Saturday, March 2, 2019

Heavy dose of defence news from Malaysia (Satria Perkasa), Singapore (Defence Budget, F35 announcement) on same day

Show of force: Malaysian Chief of Army General Ahmad Hasbullah Mohd Nawawi reviews troops who be involved in Eksesais Satria Perkasa at the Tentera Darat ke-86 anniversary parade yesterday. Photo: Berita Tentera Darat

The armed forces of neighbours Malaysia and Singapore made it a heavy news day yesterday (1 March 2019) with the federation officially launching its largest land warfare exercise, codenamed Satria Perkasa (Mighty Knight), while the island republic passed a record $15.5 billion (US$11.4 billion) defence budget.

The coincidence is serendipitous as Hari Tentera Darat (Army Day) falls on 1 March and the Committee of Supply debate for Singapore's national budget for respective ministries (called Heads) unfolds in a fixed format whose scheduling is hard to predict as it depends on the time taken by parliamentarians to discuss preceding Heads.

The Malaysian Army treated netizens with a massive album containing more than a hundred images - one of the largest photo albums for a single event this year - on its Berita Tentera Darat (Army News) Facebook page that show celebrations to mark the army's 86th anniversary. The picture selection was so wide and preparations like watermarks so time consuming that the images were uploaded around 6am the morning after.

Eksesais Satria Perkasa is a major capability demonstration by Malaysian land forces that involves simultaneous army operations on Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia from today till 11 March 2019.

It is a complex division-level exercise in command and control in two theatres that puts to test Markas Angkatan Darat's (Army HQ) ability to marshal, deploy and execute army operational orders for more than four thousand troops via Pemerintahan Medan Barat Tentera Darat (Army Field Command West) which covers the peninsula, and Pemerintahan Medan Barat Tentera Timur (Army Field Command East) which is bestowed with responsibility for army operations in Sabah and Sarawak.

Realistic: Eks Satria Perkasa is a two-sided land warfare exercise. Note the use of enemy simulators (blue uniforms) at the launch of the war game at Kem Sampadi in Lundu, Sarawak on 1 March 2019.

Troops from 2 Divisyen are now involved in the peninsula phase of the two-sided war game while 1 Divisyen is leading the Sarawak phase of the exercise around the areas of Lundu, Bau, Puncak Borneo, Tebedu, Mongkos and Engkabang.

Meanwhile in Singapore, fellow Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) member had a raft of defence updates of its own.

Chief amongst these is the revelation that Singapore will buy four Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters for trials with options for another eight F-35s. Interestingly, the model of the F-35 that the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) is keen to buy was not revealed. The acquisition of four test platforms is interesting as this makes the RSAF's test batch the largest among F-35 customers and is twice the number of test aircraft that Australia and the Netherlands bought two trial planes respectively for their air force.

Source: Singapore Ministry of Defence

Singapore's defence spending is expected to hit $15.5 billion (US$11.4 billion) for the current financial year, which begins on 1 April. This amount is up from $14.8 billion (US$10.9 billion) the previous FY, while Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs spending is expected to hold steady at $6.7 billion (US$4.9 billion) and $0.5 billion (US$0.4 billion), respectively. The Defence and Home Affairs portfolios collectively account for some 30 per cent of Singapore's total budget for the coming FY.

Source: Singapore Ministry of Defence

During the parliamentary debate for the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen shared infographics that outlined efforts to build a next generation Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

Source: Singapore Ministry of Defence

Of interest are the shadow drawings for the Singapore Army's next generation self-propelled artillery gun and improved all-terrain tracked carrier, which are expected to be designed and made by local weapons maker, Singapore Technologies Engineering. The new SP gun is likely to be a wheeled design with a 155mm and automatic projectile and charge loader mounted aft of an all-terrain chassis. The new tracked carrier is thought to be the Bronco 3 variant, which is an enlarged marque of the combat proven Warthog Bronco 2 design (the baseline Bronco used by the SAF is the Bronco 1).

On the naval front, the Republic of Singapore Navy has a shadow diagram of its own that has fuelled intense speculation. The shape, form and number of the so-called Joint Multi Mission Ships that are slated to replaced four 141-metre Endurance-class tank landing ships has yet to revealed and rumours abound of a light helicopter type design.

