the prospect of increased reliance on a foreign source of electricity within the next two decades.

In an ideal and benign universe, there really isn't much to fret about imports of cheap and clean energy.

But honestly, we do not live in that ideal and benign universe.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Getting Singapore's airshow season from good to great

If you plot the successes of Singapore's airshow season, which takes place every even year, you will get a good example of an S-curve that badly needs good ideas to boost itself to the next growth phase.

After the initial growth spurt, airshow season in Singapore appears to have stagnated with little buzz.

Make no mistake: These airshows contribute handsomely to Singapore's economy, not just from the over-priced drinks and lunch meals tagged with crazy prices. Spinoffs from the event are creamed off by Singapore's exhibitions industry, hotels, restaurants, retail stores and all facets of Singapore's tourism sector who stand to gain when business folk turn tourist after the close of business at the airshow.

What's more, having corporate and defence heavyweights mark Singapore on their busy calendars strengthens Singapore's relevance to the closely networked and highly lucrative aviation and defence business circles.

So who said it was a bad idea?

It isn't.

Airshow season represents a welcome, albeit seasonal, stimulus for the Republic's economy.

What's worrying is the perception that the best years are over for airshow season in Singapore as rival events in the region seek to displace Singapore from its perch as the world's third biggest airshow venue after biennial airshows held in Paris, France and Farnborough in the United Kingdom (or the other way around depending on whether you speak to a Frenchman or Englishman).

To understand why, look at the airshow's growth trajectory in Singapore.

What started as a flyweight, trade-only event at Paya Lebar in the early 1980s morphed into Asian Aerospace in 1984, a trade show held on the fringe of Changi Airport which sold tickets to the public on the last weekend of the show. That year's event was marked by tragedy when a live Armbrust light anti-tank weapon was fired at the Chartered Industries of Singapore booth, killing one visitor with its backblast.

By 1988, Asian Aerospace chalked up a new milestone with its first ever flying display segment. Sixty minutes of flying time was rationed for defence and commercial aviation firms to demonstrate what their product could do. This set AA on its expansion phase.

In 1990, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Black Knights made show history as the first aerobatic team to perform at Asian Aerospace.

In 1994, Asian Aerospace reaped the peace dividend with a large contingent from Russia displaying some of its most advanced combat helicopters, including flying tanks like the Hind and Hokum. This marked the first time such war machines were seen in Singapore since the end of the Cold War. That high watermark of red steel has never been surpassed, with the Russians taking their business to the Langkawi show in Malaysia instead.

At the turn of the century, visitors to Asian Aerospace 2000 got their money's worth when they were thrilled by three precision aerobatics teams. Count'em: Australia's Roulettes, Patrouille de France from the French Air Force and the RSAF's Black Knights. That record has never been beaten.

The Millennium Air Power Conference held on the sidelines of AA2000 was also an unprecedented event that drew air forces chiefs from around the world in the same conference room.

Visitors to Asian Aerospace in the noughties were treated to flying displays by the most advanced strategic bombers from the United States Air Force, with the B-1 Lancer, B-2 Spirit and B-52 Stratofortress joining the growing list of warplanes that had flown during Singapore's airshow season.

In 2004, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle appeared during the Asian Aerospace flying display. This was a bold first for Asian Aerospace, with the UAV's debut presaging the influence drones would play in future air battles.

Curtain call
The year 2006 was the curtain call for the well-loved Asian Aerospace series. Reed Exhibitions, the company that owns the Asian Aerospace brand, moved the airshow to Hong Kong after talks over the venue of future airshows were deadlocked. In hindsight, moving AA to Hong Kong essentially killed the show as it robbed the event of the all-important defence component as American and European defence companies would not display their stuff on Chinese soil. But we digress...

And so, the Singapore Airshow made its debut from 2008 and has been held at the sun-baked, hard-to-reach exhibition site that springs to life every two years. The Singapore Airshow or SA for short was initially called the Changi International Airshow. The name was changed to leverage on the Singapore brand - foreigners always called Asian Aerospace the "Singapore air show" anyway - but some suspect the change of heart came about from the unfortunate acronym for Changi International Airshow. But we digress again...

So we've seen the RSAF Black Knights fly at the Singapore Airshow. And we've seen the RSAF stage a somewhat comprehensive shop window at recent editions of the Singapore Airshow. It's good, indeed expected, for the host nation's air force to set the example with a strong presence.

But the show's growth trajectory appears to have plateaued, mirroring the phase of the sigmoid curve that business planners worry about.

To boost the wow factor for the Singapore Airshow, the airshow's planners must go back to first principles to address why people attend airshows in the first place: People go there to be wowed by flying machines.

Win that critical mass and airshow glitterati and a strong public turnout will support the event.

When foreign visitors remember Singapore's airshow season more for its heat, humidity and over-priced Cokes, we have a serious image problem on our hands. When these visitors tell you it is expensive to fly here to do business and talk shop, we better sit up and listen.

Barriers to entry for any country who wants to stage its own air show are low. Essentially anyone with an airport, open space for exhibition halls, a reasonably connected air hub that links other parts of the world to the show venue and half-decent hotels for aviation and defence salesfolk to rest their tired souls can join the airshow circuit.

