Monday, November 30, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 11 ATM Bersama Media

North of the border
Armchair warriors would probably be able to dig up a heap of statistics on the Malaysian Armed Forces using their computer keyboard. You could do it too with the right search terms.

The value of attending the ATM Bersama Media (Malaysian Armed Forces and the Media) event in 2007 came from the opportunity to hear, firsthand, what ATM officers thought of the Third Generation Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). Their frank comments made the trip to KL worthwhile and I thank them for hosting me.

In my view, the specifications of weapons displayed during the event at Kem Sungai Besi on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, were not the main draw. Anyone can dig these up on the Internet.

The viewpoints and comments collected at the ATM Bersama Media event were invaluable. The conversations with officers I met revealed that most were well-briefed on developments in Singapore.

The photo essay that follows should give netizens an idea of the event I attended and the effort the Malaysian military takes in cultivating strong rapport with their national media.

Malaysia's Kementerian Pertahanan (KEMENTAH) stages its media engagement activities regularly and the contacts with the media provide an avenue for frank feedback from the press. This is unlike the practice in a certain Asean country where one senior officer is known to stalk his boss at press luncheons lest journalists try to - how would the Malaysians say this? - pecah lobang (loosely translated, it means something like "bust one's balloon") by sharing feedback with his superior officer.

My sense of the matter is that the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) has much to learn from its KL counterpart, especially in the area of defence information management.

Malaysian journalists try their hand at stripping and assembling M-16 assault rifles under the tutorship of Malaysian Army officers. The ATM Bersama Media events help Malaysian journalists to forge a deeper understanding of their country's defence forces.

The 100-metre Falling Plate shooting competition pitted teams of journalists against one another in friendly rivalry. Darren, a Singaporean from the discussion group and I were the only Singaporeans at the event. As we did not have enough team members to form a five-person shooting detail, we joined forces with journalists from Asian Defence Journal and a Malaysian Chinese language newspaper.

A Malaysian Warrant Officer provides arms-handling instructions. Lessons were conducted in Malay and our pasar Melayu helped immensely.

We were each given two magazines of five rounds and had to run some 50 metres, prone, load the magazine, chamber a round and shoot down two plates 100 metres away.

Our team emerged third overall, losing our place in the final by a split second as the rival team's last plate fell a moment before we gunned down our last plate. Some of our Malaysian hosts attributed our good performance to our National Service training but were surprised to learn later that we were both PES "C" service troops who hadn't fired a rifle in years. : )

Ties forged during the ATM Bersama Media events benefit both sides - the media and the military. Many soldiers gain from the casual interaction with journalists, allowing them to gain a firsthand understanding of the media and what constitutes a good story.

A Malaysian Army sniper team shows off its 12.7mm anti-material rifle. The Malaysians acknowledged that the long reach of the weapon could be used for harassing fire against armoured troops operating with hatches open or against soft skin vehicles in the supply chain. Stay behind forces would make any incursion into Malaysian territory a costly one.

Manportable anti-tank weapons such as Pakistani-made RPG-7 rocket launcher (above) give Malaysian Army infantry sections the confidence to deal with armoured vehicles. Malaysian infantry units are armed with a range of anti-tank weapons whose respective range rings allow the infantry to provide defence in depth. I got the sense that Malaysian soldiers intend to wield the RPG-7 as an anti-personnel weapon too, especially in close-in fights in urban terrain or Malaysian plantation areas. They have the advantage of fighting on home territory and they know that.

Paratroopers from the 10 Brigade Pasukan Atugerak Cepat (Rapid Deployment Force) demonstrated how the Falling Plate event should be done. Women form an important component of frontline units in the Malaysian Armed Forces, an all-volunteer force that relies on a steady stream of recruits to replenish its ranks.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 10 The weakest link

If the Lion City has to defend itself against external aggression using battle manoeuvres demonstrated during the Forging Sabre and Wallaby war games, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will need a more effective spokesman to plead its case.

The full force potential of the SAF – which essentially means its fully mobilised strength – must be complemented by a proactive and convincing "hearts and minds" campaign that will tell the international community Singapore’s side of the story.

