Saturday, April 30, 2016

Show-and-tell by the RSN Naval Logistics Command (NALCOM) telegraphs deep expertise in naval logistics

With a radiant flash, the Oto Melara 76mm gun burst into life, firing shells at a rate of two per second at its target.

At the maximum range of 10km for surface targets, even slight deviations in the barrel elevation and azimuth, combined with the forward movement, pitch and roll of its parent warship could send shells off target.

The result: mission fail.

This is why the gun mount and the naval gunfire fire control system for weapons like the 76mm gun must be integrated properly and maintained in tip top condition to keep the Navy's warships fighting fit.

During a visit to the Naval Logistics Command (NALCOM) at Changi Naval Base yesterday morning, the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) showcased how NALCOM logisticians and engineers keep its surface warships, unmanned assets and submarines prepared and ready for naval operations on and from the sea.

NALCOM weapon engineers also explained the intricacies of naval gunnery, with a naked Oto Melara 76mm Super Rapid gun used for a demo of the ammunition feed cycle.

The visit for members of the Advisory Council for Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD) was hosted by Senior Minister of State (SMS) for Defence and Foreign Affairs and Chairman ACCORD, Dr Maliki Osman.

Not shown nor explained but implied by the presence of civilian defence contractors tasked with electronic warfare (EW) portfolios, embedded with NALCOM squadrons as part of its "integrated workforce", is the fact that the sharp end of the Navy's warfighting potential is made up of a lethal combo of hard and soft-kill options.

The depth of NALCOM's expertise in underwater naval technology was also implied when Dr Maliki led ACCORD members to view a diesel-electric submarine (SSK) undergoing an overhaul in a covered workshop along the South Wharf.

From the outside, Block 322 at CNB's shiplift compound is plain and functional, its box-shape and covered roof unlikely to win it any architectural prizes.

This sheltered facility - protected from the elements, lightning and prying eyes -  is where NALCOM takes apart, services and reassembles every major SSK component. The 7.5 tonne overhead crane which runs on rails spanning almost the length of Blk 322 allows NALCOM naval engineers to lift out every major item within the SSK's hull, including the propulsion plant and sensors like the bow sonar.

The overhaul involves more than an oil change for the boat's engines and a new paint job. Indeed, the work that goes on inside Blk 322 reflects how far and how fast the RSN has progressed since the decision was made in the 1990s to acquire several Sjöormen-class submarines from Sweden for the RSN to evaluate the need for a submarine capability.

For Singapore's defence engineers to master complex engineering projects like the overhaul of submarines shows that RSN and defence industry engineers have long passed the beginner's stage in submarine maintenance work.

The purchase of two Type 218SG submarines from Germany is likely to lead to the construction of a second specialised workshop in due course.

Alongside the shiplift compound, one sees naval craft maintained by NALCOM for live-fire practices. The modified Fast Craft Equipment Personnel (FCEP) waterjet-propelled landing craft and the target barge provide telling hints of the level of realism injected into Fleet RSN war games that are supported by NALCOM.

The FCEP suggests the size of targets that naval gunners are trained to target and sink, with the large orange net indicating that the small landing craft could simulate larger targets with sensors used to track near misses.

Berthed alongside Mike 2 at the South Wharf is another naval oddity. The features on the Jolly Roger target barge, which makes it resemble the silhouette of fast attack craft typically found in this region, give you an idea of the size of surface targets that sensors on RSN and RSAF guided munitions have to find, fix and finish. If the Jolly Roger could talk, this target barge would tell you that she has survived more live-fire munitions than any other RSN asset, as evidenced by the patched up hull and shrapnel scars.

Beyond the hardware, NALCOM's ability to surge to a war readiness footing from peacetime manning was evident during the briefing by Commander NALCOM, ME7 Andy Tay. About 49% of NALCOM is made up of Operationally-Ready National Servicemen (NSmen).

The implication is that a fully mobilised, war-ready NALCOM will be larger than what you see now.

Some of these personnel could be deployed to serve aboard requisitioned merchant ships - ships taken up from trade, to borrow Royal Navy terminology - to bolster the RSN's ability to embark troops and equipment, as well as munitions or POL to resupply the fleet during operations.

Indeed, past civil resource requisition exercises have seen vessels such as hovercraft enlisted into NALCOM service and commercial vessels fitted out as hospital ships.

During a POT, the Civil Resource Generation Centre under NALCOM's Force Generation SQN can "plan, track, requisite, retrofit and generate" CR vessels for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). In other words, civilian craft could be given some teeth.

This role takes a leaf from naval operations where the value of a standing force of men-of-war is strengthened immeasurably when augmented by civilian vessels.

