Sunday, November 22, 2015

Politics blunts the potential of airpower during crisis

Skyfall: Destruction rains from the sky as Russian Backfire bombers unload iron bombs over Syria in a demonstration of global reach, global power.

It used to be that the mere threat of aerial attack would have the Enemy think twice before doing anything rash. Not anymore.

We have in Syria and Iraq a non-state actor who has endured and continues to defy the aerial might of Arab air arms, NATO air forces and airpower unleashed by the superpowers - mentioned in order of lethality.

And yet, it continues to stay in business and takes every opportunity to cock a snook at attempts to bomb it off the face of the planet.

Indeed, recent world events have shown that airpower has done nothing to detect, deter or defend against the expansion of the non-state actor's operations in Europe and Africa.

If Giulio Douhet were alive to witness this, would his theory of  airpower be influenced in any way, shape or form? Probably not.

This is because the apparent impotence of airpower stems from politics and not the potential of war machines to conduct politics by other means, from the Air by day and by night.

If allowed to persecute the Enemy the way North Vietnam was hammered by successive Linebacker raids, if the gloves came off and strategic bombing was constrained more by weather conditions, aircrew availability and stockpile of bombs than by concerns over collateral damage, if airpower planners could shape the battlespace the way German cities were reshaped during WW2, the story - truth be told - would be vastly different.

One must recognise that airpower must be allowed to unleash its full-force potential when the decision is made to go from troubled peace (during a Period of Tension, for example) to war.

Target sets meticulously mapped out and updated by generations of airpower planners must be addressed systematically and ruthlessly with the aim of achieving conflict termination on one's terms. When the time to talk is over and the time to act dawns, one must act decisively and allow aerial firepower full flight.

Alas, such is easier said than done.

Pen & Sword: Royal Jordanian Air Force ground staff pen messages on bombs as a prelude to air strikes in Syria after a captured Jordanian F-16 pilot was burned alive. The publicity accorded to such missions has since evaporated.

We have seen how an angry Jordan promised aerial retribution early this year after one of its pilots was burned alive. After the burst of news stories that resulted from all that sound and fury, Jordanian military responses appear to have shied away from the media limelight.

We are today witnessing a resurgent Russia remind the world that Mother Russia's heavy bomber forces and cruise missile inventory is well-stocked and ready for business.

But cut out the agitprop and we have a situation where the once frightening war-winning potential of airpower appears to have been blunted.

The current situation is germane to the people who work at Gombak Drive because it dilutes perceptions on the effectiveness and efficacy of airpower as an instrument of war.

Deterrence can be compromised should the failure of shock and awe in the Middle East lead to miscalculations that Singapore's ability to lead and shape the air campaign will be similarly diminished. With deterrence at the core of Singapore's Total Defence effort, we had better take notice of how the info ops game is being played by all sides engaged in the Middle East theatre.

During a POT, such strategic miscalculations could embolden hostility rather than force a step down in tension even when foreign defence professionals discern that the Singapore war machine is clearly mobilising for operations. Why? Because the misguided, the naive and the self-deluding may think they too can weather the coming storm.

What then can one do?

By continuing the conversation among professional military circles, one can propagate awareness of Singapore's ability and determination to defend itself and leave no doubt that Autostrike is real, tested and good to go, empowered and en masse. Drip feed combat power under a weak, vacillating island defence plan? Not for us.

Whether such awareness translates to Respect depends very much on our success in convincing foreign defence watchers that the light-and-sound show executed by our fighting forces during war games such as Forging Sabre, Wallaby and Bold-this-and-that provide telling signs of what's to come should push come to shove.

This task of awareness-building has become even more challenging amid growing misperceptions that more than a year of aerial effort has failed to negate the threat from the non-state actor in the Middle East. If airpower was unshackled from political constraints, the situation today would look starkly different.