As things stand, I feel the Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) at Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) is not ready for this fight.

The directorate’s weaknesses are exacerbated by what I see as the most serious morale crisis in recent memory. It has been triggered by an impoverished management style that has led many talented staff officers to call its quits. PAFF is being hollowed out.

The directorate has the organizational framework to excel. Its TO&E outweighs that of its counterpart in the Malaysian Defence Ministry’s Public Relations Department.

But the Malaysian defence information apparatus has on call several advantages that could catch PAFF wrong-footed during a battle for public opinion.

The defence information set up at Malaysia’s Kementerian Pertahanan (KEMENTAH, an acronym used henceforth to distinguish it from its Singaporean counterpart) knows that Malaysian journalists cultivated during peacetime are the same ones who will write stories giving the Malaysian point of view during a crisis.

The wide base of support for KEMENTAH’s media outreach effort can be seen by the strong turnout at its regular ATM Bersama Media events, which the three Services of the Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (Malaysian Armed Forces) take turns to host at least once a year.

Key dates to remember include anniversaries for Angkatan Darat (Malaysian Army Day, which falls on 1 March), Tentera Laut Diraja Malaysia (Royal Malaysian Navy Day, 27 April), Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia (Royal Malaysian Air Force Day 1 June) and ATM Day (16 September, which incidentally is also the birthday of Singapore’s elder statesman, but I digress). The ATM Bersama Media events are staged close to these anniversaries, subject to operational requirements and the availability of the respective Service chiefs.

In Singapore, journalists assigned the defence beat are invariably male, all of whom have National Service (NS) liabilities as Operationally-Ready NSmen (i.e. reservists).

Should a hot war scenario require the mobilisation of the SAF’s full force potential, these same individuals will disappear from various newsrooms.

This begs the question: Who then will support MINDEF/SAF coverage during the time it needs credible journalists to do so? The ones left to pick up the slack will probably be the non defence-inclined journalists in the newsrooms who will probably call every warship a battleship, every armoured vehicle a tank and can’t tell an MCMV from an MCV.

Across the Causeway, the staffing levels in Malaysian newsrooms will maintain their status quo ante bellum. This gives KEMENTAH’s public relations officers a sense of stability as the strengths, writing style and temperament of each journalist is already known to Malaysian spin doctors.

It is not generally appreciated that Malaysia publishes more defence journals than Singapore. The Lion City used to count Aerospace Asia-Pacific, Asian Aviation and one other defence journal as home-grown titles. But all are now defunct.

The ones now flying the Singapore flag are Defence Review Asia (DRA) and Asian Defence & Diplomacy (ADD).

DRA is owned by Australian shareholders but was registered in Singapore as a marketing strategy to give it a more Asian voice.

ADD was registered in Singapore for the sole purpose of cornering ads from Israeli companies. Under Malaysian Federal law, Malaysian magazines cannot accept ads from Israeli companies. While ADD skirts that legal roadblock with a Singaporean address, it remains a Malaysian magazine at its heart.

Climbing down to the tactical level of defence information operations, KEMENTAH’s media relations team has more experience than MINDEF media relations officers.

After the tsunami relief operation in 2004/05, the erstwhile Director Public Affairs, Colonel Bernard Toh, realised the need to have SAF officers trained for media escort work during SAF operations. His successor, COL Benedict Lim set up a system where SAF officers from the three Services were trained for media relations work.

Alas, since the regime change, these SAF officers have quit one by one leaving a Republic of Singapore Navy officer as the sole uniformed MRO. Few junior SAF officers actively seek a posting to PAFF because they know it will be a career-killer. (Indeed, I'm given to understand that the staff officer from the Ministry of Information, Communications and The Arts who helmed the MINDEF Media Relations Branch was barely on talking terms with a certain senior officer prior to her departure, such is the state of affairs at Public Affairs.)

One Singapore Army captain asked to be posted out of PAFF. Of the two Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) MROs, one quit to join the banking sector while another quit without a job. In my opinion, the latter’s departure was a loss to MINDEF as he had just returned from a year’s job attachment in Florida. He was also no lightweight as his essay on defence information management won a prize in last years’ Chief of Defence Force Essay Competition. [Militarynuts will probably recognize the American state of Florida as home to the United States Central Command, but that’s a conclusion that I will not assert.]