The RSN's ThyssenKrupp Type 218SG Invincible-class submarines are slated to go into service around 2025 while The navy's six 62m Victory-class Missile Corvettes (MCV) are due to be replaced by a Multi-Role Combat Vessel (MRCV) by 2030.

Several mission critical elements like improved landing craft capable of ferrying MBT-sized payloads and anti-missile defences are noticeable by their absence from the infographic, which is possibly constrained in granularity by its topline view of SAF assets.

Singapore's defence minister pledged to keep defence spending at around three to four per cent of the national budget, even with neighbouring countries increasing their arms expenditure.

Dr Ng said: "If we continue our steady investments into defence and our NSmen maintain their commitment and resolve to defend Singapore, then our future will be secure for another generation. We can look forward to celebrate SG75 with the assurance that we have strong defences.”

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Thursday, February 28, 2019

Malaysian Army to mark 86th anniversary with 10-day Eksesais Satria Perkasa in Peninsular Malaysia

Striker, Destroyer: Malaysian armour led by a PT-91M Pendekar main battle tank trundles south during Eksesais Satria Perkasa Siri 5/2016. The upcoming Satria Perkasa Siri 1/2019 exercise will practice plans, processes and procedures for rapid cross-country deployment of Tentera Darat units using the federation's road network and FELDA estate tracks. Source: Berita Tentera Darat

Malaysian war machines are on the move in large numbers, but there's no cause for panic folks.

The Malaysian Army celebrates its 86th anniversary tomorrow (1 March 2019) with a parade and display of military equipment in the northern town of Sungai Siput in Perak.

The movement of some 2,000 troops and a sizeable number of combat vehicles to the northern state of Perak for the anniversary sets the stage for the Malaysian Army's 10-day war game, codenamed Satria Perkasa (Mighty Knight), which is due to take place from Saturday (2 March'19).

The upcoming war game will be the largest land warfare exercise staged by Malaysia this year. You can expect the manoeuvres to boost the Malaysian Army's profile as a steady stream of mainstream and digital media reports planned by the Markas Tentera Darat's (Army HQ) PR staff are said to be in the pipeline. These will provide daily updates on various facets of the exercise such as men and women involved, the military assets that have been committed and the tactical scenarios encountered by Malaysian warfighters.

A spike in the number and frequency of social media updates by the Malaysian Army, especially images of the exercise posted by its online news portal, can be expected during the course of the exercise. The burst of publicity will complement the kinetic phase of Satria Perkasa as it will test how the army's news-gathering apparatus and SOPs can support Markas TD in the information domain. 

Since January this year, senior commanders from Markas Tentera Darat have conducted readiness inspections of units in Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia in the lead up to Eksesais Satria Perkasa. At least seven such visits were publicised in the Jan-Feb period. Units featured in Eksesais Satria Perkasa pre-publicity include the Penang-based Markas 2 Divisyen (which marked its 50th anniversary this month and has an area of responsibility that covers the northern states of Perlis, Kedah, Penang, Perak, Kelantan and Terengganu), 6 Briged and 6 RAMD, the crack 10 Briged (Para) rapid deployment force based in Melaka as well as a host of combat engineer, signals, transport and workshop units in Sarawak under 1 Divisyen.

Satria Perkasa's scenario involves activating and deploying Tentera Darat units across the peninsula to counter an unspecified threat from the north. The Malaysian Army has advised the public not to be alarmed should they see military convoy movements around the peninsula from 2 March to 11 March'19.

Source: Perak Today.

Commander 2 Briged, Brigadier General Datuk Mohd Nizam (above) said at a recent media briefing:"The exercise will start in Sungai Siput and move towards Gerik. During this time, kampung residents will see many military vehicles on the road. It has a fictional scenario where the enemy has taken a part  of our territory and we are given the responsibility of driving them away. I hope that the public will not panic because this is not a real scenario. It is only an exercise."

The 2016 instalment of the exercise allowed 4 Briged (Mekanize) to practice deploying its tank and APC assets across distances of 150km on federal roads and FELDA plantation tracks.