The conduct of RSAF air operations in war is a complex one. Info ops that support the Air Force in peacetime is Complex 2.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Runaway US blimp makes the news as RSAF prepares for aerostat ops

A radar-equipped United States Army blimp that broke free from its moorings at the Aberdeen Proving Ground yesterday set off a chase involving ground units and two F-16 warplanes.

The dangling mooring cable apparently knocked out power lines as the blimp drifted across residential areas at low level. Am certain there's a lesson or two here for the Republic of Singapore Air Force unit entrusted with aerostat operations.

Extracted from a Reuters report titled "Runaway U.S. military blimp wreaks havoc in Pennsylvania", dated 28 October 2015:

"A high-tech U.S. military blimp designed to detect a missile attack came loose on Wednesday and wreaked havoc as it floated from Maryland into Pennsylvania, dragging more than a mile of cable and knocking out power to thousands.

The U.S. military scrambled two armed F-16 fighter jets to keep watch as the massive blimp traveled into civilian airspace after coming untethered from its base at Aberdeen Proving Ground, a U.S. Army facility 40 miles northeast of Baltimore.

Pentagon officials said they were unsure why the 242-foot-long blimp broke free at 12:20 p.m.. Military officials wrestled for hours over the best way to safely bring it down, but eventually it deflated on its own."

The blimp, part of a $2.8 billion Army program, landed in a rural, wooded area in Exchange, Pennsylvania, a community outside Bloomsburg, about 150 miles (240 km) north of the Aberdeen Proving Ground.

John Thomas, a spokesman for Columbia County emergency management agency, said there were no reports of injuries but had no more details about the landing.

Pennsylvania police and military officials guarded a wide safety perimeter around the blimp, which settled amid farmland in the remote area. Residents, including members of an Amish community, watched them work under steady rainfall.

The blimp's travels caused widespread damage, officials said. At one point, 30,000 Pennsylvania residents were without power, the governor's office said.

"The tether attached to the aircraft caused widespread power outages across Pennsylvania," said a statement from Governor Tom Wolf's office.

The blimp's travels were a sensation on social media, with hashtags like #Blimpflood and #Blimpmemes ranking among the top trending topics. At least two Twitter parody accounts sprung up, gaining nearly 2,000 followers in just under two hours.

The attention was unlikely to be welcomed by the Army, which calls the program the Joint Land-Attack Cruise Missile Elevated Netted Sensor System,or JLENS. The program was restructured after it overran cost estimates, the Government Accountability Office said in 2014.

The program is comprised of two blimps, each 242 feet long. The second blimp will be grounded until the military inspects it and finishes an investigation into the unmooring, said Navy Captain Scott Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. military's North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.

The system itself is still in a testing phase. Manufacturer Raytheon Co's website says it would become part of the defenses that help protect the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.
Raytheon's website says the blimps are meant to be tethered to the ground by a "11/8 inch thick super-strong cable," which should withstand 100 mile-per-hour (60 kph) winds. Electricity runs up the cable and powers the radar, the website says.
NORAD said the blimp became untethered while at an altitude of 6,600 feet, far below its maximum recommended altitude of up to 10,000 feet.
By early afternoon, it had climbed to 16,000 feet as it traveled into Pennsylvania.
NORAD said the system was designed to defend against threats beyond cruise missiles, to include drone aircraft and "surface moving targets" such as swarming boats and tanks. More here
You may be interested in:
When the balloon goes up. Click here

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Urban legends abound on the Singapore Armed Forces' true fighting capabilities

Show-and-tell: Developed in the 1980s by DSO National Laboratories but unveiled only in 2004, this TV-guided glide bomb was used to point observers to the growth trajectory and capabilities of Singapore's guided weapons engineers. It is understood that the weapon's development cycle involved testing of the optical seeker on a UH-1 and an actual drop test from an A-4 Skyhawk. A big leap for Singapore - though it should be remembered that German scientists pioneered such technology some 40 years earlier during WW2.