All ASEAN countries within three hours flying of Singapore have tried, but to varying degrees of success.

The success of the Singapore Airshow owes much to the Lion City's reputation as a place to do business and a venue where networking opportunities are reasonably rich. But as aviation and defence firms see their travel budgets chopped, we risk losing the critical mass that appeals to airshow glitterati who make time to fly to Singapore to see and be seen.

To get our airshow from good to great takes a change in mindsets similar to the one displayed by aviation planners when we made the bold decision to close Changi Airport - the region's busiest airport - for 60 minutes for the airshow to stage its flying display.

And while it is true that flying displays are expensive to stage, the reality is that the RSAF practices for air combat every week of the year. With some creative planning, routine training flights could be timed such that outgoing or incoming formations of RSAF warplanes or combat helicopters could make an appearance at the airshow.

And as Changi Airport plans its future terminal, perhaps some thought should be invested into planning a show venue where aircraft take-offs and landings - which are part and parcel of flying display staged in Paris and Farnborough - can be appreciated by airshow visitors. An airshow venue with a clear view of the runway would present future editions of the Singapore Airshow with a stage for exciting flying displays never before seen in Singapore.

Ditch the gimmicks that risk turning the airshow into a carnival. It is silly, counter productive and dilutes the reputation of Singapore's airshow season. Even at the current state of play, many foreign exhibitors at the Singapore Airshow cordon off their booths during the public days with some exhibitors leaving their stands virtually unmanned on public days. To them, public days at the airshow are a time-wasting nuisance.

If carnival time descends on the Singapore Airshow, do you seriously think it will change or cement such mindsets?

With less than a month to go before the Singapore Airshow 2016 kicks off, it is perhaps too late to change horse at this late stage.

For the sake of the airshow's future, serious belly gazing ought to be done to take Singapore's airshow season to the next growth phase.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Towards a safer SAVER plan for our SAF men and women

Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officers who have entrusted their retirement savings to SAVER fund managers are likely to wonder how this week's stock market turmoil has affected their nest egg.

Is SAVER safe? One wishes there could be a definitive answer to that.

Need to know
Looking at how some unfortunate officer cohorts were hit by returns which were less than advertised - we hear a batch of fund managers were sacked by the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) years ago - one ought to assess if the SAVings & Employee Retirement (SAVER) plan can live up to its name as an investment plan for savers worthy of supporting the men and women who keep us safe 24/365.

It is ironic that SAF key appointment holders probably know more about the commanders they may face in battle than the individuals who manage the millions of dollars of SAVER money that belongs to SAF personnel.

Beyond the fancy name of the equity fund and brand name investment officers, who are the "worker bee" individuals who actually manage the money?

What is their personal track record in making money grow and experience in the financial sector?

Have their own investments aced the market or have they tanked?

Buyer beware
For SAF officers left with no choice after the pension scheme was removed, it is a matter of choosing the SAVER plan option that reflects their individual risk appetite.

Market savvy officers will argue they can probably outperform the fund managers had they been given the option to invest their own funds. But they do not.

The risk averse among SAF officers need better assurance that the SAVER rate of return will indeed  see the light of day. But are they getting their money's worth?

Fund managers should save the sales talk for the naive and the impressionable. The SAF Officer Corps is hardwired to assess desired outcomes (a credible rate of return for their savings), courses of action and success factors. And these officers want to see their money work hard for their retirement. And indeed, they have every right to such expectations.

It will take time to purge the system of horror stories of SAF officers whose miserable SAVER returns failed to live up to the fund managers' hype at one point in time.

As the SAVER scheme is here to stay, what's needed is a bold transformation not of the logic behind the scheme - generating and sustaining savings for the employee's retirement - but the quantum of a decent return on investment for SAF officers.

Introduced in 1998, the staff work and studies that led to the SAVER plan began in mid 1996.

These studies pre-date the wild ride in stock market trading patterns and shorter economic cycles that kicked into play after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the boom and bust in 2000, the 9/11 attacks in 2001, SARS in 2003 and the 2008 financial crisis.

The logic behind SAVER's Dynamic, Balanced and Stable investment war plans, hatched in the late 1990s, needs to be fundamentally and clinically reappraised to see if the promised ROI is realistic, achievable and sustainable.

If stock market gyrations and economic cycles make it difficult or too risky for fund managers to do their magic, we must recognise that the landscape has changed and adjust accordingly.

Time to forge a new partnership
Under the current state of play, is the risk really worth the reward?

Look around you: Big name financial houses have been burnt with bad trading calls. How successfully have fund manager safeguarded the savings for SAF officers who are expected to transition to a second career in their mid 40s, which is just about the time when their children are still in school and home mortgages have yet to be fully serviced?

Instead of generating returns by hiring fund managers to play the stock market, we should guarantee our SAF officers a decent yet secure rate of return through Government funds that can be budgeted for and sustained through taxes, levies and the like. With uncertainty over SAVER taken out of the conversation, our men and women in uniform can concentrate on the tasks at hand with full confidence that their retirement nest egg is secure.

The SAF has a slew of multi-spectrum capabilities on call 24/365 to defend Singapore against a range of threats.

Alas, one thing the men and women of the SAF Officer Corps cannot safeguard is their own retirement savings. They deserve better.