Friday, February 20, 2015

The future of Singapore Armed Forces SAF Displays and Open Houses

People over the age of 40 who have been following developments in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will probably have a good idea what an "SAF Display" is all about.

As a tool for engaging the public, the SAF Display is all but extinct.

And at the current development trajectory, SAF Open Houses may soon become critically endangered.

The downsizing of the SAF Open House from an event rotated annually among bases belonging to the Singapore Army, Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) or Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) has negligible impact on our armed forces present-day ability to protect our island nation.

So why bother bemoaning the dilution of the SAF's public signature?

Because the impact will be felt downstream, years from now. One could argue that the disappearance of the SAF Open House from what Singaporeans are used to seeing to a watered down, Open House-light can, over time, exert a corrosive impact on commitment to defence. In other words, the withering away of open houses as crowd magnets could, like a slow-growing cancer, dull the appeal of a military career among young Singaporeans and the public's view of what the SAF is all about.

In the United States (US), where military parades are almost never held as these are frowned upon by American society, the US military knows how to pack in the crowds during open houses at military bases. Air shows set the stage for the US military to impress the audience. Even during times of budget cuts, you can bet there will be some venues, somewhere in CONUS that will pull out all the stops to put on a good show. Why?

Because if you got a dollar every time you read about an American serviceman or servicewoman who credited some mind-blowing air display as the catalyst which put the youngster on the road which led to a career as a military aviator, you would probably end up with a chunk of change. Yes, air shows are that impactful. The US military has long realised this. Ditto the air forces of major NATO countries. But what about the SAF?

In its heyday during the 1970s till the early 1980s, the SAF Display used to feature heavily on the public relations (PR) calendar of the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF.

Those of you on the wrong side of 40 may recall the show of force staged by the Singapore Army, RSN and RSAF in years long past. The static display was populated by war machines from all three Services. Even venues far from air bases, like the West Coast Park, had RSAF warplanes displayed on pierced steel planking (PSP) matting. These were towed there in the small hours of the morning when traffic on our roads was light. RSAF 35mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns entertained countless children as merry go rounds. Tickets were sold for the ever-popular mobile display which had, among its many highlights, a mock attack by AMX-13 light tanks screened by armoured infantry, with RSAF airpower screaming above the heads of our soldiers and flaming fireballs marking the end of enemy positions.

Decades on, Singaporeans who attended such displays recall fondly how the show-and-tell left an indelible mark on their early impressions of our armed Services.

Defence enthusiast Sean, now in his mid 40s, remembers watching soldiers demonstrate how they breached wire obstacles. They did so by falling onto the wire (see picture above) to compress the wire with their body weight so other soldiers could leap across the breach. He said:"I thought, seow liao, next time during NS, I will have to do this."

And then there were the riveting air displays that showed off the flying prowess of our then-young Air Force. Virtually every RSAF aircraft and helicopter type took part in the air displays. It wasn't just a Black Knights show, but a Team RSAF effort that was marketed in colourful brochures that defence enthusiasts could not bear to throw away. Such is the legacy of the 1G RSAF.

To the legion of Singaporeans defence enthusiasts, there's no debate whether or not SAF Displays had any value in generating and sustaining commitment to defence. To this crowd, one is preaching to the converted.

So what about the rest of  Singapore? Passion aside, are such events really worth pushing for?

They cost money to stage. That much is obvious. But if the SAF of yesteryear somehow found the moolah to plan and execute SAF Displays from the mid-1970s (and this, mind you, was after the Oil Shock), just how valid is the "no money" mantra as a show-stopper?

To be sure, MINDEF/SAF does not seem to lack PR dollars. Speak to advertising industry types and you may learn that the RSAF's recruitment video budget is one of the biggest prizes an A&P professional could gun for. How much? A cool $1 million.

And the Total Defence PR gigs don't come cheap either. It is said that one campaign titled "What will you defend?" cost MINDEF around $110,000 to fund. Now without going to Google, what do you recall from that PR campaign?