During WW2, a shortage of anti-submarine vessels resulted in the arming of fishing trawlers for ASW duty by the Royal Navy.

Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the trapped British Expeditionary Force from Europe, owes its success to scores of  civilian vessels which answered the British Admiralty's call for everything that floats to assist with the sealift of BEF troops from Dunkirk.

The rapid repair of the American aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, damaged by Japanese bombs during the Battle of the Coral Sea in WW2, is another noteworthy example of the value of naval logisticians. Repairs that were estimated to take 90 days were done in just three. In the race against the clock at Pearl Harbor, naval engineers and civilian dockyard hands worked flat out to get the crippled carrier mission ready as US Navy codebreakers had estimated that the Japanese were preparing for a large-scale operation around Midway island.

The Yorktown's subsequent appearance during the clash around Midway island surprised the Japanese as their analysts had not reckoned on her being ready for combat so soon after Coral Sea. The Japanese thought the US Navy was coming to battle one carrier short.  

Back home, NALCOM has thankfully been spared the horrors of war.

However, NALCOM's operational record supporting operations other than war reflects the command's mission readiness, breadth of capabilities and depth of expertise when men and women of our Navy are tasked to deploy for long and distant service.

Without its war machines, the RSN would not have key enablers for safeguarding Singapore's access to the sea lanes.

And without NALCOM, the RSN would not have its war machines.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Want to be a MINDEF/SAF scholar? Get set for the tough selection process.

If there was one thing you could say to the Prime Minister (PM), what would it be?*

To you and I, this topic may (or may not?) kick start an interesting conversation.

To several of Singapore's top A Level students, their essay on this topic could make or break their scholarship prospects.

The process of weeding out the wheat from the chaff is, to many Singaporean teens, a daunting and highly competitive one. At stake is a career with a top Singaporean ministry and a well-chartered career pathway that could lead to a lifetime opportunity to serve Singaporeans through public service.

To get there, however, involves fending off competition in a selection process the likes of which Singapore's school system doesn't prepare students for.

Writing test
There is the mandatory writing test - which many dread.  The essay topic is merely a device to see how candidates perform when they put pen to paper.

To many applicants, words and ideas flow effortlessly. Those who have made it to the scholarship interview stage are likely A-listers for the General Paper who can mount persuasive and beautifully crafted arguments where their words sing.

Then there is the face-to-face interview.

Donning his or her best business wear, the youngsters stride into the interview room knowing it is make or break time.

Interview process
For a youngster barely out of his or her teens, the experience facing a panel comprising about 10 senior civil servants can prove unnerving. There have been cases where candidates mentally expect perhaps three interviewers to quiz them, only to be floored when they crack open the door to the interview room and come eyeball to eyeball with an upsized interview panel just short of a soccer team.

The look of shock and awe is priceless.

Some millennials wilt.

And so the imposing panel serves a role in sieving out the high potentials from the wannabees even before the chit chat commences.

Those of you who have sat as part of a scholarship or job selection panel would know the challenges involved in coaxing candidates to say something coherent and intelligent that brings their (limited) resume to life.

Many candidates are book smart but cannot sustain a conversation to save their life.

Those who succumb to stage fright fritter away that one chance to impress and land that coveted scholarship.

And then there are the chatterboxes fresh from charm school. These you can spot with their textbook placement of hands and feet, that fleeting eye contact with all panel members that doesn't morph into a staring match, the witty comebacks that buy time for the candidate to process his/her thoughts, the gestures, the knowing nod of the head, the winsome smile - right out of the etiquette school playbook.

Get the formula too perfect and one can come across as being stiff, plastic and robot-like - yes, many of your interviewers are aware of the charm school playbook too.

So one has to be yourself and yet exude promise and future potential that suggest a high CEP.

For defence-related scholarships, conversation topics du jour run the gamut from how much Singapore should spend on its defence to current affairs. The South China Sea? You better know where it is, not just geographically but also be au fait with the political dimension with the many issues and flashpoints centered around this patch of water.

Current affairs is a conversation killer.

For MINDEF/SAF scholarship applicants, this phase of the selection has tripped up many an aspiring applicant who pays the price for too much time on witless social media pursuits and a distinct lack of interest in things going on around the world that could affect their lives. You're not looking for a walking Wikipedia but a candidate who shows promise in understanding and appreciating tiny Singapore's place in the world, its immediate neighbourhood and the special circumstances that underpin its future when many small states have failed. No easy answers here.

The young candidate will  have to fend off competition from like-minded teens, all gunning determinedly for a handful of prestigious scholarships that would lead to the world's top universities.

