Monday, June 27, 2016

Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) proposes code of conduct for underwater encounters


When submarines move beneath regional sea lanes - which are among the most congested in the world - the crew better know what they are doing.

A collision with a surface vessel or undersea object, a submarine that is less than shipshape or an ill-trained crew could have tragic consequences.

The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) invests heavily in submarine training. Every submariner can, for example, find his way about the vessel and to essential equipment while blindfolded. The RSN has also introduced its own submarine rescue vessel, the Swift Rescue, which is on permanent standby to support 171 Squadron, the RSN's submarine unit.

You can get your house in order.

But the bigger unknown is whether other maritime users will know what to do to avoid colliding with a submarine.

With this in mind, the RSN has proposed a code of conduct that aims to promote safer underwater operations for naval forces with submarines and for ships at sea. This code would fill an essential void as there is presently no code of conduct for incidents at sea governing the underwater domain.

The RSN's Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea or CUES seeks to give submariners a set of rules of the road to avoid collisions with other undersea vessels (like other subs or unmanned underwater vehicles) or surface ships. It was floated at the Submarine Operational Safety Conference held in South Korea from 29 May to 2 June this year.

CUES is an apt acronym and more than a paper exercise in naval red tape.

It builds on 20 years of RSN submarine operations in regional waters as well as the Singapore Navy's experience operating submarines in the Baltic, where is used by the RSN has a submarine training detachment in Sweden.

The RSN's 20th year of submarine operations, which was celebrated last Friday (23 June), has provided the Navy with the depth and breadth of expertise needed to propose a code of conduct that is relevant, timely and practical.

The onus, then, is for regional navies to embrace the code.

If the code is adopted by the more than 10 regional navies who operate over 200 submarines, submariners would benefit from a common code of conduct that provides useful cues on how to safely steer when submerged vessels encounter one another.

More importantly, the code would provide surface ships - especially merchant ships and civilian vessels - with important cues on what to do when they spot red smoke flares fired from a submarine about to conduct an emergency surfacing. Such a procedure would see several hundred tonnes of submarine shoot to the surface in seconds. This aspect will strengthen maritime safety as civilian vessels do not have sonar and are therefore are unaware of what lurks beneath them.

The sea may seem vast.

But the risk of collision is not theoretical.

In February 2001, the United States Navy (USN) nuclear-powered submarine, USS Greeneville, collided with a Japanese fisheries training ship, Ehime Maru. The emergency ballast blow executed by the Greenville brought her to the surface suddenly and the Ehime Maru was struck by the submarine as she emerged from the ocean depths. Nine Japanese aboard Ehime Maru were killed when their ship sank after the collision.

The underwater CUES recommends that surfacing submarines release a red pyrotechnic like a smoke flare that would float on the surface as a warning to ships in the vicinity. This would give surface ships time to clear away from that patch of sea as CUES would spell out that the sudden appearance of a flare is a sign that a submarine is about to conduct an emergency surfacing.

And in January 2005, the USN sub, USS San Francisco, collided with an underwater sea mount while travelling at full speed. The boat was nearly lost with all hands. This incident underscores another aspect of the RSN's outreach to regional sub operators: The sharing of information, best practices and agreement on common standards for how subs are made and operated safely.

While information on sub movements is sensitive, the RSN holds the view that navies can still collaborate by sharing non-sensitive information that affects the safety of submerged navigation. This includes seismic activity (that could interfere with sonar), fishing activity and real-time movements of deep-water oil rigs and deep draft vessels like very large and ultra large crude carriers whose hulls project tens of metres below the waves.

To promote info sharing, the RSN has developed a Submarine Safety Information Portal at the Information Fusion Centre at Changi Naval Base to facilitate the sharing of "live" updates of ships at sea. This big picture is useful as it can be used to coordinate submarine rescue assets, especially vessels of opportunity identified beforehand that have the equipment that can assist with the rescue of submarines involved in accidents at sea.

In January 2005, the US Navy sub, USS San Francisco, collided with an underwater sea mount while travelling at full speed. The boat was nearly lost with all hands but managed to limp to the surface. This incident underscores how the sharing of information on vessels of opportunity can lead to safer underwater operations for navies that embrace CUES.