Mention Herakles in a Republic of Singapore Navy naval base and sailors within earshot might assume one is referring to the air/surface search radar on Formidable-class stealth ships.

Repeat the H-word within the fence line of another Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) base and those in the know might invite you to come stir coffee.

Have or don't have? Heaven only knows.* 

Urban legends about the SAF's true size and strength have captivated defence observers - professional and amateur, local and foreign - for eons.

Most of the time, such gossip is shared in hushed tones and passed on like a preciously hoarded gem. The "I heard" prefix that heralds yet another SAF myth is almost never followed up by photographic evidence that would prove or disprove rumours whether or not *insert your weapon of choice* actually exists in SAF colours. 

It's worse online where anonymous and purportedly reliable sources add more spice to the mix. But you already know that.

From Alexis (aka C******) to Zebra, the depth and breadth of defence know-how said to come under so-called project names is fascinating to track. 

In doing so, two principles apply: Validity and Accuracy. As a rule of thumb, an observation that is accurate may not necessarily prove the validity of a hunch/theory. There have been numerous accurate sightings of equipment under trial which people assume eventually entered SAF service, lending credence to urban myths about what's actually in our war chest. But more spadework is needed to validate/invalidate such reports.

As for the guiding principle on Accuracy: No hypothesis can be valid unless it is accurate. It is as simple as that.

But even wildly inaccurate urban legends serve a purpose in deterring those who wish Singapore harm because one is never quite certain what may pop out of the box. 

It is important to appreciate that all this guesswork might swing against our interests should foreign planners hedge against uncertainty. They could do this by buying more, buying better and buying frequently to up-arm and up-size themselves to strengthen their firepower.

And so, a delicate balance needs to be maintained between allowing urban myths to gain traction to create strategic ambiguity and not giving foreign players the ammunition to use urban myths to boost their own arsenals.

It is a tricky business.

Even as regional defence forces are coaxed towards the path of transparency through assorted arms registers, one must be savvy enough to delink idealism with reality. That which is theoretically achievable under ideal world conditions may not sit comfortably with real world realities. This is defence real politik.

We deter by making it clear our interests will be defended, however pitifully small our real estate, air and sea space may be to outside observers. 

Statements alone will not deter or protect. It is the demonstrated ability to blunt, parry and deliver counter strikes of our own, repeatedly and resolutely, that will. Responses that the other side does not anticipate or train for may lead to the proverbial knockout blow, which explains why secret edge capabilities need to be remain in the shadows. 

When the occasion calls for it, tantalising glimpses are given by MINDEF/SAF. Such occasions provide astute observers with telling clues of what they are dealing with. 

We saw this tease-and-tell during the 3G SAF Tech X exhibition in 2004. At that public defence exhibition, Singapore unveiled a TV-guided bomb that was developed in the 1980s by its defence community.

While armchair defence observers pooh-poohed the old tech (it was unveiled decades after it was drop tested in the South China Sea), professional eyes would see an indigenous guided weapon capability that unearthed more questions than answers. What is the state of Singapore's present-day GW capability? What other operational GW munitions customised for the SAF are in service? Besides guided weapons, what else has the defence eco-system been busy with in the intervening years?

If the story is told in full some day, these projects would showcase the work done by some 5,000 defence scientists and engineers who form the bedrock of Singapore's defence engineering capability.

Depending on which side of the border you live on, their story would either knock your socks off.... or keep you wide awake at night with worry.

* Have.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Pictures of new Singapore Armed Forces URO VAMTAC 4x4s

A new four-wheel drive vehicle is set to be unveiled by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) soon.

Images of Spanish-made URO VAMTAC ST5 4x4s bearing MID numberplates taken in the Jurong area were contributed by a Senang Diri reader today.

VAMTAC is the acronym for Vehículo de Alta Movilidad Táctico, which is Spanish for "High Mobility Tactical Vehicle". The VAMTAC ST5 is sometimes referred to as the Spanish Humvee.