Swift Strike: Malaysian armour practiced deploying 150km by tactical road march during Eks Satria Perkasa Siri 5/2016. Source: Berita Tentera Darat

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Defence information tidbits keep Singapore Armed Forces watchers on their toes

Thought-provoking: An intriguing poster from Singapore's DSO National Laboratories featuring an RSAF Lockheed Martin F-16D.

When buying war machines from a country that tells all with full disclosure, are there no more military secrets to hide?

There undoubtedly are and it would be premature and ill-advised for armed forces to discard security classifications without thinking through long-term repercussions.

While sharing the type and number of war machines supplied gives observers an idea of what's in the arsenal, such data does not tell the full story. Assessing combat capability goes above and beyond merely counting hardware.

A thorough assessment of combat capability therefore encompasses a slew of inputs, the nature of which often treads on sensitive ground where one needs to navigate with care or risk stirring coffee with sometimes unpleasant civil servants.

Broadly speaking, these factors give observers an deeper understanding of how ready the war machines are to do their job if the button is pressed.

Are war machines ready to roll to carry out their mission or is the tank/fighter jet a workshop/hangar queen? The answer delves into hardware issues (reliability, availability, maintainability, durability etc) and heartware matters (commitment to defence from individual warfighters, unit esprit etc) because having a machine in tip-top mechanical condition counts for nothing if citizen soldiers are no-shows during a mobilisation.
How capable is the logistics support for sustaining operations? Resupply rates for POL and war shot and the methodology for sustaining operations cannot be easily discerned from the orbat. In addition, warfighters sometimes take a leaf from commercial operations, as was the case some years ago when the Republic of Singapore Air Force sent a team overseas to observe how cargo for air freighters was sorted. These sort of innovations are not reflected in orbat numbers.

What (if any) modifications have been made to customise the war machine to one's specific operational requirements and battle conditions? Placed side by side, weapon platforms that have benefited from capability enhancements often look identical externally to vanilla platforms.

How will the weapon be organised for battle? Once shipped, the decision on the scale and distribution of the weapon is one that the customer alone decides.

Countries that source equipment from the European Union and the United States must be prepared to see information on their purchases eventually appear in the defence press. Armed forces that traditionally keep their cards close to their chests must therefore adapt quickly and accept the reality that the arms trade today aspires to be more open than yesteryear.

Gone are the days when defence journalists will accept vague lines such as "weapon ABC was sold to an undisclosed Southeast Asian nation". Today, expect the scribes to dig deep, dig often and join the dots in an effort to see the big picture.

For the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), greater transparency in the global arms trade can contribute to deterrence particularly in situations where third parties (i.e. the supplier) disclose capability enhancements that might be awkward for the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) or SAF to say as the public signature or optics would be quite different. So while observers know that the arsenal is expanding, information on other aspects of the arms purchase should be safeguarded with a robust military security apparatus. When observers are left with a fuzzy and indeterminate notion of one's true strength, it is this strategic ambiguity that cautions scenario planners not to miscalculate lest their underlying assumptions are incorrect.

This week's Defense News story, "German documents reveal Singapore received more Leopard 2 tanks" (click here), is an example of how observers learned about the republic's upsized Leopard tank fleet even when officialdom said essentially nothing.

Journalist Mike Yeo noted in his story on additional deliveries of German-made MBTs to Singapore: "According to the register of conventional arms exports released by the German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, Singapore received 18 Leopard 2 main battle tanks in 2017, adding to the seven tanks the German government said it exported in 2016.

"The additional delivery in 2017 brings the total number of tanks received by Singapore to more than 170.

"It’s unknown how many tanks were ordered or what variant of was delivered. It is also unknown if this latest batch of tanks are brand new or refurbished secondhand vehicles, although the former is unlikely given production of the Leopard 2A4 has ended."

Moves to acquire more Leopard 2s through small incremental purchases that result in the total headcount creeping up steadily mirror earlier examples where small weapon purchases grew and grew over years, if not decades. It is an example of defence creep where the population of proven platforms and systems grew steadily, often out of the public eye. The AMX-13 light tanks, A-4 Skyhawks and F-5E/F Tiger IIs are examples of retired SAF war machines that started with modest numbers on the orbat but gained noteworthy critical mass, thanks to defence creep.