The sea lanes in the Malacca Strait and South China Sea are not only congested. These highways for maritime trade also traverse relatively shallow water, with the southern reaches of the South China Sea typically around 60m to 70m in depth.

What challenges do submariners face in shallow water?

Think of Changi Airport's iconic control tower, which stands 78m tall. The height from the bottom of the hull to the waterline - a measurement known as the draft - of a full laden Very Large Crude Carrier is about 20m. So an underwater submarine in the South China Sea has a distance of about two thirds of the height of the Changi Airport control tower to avoid colliding with the hull of deep draft vessels like tankers, container ships, ocean liners and even oil rigs. It is not a lot of room to manoeuvre.

Even on the surface, when ships can see one another visually or on radar, collisions have taken place in broad daylight. These perils are exacerbated after dark.

In Singapore waters, the number of tanker arrivals has charted a steady climb over the past five to 10 years, from approximately 21,000 tankers of all classes (oil, chemical, liquefied petroleum gas and liquefied natural gas) to 22,000 tankers in 2015. Not only are more tankers calling at our ports, such vessels are bigger in size and tonnage. Fully laden oil tankers are a hazard to submerged submarines because their massive size and cargo makes them hard to spot on sonar.

Add to this number the rise in deep draft vessels such as ocean liners (which can embark thousands of passengers) and oil rigs (whose legs can reach the seabed), as well as expectations that the regional submarine fleet will jump by 100 hulls to around 300 diesel-electric subs by 2020 and one can appreciate the urgency of efforts to promote safer underwater navigation.

In years to come, one can expect unmanned underwater vessels to also ply beneath the waves, adding a new challenge to submarine operations.

Congested sea lanes and shallow seas have not deterred regional navies from adding even more submarines to regional waters. The underwater space will get even busier as more subs patrol regional sea lanes.

These challenges underline the importance of an underwater code of conduct to enhance maritime safety for all sea users.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) takes the wraps off anti-torpedo decoy system




The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) has used its Navy@Vivo display this past weekend to take the wraps off the anti-torpedo defence system installed aboard its Formidable-class stealth frigates.

The system is believed to be the Morpheus (as in the Matrix?) countermeasure supplied several years ago by Italian armaments company, Leonardo Finmeccanica.

The Navy@Vivo display ship, RSS Tenacious, went on show with the covers taken off the eight-barrelled launchers that form part of the WASS C310 countermeasure launching system. All six stealth frigates carry a pair of trainable launchers atop the hangar roof.

This blog gave readers a heads-up four years ago on the possibility that the stealth frigates had been upgraded with an anti-torpedo countermeasure system. Click here for the 2012 report and here for the 2013 update.

Morpheus is made up of three components. These are:
* The Black Snake towed sonar that is streamed aft to detect and classify incoming torpedoes.

* The software that builds upon alerts furnished by Black Snake to recommend an evasive course while directing the launchers to deploy anti-torpedo countermeasures in a pre-planned pattern in the path of the incoming torpedoes.


* The eight-barrelled acoustic countermeasure launching system. This ejects dummy mobile targets  and jammers that work in tandem to spoof torpedoes. The decoys will attempt to pull the torpedo away from the bearing of the real targets, with the game of bluff designed to carry on until the torpedo's propulsion is spent.

Senang Diri understands that the acquisition of the system, thought to be Morpheus, is complemented by new CONOPS for evasive manoeuvres executed at a recommended speed and course depending on the threat vector of underwater projectiles.

The unveiling of the anti-torpedo defence system marks a major capability jump for the stealth frigates, which are the RSN's premier anti-submarine warfare vessel. The warship's primary ASW asset is the embarked S-70B Seahawk, which can be deployed in the hunter-killer role with its dipping sonar and torpedoes to give the parent warship standoff distance while performing ASW sweeps.

A Leonardo Finmeccanica video describes how the system works. We join the attack/defence sequence from the point at which a hostile submarine zeroes in on friendly warships.