What a PR campaign may cost and the value MINDEF/SAF gets from it are two different considerations altogether.

At the heart of the matter, staff officers must ask themselves if they are staging an event or selling an experience. And if experiential learning is a desired outcome, just what sort of experience do you want visitors to go home with? The experience of hankering over freebies (which are doubtlessly tastefully planned and nice to collect) or the experience of going home with a new found respect for the SAF?

There's a worry among some observers that MINDEF/SAF may get ahead of itself as the shopping mall exhibitions become the new normal and eventually become stand ins for the tried-and-tested SAF Open House template. There's a risk that the shopping mall exhibitions may become over-engineered too, with the focus on nice-to-have but ultimately non-essential collaterals. There is a concern that budget-wise, money will be frittered away on stuff like air-conditioned tents (which don't come cheap) and fancy story boards (which are expensive to design).

At the recent SAF50@Vivo exhibition, SAF Ambassadors from all three Services came across as well-motivated and properly inducted in the art of hospitality. Many needed little prompting in approaching visitors and proactively engaged their guests in meaningful conversation.

Many did their duty under the blazing sun. They were deployed on the last weekend before the Lunar New Year and did so cheerfully and professionally.

If one traces the genesis of exhibitions at the VivoCity shopping mall, these stemmed from the display of RSN warships that berthed alongside the seafront shopping mall. The exhibition, titled Navy@Vivo, was then -  as is now - novel because it brought the Navy to Singaporeans.

But while the @Vivo branding works well for the Navy, the Army and RSAF ought to ponder how the annual war chest that goes into their A&P budget would perhaps give them more bang for buck.

Decentralised exhibitions held in areas with high footfall, such as bus interchanges or MRT stations, would obviously clock respectable attendance figures. That much is a no brainer. But make a distinction between how much of that audience is incidental (as passers-by have to pass through the area anyway) and how much is derived from people who make an effort to attend the event? An astute statistician could argue the numbers to suit any agenda.

More than just numbers, one ought to ask if distributing one's efforts in penny packets during decentralised exhibitions is ultimately better than concentrating the effort to host an open house stretched over a reasonable period of time.

When all is said and done, the SAF is a profession of arms, not a travelling circus.

That much is clear when we get to see the SAF in its element, smell the jet fuel and gun smoke. Make those opportunities a reality.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Singapore Armed Forces SAF Facebook pages should review success factors

On social media channels run by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), extreme care should be taken to avoid unwittingly turning one's target audience into potential targets.

Open source data, compiled over time, can present diligent observers with a good picture of the individuals who populate various SAF units and Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) departments.

Such data mining receives a boost whenever MINDEF/SAF attempts to strengthen its engagement with, and responses from, its respective constituents.

At the most basic level of social media engagement, this can be seen by efforts to rally more MINDEF/SAF personnel to "Like" assorted postings which appear on Facebook pages for the Singapore Army, Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) and Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).

In halcyon times, such rallying calls have no adverse consequences and pose no security risks.

But those halcyon times are long past.

When pitted against elements which seek to exploit any chink in the armour, the fact file of who's who in the MINDEF/SAF hierarchy is likely to feature prominently on the list of essential elements of information (EEI). It takes no great intellect to note that such an EEI can be compiled anytime by anyone with an Internet connection from anywhere in the world.

In pre-Internet days, for instance, the list of names which appeared on the last page of the RSN's Navy News represented a regular source of names for data miners to tap. Names were listed whenever warships had a change of command. And additional names were listed for RSN personnel who earned awards and citations for good work. As the SAF's smallest service, there were only so many names to go around. This meant that, over time, one could eventually compile a list of almost nearly every serving RSN key appointment holder.

Sure, you could laugh off such trivial pursuits as a quirky, eccentric past time.

But fast forward to the present-day and one may realise how some elements seek to ruthlessly exploit open source social media profiles.

So we now find ourselves in a quandary: MINDEF/SAF operational departments (these manage the respective FB pages for the three Services) are urged to aim for ever higher of engagements. "Likes" are never high enough. As a staff officer, what do you do?