Another factoid that Singaporean defence planners should not discount: Kuala Lumpur is home to the regional bureau for the Al-Jazeera satellite news channel.

One only has to look at the proactive, 24-hour satellite reports broadcast by Al-Jazeera during the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) operations in Gaza to realise what the SAF may be up against during large-scale operations.

In my opinion, with PAFF rundown, the Singapore Army's Army Information Centre (AIC) will have to hold the fort should the SAF be tasked to execute a Wallaby or Forging Sabre-type scenario.

Malaysia’s national news bureau, Bernama, is another triumph card KEMENTAH can wield. Bernama, whose name is formed by the acronym BERita NAsional MAlaysia (Malaysia national news), is unabashedly pro-Malaysian. News agencies who pick up the Bernama news feeds know this, just as China-watchers rely on China Daily for the quasi-official Chinese point of view. There are advantages pinning one's colours to the mast and Bernama knows this.

Singapore’s 90 cents newspaper sometimes has an identify crisis. It pays the price of allying itself too closely to the Singapore establishment by losing touch with Singaporeans, some of whom feel the paper lacks an independent voice. Bearing in mind Singapore's national ethos and sensitivities relating to reports on race and religion, keeping the main English broadsheet newspaper on a tight lease is not necessarily a bad thing. But the establishment sometimes confuses the role of a newspaper with that of a government news agency and this has a detrimental impact on the paper's credibility. This is a point I will pick up in a future Blue on Blue commentary.

In a full contact slugfest, KEMENTAH will likely rouse the Rakyat and garner international opinion on its side.

The fact that the SAF will likely operate on foreign soil counts instantly against it. If you feel such operations are unlikely, then ask yourself why the SAF spends millions of dollars every year training so intensively in far-flung locales such as the Shoalwater Bay Training Area.

The international community is unlikely to be swayed by arguments that a forward defence is necessary for Singapore’s continued security, survival and success.

Attaching Defence Information Television (DiTV) teams for coverage of certain phases of SAF operations would, in my opinion, serve as a counter-productive effort. While the intent may be to underline the fact that SAF’s operations do no harm to civilians in occupied territory, such TV footage may backfire by fanning the ire of international viewers who question why the SAF is there in the first place.

The IDF learnt this the hard way in the Lebanon and in Gaza.

SAF planners also have to reckon with the fact that KEMENTAH may use its media apparatus to mobilise thousands of civilians to block their axis of advance. The British Expeditionary Force and French Army learnt to their cost during the opening phase of the German invasion of the Low Countries how civilians disrupted the march order of their forces. How the Rakyat would behave in a hot war scenario is something no SAF exercise has replicated.

KEMENTAH knows this.

Some of the points you see here were gleaned during my study visit to Malaysia in 2007 during my three months of unpaid leave. This included a visit to Al-Jazeera’s studio in KL to see firsthand how they operate. The visit to Al-Jazeera pre-dated IDF operations in Gaza and the channel's coverage more or less supported my thoughts on how it would function in a Malaysian setting.

My notes have since been updated by fresh information about PAFF and how the directorate is being ground down.

Are we ready yet?

Looking at the talent erosion PAFF is enduring, the answer is no.

Singapore’s Total Defence advertisements of yesteryear got it spot on. A generation’s effort can be wiped out in days, or in PAFF’s case, after the regime change.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Exercise Forging Sabre: Closing thoughts

Practising the ART of war at Forging Sabre
Accurate, relevant and timely battlefield information helped Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) smart weapons blast their targets with devastating effect during the Forging Sabre war games.

The firepower unleashed by Singapore Army and Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) war machines during Exercise Forging Sabre represented the sharp end of the fast-improving Third Generation SAF.

Sight unseen is the process of refining raw data into timely intelligence for SAF commanders.

The ability to see first, see more and understand the unfolding situation in the battlespace at a faster clip had a positive and decisive effect on SAF warfighters. The location and dispositions of hostile units could be charted rapidly while Blue Force Tracking marked out the friendlies.