Whether by accident or design, the release of an image in August 2017 showing F-15SG Strike Eagle tail numbers that were out of sequence (click here) from previous bulk buys gave SAF observers insights into the RSAF's growing F-15 family. Like air surveillance, the task of information management is a complex one :-)

It's a tricky balance between being open lest potential opponents underrate one's capability and keeping some capabilities under wraps to catch other people by surprise. But let's be clear that every credible military force has trade secrets to protect - and for good reasons too.

One can expect occasional tidbits from European arms registers and arms notifications to the US Congress on weapon sales, not just on what Singapore acquires but what armed forces in the neighbourhood are buying too.

Absolute numbers aside, it remains to be seen how the Army's upsized fleet of more than 170 Leopard 2 tanks will be grouped for combat. Will they be cannibalised for spares or does the larger main battle tank force presage more transformations from the Army that might lead to the establishment of an armoured division and a rethink of current divisional estab as birth rates dwindle?

Is it Easter already?

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Friday, January 18, 2019

Singapore to buy "small number" of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters

Full statement from the Singapore Ministry of Defence, issued at 15:00H 18 January 2019

RSAF and DSTA Complete Technical Evaluation of F-16 Replacement
1. The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) have completed their technical evaluation to select the next generation fighter to replace its F-16s. The F-16s will have to retire soon after 2030 and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has been identified as the most suitable replacement to maintain the RSAF’s capabilities.

2. However, the technical evaluation also concluded that the RSAF should first purchase a small number of F-35 JSFs for a full evaluation of their capabilities and suitability before deciding on a full fleet. In the next phase, MINDEF will discuss details with relevant parties in the US before confirming its decision to acquire the F-35 JSFs for Singapore’s defence capabilities.


Saturday, December 8, 2018

Commentary of Malaysia Singapore border dispute: Beware of 'grey zone' conflicts

There was no sign of the rough patch in Malaysia-Singapore ties over air and sea space, looking at the tenor of our bilateral defence relations which enjoyed a good run this November.

Up until recently, the Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (ATM, Malaysian Armed Forces) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) continued to build on longstanding ties, thanks to a packed calendar of events that gave personnel from both countries many professional and informal opportunities to know one another better.

With this week’s sudden turn of events that put border security in the spotlight, ATM and SAF personnel who invested time and effort to forge warm and friendly relations may wonder if it was all for nought. 

On Tuesday, Malaysia said it wanted to take back control of airspace over South Johor, which the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation had delegated to Singapore and which the Republic had been managing for decades.

That same day, Singapore lodged a strong protest with Malaysia over its move to extend the Johor Bahru port limits into Singapore’s territorial waters off Tuas. Singapore officials also revealed that Malaysian government vessels had made 14 incursions into Singapore's territorial waters in the prior two weeks.

And so, like a bolt from the blue, the goodwill established between two armed forces has been overshadowed as the neighbours shoot diplomatic notes, claims and counter-claims at one another.

The ATM and SAF staged two war games successfully last month. The 24th edition of Exercise Semangat Bersatu (which means Unity in Spirit), held from 18 to 28 November, involved 980 personnel from both armies who trained together in Johor.

From 26 November to 3 December, Exercise Malapura saw some 600 personnel from the Royal Malaysian Navy and Republic of Singapore Navy come together to practise the planning of naval operations and deployment of warships, helicopters and warplanes for maritime security scenarios in the Malacca Strait.

On a broader front, the Malaysian Army hosted the 28th ASEAN Armies Rifle Meet in Melaka for marksmen from the 10 ASEAN nations to pit their skills against one another in friendly competition. Army chiefs from all ASEAN members attended the event, which had the theme “Fostering Camaraderie” as its call to action and from the smiles and handshakes seen, everyone lived up to the spirit of the annual shooting meet.

More informally, army ties benefitted from Malaysia’s hosting of Eksesais Joint Adventure Training in Pahang from 26 to 29 November. The army exercise – which was actually a series of team-bonding games - saw about 50 personnel from both armies get to know one another through outdoor activities like hiking and beach games.

While  the games  at the political and diplomatic fronts augur well for relations, other realities can cloud the positive picture. It is thus timely to remember certain cardinal principles in international relations.  