Friday, June 17, 2016

The Malaysian Armed Forces (ATM) strategy of trading space for time

The Malaysian Armed Forces (Angkatan Tentera Malaysia) is respected by military forces worldwide for its expertise in jungle warfare.

The same cannot be said for its urban combat capabilities.

Aware of its shortcomings, the attention of ATM strategists since defeating the decades-old communist insurgency in 1989 has focused on the task of strengthening its ability to engage in and sustain conventional combat operations in battlespace such as urban terrain.

The strategic pivot from counter insurgency (COIN) to conventional warfare has transformed the ATM. This pivot has seen its defence staff scale up their ability to plan, mobilise and deploy for military operations on a larger scale and intensity than was practised during the Emergency era.

Space for time
The goal is to shape the battlespace for the ATM to prevail over an aggressor by trading space for time.

At section level, we have witnessed the introduction of two RPG-7 launchers and a six-shot 40mm multiple grenade launcher - weapons optimised to engage armour-heavy opponents. Indeed, the current ATM infantry section is the most heavily armed configuration we have seen and the utility of the Army's basic unit will be enhanced once units are more tightly integrated under the Future Soldier System project.

Moving up the food chain, the Keris (Astros II) rocket artillery batteries bring the RAD's firepower to a new plane. These are tactical rockets. But in the ATM's area of operations, the Keris can exert a strategic effect especially when their 110km range rings bring an entire nation within firing range. This advantage is not lost on Malaysian defence planners.

The objective is to gain time so that a short war can be dragged out into a slug fest, which would see the ATM put into play its ace cards - a brigade-strength special forces capability and the ability to interdict the long, vulnerable logistics tail that is needed to sustain forward deployed units belonging to the intruder.

In this regard, the expansion of urban areas - particularly in the southern part of peninsular Malaysia - has caught the attention of Markas ATM (MK ATM) as the Malaysian war machine's orbat is realigned and optimised for conventional operations on home ground.

The ATM's transformation involves more than revising doctrine and acquiring new war machines.

Basic questions have been asked on the extent to which MK ATM should defend and protect population centres like cities, towns and even kampungs. Bearing in mind the dictum "he who defends everything defends nothing", ATM strategists are keenly aware that territory may have to be ceded before the counter punch.

Alas, this is a touchy issue which has no model answer.

One only has to look at the reactions of Malaysians to the Lahad Datu standoff in 2013 to understand that Malaysians have high expectations for their defence and security forces (and rightly so). As a consequence, Malaysians would probably not take kindly to the perception that any Malaysian town or city has been "abandoned" by MK ATM and would make known their sentiments vociferously, perhaps at the expense of coherent and effective defence plans which the rakyat is ignorant of.

Case study: Johor Bahru
Johor Bahru (JB) makes an interesting case study. ATM table top and full-troop exercises conducted in past decades under the Eksesais Gonzales and Eks First Strike series have put to test several scenarios anchored on the defence of Johor, in general, and the state capital in JB, in particular.

There are probably few cities with a resident population of more than 1.5 million souls in ASEAN that the sit right on the border with a neighbouring country. Add to this number non-residents who live or work in the area framed by JB/Iskandar, Pontian, Kulai and Kota Tinggi and the number easily creeps up to around 1.8+ million.

ASEAN cities enjoy a territorial buffer that is contiguous with the national boundary. Not so for JB. Indeed, if a parallel can be found for JB city, it would probably be akin to how Gaza's location leaves it vulnerable to armoured penetrations from across the border. You get the picture.

There is no easy answer to the strategic question of how JB's population should be protected during a hot-war.

If the populated decides to displace on its own accord, highways and arterial roads leading out from JB to northern population centres will be jammed with civilian traffic. ATM strategists recognise that a disorganised evacuation could work in favour of the ATM's strategy of trading space for time to organise a response.

This cuts both ways as clogged roads could hamper the ATM's ability to deploy forces by land from Melaka or Mersing. This is akin to the situation in western Europe during the opening phases of the German invasion of the Low Countries when the British Expeditionary Force and French military units had their deployment timetables upset by civilians who blocked the roads.

The high water mark? Probably an axis from Muar to Mersing.