The hand-picked scholars will have much to prove during their career serving Singapore as many eyes - from subordinates to peers and superiors - will be upon them once they start earning their pay.

* Inspired by the essay topic from this year's Defence Merit Scholarship (DMS) selection.

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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Singapore needs to beef up nuclear knowledge

Published in The Straits Times, 1 April 2016. Not an April Fools joke though.

World leaders are gathered in Washington D.C. this week for talks at the Nuclear Security Summit. Taking part in the conversation will be the Singapore delegation led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

It may not be obvious at first glance just what Singapore’s interest might be in a nuclear summit - there are no nuclear plants here - but a closer look at the issue reminds us of the importance of the Republic, a major seaport, developing its  own expertise in this area.

Beyond the hush-hush discussions and networking among the 51 nations represented, the real work to safeguard Singapore from the threat of nuclear-armed terrorists extends beyond the ambit of the summit. Indeed, it is a 24/365 effort that demands deep expertise in the specialised domains of nuclear safety, science, engineering and policy matters.

Singapore’s capabilities in these fields are now embroynic. With so much at stake if radioactive material falls into the wrong hands, it is vital that Singapore build up its capabilities in nuclear matters - and do so quickly. 

Even with no nuclear powerplants in Singapore, our scientific community needs to study radioactive material to understand the nature of the beast. If forewarned is forearmed, our defence planners must be kept informed and updated of developments in nuclear matters so that they know what to look for and how to deal with crisis situations involving radioactive material.

Counter-terrorist units the world over keep their trade secrets to themselves to preserve the element of surprise. The more so for tactics and special expertise needed to deal with nuclear incidents whose effects are potentially far deadlier than conventional attacks. 

As foreign defence forces will not teach you everything, Singapore needs its own experts in nuclear matters who can advise and implement plans, programmes and operational procedures to meet, defeat or mitigate the threat from nuclear-armed terrorists.

Singapore’s Nuclear Safety Research and Education Programme (NSREP), launched in April 2014, is a step in the right direction. This programme faces a steep learning curve in building, retaining and growing a team of Singaporeans with the know-how in this specialised field.
Its endeavours involve juggling between building capabilities to protect Singaporeans from nuclear incidents and finding the time to join like-minded professionals at regional and international safety fora to exchange ideas and learn best practices.

Nuclear matters evoke strong emotions because nuclear accidents from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl to Fukushima all resulted in health risks to people. These incidents underscore why the NSREP’s job is even more pressing.

News out in the United States this past week on water pollution in the city of Flint in Michigan illustrates how poor expertise in understanding one’s environment can harm people’s lives. Water authorities supplied contaminated drinking water drawn from the Flint river to cityfolk, who then fell ill after the polluted water caused lead from old water pipes to leach into the water system. Several people died and thousands more suffered from ill health as a result of the water crisis.

The official enquiry released last week noted:”The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality failed in its fundamental responsibility to effectively enforce drinking water regulations.”

The same could be said if Singapore’s lack of expertise in nuclear science and engineering results in planners caught blindsided, unable to recognise emerging challenges or threats in the nuclear arena from lack of knowledge, experience or organisational structure to deal with such matters. You don’t know what you don’t know.

The danger is more real than you think.

We may not have nuclear powerplants here that can be compromised, but the threat could emerge in other ways. 

Nuclear-powered warships and submarines make port visits to Singapore or sail through the Singapore Strait several times a year. Such vessels, which are floating nuclear powerplants, require additional armed protection when in Singapore and detection/crisis management capabilities in the event of a nuclear incident.

As a major seaport, Singapore’s security watchers are on the alert for dirty bombs (explosives packed with radioactive material to enhance the deadliness of the bomb) that may be smuggled into Singapore hidden among the thousands of shipping containers that come into port daily.

A large and more organised network of Singaporean nuclear experts is needed for Singapore to better understand the implications of nuclear developments in our waters and around the region. 

At the same time, the security scare in Belgium last week where a nuclear scientists was targeted for video surveillance by suspected terrorists means that we must be clear how to protect our network of experts from similar threats – a difficult task considering such individuals will need to present a public face at scientific conferences and academic literature.

Bear in mind that fallout from a nuclear disaster has a long reach. The no-go zone around the Chernobyl nuclear powerplant that exploded in 1986 is several times bigger than Singapore. Fallout from that disaster was detected in European countries thousands of miles away.

Objecting to a nuclear plant next to one’s home isn’t the same as raising a hue and cry when a columbarium may be built in one’s housing estate. 