The end result was a tigher sensor-to-shooter loop that slashed the amount of time taken for SAF battle managers to achieve a kill.

Battlefield intelligence could be soaked up by the Army’s ground reconnaissance units, camera-equipped RSAF unmanned aerial vehicles or national assets that contribute to Imagery Intelligence (IMINT).

A key capability not demonstrated during the land-based war games (for obvious reasons) were advances the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) has made in UAV operations at sea. These include sea trials of the NATALEE series of naval drones that range ahead of the Navy’s missile-armed frigates and submarine task groups to suss out hostile forces.

The SAF did not fly its warfighters halfway around the globe to practice the technical aspects of shooting.

This is why sharp-eyed netizens noted that the SAR-21 5.56mm assault rifles carried by some Army commandos were dummies. But the commandos who fought in the combined arms live-fire exercise (CALFEX) at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, had a bigger mission to accomplish.

The war games marked the first time a commando team had guided a 2,000-pound laser-guided bomb during a CALFEX.

At Exercise Wallaby in 2005, I interviewed a commando team that sent a pair of “live” Spike missiles downrange to a target nestled behind an Australian ridgeline in the Shoalwater Bay Training Area. The commandos had practiced the firing routine many times in Singapore on simulators. But doing it for real, having a "live" missile dart out of the launch tube trailing a fibre optic wire and watching it blot out the target with a flash gave the commandos a kick like no other.

It is likely the commandos at the Forging Sabre CALFEX would have their own war stories to tell, had they been interviewed by the Singaporean media.

Moving on to the Army's heavy muscle, the task of bringing HIMARS rocket artillery into action is also something the Singapore Artillery’s gunners can practice anytime in Singapore. At the risk of belittling the HIMARS rocket artillerymen, it does not take much battle sense to fire the HIMARS rockets.

As the rockets are guided by GPS satellites, they will find their own way to the target once the firing data is keyed in correctly.

The psycho-motor action that leads to the firing of an artillery weapon – whether by firing lever, lanyard or toggling a switch – is so simple that VIPs like politicians are sometimes invited to do the honours. It is a made-for-television moment as the VIP walks up to the weapon and unleashes hell.

The value-added that SAF warfighters achieved at the land warfare manoeuvres came from the opportunity to test out, validate and refine ways of wielding the SAF as an integrated fighting force.

The Third Generation SAF is a moniker flogged to death in umpteen ministerial speeches and media articles that describe the Singapore military's transformation drive. Inspired by the telco industry, the catch phrase indicates how the SAF wants to rewrite the way its warfighters would wage war should deterrence fail.

Precision strikes using smart munitions and attacks in the enemy’s depth with long-range weapons were vividly demonstrated during the Forging Sabre CALFEX phase.

To witness speed of manoeuvre, one has to study how Army and RSAF units ranged far and wide across the Australian outback during Exercise Wallaby.

Central to both war games was the use of battlefield intelligence as the first line of defence.

Sensors that go above and beyond the forward edge of battle area to collect battlefield data - round-the-clock in peace and war- give tiny Singapore more depth by securing a virtual hinterland that hostile forces do not want to encroach upon. SAF intelligence assets are the ones that are first in the virtual hinterland, tirelessly building up the electronic order of battle and physical TO&E of hostile entities - be it a non-state actor such as a terrorist cell or a drawer plan by a conventional army to achieve a first strike.

Hostile entities who over-estimate their capability or under-estimate Singapore's resolve would learn quickly how much information the Lion City's intelligence apparatus can pick up for target persecution.

Timely intelligence allows SAF units to put mission first, bolstered by the confidence that they have thoroughly routed their opponent on the virtual hinterland even before the first warshot is discharged in anger.

This is the unseen aspect that was put into play at the Forging Sabre and Wallaby manoeuvres.

Because long before a HIMARS rocket leaves its launch tube or an RSAF strike package leaves the ground, SAF intelligence planners would have mapped out a list of potential targets for SAF deep strike missions. They are intended to cause maximum hurt - because this is the linchpin of deterrence - but with minimum collateral damage.
Without such strategic target data, the long range of HIMARS would count for nothing as the rockets may be wasted on low value targets that tactical artillery weapons, say for example 120mm mortars or 155mm tube artillery - could engage.