It is important to understand and appreciate that the militarily conducive conditions in the hypothetical scenario involving Johor do not arise because MK ATM chooses to deliberately leave Johoreans to their fate. The southernmost division in West Malaysia, the 3rd Division, does not have the manpower, assets and training to evacuate 1.5 million people ahead of hostilities.

So even if a best effort is made, the ability of Malaysian authorities (ATM and civilian units) to move residents out of the way of a potential firestorm is limited.

Neither can we expect most Johoreans to leave home willingly. During the height of the flood crisis in Johor and Pahang years back, many residents chose to stay in their homes despite repeated warnings by Malaysian authorities to leave in the face of impending flooding.

Malaysian strategists surmise that the same would occur ahead of a shooting war.

Congested road networks will be more of an issue for a mechanised army as the bulk of the ATM is still built upon infantry units who are trained, organised and equipped for long marches on foot.

During the early stages of an incursion, the ATM's limited armoured forces are likely to remain dispersed till there are opportune conditions for a counter punch. Such conditions could emerge as the intruding army ventures further up the Malay peninsula because the funnel shape of the southern peninsula means that the frontage will increase as the intruder ventures inland. This means vanguard units will find their FEBA gradually expand, unit boundaries will thin out correspondingly as these units advance up the funnel.

The responsibility for providing food and water to the population that remains in JB will rest on the occupying force. This task is neither straightforward, easy nor it is possible to test such capabilities in war games on a scale which will be encountered during a hot-war. Even for specialised battalions optimised for civil military relations work in occupied territory, the scale of the operation, language barrier and potentially hostile responses from residents are expected to prove thorny challenges.

A battalion's worth of CMR troops, thrown into an urban conurbation like JB, will disappear amid the urban sprawl and will find difficulty retaining critical mass to fulfill its mission objectives.

The potential loss of goodwill with the resident population could therefore prove problematic. On a wider front, the intruder will have to work hard to explain its case to a global audience. But even as both sides can be expected to sharpen their strategic messaging, the advantage lies with the native population whose way of life has been disrupted by military operations.

The Malaysian population left in place will serve defending forces well. Such residents would be expected to facilitate the infiltration of special forces assigned to sustain a guerilla warfare campaign against the invader. In this regard, one should remember that unpaved roads and plantations of Felda settlements form a continuous network that is linked all the way from Negeri Sembilan and Pahang.

This "Felda Trail" could be exploited as a combat route by ATM special forces as they launch hit-and-run raids to whittle down the strength of the invader. It is perhaps little coincidence that Malaysia's GGK selection trials employ part of this continuous network during the long 200km three-day endurance march for GGK candidates, so it would not be terra incognita for ATM special forces operatives.

ATM's game plan is to play the long 'game' in order to maximise the utility of advantages it has namely: manpower, terrain and space. In such a 'game', captive population becomes an asset and also a source of motivation to sustain morale.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Adieu NOL: Part deux



Spot the glitch: I cringe when I think about how NOL's new French masters will look at the standard of Singapore journalism after this morning's media summary is circulated to Paris.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Adieu NOL: Sale of national shipping line will have implications for Civil Resource drawer plans

Sealift: APL Temasek, a 14,000 TEU capacity mega box ship, is one of 88 vessels that will be owned by French shipping giant CMA CGM.

The sale of national shipping line, Neptune Orient Lines (NOL), to CMA CGM of France will have significant, long-term implications for Singapore's sealift capabilities using civil resources (CR) provided by NOL's fleet of merchant hulls.

With the 88 ships on NOL's books now controlled by the French shipping giant, Singapore will have to reassess the type, number and availability of sealift assets that can be called upon to serve the Lion City in times of need.

As we rethink what's available for carrying cargo by sea, CR drawer plans will need to be reassessed.

We should also weigh the implications of the loss of skilled professionals that constitute a national shipping line.

Merchant vessels from many shipping firms ply the world's sea lanes.

A national shipping line is different not just from its ownership, but the company's ethos and its raison d'etre. A company branded with the "national" moniker is hard-wired towards serving and supporting national causes for the benefit of its citizenry - even at the expense of the company's coffers should the occasion demand it.