Just as the haze from Sumatra resulted in health woes for many Singaporeans, radioactive clouds that emerge from nuclear disasters in our region could adversely affect life in Singapore.

Singapore’s focus on developing its capabilities in nuclear matters will put the Lion City on a stronger footing when it needs the expertise to study the implications of nuclear powerplants that are being considered by our neighbours. A nuclear forensics capability would also improve our security capabilities against threats from radioactive material.

One cannot un-invent nuclear science and technology. So even if Singapore does not choose to use nuclear technology as a form of clean, renewable energy, there is nothing to stop its neighbours from doing so.

The indigenous community of professionals in nuclear issues that Singapore aims to nurture will therefore serve an essential role in national security and in horizon scanning for emerging challenges.

David Boey, a former  defence correspondent of The Straits Times, is a member of the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD).

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Indonesian military (TNI) may up the ante on Batam to underscore abang-adik dynamic

With several years to go before Indonesia makes good its pledge to strengthen its air traffic control (ATC) assets ahead of a push to claim control of air lanes now under the Singapore Flight Information Region (FIR), Indonesian officials have already started cranking up the rhetoric.

A recent commentary by former chief of the Indonesian air force, Air Chief Marshal Chappy Hakim, points to the lines of argument that will assail us whenever the FIR issue comes into play. These stoke sentiments close to the hearts of many Indonesians by making a call not just for a nationalistic spirit but also by sowing the perception that foreign interference in Indonesian sovereign territory infringes on their beloved Tanah Airku (i.e. Homeland).

This confluence of factors - fanning nationalistic fervour and the need to stand united against foreign interference - is a surefire way for rousing the rakyat. So why let facts get in the way of a good story?

For an august personality who once commanded the TNI-AU to raise such points signals the thinking that prevails at the highest levels of the Indonesian elite.

Who pays the price for being portrayed as the money-faced and meddlesome neighbour? Singapore.

Alas, it is not the rhetoric or jingoistic statements that Singaporeans should watch out for.

Cleverly crafted essays pitched for a domestic audience may well go viral in ASEAN's largest and most populous country. But it is Indonesian attempts at flexing its military muscle to telegraph its hardline stance that are worth watching out for.

Their current weapon of choice appears to be occasional Indonesian air force deployments to Hang Nadim Airport (BTH) on Batam island, which lies within sight of Singapore.

Indonesian warplanes can fly anywhere they wish. But when Indonesian fighter pilots ignore, or seem blissfully ignorant of, flight procedures and protocols in some of Asia's most congested air lanes, we are waiting for an accident to happen.

To have fast jets flying among passenger jets with little or no regard for ATC instructions from Changi flirts with danger, imperils aviation safety and flies in the face of internationally agreed standards of behaviour mandated by ICAO.

You would have guessed by now that such aerial theatrics have taken place in Singapore's FIR.

As the TNI does not have a permanent fighter detachment on Batam, the TNI's flying circus performs only for a limited time - usually for a month or so once a year. A handful of warplanes operating from an open tarmac at BTH is all it takes to remind Singapore that the TNI is in business.

It is a safe bet that the TNI will up the ante in coming years. Such muscle-flexing performances may be intended as a political sideshow for domestic consumption. But Singapore should never desensitise itself to less-than-friendly military posturing on its doorstep.

In time to come, TNI fast jets may not be the only weapon of choice for such theatrics.

Knowing Singapore's propensity for planning ahead and preparing for worst-case scenarios, it is likely that our defence planners have proactively sketched out scenarios involving other war machines as well as drawer plans should the muscle-flexing cross the line.

Singapore will stand alone if it comes within the range rings of tactical weapons that exert a strategic effect. This is because the world's arms control regimes that guard against the proliferation of strategic weapons are worded for weapons with a powerful punch and a long reach that stretches for thousands of kilometres.

A tiny city-state like Singapore cannot expect international arms control watchdogs to view the movement of tactical war machines in our neighbourhood with the same level of importance or alarm as the way weapons like cruise missiles are moved across the European continent. Neither will the defence press see such movements as newsworthy or sinister.

So we'll have to count on ourselves.

You have to ask yourself how far these quasi bully boy tactics would go if Indonesia really wanted to exert its strong arm in its imagined abang-adik (big brother-little brother) dynamic.

Indonesians love to remind their countrymen and foreigners alike that the distance between the extreme ends of their archipelago will cover width of the continental United States. It's indeed true! This is a geographical reality that underscores the vastness of our southern neighbour.

We hear the message loud and clear.

At the same time, one hopes Indonesia realises that the prosper-thy-neighbour approach that Singapore fosters is a two-way street.