First, ponder the imponderable. Ties between countries can deteriorate suddenly without warning. As we witnessed from the good outing the ATM and SAF enjoyed recently, external forces can reset relations overnight. One need not live a distrustful, paranoid life because scenario planning that helps develop drawer plans for imponderable scenarios should allow everyone to sleep better at night. 

Above all, continue to build on friendships at all levels despite the atmospherics – as the ATM and SAF recently demonstrated.

Second, be aware of grey-zone conflicts. This is a metaphorical state of being between war and peace, where one country may aim to win either political or territorial gains associated with overt aggression using military or paramilitary forces without crossing the threshold of open warfare with its rival.

Malaysia’s deployment of Jabatan Laut (Marine Department) and coast guard vessels is a classic example of how gray-zone rivalries pan out and mirrors the aggressive moves made by coast guard forces of certain countries who try to assert authority in the South China Sea.
Relations between some countries are easy to figure out. Russia-Ukraine, Saudi Arabia-Qatar and to a lesser extent Turkey-Greece are examples of pairings where diplomats shoulder the burden of historical baggage that stirs continued enmity.

As for our Little Red Dot, bilateral spats should provide a wellspring of teachable moments for successive generations of Singaporeans to learn the difference between rhetoric and realpolitik. The ongoing border issues over maritime borders off Tuas and air flight zones over Seletar only serve to expand Singapore’s bank of stories for national education classes.

Finally, think long term. Coming back to a defence-related example, the Semangat Bersatu army exercise would not be what it is today if army officers gave up building rapport at the first rebuff. 

Malaysia’s hosting of the 1st Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment in Kluang, Johor, is an achievement that the exercise planners could only dream of when Singapore hosted the first of the war games in May 1989. 

When it came to Malaysia’s turn in October 1989, Singapore had to fly its soldiers to Sarawak as the federation was not ready to see SAF troops train in Johor. 

It took years before the trust and comfort level reached the point where SAF troops could step on Malaysian soil in the peninsula for a bilateral exercise. Indeed, many of the 1 SIR regulars and full-time national servicemen who took part in the recent war games were not even born when the groundwork was laid nearly three decades ago.

So never allow temporary irritants to distract one from gunning for long-term good. Army leaders from Malaysia and Singapore showed what can be accomplished over decades with continued efforts to build friendship and trust.

Stormy ties? Just wait, years if need be, and let the irritants eventually fade out.

Indeed, Singapore’s Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and the Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan sounded a similar note this week when he urged people from both sides of the Causeway to look ahead. 

Mr Khaw said: "When I discussed the High-Speed Rail (HSR) project with (Malaysia's Economic Affairs) Minister Azmin Ali, I had a distinct feeling that the young ministers in Malaysia want a fresh relationship with Singapore, without any past baggage."

"There is so much we can gain working together. I believe the citizens on both sides of the Causeway also expect the younger leadership of both sides to work together for a brighter win-win future.”

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Honour and sacrifice in the Republic of Singapore Air Force RSAF A-4 Skyhawk Crisis

There are families in Singapore who have endured the pain of losing a loved one in a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training accident. The family of Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Captain Seah Boon Thong, who died at the age of 25 in a 1985 plane crash, is one such family.

This close-knit family's irreplaceable loss has not stopped the Seahs from contributing to Singapore in the same field - national defence - that CPT Seah gave his life to.

Even if you are from Singapore's defence eco-system, there's a good chance you may not see the link between CPT Seah and his only brother, the eldest among boy-girl-boy siblings. But you and your loved ones would probably have travelled on the MRT trains, buses or taxis that his brother is now responsible for as Chairman of the Board for SMRT Corporation Ltd. This is his current contribution to Singapore that crowns a distinguished career in the defence and energy sector.

We start the story of the Seah brothers, Boon Thong and Moon Ming, from a botched birth registration that saw the youngest son's name recorded wrongly as "Boon" and not "Moon" - the generational name for the boys. Unless you saw them standing side by side, it was not apparent looking at a name list that they were brothers.