Alas, the success factors for this engagement strategy may compromise the very individuals who step forward to "Like" various posts.

In recent times, we have seen ample evidence of how the social media profiles of various warfighters have been exploited as source material for announcements which place bounties on their heads.

Of greater concern, however, is the amount of data such elements can gather on the wider social circle of the warfighters mentioned. This includes their immediate family and friends.

Our defence eco-system must be aware that there are nasty elements in cyberspace who may wish harm upon our servicemen and servicewomen, as well as their loved ones. We must also be prepared to take action, proactively and harshly if need be, against any elements who may want to wish harm on MINDEF/SAF personnel and their loved ones.

The urge to touch ever higher participation rates from MINDEF/SAF personnel must therefore be tempered with the understanding that there will be not insignicant pockets of MINDEF/SAF personnel who will NOT want to step forward to click that "Like" button or be the FB friend of officially-sanctioned pages. What's more, there will be MINDEF/SAF personnel who wilfully minimise their social media footprint by staying off sites such as FB and LinkedIn*.

So be it.

Success factors can be measured by other parameters which social media analytics can furnish to administrators fairly easily. These include the Reach of various posts and other data sets that give MINDEF/SAF FB administrators tangible assurance that their work does indeed reach real people.

In the current security environment, success factor yardsticks which work swell for the private sector may not be applicable to the Singapore military.

We have to face up to the new security situation, sooner rather than later.

* If you have time, try drawing up a Venn diagram for SAF KAHs who list their career accomplishments on LinkedIn and see how one individual is linked to another. It presents a most interesting picture of group dynamics.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

No Singapore Armed Forces SAF Open House in SG50 year: Six things to know about SAF50@Vivo

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has no plans to stage an Open House during this milestone year which marks the SAF's 50th anniversary.

Compared to celebrations in 1990 which marked the SAF's 25th anniversary, this year's celebrations may seem muted.

But an Open House is just one way for our armed Services to engage you. And the means to do so have grown substantially since SAF 25.

Here are six things to know about SAF50@Vivo:

1. When the SAF turned 25, the SAF At 25 Exhibition was held over 10 days from 15 to 24 June 1990. This centrepiece of this event was an Open House at Paya Lebar Airport which featured a massive showcase of SAF war machines from the Army, Navy and Air Force. Some of you may remember that mega Open House.

2. The SAF50@Vivo show will stretch over just four days, from 12 to 15 February 2015 at the Vivocity shopping mall. This is akin to the Navy@Vivo show on steroids.

3. Compared to 1990, the SAF's operational tempo has increased substantially. This year's operational taskings include evergreens such as the National Day Parade at the Padang (there was also a big parade and Mobile Column during NDP 1990) as well as new taskings absent in 1990. These include the SEA Games, Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore Grand Prix F1 race and the IMDEX Asia naval show just to name a few of the banner events. The SAF also has a number of overseas deployments scheduled for 2015 that will also demand bandwidth.

4. Compared to 1990, our threat environment has likewise changed beyond recognition. Today, non-state actors have made the threat from terrorism far more organised, globalised and lethal than what the SAF faced in 1990. This means that more than ever, our SAF Operationally-Ready National Servicemen, full-time National Servicemen and Regulars have to be at the top of their game 24/365.

5. In 2015, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF can leverage on more channels to reach out and engage you. There was no Facebook in 1990, no websites or homepages to visit. Youtube was not invented till this century. The SAF, Singapore Army, Republic of Singapore Navy and Republic of Singapore Air Force have all ventured into the social media scene. This means engagement can continue year-round, instead of being anchored to a fixed geographical venue in the case of an Open House.

6. But even as we realise the benefits of social media as a communications tool, one hopes that Open Houses will continue to be on the calendar of SAF events after the surge of SG50 activities taper off. Open Houses have proven to be crowd magnets and people flock there for good reason. So MINDEF/SAF should bring back Open Houses when opportunities arise.

