Tuesday, October 28, 2014

When the balloon goes up: Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) aerostat to perform sentry duty


Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) radar-equipped aerostat by numbers 

Sometime next year, the Republic of Singapore Air Force will begin deploying a radar-equipped aerostat for aerial and maritime surveillance. Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, announced this today at the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) PRIDE Day 2014 awards presentation ceremony held at Nanyang Polytechnic.

PRIDE, which means PRoductivity and Innovation in Daily Efforts, is a productivity initiative that also encourages Singapore's defence eco-system to think out of the box and be bold and creative in solving everyday challenges.

Out of the box solutions seldom come bigger than the 55-metre long American-made TCOM aerostats, which are estimated to result in savings of some $29.2 million a year providing long-range radar surveillance compared to conventional airborne radar coverage once fully operational.

An exhibit that explains the aerostat's role in Singapore's national defence can be found at the MINDEF PRIDE Day 2014 Exhibition, held at the Nanyang Polytechnic from 28 October till 30 October from 10am to 4pm. 


8: Ground crew are required to operate the sensor

24/7: Duty hours and days on watch for the aerostat

29.2: The cost savings, in Singapore dollars, per year from operating the aerostat versus AEW

55: Length in metres of this tethered balloon made by TCOM 

200: Range, in kilometres, that the aerostat's radar can detect objects

2015: Initial operational capability for the aerostats

2,000: The operating ceiling, in feet, that the aerostat can reach 


The phrase "when the balloon goes up" takes on a whole new meaning when radar-equipped balloons belonging to the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) are installed at a certain place to detect, identify and track air and maritime contacts.


The tethered balloons or aerostats will help with sense-making of the air situation picture by extending the radar horizon some 2,000 feet above ground and up to 200 km away, which is about double the range of terrestrial radar emitters. This task is already a complex one in peacetime owing to the large number of flying objects around this place.

The aerostats will complement the suite of ground and building-based sensors fielded by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). These include ground-based radars and truck-mounted gap-filler radars such as the Giraffe AMB, airborne radar watch provided by Gulfstream G550 CAEW aircraft, Fokker 50 Utility aircraft modified for surface search and ACSR radars mounted on HDB flats and buildings thought to be linked to the Republic of Singapore Navy's coastal surveillance network. 


The overlapping coverage of these emitters, when collated and analysed at the SAF's Armed Forces Command Post together with intelligence gathered by overhead imagery and other assets, present SAF defence planners with info-fusion and sense-making capabilities that were unheard of just a decade ago.


Once the aerostats go into service, they will add a new and unmistakeable feature to the landscape when hauled to ground level for maintenance. At 55 m in length - slightly longer than an Olymic-size pool - and 8,554 cubic metres in volume, the aerostat's sheer size makes it difficult to hide from nosey people outside the fenceline, which means that sooner or later, someone will notice. :-)

At their operational ceiling thousands of feet above ground level, the aerostat will be hardly visible to ground observers. However, that vantage point gives the aerostat's sensors better visibility. Being higher allows the emitter to see far and see more.

The job of keeping the aerostat flying is complex too.

Among the issues that have to be sorted out before the aerostat goes aloft is that of deconflicting airspace. A cylinder of airspace several kilometres in diameter around the aerostat probably needs to be sanitised to keep a safe distance between aircraft, the aerostat itself and, more importantly, the cable that anchors the aerostat to the ground on the mainland. The last item will be near invisible to pilots flying about in high performance aircraft.

Lightning protection will be another point to consider. With millions of dollars worth of sensitive electronics in the air of one of the most lightning prone areas of the globe, defence engineers have to ensure the investment does not fry the moment a lightning bolt zaps the machine.

If it works as planned, the aerostat will herald exciting times for airspace watchers in that place.