The MID-plate ST5s look set to fill the role of Ford Everest OUVs and Mercedes-Benz MB290GD "Minimogs" as these light vehicles are phased out of SAF service.

The ST5s are expected to be configured for various roles with armed and unarmed variants serving principally with the Singapore Army.

In our immediate neighbourhood, VAMTACs are also fielded by the Malaysian Army.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Singapore Armed Forces and defence eco-system deploy for Exercise Wallaby 2015: Hopping into action soon!

Hornets nest: Six Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) F-16D+ warplanes from 145 Squadron taxi at Rockhampton Airport on Friday 16 October 2015 after deploying across the Australian from Darwin Airport. Picture by Kayanne Hardsman from the Central Queensland Plane Spotting blog. Click here for more.

Ever heard of Budyonnovsk? We haven't either.

When Russia deployed warplanes from the airbase at Budyonnovsk to Syria, defence analysts worldwide were wowed by Russia's ability to marshal and deploy airpower at long-range. The distance covered: 1,800+ km.

As you read this, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has sent warplanes and combat helicopters from Singapore to the Australian town of Rockhampton in Queensland for tri-Service war games, codenamed Wallaby. The distance covered: 5,700+ km.

So just what constitutes "long-range" is relative.

We take Exercise Wallaby for granted because it has been staged so often that even journalists find it hard squeezing a newspoint for this annual test of the SAF's ability to fight and manoeuvre as an integrated force across a distance several times the size of Singapore island.

But just getting there is a feat of arms for the SAF.

While in Rockhampton, the land, air and naval elements involved in the various Frames of the exercise and component exercises under the Wallaby umbrella must put the mantra "raise, train and sustain" into action.

Many SAF units will be closely watched not just by safety officers. The ability of the battle staff to plan, deploy, manoeuvre and fight by day and by night - sometimes using live ordnance in close proximity with ground and air elements - will be closely watched by Army Training Evaluation Centre (ATEC) assessors who will use Wallaby as a test of their combat readiness.

To have the war game compromised by forgetting a vital spare part or decision-making tool so far from home would bring the show to an abrupt and embarrassing halt. To fly or sail to Shoalwater Bay Training Area with a gypsy caravan of all your barang(2) would make your unit a laughing stock among more seasoned warfighters who arrive in-theatre with what they need, a bit extra for stretch missions and nothing more.

With big shots from Level 5 due to visit the exercise in the coming weeks, it is crucial that this year's Frames learn from past deployments. Wallaby virgins need to learn fast about the value of, and discipline needed, to put into effect what other armies would call an "expeditionary force".

Contrary to what most observers see, Wallaby is more than an SAF show.

The SAF's experience during Wallaby will be shared by defence scientists and engineers from Singapore's defence eco-system. They will use the opportunity to see, firsthand, how modifications to various weapon platforms and systems stand up to rough handling by our soldiers under harsh conditions in the Australian outback.

Many homegrown weapons, such as the Bionix 2, owe their design refinements to the mileage clocked while on long and distant service during Ex Wallaby.

Full-time National Service, Operationally Ready NSmen and Regulars who took part in Wallaby Frames from yesteryear have collectively laid the foundation from which the present-day SAF can learn from.

Uniquely Singapore
Singapore's Wallaby experience is unique. We are forced to commit to this long-range deployment due to the shortage of training space in Singapore.

Thanks to defence diplomacy, we have made friends beyond our immediate neighbourhood who are willing to allow a foreign country to conduct what amounts to a unilateral exercise involving live ammunition on home ground. That Singapore has been allowed to do so beyond the ASEAN 10 in far-flung places such as Australia, France, India, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and the United States is testimony to the strength and extent of strong ties between our respective armed forces.

At a more tactical level, the Wallaby experience will be remembered by newbies who have never trained there before. No Singaporean son or daughter who has ever travelled by convoy during Wallaby will forget the dust stirred up by SAF vehicle columns or the stark temperature difference from pre-dawn to noon in the outback.