Boon Thong was the pride of the family and the toast of Hwa Chong Junior College (now Hwa Chong Institution) when he was chosen as a President's Scholar in 1979 - the second such scholar for Hwa Chong. He received his scholarship from then Singapore President Benjamin Sheares on 1 July of that year - a date which coincided with SAF Day - and flew to University College, Oxford, to further his studies.

Upon graduation, he joined the RSAF and was trained to fly the McDonnell-Douglas A-4 Skyhawk. In the early 1980s, the A-4 Skyhawk was the most numerous jet fighter type in Singapore's young air arm. The refurbished ex-United States Navy fighter-bombers formed the main strength of the RSAF's strike force that also comprised Northrop F-5 Tiger II supersonic interceptors and Hawker Hunter ground-attack fighters.

On Thursday 25 July 1985, CPT Seah made his final flight with 145 Squadron.

Lined up on Runway 36 at Tengah Air Base, CPT Seah and two other planes were cleared for takeoff at 9.36am that morning.

Less than a minute after commencing his takeoff roll, the single-seat A-4 Skyhawk was airborne. The directional heading of 360 degrees pointed the fighters due north. Three seconds after liftoff, a fire warning in the cockpit and a black plume of smoke from the tail pipe signalled trouble. The engine was on fire with the blaze fed by a broken hydraulic pressure line that affected flight controls.

An air traffic controller at the TAB control tower reported seeing "an explosion". It was CPT Seah ejecting from his stricken plane.

The Skyhawk crashed at 9.40am some 1.9km east of an islet on Singapore's northwestern shore called Pulau Sarimbun. In its entire service life, the doomed Skyhawk had clocked 3,766 hours of flying time - which was within its design limit. It was the aircraft's ageing Wright J65 engines that were giving up in the high humidity and heat of Singapore's climate.

CPT Seah's body was found three days later after an extensive search by the Marine Police and Republic of Singapore Navy. He left behind a wife whom he married in April that year.

Skyhawk Crisis
The loss of CPT Seah came during a dark episode in the RSAF's annals called the Skyhawk Crisis. From October 1984 till March 1986, the RSAF lost two pilots and five Skyhawks in 17 months. It was an unsustainable attrition rate. The losses were traced to Wright J65 engines, an engine type no longer made by its manufacturer. Spare parts were hard to obtain, components were pricey and OEM support had dried up.

RSAF Skyhawks had dropped out of the sky for various reasons since they entered operational service in the mid-1970s. But to lose five aircraft within a relatively short space of time raised suspicions of a systemic anomaly bordering on a crisis considering the large number of Skyhawks in RSAF service and the pivotal role they served in the SAF's deterrent posture.

Although press reports on the accident quote the Singapore Ministry of Defence as saying this was a routine training flight (which was true), the determination of the RSAF's Skyhawk community to keep their ageing fighter-bombers flying is evident only when you connect the dots. CPT Seah and his colleagues took to the air just a day after another Skyhawk was lost in the Malacca Strait some 35 nautical miles from Singapore. The pilot, Captain Cheong Seng Chee, 31, was saved within 30 minutes by an RSAF rescue helicopter.

One fatality from two Skyhawk crashes in as many days hit the RSAF's flying community hard. The actual losses belie the poor aircraft availability during the period caused by defective engines that grounded more than a handful of flights. As reliability plummetted, there were concerns over the RSAF's operational readiness as the air force's main strike force could be crippled.

Still they flew. RSAF A-4 drivers ventured out to sea, far from home in single-engine Skyhawks with J65 powerplants of dubious reliability, not knowing when any of them would end up as the next casualty.

If ever you need an example of a community with the fortitude and commitment to get on with the job, this was it.

In the meantime, Singapore's defence engineers came into play.

What followed was a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Four engine types were considered for a re-engining programme for the Skyhawk, with the General-Electric F404-GE-100D eventually picked to power the Skyhawk. This was a non-afterburner variant of the F404 engines fitted on US Navy F/A-18 Hornets - a warplane that was regarded as the US Navy's latest strike fighter in the mid-80s.