You may also like:
When the balloon goes up: Radar-equipped aerostats to perform sentry duty. Click here

Guide to radars and defence equipment installed on HDB blocks and commercial buildings in Singapore. Click here 


Evaluate need for RSAF Space Command. Click here

When the RSAF gives ground. Another RSAF base may make way for urban renewal. Click here

Sunday, October 26, 2014

When the Republic of Singapore Air Force gives ground: Impact on SG's land bank from the closure of PLAB

In the 1978 movie, Superman, Lex Luthor intends to detonate a nuclear device along the San Andreas Fault so that California would slide into the Pacific Ocean, making him immensely richer because hundreds of miles of worthless desert land he had bought would be the new (read: valuable) seafront property.

The cunning plan by Superman's nemesis was engineered to profit from an instant change in geography. Alas, the hero saves the day and the land grab never achieves its intended effect.

In Singapore, the announcement that the Republic of Singapore Air Force would bid goodbye to Paya Lebar Air Base (PLAB) after 2030 has stoked the interest of real estate speculators who sense a good buy. They reason that property limited by height restrictions around PLAB would shoot up in value (if you excuse the pun) once height restrictions are removed and the plot ratio of real estate around what is now the RSAF's largest airbase can be maximised.

There's money to be made from the change in landscape, some property players reason, though on a time scale far longer than the instant success that Lex Luthor has plotted.

While theoretically plausible, property speculators may want to ensure their homework is thorough and money-making instincts are sound before taking the plunge.

The 16-year window (or more) from now till the day PLAB closes shop is likely to be signposted with economic peaks and troughs, looking at how economic cycles have contracted in the past decade or so.

When the RSAF gives ground
In addition, one must pencil in the impact on property prices from the release of prime land after container terminals around the city fringe move to Tuas. And how about the possibility that even more RSAF assets will be released after 2030?

Looking at projections for Singapore's resident population and future demands for living space, it is the opinion of this blog that another RSAF base will eventually make way for urban renewal. When that day comes, the announcement would likely throw a spanner in the works of property players who had banked their hopes on profiting from PLAB's eventual departure. The sudden realisation that tiny Singapore has a bigger land bank for urban redevelopment than estimated by property analysts/experts is likely to dash many hopes and may sink many speculative ventures.

That said, some will profit - and handsomely so.

If one does a scenario play, one can quite clearly see that the release of a substantial tract of land would invigorate the property scene. The dots are already there for you to join in order to hazard a guess how the landscape is likely to change.

Investors with deep, deep pockets and a long-term investment horizon that stretches decades from today are likely to be the ones who can ride out any speculative fever and be left standing solidly to bank in their profits.

Caveat emptor.


You may also like:
When the balloon goes up. Radar-equipped aerostats to perform sentry duty. Click here

RSAF takes creative approach in studying airpower. Click here

The Best Units 2014. Click here 

Safe haven, safe house. Click here

Friday, October 24, 2014

Goody two shoes: Lessons in volunteer management for the SAF Volunteer Corps pioneer team

The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) fast landing craft approached the Indonesian shore, fully loaded with passengers all keyed up and eager for action. Ramp down. Boots on Indonesian soil and the first "shots" recorded were a mix of selfies and images of the battered landscape.

Those who watched the antics by disaster tourists embedded among genuine volunteers frowned at the spectacle. This scene was played out during the closing chapter of Singapore's contribution to the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief work, codenamed Operation Flying Eagle, in earthquake and tsunami hit Meulaboh.

The motley crew of civilian volunteers had been shipped to Meulaboh aboard an RSN tank landing ship, their two-day journey there drawing upon that mental quality that lived up to the name ship of that class of LST.

The RSN's experience shows that despite the best of intentions from civilian volunteers and their military host, mixing people plucked from civvie street into a military environment is fraught with perils in expectation management. The is also the human dynamic, principally the interplay of group dynamics among volunteers and between the host as opinions are shaped and in group/out group cliques forged in a hierarchical military environment.

Not all civilians adapt well to military life. This lifestyle change doesn't come more stark than life aboard a Singapore navy man-of-war, haze gray and underway, far from the comfort zone of landlubbers unused to shipboard life.