For some of our NSFs, getting to Wallaby will mark their first aeroplane flight.

At night, stars will crown the Australian sky.

May the Exercise Wallaby 2015 team make full and proper use of time granted by our Australian friends to train realistically and come home safely. And should push come to shove, to put in practice what we've practised during land warfare manoeuvres like Bold Conqueror to deal the knock-out blow swiftly and decisively and make stars dance in front of their eyes.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Failure of Israeli military deterrence against lone wolf attacks holds pertinent lessons for Singapore

With one side promising death if deterrence is challenged and the other desiring death by challenging deterrence, you have a tragic confluence of factors that will only see both sides bleed.

This past week, as Israel paused to reflect on the anguish of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, death called on yet more Israeli and Palestinian families as spiraling violence claimed more victims.

As the First Generation Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) modelled its deterrence posture from the Israeli playbook, the situation in the Middle East holds pertinent lessons for us even if the 3rd Gen SAF's playbook has since evolved.

So despite the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Iron Dome anti-missile batteries, Merkava MBTs and a potent air combat force spearheaded by the F-15/F-16 combo, elements bent on causing harm to Israel have not been deterred. These IDF tools of war have stayed silent as violence flared in Israel.

The threat has emerged in the form of lone wolf attacks. These were staged by individuals who made the personal decision of self-sacrifice. Their weapons of choice can be found in your household - kitchen knives for stabbing and keys to automobiles used for ramming pedestrians.

One could argue that the IDF defence posture is not tailored against home spun threats. Indeed, you could say tackling such attacks comes under the firing lane of homeland security agencies and not the military. While such hair-splitting makes great catnip for defence watchers, one should not run away from the fact that a strategy of deterrence that claims to protect one's national interests must evolve as threats evolve and not cherry pick the time, place and circumstances to justify the theoretical. Otherwise as the body count rises, your deterrent value will ring hollow and lose credibility.

With the IDF deterrence posture unchanged and the desire by Palestinians for martyrdom undiminished, closure is unlikely to come anytime soon.

Indeed, some Israeli commentators have even broached the idea of a third Palestinian uprising (Intifada) as violence begets violence.

While peace remains elusive, the lessons from such unsettling times are many and thought-provoking.

The fact that teenage Palestinians have featured prominently in street action indicates that antipathy towards the Israeli has cascaded several generations ever since grandad opposed the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. As teenage Palestinians face off with teenage IDF national servicemen deployed for homeland security duty, the seeds of hostility have been seeded among future leaders from both sides. Without a landmark change in attitudes, this guarantees that the cycle of violence will be perpetuated yet again in the next generation.

The emergence of lone wolves and the IDF's failure to counter this threat red flags the futility of military deterrence in the traditional sense when pitched against actors who ignore the script. While state actors may pull back after recognising warning indicators and calculating loss exchange ratios in a full-on clash between armed forces, this calculus is alien to lone wolves.

Indeed, recognising that their attacks are mostly one-shot affairs, a military unit may be viewed as a target and not a threat by elements bent on extracting maximum damage from their freelance action. The tipping point comes when individuals can be influenced to step forward to undertake what are ultimately one-way trips against the aggressor. For certain 800-series SIRs in the Singapore Army orbat, it is worth pondering the end-game under such scenarios.

The contemporary Israeli solution rests with retaliation against which the perpetrator cannot counter (since such elements would have passed on after the one-way mission). We see this played out during raids which flatten the homes of family members linked to individuals who have attacked Israeli interests.

In many instances, the brutality of such action outweighs any appreciable military or para military advantage because it takes place after the fact. So an attack on Israelis is staged, the attacker is identified and the bulldozers go in. All it does is exacerbate the spiral of violence and seed even more resentment among the community at the receiving end of the sledgehammer.