We know how this story ends: Re-engining proved immensely successful and was carried out in Singapore with a tight timeline. Problems that plagued the problematic J65s vanished with the new engines. This was complemented by a revamp of the Skyhawk's weapons delivery and navigation system (WDNS) to sharpen the fighter-bomber's ability to detect, track and deal with various targets. Refinements such as a new wide angle heads-up display that projected flight and targeting information on a transparent screen above the pilot's cockpit panel, a laser spot tracker under the nose and radar warning receivers on the nose and tail cone to warn of hostile emitters were added to modernise the combat capabilities of these Vietnam War-era fighter-bombers.

On 19 September 1986, the first phase of the re-engining programme conducted its first test flight with an American test pilot, Mr Tom Wagner, at the controls. This followed 16 months of development during a critical phase in the RSAF's decision-making process when air force planners had to decide whether to proceed with giving the Skyhawks a new lease of life, or buy a new warplane to replace these fighters. The first option was cheaper but unproven. The second more expensive option promised to sweep aside hand-me-down fighter planes and usher in a new era for the RSAF at a time when neighbours were mulling cutting edge fighters such as the Tornado.

By 1990, the RSAF had gained so much confidence with the re-engined Skyhawks that it reformed its Black Knights aerobatic display team to demonstrate the performance of its revitalised A-4 fleet. At Asian Aerospace 1990, RSAF Super Skyhawks thrilled the crowds with their formation flying and aerobatics that showed off the high roll rate of the A-4 and powerful thrust-to-weight ratio that gave it a faster rate of climb in the vertical.

Among airshow attendees was Moon Ming, who was flying the flag for the Singapore defence industry.

As for the Seah family, Moon Ming did not allow the loss of his brother to unsettle his desire to serve the Singapore defence industry. He climbed the rungs from junior engineer to emerge as founding president of local defence electronics company, ST Electronics, and has since earned a string of accolades and chairmanships of august organisations. Long after the tears had dried, the older of the Seah brothers was determined to continue contributing as best he could to Singapore.

More than 30 years after that fateful day and despite the many corporate achievements to his name, there's always a place in Moon Ming's heart for the younger brother whom he never got to grow old with.

Until its retirement early this century, the RSAF did not lose a single A-4 Super Skyhawk to flying accidents. The Skyhawks made their final flight over Singapore on 31 March 2005. Twelve twin-seater TA-4SU Super Skyhawks (some with VIPs aboard) did the honours. At the time, the RSAF had another 10 twin-seater TA-4SU Super Skyhawks in Cazaux, France. It was a disproportionately large number of "trainers" for the air force. Till this day, the TA-4SU's wartime role has not been declassified.

Republic of Singapore Air Force Skyhawk Crisis incidents
10 Oct 1984: A two-seater TA-4 Skyhawk crashed in the Strait of Malacca 30nm west of Singapore. Pilot CPT Kwok Him Yick, 28, ejected safely and was rescued by a passing fishing boat while LTA Khoo Seng Kim, 26, missing. LTA Khoo's body found was on 18 Oct 1984.

24 July 1985: CPT Cheong Seng Chee, 31, ejected over Strait of Malacca 35nm off Singapore. He was rescued within 30 minutes.

25 July 1985: CPT Seah Boon Thong, 25, ejected over the Johor Strait minutes after an engine fire was reported. His body was found three days later.

22 Oct 1985: LTA Leow Yong Yean, 22, ejected safely south of TAB. He was picked up by boat and then airlifted by rescue helicopter to TAB.

3 Mar 1986: A two-seater TA-4 Skyhawk piloted by CPT Tsu Way Ming, 29, and LTA Goh Char Li, 22, crashed into the sea southwest of TAB. Both were rescued by helicopter.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Expensive Plaything? Consider the Tribe, the Natives and the Other Side

When defending a nation whose first military defeat may be its last, is there no price too high to pay to stave off national extinction?

With vulnerability as the start point for any discussion on expensive war machines, dissenting voices face an uphill battle making their point.

High price tag and costly sustainability over its projected life cycle? The nation can pay for it. So, Buy.

The flipside of not buying? Apocalyptic, nightmarish scenarios where the nation will pay a far higher price if certain capabilities are absent. So, Buy.

One does not have to resort to scare mongering to drive the point home. And in situations where theoretical possibilities are discussed and nobody has the definitive answer, it is natural and expected that one should err on the side of caution. So, Buy.