For more about SAF50, please visit

Monday, January 26, 2015

Update on ST Electronics Venus Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs)

These harbour craft may look like ordinary, 9-metre long powerboats. But take a close look at the weather-proof covers draped over the "cabins" of each vessel and the antennae sprouting from the mast and you'll realise these vessels are somewhat special.

The Venus unmanned surface vessels, SR3008B and SR3096A, were photographed at a local marina stored alongside civilian powerboats and sailboats.

Unveiled in 2010 by Singapore Technologies Electronics (ST Elec), the Venus USV has been described in company literature as being adaptable for a range of missions. These include anti-submarine warfare, mine sweeping and harbour security duties armed with a remotely operated weapons mount.

When stored in the marina, both USVs were unarmed. However, the deck configuration for each USV was different as SR3008B was fitted with a frame aft of the sensor mast.

Background note: Categories of Singapore harbour craft licences

Harbour craft licences are issued by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) to vessels used for commercial purposes within the port.
The following categories of licence are issued:
"SA" if the vessel is used as a "bumboat" (i.e. dealing in the sale and purchase of new or second hand goods)
"SB" if the vessel is used for the carriage in bulk of petroleum, liquefied gases, liquid chemicals or vegetable/animal oils
"SC" if  the vessel is used for the carriage of dry or packaged goods
"SP" if the vessel is used for the carriage of passengers
"ST" if the vessel is used as a tug. A vessel whose engine shaft power is less than 150 kilowatt (200 BHP)  will not be accepted for licensing as a tug.
"SR" if  the vessel is used for any other purpose. ST Elec's Venus USVs are classed under the "SR" license category.
Unmanned naval assets came under the media spotlight recently when the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) deployed Hydroid Inc's REMUS 100 autonomous underwater vehicles in the Java Sea during the search for the AirAsia Flight QZ8501. REMUS is an acronym for Remote Environmental Measuring Units.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Indonesia-Singapore defence relations: A special, longstanding friendship that has lasted more than 40 years

Among the many badges that adorn the uniform of the chief of Indonesia's search and rescue (SAR) agency is the Pilot Wing from the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).

Those who wonder how it got there should look at the distinguished career trajectory for Marsekal Madya Henry Bambang Soelistyo, head of BASARNAS (Badan SAR Nasional, the Indonesian SAR agency).

Go back in time to 2010 when Soelistyo then had one-star on his TNI air force general's uniform. As co-chair of the Joint Air Force Training Working Group (JAFTWG) between the Indonesian air force and the RSAF, which alternated their meetings between Indonesia and Singapore, Soelistyo gained firsthand experience planning, discussing, refining and implementing a host of programmes between the TNI-AU and RSAF.

The JAFTWG talks led to joint air force war games, courses, exchanges of personnel and visits that forged closer and more meaningful defence relations between our respective air forces.

Special friendship
These paved the way for the continued advancement of TNI-AU-RSAF air warfare manoeuvres codenamed Elang Indopura, maritime surveillance exercises in the CAMAR Indopura series and the SAR exercise codenamed MANYAR Indopura. Our air exercises have grown in size, scale and complexity, thanks to the efforts of planners from both sides keen on constantly expanding the envelope and building on past successes.

In addition, Singapore hosted simulator training for Indonesian air force pilots in Singapore (Super Puma, F-5 Tiger II, G-FET and EC-120 Colibri) while Indonesia conducted simulator training for RSAF C-130 Hercules aircrew.

It is safe to guess that a good number of pilots from both countries now involved in the multi-national search for AirAsia Flight QZ8501 honed their flying skills from these exercises.

But it was not all work.

The task of directing and coordinating large fighter aircraft formations from both nations, flying at high speed, at low level and on many occasions with live ordnance, demands a high level of trust and confidence from all ranks involved in such war games. Along the way, friendships are forged as our people spend face time with one another, talk things through and weigh various options for tackling complex war game scenarios.