Now that both exercises have wrapped up successfully, the SAF will have heaps of information to plough through in its after-action analysis of both war games.

On occasion, units may not move quickly enough or air strikes could have been better coordinated or the simulated enemy not hit hard enough.

Such is the value of war games. They afford SAF units the opportunity to work out the kinks in the system and improve upon slack areas.

Mind you, SAF warfighters do not have to wait for large-scale exercises to test how various units come into action.

Every year, during the National Day Parade (NDP) practices, patches of air space around tiny Singapore are mapped out as holding areas for RSAF fighter aircraft and helicopters.

SAF personnel also practice the routing, timing and march order for vehicle convoys.

The resupply of thousands of parade participants and the job of ensuring the safety of some 25,000 parade spectators is a military operations in urban terrain that few military forces get to practice.

There’s also the combat air patrols – no secret to residents who live around RSAF air bases – armed with "live" ammunition that form an aerial shield during high turnout events like NDP and the annual Formula 1 night race. Not forgetting the contributions from the airborne early warning E-2Cs that fly race track patterns in the sky.

To those in the know, the training value that the SAF derives from “routine” events such as NDP practices is clear. One just has to look beyond the obvious.

This commentary is dedicated to all SAF officers and WOSEs whose units can never participate in the SAF Best Unit Competition. Thank you for keeping us safe.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Akan Datang

Caption: Gun smoke screens a faraway ridge as Singaporean photojournalists capture a Singapore Army live-firing exercise through the lens aboard a Bionix 25. The Bionix 25, designed and made in Singapore, carries a two-man turret that has a 25mm Bushmaster as main armament.
[To non-Malay speakers, Akan Datang is a phrase that means "coming soon". It used to be screened by cinemas in Singapore to promote coming attractions, whatever language the new movies were filmed in] 

Defence Media Relations: The Singapore Experience. Coming soon to Senang Diri.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Find Your Purpose

"The body count makes sad reading: no fewer than six branch heads and 15 staff officers have left. Among them are officers who served as minders - eight quit within a year."
(Edit: The body count does not include the latest resignation on 24 Nov 2009)

Depending on how you look at things, the journey between Depot Road and Gombak Drive can be a pleasant commute or, at most, a minor inconvenience.

To people intent on exerting their authority, distance can be wielded as a weapon of passive aggression.

A story making its rounds tells of how a senior officer has tried to wear down one of his own staff officers by making him make the trip from Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) offices at Depot Road to MINDEF Headquarters at Gombak Drive twice a day, almost every day.

I use the phrase “tried to wear down” because that senior officer’s shenanigans have only succeeded in earning the ire of people in his directorate – all rank and file from junior staff officers upwards.

It is of course every commander’s right/privilege to order his staff officers to report to him at any time of day. But staff officers are not children. And people in the directorate are neither blind nor stupid and could see the game that was being played.

In the age of Blackberry devices, instant messaging and all the real-time communications that the Third Generation Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) proffers, that directorate has opted for the pony express. The directorate's officers shuttle back and forth in an insane spectacle that talented film makers will probably parody one day in a black comedy on the department.

It is a great pity.

That directorate used to punch above its weight. Before morale was shattered, it used to be productive and energised and respected by peer groups. Just ask any of the staff officers who called it quits after the regime change.

The body count makes sad reading: no fewer than six branch heads and 15 staff officers have left. Among them are officers who served as minders - eight quit within a year.

A Special Correspondent commented: “No organization can continue losing its experienced staff like this without its operations being crippled. It will take years for the directorate to level up again. Things are so bad that even staff who have not known another employer are looking for other employment opportunities. The same goes for new staff who have yet to clock six months of service.”

The management style that is driving the directorate bananas explains why journalists sometimes use the phrase “officer and gentleman”.

It was probably coined by writers who realised that commissioning someone with an officer rank doesn’t automatically elevate that someone from the ranks of crass, social barbarians.

Another cliche worth mulling over comes from management school. It states that respect must be earned.