Unique to certain nations, the acquisition of high-priced armaments exerts a dynamic that goes beyond superficial arguments of whether one is getting bang for buck. Performance data will often be used to debunk skeptics. Mind you, these data points use numbers that outsiders like you and I will be forced to take at face value because the data is often hard to verify as they concern operationally sensitive or commercially competitive matters. You will find it virtually impossible to apply Reagan's advice to "trust but verify" when it comes to establishing whether MTBF, life cycle cost or cost per flight hour are what they are made out to be.

The dynamic we are talking about concerns human factors that impact feelings in the tribe, among the natives and also how people on the other side of the border view any arms purchase.

The Tribe
If we agree that expensive war machines have shrugged off teething issues and work as advertised, one has to work through the difficult issue of who gets to use these silver bullets.

Peculiar to geographies where CEP does not simply refer to weapon accuracy but the current estimated potential of men and women who step forward to serve the armed forces, this is a tricky issue.

There have been past instances where book smarts does not equate street smarts. Add a complex environment where one has to fight in three dimensions and one gets to realise why individuals with the right stuff are so highly cherished in established air forces.

But if one is to treat a command tour as a tick in the box, then you have a problem when an expensive war machine is used like a stage prop, or worst, a crutch so that a high flier has something nice to show on the resume, whatever the shortcomings. It's been done before: Sunrays who are extinguished within the opening bouts of mock battles. CMIs who miss the datum by minutes when precision is expected/demanded. Highly esteemed leaders who need someone to countercheck every command call.

Among the Few, those hand-picked to operate expensive war machines will emerge primus inter pares. In a highly-competitive environment with many talented individuals to choose from, it is up to the system to demonstrate that they truly deserve their perch.

The Natives
While what goes on within the tribe (usually) stays within the tribe, people deserve to know what they are paying for.

There's usually something nice to write about new war machines, more so for expensive ones. You can count on the arms factory concerned to trot out an impressive list of war-winning attributes for its product.

With an eye-popping price tag, one should hope tax payers get what they pay for.

The flip side is what happens if and when the armament fails to deliver. Defence enthusiasts would probably have come across the statistic of a certain warplane with a combat record of a hundred plus victories with zero losses. It makes a useful factoid journalists are likely to use. But that same war machine fielded against a rag tag militia (with no air force worth talking about) has not only failed to quell the opposition but is said to have been clawed out of the sky by ground-based air defences. Did the much-touted warplane deter? No. Did it defeat the enemy decisively? No.

The shock effect of situations where the highly-acclaimed fall from grace is magnified for small nations, particularly those with net-savvy natives. This means one should mind those sound bites right from the get go and not get blown away with the hype in an attempt to justify cost.

The Other Side
While mindsets in places with a tame mainstream media can be managed with careful curation of information, how folks across the border view new armaments is beyond one's control.

If new weapon platforms and systems deter or at the very least impress, then this is a good outcome.

But if for all the hype and ballyhoo nothing stirs in their loins (i.e. balls shrink), then you have a problem.

In some armed forces, it is popular and even fashionable to study the success in battle of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The IDF's ability to bounce back from surprise attack from multiple foes, their conduct of a short war wrapped up in less than a week, their wielding of air and tank heavy forces with aplomb have won them acclaim and admiration from untested forces eager to emulate their mastery of the art and science of war.

Where Arab armies failed, a small force in Lebanon has proven otherwise. Combatants from Hezbollah have fought the IDF to bloody stalemates with no warplanes and no tanks. Their battle staff has been content to allow IDF complete air supremacy, knowing full well IDF warplanes are virtually useless once the rockets fly.

You can bet the neighbours will watch with interest whatever new kit is fielded.

Once can expect the difficult gestation for new platforms to be alluded to by observers on the other side. Snarky remarks are par for the course.

What's even more noteworthy and more difficult to discern - unless one makes the effort to know the neighbours better - is any pivot in their understanding of how warfare might be conducted if forced to decisive battle on their soil, and their confidence in emulating conditions that led to the IDF stalemate even if it means going to Paradise.

If the new playbook by the other side works, then you have a problem because the new, expensive war machine will fail to deter even before it arrives.