In an area of operations dominated by high-rise dwellings, the impracticality of razing homes is obvious. And so the shock effect is lost. The alternative, which involves evicting families and housing them elsewhere, echoes the establishment of new villages during the Malayan Emergency when vulnerable elements of the community would be fenced in behind barbed wire and under armed guard.

Such operations require copious manpower to administer because the interned community needs to be fed, watered and cared for. In this digital media age, any semblance of a concentration camp setting would set the internet alight and trigger the loss of the moral high ground.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israelis this week that there is no "magic solution" to the week-long violence by lone wolf attacks.

"We are in the midst of a wave of terror," said Mr Netanyahu."There is no magic solution and the actions (Israel is taking) will not yield instant results, but with methodical determination we will prove that terror does not pay and we will defeat it."

And so, that tragic confluence of factors continues.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Action needed, not just words

In recent days, much ado has been made about the need for, and importance of, alternative voices to speak out for you.

The minority in the House have indeed spent their tenure productively. They have taken to the floor during every opportune topic that serves their interests while electing to remain silent on awkward issues where their arguments or logic prove weak.

Let us be clear that while alternative voices can speak out, their scattered presence in the House makes them utterly irrelevant when the time comes to vote on matters that truly matter to you and I.

They do make their voice heard. Often vociferously, sometimes logically, always futilely because that handful of dissent doesn't matter.

Alternative voices do not necessarily translate to alternative action. Know the difference.

The point to be made is that Singaporeans need to filter out the lofty, empty promises from candidates claiming to be change agents for all things unpopular, untimely or unrealistic that the G wants to shove down our throats.

By all means choose the better candidate or team. Slick slogans aside, do so with your eyes wide open on what those alternative voices can realistically do for you beyond hollow rhetoric.

Debate over $1 billion price tag for E-2C Hawkeyes
Back in 1984, the then MP for Anson, J.B. Jeyaretnam, made clear his reservations about Singapore's plans to buy four Grumman E-2C Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft for $1 billion. It was then our most expensive defence purchase.

The flying radar stations were deemed necessary as eyes in the sky to give the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) early warning of airborne intruders and the time needed to get Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) warplanes up in the air.

The SAF requirement for AEW pre-dated the combat record of such assets in hot-wars fought by overseas air forces that validated the value of such assets in air combat.

Still, at $1 billion a pop, it was a political hot potato.

A spirited debate ensued in the Singapore Parliament over the need for, timing and wisdom of this purchase.

To be sure, the late JBJ gave a good account of himself. He maximised his airtime in Parliament, even though his arguments against and knowledge of air operations were not particularly illuminating.

Hot air
All that hot air counted for nothing because the RSAF still got its E-2Cs.

So while the Hansard attests to the intensity and ferocity of the debate, it did absolutely nothing to change the RSAF's growth trajectory. Those Hawkeyes still came home to roost.

Along the way, there was an earnest attempt to ensure a balanced budget and people-friendly programmes. A year after that budget debate, Singapore fell into recession (scrimping on the E-2Cs would have done absolutely nothing to steer us clear of that slump) - highlighting Singapore's exposure to the global market economy.

Helplines were extended to Singaporeans and our economic posture adjusted along the way. Beyond the rhetoric, who was there to spearhead all of that?

Survive and thrive
After the Asian financial crisis, after the bust, after the 9/11 attacks rattled the world, during and after the deadly SARS crisis, who led, who assured and who helped this tiny city-state navigate dangerous episodes?

When our national budget is adjusted every year, such tweaks are made independent of, and not because of, the clarion call for change from alternative voices in and outside the House.

Yes, there have been fruitless trips up blind alleys with botched policies. Admittedly, there have been foot in mouth moments. The hue and cry such issues raise among thinking Singaporeans - and there are many outside the orbit of political circles - often serves as the trigger for the G to stop, take stock and modify its stance where necessary.

It is this ability to adjust and adapt to changing conditions that has helped our accidental nation, ejected from the Federation 50 years ago, to survive far longer than expected.

Separate the wheat from the chaff.