To be blunt, if there is a war and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) needs to enlist the support of NOL, one would expect the national shipping line to step forward and contribute to the pool of CR assets available to the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) - even at the risk of losing some hulls to enemy action.

One cannot expect the same once NOL is privatised. Such is the reality of the hurly burly of the commercial world.

The loss of shipping professionals is perhaps harder to replace than lost hulls. The latter can be filled, to some degree, by time charter.

A parallel already exists in the aviation world. For example, the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) regularly charters foreign airlines to fly SAF personnel to Exercise Wallaby in Queensland, Australia, and does not rely solely on Singapore Airlines to do so.

The know-how and expertise needed to operate a shipping line with a global reach is invaluable. Alongside the operational skill sets, the exposure to the latest trends in cargo management and ship designs contribute immeasurably to Singapore's ability to marshal and deploy CR assets at sea.

Throughout NOL's long and distinguished history, NOL's shipping operations team would have witnessed the gradual transition from break bulk to container ships. Along the way, they would have gained immense experience in the fast turnaround of cargo ships and the handling of cargo manifests.

What would be commonsense to shipping executives was learned the hard way by military forces. For instance, the failure to combat load ships - last in, first out - for the Gallipoli landings during the First World War resulted in the botched delivery of war materiel when equipment that should have hit the beach first was stowed away at the lower decks of cargo ships.

It will be obvious that such skill sets are especially relevant to naval logistics too.

Indeed, Republic of Air Force (RSAF) air warfare professionals are known to have visited a certain global logistics company to see firsthand how the hub and spoke concept and efficient logistics management can turnaround cargo freighters quickly. Click here for more.

We should be mindful that NOL's sale does not eventually erode our national ability to count on Singaporeans with the experience, exposure and commitment to serve in the specialised domain of maritime logistics. The RSN's partnership with the next in line, PIL, should therefore be carefully nurtured.

Logistics matters aside, NOL's new ownership would also mean one less career option for SAF regulars looking to transition to civvie street by serving government-linked entities. It is a pity, more so because the synergy that has been forged over the years between MINDEF/SAF and NOL will eventually fade away.

We won't feel the impact of what's been flagged out above immediately.

Neither will the quality of life for you and I be adversely affected now that NOL has come under French control.

We don't feel it as individuals because many Singaporeans don't give a hoot about sea trade and how the city-state depends so heavily on the free and unrestricted movement of cargo by sea.

Had Singapore Airlines been sold, one would imagine a far more robust response from Singaporeans than the sale of NOL - which has resulted in hardly a squeak in the Lion City.

Seen with a wider aperture, the sale of NOL is yet another a reminder of how our rice bowl is never guaranteed nor easy.

Amid growing competition, NOL lacked the critical mass to compete with bigger players who can do the job more efficiently. NOL's stakeholders therefore charted a different course for what was once Singapore's largest shipping line.

The narrative of seeing a national jewel bow out after mounting losses from a failure to achieve better productivity and work excellence is not new.

Neither will it be unique to NOL.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Thoughts on RMAF airpower

Protected nest: Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16C 612 emerges from its hardened aircraft shelter. The RSAF has invested heavily in passive defences to protect its warplanes, air base infrastructure like POL facilities and comms lines as well as air defence assets. Radars and runways, however, remain vulnerable.

Thanks to this year's Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Open House, thousands of Singaporeans probably sleep better at night having seen the aerial might that protects our skies.

The RSAF went all out to impress. It presented its most comprehensive order of battle ever displayed - including squadrons not previously publicised - and showcased capabilities like the Air-Land Tactical Control Centre (ALTaCC) for the first time.

There is, however, a fine line between feeling reassured and feeling complacent.

The RSAF has indeed made noteworthy capability jumps as it transformed in tandem with the wider effort to develop and operationalise the Third Generation Singapore Armed Forces (3G SAF).

But other air forces in our neighbourhood have done so too.