Rising star: The future chief of BASARNAS, then a one-star TNI air force general (seated, centre) with TNI and RSAF colleagues who formed the Joint Air Force Training Group in 2010. 

Such interactions contribute valuable yet intangible credits to Indonesia-Singapore defence ties. Indeed, the personal ties have done much to foster a special friendship between the TNI and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

And so, when TNI-SAF come together for joint operations, many personnel draw upon that special friendship which serves as a catalyst for the ability of our two armed forces to group together quickly and execute missions safely.

Benefits flow two ways.

In December 1997, it was the TNI-led search effort and TNI-AL divers who recovered the flight data recorder and voice recorder of Singapore's SilkAir Flight MI185 from the Musi river in Palembang.

The period from 2004 to 2006 recorded three SAF HADR operations in Indonesia. These were:

December 2004: The SAF deployed three Republic of Singapore Navy Endurance-class tank landing ships, six RSAF C-130 Hercules aircraft, six Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, two Super Pumas and more than 1,200 SAF personnel to Aceh as part of the tsunami relief mission. This was codenamed Operation Flying Eagle. The main deployment stretched almost four weeks.

March 2005: Nias earthquake assistance. The RSAF deployed three Chinook heavy-lift helicopters. These airlifted 70 stretcher cases to Medan and ferried some 870 rescue workers to affected areas over two weeks. The SAF medical team treated about 800 patients in one week in the Gunung Sitoli area.

May 2006: Central Java earthquake relief mission. The SAF sent a 35-person medical team to join a TNI field hospital. Emergency supplies and a surgical team were also attached to Indonesia's Bantul District Hospital. The SAF medical teams treated over 1,400 people and performed 32 emergency surgeries over eight days.

In January 2007, we once again worked alongside the TNI in the search for Adam Air Flight 574 which crashed in Sulawesi. One RSAF Fokker 50 aircraft conducted 20 air search sorties between 3 and 17 January 2007. The RSN deployed four sets of underwater locator beacon detectors and six personnel as BASARNAS scoured the sea for the aircraft's flight data recorder, which might unlock clues as to how the plane crashed.

There is another joint TNI-SAF mission involving an RSAF drone, which was deployed to scan dense, ancient jungle on a hostage rescue mission in the 1990s. This was executed at a faraway place called Timika. It was hush-hush during its time. But if you happen to see UAV Command's colours, look at the streamer carried by the Colours party (see below) and ask yourself how it got there. Yes, Team 525, you did well and those who know are proud of your achievement.

The TNI and SAF have achieved much together over the past four decades, ever since our first joint naval exercise codenamed Eagle.

Such friendships do not happen by chance.

Credit for this special friendship - a bond between ASEAN's largest and smallest member - goes to armed forces personnel from both sides have worked hard to build and sustain such ties.

And despite occasional hiccups in our bilateral relations, it is heartwarming to see senior officers continue to cherish our longstanding camaraderie at a personal level - whether spoken out loud or demonstrated by the simple, low key gesture of having a badge on one's honours row.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Singapore Armed Forces SAF training deaths in 2014

In 2014, Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) reported two deaths in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), up from a single fatality reported for 2013..

As we usher in 2015, the rise in this tally is a timely reminder for all in the defence eco-system to take workplace and training safely seriously. At the same time, we must learn to be aware of and in control of our personal issues well. Should we feel down and need a listening ear - and we all go through such patches at some point in our lives - we must know whom we can approach to get things back on track.

Since 2009, when 10 SAF deaths were logged, the MINDEF/SAF have put in immense efforts at improving training safety.

This saw a dramatic reduction in fatalities in 2010. The SAF closed the year with zero fatalities.

However, that clean sheet has proven elusive.

In 2011,  the SAF reported three fatalities.

In 2012, the number doubled to six deaths.

The following year saw one fatality. However, one should remember that 2013 clocked at least five instances of near misses. These include servicemen who were hospitalised due to cardiac arrest, some 300 suspected Norovirus cases at BMTC on Pulau Tekong and an incident involving a Republic of Singapore Air Force pilot who was involved in a hard landing in a Unired States Navy T-45C Goshawk trainer in Florida.