Speak to the RSN's OFE alumni and you may hear about the challenges in hosting volunteers as not all responded well to authority or to their peers or were polite in voicing their grouses. And these were civilians who had stepped forward on their own free will to do good.

Lessons gleaned from OFE 10 years ago point to the path the Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps (SAFVC) can avoid relearning with astute management of volunteer applicants at all touch points leading to their first taste of military life.

But even with the best effort at mapping touch points so that proactive action can be taken in assessing, selecting and inducting the best candidates, some people may, alas, chose to drop out.

Again, our Navy holds lessons to how candidates can be galvanised to press on. Visit the Naval Diving Unit and one may hear how tadpoles can voluntarily drop out by simply ringing a bell. It is as simple as that. A few clangs of that blooming bell and you can drop out of Hell Week.

Despite this easy way out, tadpoles rarely do so. Why?

Perhaps the Navy's commitment to the quality of a candidate over sheer recruitment numbers presents the NDU training cadre with candidates imbued with the right motivation and personal resolve to adapt and get on with the job.

Numbers aside, it is good to know the SAFVC is likewise committed to handpicking quality candidates over filling vacancies. Their's is no numbers game.

Turning concept into reality is never easy, particularly for the pioneer batch tasked with shaping the SAFVC from a paper plan into a credible source of human capital to augment the SAF.

Yet, those at the helm must believe innately that the cause is worthwhile, the objectives attainable and remain steadfast and vigilant as they focus on the tasks at hand, even as naysayers nip at their heels.

Results will show.



If you think you have what it takes to join the SAF Volunteer Corps, click here

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Six unique spots in Singapore lost after the 9/11 security lockdown

Singaporeans in their teens would probably have fuzzy recollections of how parts of this island looked like before the security clampdown that came about after the terror attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001.

As with many things in life, you don't realise what you've missed until it's gone. Here are our top six picks, in no particular order.

1. Changi Village Road
A magnet for plane spotters by day and *ahem* "courting couples" by night, the slight elevation of Changi Village Road gave one an unblocked view of the airport runway and taxiways. It was a real treat watching planes come and go at one of Asia's busiest airports. The place now sits within the fence line of the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) Changi Air Base (West).

2. Sembawang Wharves
There was a time when the name of a visiting warship was all that was needed for a visitor's pass to the quayside where foreign warships came alongside for port calls. No one bothered if you walked in with a camera and you could gawk at the open yard full of brand new cars waiting for their date with a Ro-Ro. All that changed after 9/11 with heightened security in the area, complete with security troopers from the Singapore Armed Forces Island Defence Group. 

3. Gombak Drive
One could walk all the way up Gombak Drive to the hallowed gates of the Singapore Ministry of Defence, no questions asked. Just make sure you do an abut turn before the MPs at the gate. There was this particular tree in front of a security signboard near the main gate guard post that generated chuckles from visitors: stand at one particular spot and the tree trunk blocked out the letter "P" in the written warning that said: 
Show Your 
Pass Without Demand 
Today, the road leading to Block M, Gombak Drive resembles the CIQ at the Causeway. Ahhh... life was indeed simpler then.

4. Central Manpower Base, Depot Road
Cheap curry puffs colour marked for potatoes and sardines were one hot staple at CMPB. The various canteen dishes were kept affordable too and welcomed all. Visitors could walk right in as there was hardly a sentry in sight pre-9/11. Today: Don't venture there unless on an official visit.

5. SAFTI Military Institute, Upper Jurong Road
The sprawling camp, home to the SAF Officer Corps, was designed from a blank sheet of paper as an open concept camp ala West Point in the US. No need to change pass. No perimeter fence. Visitors were allowed to roam the grounds to see the citizens' army up close and many did indeed do so. The grounds were a favourite with wedding couples, who used the cropped lawns and well manicured terrain as the backdrop for their wedding photo shoot.