If the occasional (and predictable) posturing by the TNI on Singapore's doorstep is anything to go by, it will not be business-as-usual if and when Indonesia "takes back" control of the FIR allocated to Singapore by ICAO.

Check Six.

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Saturday, March 26, 2016

Bangkok visit

Am rounding up a week's stay in Bangkok, Thailand. 

It was good catching up with an old friend from the MINDEF network in the heart of Bangkok. Thank you for the guidance and patience.

Was glad to make the acquaintance of a French national, an old Indochina hand, to hear firsthand how Cambodia's population was systematically liquidated by the Khmer Rouge from Year Zero. Lessons from Cambodia's killing fields are especially relevant in today's security context as we face violent extremists who are set on reshaping society by killing all those who do not conform to their life's views. Thank you for sharing how a nation collapsed. Your war stories are valuable as you were there. And yes, will make that trip to Siem Reap some day. 

Events back home weighed heavily on our hearts this week. :-( 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

US dashes Singapore's hopes for breakthrough in comprehensive awareness

These two flying machines look similar because they come from the same design house: an American company called Scaled Composites LLC.

Based in the Mojave desert in California, Scaled Composites lent its creative touch to the LALEE concept that was pursued by Singapore at the turn of the century.

The LALEE was conceptualised as more than a replacement for Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning planes - three of which remained on strength at the point of retirement.

LALEE is short for Low-Altitude Long Enduring Endurance. The platform was intended to be part of a system of terrestrial, airborne and space-based assets that would enable the RSAF to compile a comprehensive air situation picture of the air and sea space around Singapore, 24/365.

As a military asset, LALEE was neither chicken or fish. Some observers called it a high-altitude long endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial vehicle. But LALEE was designed to be optionally-piloted because Singapore's civil aviation authorities had yet to develop SOPs for drones flying race track circuits amid some of Asia's most congested airways.

The  LALEE's sensor payload gave her the ability to scan the skies and seas for air and surface contacts. But she was a lot more than a radar platform. LALEE could also be equipped to sniff the electromagnetic spectrum, rebro comms at long range and so could have evolved into an Aries, Compass Call, Growler, Hawkeye, Poseidon and Rivet Joint rolled into one slender and seemingly fragile airframe .

The low-altitude referred to in her name was a reference to her operational height, which was below that of satellites.

So ground-based gap-filler radars such as the RSAF's Giraffe Agile Multi Beam (AMB) would complement air surveillance radars by covering blind spots masked by terrain. Herakles radars on Republic of Singapore Navy Formidable-class stealth frigates would extend the radar range rings out to sea (i.e. a kind of sea-based air defence).

Orbits flown by LALEE would extend the radar horizon even further with sensors operating at around 50,000 feet.

Finally, reconnaissance satellites would take up the high-altitude duty station and provide updates once every 90 minutes or so.

What's amazing about this concept, sketched out by defence planners from the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and RSAF under its 1990s era transformation effort, is that apart from LALEE, every piece of the puzzle is in place as of February 2016.

So what happened to LALEE?

It never got off  the ground as the United States (US) was uncomfortable with Singapore's development plans for this ground-breaking concept.

At least on paper, it offered superior economics over manned AEW platforms and HALE UAVs which were sold by American military giants. The LALEE's capacity to generate power for sensors in the fuselage offered the end-user many payload options for aerial surveillance for an extended period of time.

In short, LALEE could have ushered a breakthrough in air defence surveillance that was born of necessity for Singapore's defence planners who had to work hard to surmount the city-state's lack of strategic depth, congested airways and a need to stretch every defence dollar.

At this point, we come to the proverbial takeaway from this project. The United States is a reliable defence partner. While Singapore is a close friend of the United States but not quite an ally, the reality is that Washington may not always be ready for tiny Singapore to punch above its weight.

Despite the smiles and handshakes, don't count on the Americans always being there for you. This is real politik between nation states that one needs to wake up to.

When Washington's legendary bureaucracy cranks into action, such unease results in export restrictions, With that clamp down, there was no way LALEE would fly.

And so, a Singaporean idea that could have counted as a revolution in military affairs has remained just a pipe dream.

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Airbus Defence & Space satellite images of Singapore Airshow 2016

European defence giant, Airbus Defence & Space, has released images captured by its Pleiades satellites of the Singapore Airshow 2016.

The images show the airshow's static display area filling up with aircraft and visitors, from the pre-show day on 14 Feb 2016 and the first day of the show on 16 Feb 2016.

The Pleiades satellites are capable of delivering sharper pictures that the images below, with a resolution of 50cm cited on its online GeoStore.