The current MINDEF advertisements challenge job seekers to “find your purpose”. I'm crossing my fingers enquiring minds don’t probe deep enough, because the stories they will hear from certain directorates may put them off a career in the defence eco-system.

More than a dozen staff officers from a morale-damaged directorate have unhitched their wagons and found their purpose elsewhere. That all of them have found gainful employment with other government departments or the private sector says alot about the calibre of these officers.

Another story that has somehow come my way is said to have taken place about two years ago. The setting was a farewell event for a senior Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) commander following a change of command.

His management style apparently chafed some staff officers in his previous command, so much so that one officer gave his parting shot by criticising the officer in the farewell video itself.

Invited guests and men from his previous command watched in wonder and amazement as the critique was screened.

That proved too much and it hit a nerve.

The officer shouted “Enough!” and that brought an end to the video show.

I laughed out loud when I heard this story because I found it hilarious. LOL

Levity in such circumstances isn’t quite appropriate. Because this story is apparently true.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Reflections on Exercise Forging Sabre 2009

Every Round Counts
Every round counts in the Third Generation Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). This is why the hardest-hitting ordnance unleashed during Exercise Forging Sabre were all precision-guided.

Staged in the plains of Oklahoma in the central United States, the combined arms live fire exercise (CALFEX) marked a watershed for the SAF.

From the air, Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) pilots and weapon system officers in F-16 warplanes demolished targets with 2,000-pound smart bombs guided by laser beams.

On the ground, the Singapore Army's new HIMARS rocket artillery batteries doused simulated enemy targets with concentrated artillery fire. Rockets sped down range, guided by GPS satellites.

The 70-plus kilometre range of rockets fired from the truck-mounted HIMARS (its name is an acronym that means HIgh Mobility Artillery Rocket System) allows Singapore Army commanders to reach out and touch enemy forces with unprecedented accuracy, speed and lethality. But the hitting power of HIMARS counts for nought if one cannot find enemy units worth destroying.

During its war against military units of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime, the United States Army's 155mm heavy artillery batteries were outranged by Iraqi artillery guns and Astros rocket artillery fire units. American forces prevailed. They punished Iraqi forces heavily, exacting a terrible body count with their near-total command of the air and valuable combat intelligence soaked up by flying radar stations and camera-equipped drones. Operation Iraqi Freedom rewrote the playbook by which generals fight and win hot war scenarios against a conventional enemy. Defence planners all over the world took notice.

Enter the 3rd Gen SAF.

The CALFEX phase of Forging Sabre has allowed SAF warfighters to test, validate and refine fighting methods that make better use of information as a weapon. Their work would not be complete without the contributions of defence scientists and engineers - many of whom toil quietly behind the scenes devising battle-winning technologies - from the Defence Science & Technology Agency, DSO National Laboratories and defence company, Singapore Technologies Engineering.

When the SAF conducted its first Forging Sabre in the Californian desert four years ago, the emphasis was on the speed at which SAF warfighters could find, fix and destroy an enemy armoured column. The aggressive-sounding term, kill box, was introduced in Singapore Ministry of Defence literature that described the exercise. The emphasis back then was on the ability of army and RSAF units to come together at the right place and time to deliver the proverbial knockout punch.

This year's Forging Sabre CALFEX demonstrates how the 3rd Gen SAF has advanced. Improvements include the digitised camouflage Number 4 uniforms worn by Singapore Army warfighters and the acronyms added to MINDEF literature, terms such as ALTaCC, DSC and STORM teams - unheard of in open literature four years ago.

Weapon systems such as  HIMARS are perhaps the most prominent aspect of the 3rd Gen transformation. Firing the weapon makes for great TV and an exciting photo opportunity with the terrific noise and banner of smoke and fire trailing behind each rocket.

But look beyond the obvious and one will find interesting paradoxes from the war games.
* The more intense the conflict, the greater the need to "deconflict" the battlespace:
In the 3rd Gen SAF, attack helicopters, warplanes, eye-in-the-sky drones will occupy the same battespace as artillery rounds, rockets and missiles fired by friendly and enemy forces. It is the job of responsible commanders to "deconflict" the battlespace so friendly forces stay out of harm's way. This includes blue on blue situations when one's forces are hit by friendly fire.