6. Jurong Island
When the island was first opened as Singapore's petrochemical hub, you could drive in whenever you fancied for a look at the newest refineries on the island. Go at night and be dazzled by the Christmas tree-like effect from the fairyland of lights that typifies a modern petrochem hub. The empty, desert-like, yet-to-be-occupied plots of industrial land and roads leading to empty seafronts were also a favourite with courting couples looking for some private space *grin* or shutter bugs who wanted to snap pictures of the refineries at night. Missed that sight? Too bad. It's gone. Forever! 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Islamic State versus SAF Volunteer Corps: Five reasons why IS has a more effective volunteer programme

Two armed organisations, same challenge: How to uproot civilians from their daily routine to support a military cause.

In one corner: The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) with nearly 50 years of brand equity, full support from the apparatus of state, an alumni of 900,000 Singaporean men who have served full-time National Service, a credible (albeit unproven) arsenal of some of the deadliest war machines you will find in Southeast Asia, a mobilisation process (proven) that gives Singapore one of the fastest transitions from peace to war. The target of the newly-announced SAF Volunteer Corps: 100 to 150 volunteers to be recruited over a year.

Then look at the Islamic State (IS): Volunteers who step forward are branded as terrorists and emerge on the watch list of assorted intelligence agencies. Deployed in-theatre, they face attacks by the combined might of some of the world's most powerfully-armed countries. Homecoming will probably earn them a chat with their local police.

And yet, to the consternation of IS detractors, tens of thousands are said to have stepped forward from all over the world, with a level of motivation that has seen some willingly take on offensive ops that leads to their certain death. The growing IS footprint on maps of the Middle East would not have been possible without the support of their volunteers. If there was a prize for a successful volunteer programme, this organisation - whatever you think of their end-state or motivation - will probably be hard to beat.

Here's why:

1. The volunteer programme is sexy. 
Move from civvie street to join their ranks and one instantly becomes a "fighter". The world's media trips over itself trying to guesstimate the size of their volunteer corps (30,000+ fighters?) and brands all who join it fighters, regardless of the level and quality of military training (if any) these new recruits possess. The word "IS fighter", when blended with the fear-mongering that assorted bespoke videos are engineered to provoke, creates an armed organisation whose shock effect is probably all out of proportion to the actual military capability of their military hardware and small arms.

2. Their ground-up movement or GUMS is phenomenal. 
No Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). No public relations campaign to generate and sustain media interest. No fancy literature to explain their volunteer corps equivalent. Unlimited call up period with the prospect of an anonymous death. Even so, many individuals have made their personal life changing decision to leave their loved ones to join a condemned cause with little or no prospect of home leave. Active in cyberspace, this has led to the recruitment message spreading to all corners of the planet, in various tongues and calibrated in a tone that resonates with their target audience. Can you beat that?

3. Their source of funding is mysterious. 
If press reports are to be believed, the allowance that an IS "fighter" receives is higher than that of an average full-time National Servicemen. Enough said.

4. Their common purpose has been elevated as a noble cause. 
Generations ago, there was an army whose soldiers defied world opinion, marched on wars of conquest and fought to the bitter end even as their dying nation was bombed to smithereens. Their belt buckles carried the slogan: Gott Mit Uns. And they believed it resolutely. In 2014, we again see a common purpose framed around servitude to God. In IS battle cries and on their black flags, service for a higher purpose is proclaimed. Tens of thousands believe this and have made the great trek to join their warring brethren. The optics of this volunteer effort is hard to beat.

5. The world is their audience. 
With the world as their catchment area, the size of their recruitment area for potential recruits is vast. But potentially high returns (in volunteers) comes with high risk as world governments close ranks to crimp this effort. And yet they thrive and one must ask why?