From one death in 2013, we now have two for 2014. Every fatality is one too many.

However, this must be seen in perspective. Both took place in the first half of 2013, which suggests no slide in training safety awareness and protocols as the year wore on.

The SAF had a busy operations tempo in 2014. Last year, the SAF staged overseas deployments to the Gulf of Aden and contributed search teams to look for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370  as well as the ongoing search for AirAsia Flight QZ8501 in the Java Sea.

Looking ahead, the SAF has a busy calendar in 2015 as Singapore gears up for its Jubilee Year celebrations under SG50.

The ops tempo for Regulars, full-time National Servicemen and Operationally-Ready NSmen is likely to remain high in 2015. This will involve local deployments and a training calendar packed with training arrangements and exercises around the globe.

As a new year unfolds, the commitment to safety and better management of personal issues should be a top priority for all ranks.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

10th anniversary of the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF) Operation Flying Eagle Boxing Day tsunami relief mission

Ten years ago today, I sent sail from the Republic of Singapore Navy's Tuas Naval Base aboard RSS Endurance with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) tsunami relief mission to the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

At the time, our destination was unknown as was the duration of the then-unnamed operation. In time to come, Singaporeans came to know about the assignment as Operation Flying Eagle (OFE).

Am sharing some OFE pictures here for the first time. What's remarkable about the pictures is the fact that they were taken at all. I had stepped aboard Endurance without a camera because the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) said so and I had no intention of flouting their security protocols. I complied (with 20:20 hindsight, this was stupid) and was assured by MINDEF and my newsroom that a photographer would soon join me en route.

As things turned out, the assignments editor couldn't tell the difference between Aceh (the Indonesian province) and Banda Aceh (the capital city of the aforementioned province) and happily despatched a photographer to BA where we would link up.

Alas, Endurance steamed past BA en route to Meulaboh as the Indonesians had said her help was more sorely needed at that part of the Sumatra coastline.

And so, off I went embedded with the SAF for the largest humanitarian without any camera to capture life on the sidelines. 

As luck would have it, several kind-hearted servicemen soon got wind of my predicament. A camera magically appeared on my bunk with instructions that I was not to tell the OFE management where it came from as the device was contraband. So that secret has stayed safe with me for the past 10 years.

Even so, opsec rules were strictly observed. Not a single picture was taken in the ship's Ops Room or Radio Room, or in the then hush-hush bunks located below the tank deck even after I was more or less allowed to roam Endurance without a press escort. 

OFE was the fourth and last SAF operation I was assigned to cover as a journalist. The 26 days outfield also marked the longest stint with an SAF operation.

This small photo essay is a tribute to the TNI and SAF operation which helped stabilise Meulaboh during those dark days. I treasure my time with the OFE team, the opportunity to work with the TNI up close and remember those who did not live to see 2005's sunrise. Ten years on, we honour their memory.

Aboard RSS Endurance with the chock and chain crew. Am fourth from left in this picture. Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) and Singapore Army personnel volunteered to assist loading and unloading RSAF helicopters as the tempo of air operations, which saw frequent arrivals from thirsty cargo-laden helos, made such work energy sapping. During one of my first embeds with the Navy, an RSN officer taught me that the greatest threat aboard ship is fire. He narrated what synthetic fibres would do to a wound during a flash over and the precautions one should take. Since then, I have resolved that I would not be the weak link in the host ship during an operation and my shipboard gear includes the whole anti-flash ensemble comprising hood and elbow-length gloves, flame-resistant coveralls, safety boots and other stuff. 

The seaside scene at Meulaboh coastline, close to our landing beach. A surau was the only structure that remained standing on the narrow sliver of land that jutted out to sea from Meulaboh town. This area took the full force of the advancing tsunami. Within days of the tsunami, the area was infested with houseflies which even reached the tank landing ships (LSTs) anchored offshore.