Up north, the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF), our Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) partner, has also bagged a number of notable achievements. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
* Introducing the first warplanes in SEA equipped with infrared search/track (MiG-29 and Su-30MKM).
* Introducing the first 4th Gen warplanes with thrust vectoring engines (Su-30MKM)
* Introducing the region's fastest and largest anti-radiation missile
   

On the operational front, the RMAF in partnership with Malaysian carriers in 2013 planned and deployed for the largest airlift ever flown by an ASEAN nation. The airlift, codenamed Ops Piramid, involved flying home several thousand Malaysians from Egypt in August that year.

On the tactical front, Malaysia appears to be ahead of the RSAF in the area of Combat Search and Rescue. Its EC725 Caracal helicopter fleet represents a capable CSAR capability, especially when paired with PASKAU special operations troops. It should be remembered that a CSAR capability is double-edged: CSAR assets can be a life-saver for friendly aircrew. Such assets can also be tasked to find and recover non-Malaysian aircrew downed on home ground.

And while a count of tail numbers in the RSAF and RMAF orbat would see the Malaysians fall short of Singapore's frontline inventory of warplanes, one should not be too quick to discount the potency and resilience of RMAF airpower during operations. The macho sentiments that events like ROH tend to generate among the impressionable should therefore be reined in.

It is not generally appreciated, outside professional military circles who study this sort of data, that Malaysia has upwards of 50 airports and airstrips to which the RMAF can disperse to in time of conflict.

As hot war scenarios do not erupt overnight, one can deduce that the Malaysian Armed Forces will work towards exploiting a period of tension (POT) by adjusting its military posture accordingly.

Dispersing aircraft and helicopters for out-of-base operations will preserve their combat capability and potential only if the following critical factors are fulfilled: the logistic trail must be there to arm, service and support their missions. The austere base must also be defended from enemy interference and comms links with higher HQ must be maintained to enable air planners to marshal and deploy such assets at the critical time and place.

A POT would give the RMAF the window of opportunity to set up POL and munitions dumps across the peninsula or in East Malaysia. This would complicate an adversary's attempt at crippling the RMAF in pre-emptive strikes. The value of RMAF MiG-29s, derided by not a few Singaporean aviation fans for their smoke trails, comes from their ability to fly from austere airstrips thanks to the screens that protect the air intakes from FOD ingestion while on the ground.  

In recent years, the RMAF has practised deploying across the sea-air gap between East and West Malaysia. 

The RMAF's demonstrated ability to spread its wings on each side of the South China Sea serves as added insurance - or deterrence, depending on your point of view - for the RMAF. This is because an adversary can never be too sure that Malaysian warplanes are based where they usually roost during peacetime. Time and effort must therefore be expended to locate the dispersed airpower, if such assets are to be targeted and crippled in the opening phase of kinetic operations. 

Last year's Eks Paradise put to test just such deployment efforts. The war games involved almost all types of frontline RMAF fast jets. The name of the war games is deceptively tame. It is short for Paradrop, Deep Strike, Insertion and Extraction - mission scenarios that would keep most air defence teams wide awake.   

One should bear in mind that the RMAF's ability to survive as a force-in-being will threaten its adversary. This is because the amount of attention and assets needed to mount and sustain a 24-hour watch against air strikes delivered by the likes of F/A-18s and Su-30MKMs is considerable and disproportionate to the size of threats that could actually be fielded against the defenders. 

The history of warfare abounds with instances where embattled yet determined air warfare professionals have stood up successfully against a bigger and technologically superior enemy.

During WW2, the island of Malta could initially muster only Gloster Gladiator biplanes to challenge air raids from the combined might of the German Luftwaffe and Italy's grandly named (but largely impotent) Regia Aeronautica. Malta stood firm. The island was later awarded the George Cross by the English King for its stout defence.

Over in Africa, a brush fire war in 1967 in the tiny enclave of Biafra commands our attention. The Biafrans, located in what is now Nigeria, fought (unsuccessfully) for their independence. 

On the Nigerian's ledger: MiG jet fighters and Ilyushin bombers. 

War of the flea: Saab Minicoins flown by foreign mercenaries in support of the Biafra insurgency draw blood at a Nigerian airfield in yet another demonstration that asymmetry in airpower has never deterred determined pilots. 