At another time in another place, the Spanish Civil War also saw legions of recruits, fired up by propaganda and personal conviction, flock to Spain to fight for their cause. Both sides, operating in a pre-Internet age, used their recruitment processes to good effect during the Spanish Civil War. So one must think through if IS' volunteer campaign is successful because of social media, or whether it thrives regardless of the tools at its disposal. And if the present-day IS and Spanish militias of yesteryear are guide posts to how hearts and minds campaigns should be won, then the SAFVC's stated aim of 100 to 150 volunteers is perhaps way below par and one wonders why the bar has been set so low? This brings us to the next point.


Even before the SAFVC recruitment effort opened shop on Monday (13 October'14) to Singaporeans and Singapore Permanent Residents (SPRs) aged between 18 to 45 years old who want to serve the SAF in uniform, three volunteers were presented to journalists at a media conference at Maju Camp - the SAFVC headquarters.

The fact that MINDEF/SAF had these individuals to parade in front of the media suggests that the SAFVC has an inkling how many Singaporeans/SPRs will respond to their call to action, since three individuals (2% of the SAFVC recruitment target) had evidently stepped forward as volunteers before the recruitment drive went "live". So while it's anyone's guess how many more will apply, it's a pretty safe bet that the figure of 100 to 150 volunteers is not a stretch target but one which can be (somewhat) comfortably achieved. Indeed, one could surmise that the recruitment target will be breached (which is a good thing) and the ground swell of support maximised for PR value in due course as SAFVC can cherry pick the best individuals to fill those 100 to 150 roles.

What's next for the SAFVC is to think through how a GUM can generate and sustain awareness of, and interest in, their cause in a way that eventually ingrains the SAFVC effort as part of the Singapore landscape.

The SAFVC is more than just pulling in warm bodies, numbering 100 to 150 plus souls, which is just about enough to fill the ranks of a slim fit infantry Company.

It is about offering an avenue for Singaporeans/SPRs who need not serve National Service opportunities to contribute to our national defence.

This cause too is a noble and essential duty. SAFVC fighters, please step forward.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Innovations in defence: Malaysia Boleh


When the Royal Malaysian Navy was tasked to conduct anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, it cranked into action plans to convert civilian-flagged vessels into naval auxiliaries.

The two ships, Bunga Mas Lima and Bunga Mas Enam, exemplify the British concept of Ships Taken Up From Trade or STUFT, a concept for harnessing civil resources as military assets that was demonstrated with decisive effect by the British Royal Navy during the Falklands/Malvinas War in 1982.

This gem of an idea by the Malaysians is but one of many examples of the innovative spirit in defence science and engineering north of the Causeway. The speed with which the MISC ships were role-changed for a naval role, given a fresh coat of haze gray warpaint and teeth in the form of naval helicopters tells us something about the level of the ops-tech integration in Malaysia's defence eco-system.

More recently, Malaysian Minister of Defence, Hishammuddin Hussein has said abandoned Petronas oil rigs off Sabah are to be given a new lease of life as forward operating bases. The converted rigs will be gifted to the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) as floating lily pads that can be used to generate and sustain the Malaysian military's presence and authority in the seas south of the Philippines that have been used by lawless elements to test Malaysian resolve.


Malaysia's plans for Petronas oil rigs hark back to the British idea of building platforms to defend the mouth of the River Thames against German air and seaborne intruders during World War Two. They also mirror the Iranian practice of using oil rigs to exert a military presence at sea.

When ESSCOM's assets are in place, Malaysian authorities are likely to welcome opportunities to square off the challenge. Knowing the level of training and motivation of Malaysian forces, such engagements are likely to be embarrassingly one-sided.

Closer to home, the raising of two battalions of Keris (Brazilian ASTROS II) multiple rocket launchers by the Malaysian Army shows that its defence strategists understand and appreciate the decisive impact that MRLs have in the confined battespace of peninsular Malaysia.

So while an MRL - a tactical level artillery asset - would hardly caused ripples when fielded by a European army (so vast are distances there), the weapon system is a tactical asset with strategic effect in the Malaysian Army's theatre of operations. In Europe, strategic weapon systems are subject to close monitoring and arms control protocols. But not so in Southeast Asia.