En route to Meulaboh, the crew aboard Endurance moved cargo and vehicles to clear a helo landing spot. This allowed the tank landing ship to serve as a lily pad for thirsty Super Pumas flying in from Medan. At this point in time, landing spots had yet to be cleared on the Indonesian mainland. During this phase of the operation, the tank landing ships were referred to as Helicopter Landing Ships. It was a baffling acronym for purists who consider such vessels landing platform docks (LPDs).

Maids of all work, RSN fast landing craft shuttled to and fro between shore and mothership from dawn to dusk. Some operations often stretched into the night. The Fast Craft Utility and smaller Fast Craft Equipment Personnel were vital for the logistics over the shore effort as the gradient of the beach at Meulaboh made direct beaching impractical. The TNI's Frosch-class LSTs, designed for landing in the Baltic, had to rely on RSN FCUs and FCEPs to land their cargo and personnel. Cooperation and coordination between TNI and SAF forces in Meulaboh was exemplary.

A Combat Engineer Tractor from the Singapore Army goes to work ashore. Such vehicles swam ashore from the LSTs. They were complemented by LARC V amphibious lighters. Sadly, I was unable to photograph a LARC V while in Meulaboh. :-(

A Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Chinook moments before touching down on an improvised landing zone built by the TNI and SAF. Aboard the heavy-lift helicopter, aircrew specialists were kept busy constantly scanned blind spots for obstructions, people or animals (like water buffaloes) who might get in the way. Unloading cargo-laden helos at such sites was labour intensive (see below) as this was conducted without the benefit of fork lifts. Soon after this picture was taken, your's truly joined the unloading team.

An RSAF Super Puma gingerly approaches an improvised landing pad made of earthworks compacted by shovel, boots and an overworked bulldozer from the Singapore Combat Engineers. The comparison with helicopter operations from Vietnam to Borneo springs readily to mind. Super Pumas were thirsty birds after making the overland flight from Medan across the mountain range to Meulahoh. Before such strips were carved out of the debris-strewn landscape, these helos conducted hot refuelling aboard the LSTs. This explains the urgency in clearing at least one landing spot for a Super Puma. To my eternal regret, I failed to cash in a standing offer from the HASG info ops team to see the devastation from the air. *sigh*

RSS Endurance is framed from the forward ramp of a fast landing craft. This was my home for 26 days from 31 December 2004 to 25 January 2005. In December 2003, I reported on the first SAF deployment to the Persian Gulf - codenamed Operation Blue Orchid - from the same ship. Familiarity with the ship's routine helped immensely during the adjustment process as one got used to the naval discipline aboard the 141-metre ship.

As with most ship Commanding Officers, the one for Endurance had his quirks. Her CO, Colonel Li Lit Siew, hated dust and made every effort to keep Endurance spick and span. Bunk inspections, led by her indefatigable Coxswain and an unsmiling Guards RSM, were a sight to behold. Yes, things flew in the bunks to the accompaniement of parade square drill instructions and notes scribbled on the confounded clipboard. The initial shakeup was unleashed on the houseguests aboard the LST as the Navy sought to bring the Singapore Army soldiers in line with RSN regimentation and discipline. They succeeded, eminently.

A TNI soldier stands guard at the beachhead with two Republic of Singapore Navy LSTs offshore. The rapport and friendship established between Indonesian and Singaporean military forces during OFE enabled the two forces to quickly bring a semblance of normalcy to the coastal town. Meulaboh had been hit by a double whammy of a powerful earthquake and devastating tsunami.

Senior officers on the starboard bridge wing of RSS Endurance pay homage to the Indonesian victims of the Boxing Day tragedy, and salute their counterparts from the TNI as the warship left Meulaboh for her voyage home. Pictured below are the wreaths jointly laid by the TNI and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) in Meulaboh during a remembrance ceremony.

Throughout OFE, we drank from Cactus brand bottled water whose tagline was "Life Goes On". It was indeed a poignant reminder for all those in Meulaboh on how they should deal with the post-tsunami catastrophe.