Biafra's answer: Small piston engine sports planes called Saab MFI-9 Minicoins, armed with rocket pods and piloted by determined Swedish mercenaries. It was the aerial version of the classic guerilla strategy that advocates the war of the flea, and the Minicoins drew blood with lightning raids that shot up Nigerian airfields.

Malaysia's decision to add AH-6 light attack choppers to the MAF brings to mind the exploits of the small yet hard-hitting Biafran "air force". The AH-6s are derived from the Little Birds favoured by US special forces to penetrate contested airspace, wreak havoc and scoot before the enemy can respond. One can imagine these birds operating from austere helipads to shadow and hit enemy columns as they advance into Malaysian territory.

At the other end of the capability spectrum, the RMAF's Su-30MKM's potency lies not just in the air combat regime but in deep strike. Fitted with Russian ECM pods, the so-called Growlerski is optimised to challenge and take out western air defence networks.


The Malaysians have made the effort to keep its smaller fighter force acquainted with fighter aircraft types that do not wear RMAF warpaint. In recent times, Malaysians have conducted DACT with warplanes such as the F-22 Raptor and F-15 Eagle, providing their pilots and air defence teams with invaluable exposure and experience flying with (and against) such fighter types.

Conversations with ATM officers reveal a cadre of professionals deeply committed to the tasks they may be assigned and not the least intimidated by real or perceived technological or numerical shortcomings.

They may not have much to shout about, but still water runs deep.


Acknowledgements:
Am grateful for the contributions from retired ATM officers in the preparation of this blog post.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Avatar shows off helicopter deck at ADMM-Plus maritime security exercise

Lily pad: MV Avatar with her improved helicopter deck gives Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) helicopters more options during operations. Avatar is seen here in lightly loaded configuration, with her bulbous bow half out of the water.

This weekend's photo call for the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM)-Plus Maritime Security segment gave MV Avatar a chance to show off her new look.

Avatar, (callsign S6KF), a blue ensign "general cargo vessel" leased to serve the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), has been extensively modified to support helicopter operations.

Before and after: The project to expand the size of Avatar's helideck makes the ship better suited for air operations, especially during heavy weather when the cranes previously installed would pose a hazard to air ops. The loss of a self-loading capability and access to the cargo holds suggest that Avatar has been configured principally for helo ops while retaining her Ro-Ro capability.



Two prominent deck landing spots replace her derrick cranes forward of the bridge. These are understood to be rated for medium-lift helicopters such as Super Pumas/Cougars. With the heli deck in place, the cargo holds cannot be accessed as readily as before.

Avatar is no stranger to maritime counter terrorism exercises. In November 2011, Avatar was the target vessel for Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Special Operations Task Force counter terrorism operatives during Exercise Northstar VIII. Images of the exercise show Avatar's deck cranes swung aside to allow the insertion of counter terrorism teams via fast rope.

Her new look recalls modifications made to Allied and Axis merchant vessels during the Second World War when cargo vessels and passenger liners emerged from shipyards as aircraft carriers.

In the 1980s, Britain's Royal Navy requisitioned merchant vessels such as the Atlantic Conveyor in the lead-up to Operation Corporate which led to the recapture of the Falkland/Malvinas islands from Argentine forces.

Avatar sports a more extensive rebuild than Atlantic Conveyor, as seen by the new flight deck. However, no hangar facilities are provided for embarked naval aviation nor is a deck lift visible to bring helos below deck.

The addition of two landing spots to Avatar means the RSN possesses a theoretical maximum effort capability of 10 helo landing spots - eight aboard the four 141-metre long Endurance-class tank landing ships and two aboard Avatar. This is sufficient to carry out a company-size helicopter insertion from these vessels.

It should be remembered that each Endurance-class LST can already land a battalion-size team using embarked landing craft of the FCEP and FCU series.

Here are some fun facts about MV Avatar:
  • At 173.5m long, Avatar is the longest vessel available to the RSN that can operate helicopters.
  • Avatar is also the longest Ro-Ro that routinely serves the SAF.
  • Avatar was the only vessel deployed to serve the RSN with its own swimming pool.

Avatar before the heli deck modification project. (Photo: MINDEF Singapore)