Clearly, someone in the Malaysian defence ecosystem must  have recognised the advantage that a mobile weapon system with a long reach can have during an Auto Strike situation when drawer plans must kick into action quickly to beat the reaction time of a hostile force as it mobilises from peace to war.

The addition of Metis M anti-tank missiles to Malaysia's war chest some years ago is noteworthy on two counts. Firstly, from an operational standpoint, the Metis missiles pack a punch as they have been designed to destroy modern main battle tanks like the Merkava. Secondly, from a force development standpoint, the in-service date for these hard-hitting missiles is indeed interesting to ponder over. Isn't it?

Alas, the Malaysians may not be masters of maximising public relations value from their defence innovations. They lack an annual Defence Technology Prize ceremony which lauds innovation, creativity and best practices in military technology. And while in Singapore, the Singapore Combat Engineers' idea for building a Floating Platform as an interim venue for our National Day Parades has been widely publicised, we have yet to see the Petronas oil rigs enjoy similar PR traction.

But just because you don't hear about their innovations, doesn't mean they have none to celebrate. Give credit where it is due. Well done Malaysia.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Unfinished business? Should the Singapore Armed Forces deploy to fight IS?



As the Americans scour the globe for an international coalition to fight the Islamic State (IS), it is only a matter of time before Gombak Drive receives a call to arms.

Singapore should be wary of any request(s) to commit the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) against IS forces, until and unless the United States demonstrates it is aware of the nature and complexity of the threat it faces in the theatre of operations.

At present, the rise of IS in Iraq and Syria has defied the slew of life-changing, post-9/11 counter terrorism measures devised to deter, detect and defeat the sort of nemesis that IS has come to represent.

The fact that IS has grown in stature and battlefield effectiveness to a sort of Foreign Legion for like-minded individuals indicates this is no self-radicalised group that somehow attained strength in numbers.

As yet, we do not know who their backers are. And these entities must have deep pockets, perhaps sustained by protection money from oil-rich Arab states in exchange for (temporary) immunity from the problems that have wracked some of their neighbours.

From a logistics standpoint, IS strategists must have mulled over and implemented plans, processes and procedures to rearm, refuel and resupply an estimated 31,000 combatants in a battlespace that spans the now none existent border between Iraq and Syria. In any language, this is a sizeable army, not some rag tag militia with no form or structure. They represent a credible army in the field with an unknown order of battle, funded in the face of heightened financial stringency that monitors everything from the Hawala system to the global financial system.

Until we unmask the threat, the strategy to exploit air supremacy over Syria and Iraq to hit IS positions doesn't have legs to stand on. If it succeeds, it will be one of the few case studies in the profession of arms where air power alone wins the fight.

No country seems willing to put skin in the game with boots on the ground.

Ground forces have taken the form of advisors tasked to train, organise and equip anti-IS forces. This game plan is fraught with folly principally because known one can tell for sure who will ultimately benefit from the training and arms infusion.

This is why Singapore should sit things out before joining the posse.

This is no Operation Blue Ridge redux. The downside risk of having SAF train and arm combatants who are not what they seem is uncomfortably high. We should not place our people in this ambiguous situation which, truth be told, can be traced  back to the US decision to invade Iraq years ago on unsubstantiated claims the then regime was dabbling in weapons of massed destruction.

If anything, the deployment could take the form of a single KC-135R aerial refuelling tanker or C-130 airlifter sent to help the anti-IS coalition sustain the aerial bombardment of hostile positions. But until we know who the warplanes are being deployed against, and that airpower isn't being used by an astute enemy (which has no air force) to bomb their rivals into oblivion, should we even do so blindly?

Singapore's contributions to past international peace support missions indicate we will not shy from adversity, from combat situations or from doing the "right thing" when it matters.

There's a time, place and purpose to everything. And the time is not right for Singapore to join the anti-IS coalition with the deployment of SAF ground forces.