The need to deconflict airspace becomes clear when you consider that tank-hunting AH-64D Longbow Apaches from 120 Squadron will occupy roughly the same airspace as Skyblade II unmanned aerial vehicles used by Army commanders to peer behind the next hill. Artillery rounds fired by 155mm Primus and Pegasus self-propelled howtizers can soar 10,000 feet or more en route to their target, making these artillery shells a hazard to RSAF warplanes unless one marks out the fire lanes and arcs of fire used by friendly forces.

At the same time, tactical intelligence picked up by various sensors can be used to plot out range rings of enemy weapon systems, say for example a Rapier low level air defence fire unit, thus red-flagging potential hazards to low-flying RSAF helicopters.

* The most powerful weapon fired by the Commandos at Forging Sabre was also the most silent.
Crack Commando teams used laser beams to guide 2,000-lbs laser-guided bombs with deadly accuracy. A sensor on the bombs homed in on the laser spot while fins on the bombs adjusted the bombs flight right to the end zone.

U.S. Army Photo: By Jeff Crawley

This marks a radical departure from the 1st Gen SAF Commando teams, whose combat power was largely determined by the size of their rifle and number of bullets each trooper could carry.

Today's Commando teams have the firepower of the entire SAF literally at their fingertips. The keyboard for the battlefield computer a Commando wears on his wrist can be used to call for fire support as quickly as one sends an SMS text message.
* The remarkable thing about Forging Sabre is the fact that the exercise unfolded at the time it did.
As SAF war games took place in the plains of the Central United States, Singaporean warfighters were conducting land warfare manoeuvres thousands of kilometres away in the summer heat in Queensland, Australia.

The SAF's ability to conduct two large-scale, live-firing exercises at the same time, on two continents - plus military training in Singapore, plus the ongoing Operation Bacinet security watches, says alot about the operational tempo the SAF can sustain.

The sun never sets on SAF training.

SAF units train somewhere on the globe when the sun shines, be it in Oklahoma, Queensland State, Singapore, or moving west to the RSAF detachment in Cazaux (France) or Republic of Singapore Navy Archer-class submarine training in Sweden.
Few people may realise the effort and planning needed to raise, train and sustain military units in far-flung locations during a live-firing exercise with a manoevre component. One forgotten mission critical spare part or widget, left behind in a storehouse back home in Singapore, is all it takes to cripple a weapon platform or system.
The language used during the CALFEX, with time over target, holding areas for tactical air support and split second coordination between kinetic operations may sound like a replay of how the SAF orchestrates the annual National Day Parade (NDP) in Singapore.
Which brings me to the last paradox of the 3rd Gen SAF: such capabilities can be tested away from war games, during peacetime engagements like NDP practices. The split second timing for various moving parts of the NDP, such as the fly past, 21-gun Presidential Salute or song and dance contingents, requires essentially the same mindset and mental dexterity needed to orchestrate the Forging Sabre CALFEX.
The Forging Sabre 2009 Exercise Director, Brigadier-General Tan Chuan-Jin, would probably know best, having led and delivered a hitch-free NDP at Singapore's 44th Birthday.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 9 Malaysian defence media relations

North of the Causeway
The Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) has regular engagements with the Malaysian media aimed at cultivating goodwill and building strong rapport with the Malaysian military.

The MAF's investment in defence media relations underscores its recognition of the media's role in winning of hearts and minds of the Raykat. Hearts and minds forms a key component of MAF psychological defence operations promulgated under its HANRUH (Total Defence) concept.

The MAF's public relations machinery is spearheaded by its PR Department, known by its Bahasa Malaysia name as Cawangan Perhubungan Awam, Kementerian Pertahanan. The department is located at KEMENTAH's headquarters at Jalan Padang Tembak.

In terms of TOE and manpower staffing, KEMENTAH draws its Media Relations Officers (MROs) almost exclusively from the ranks of the three Services of the Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (ATM; the Malay term for MAF). All of KEMENTAH's MROs officers are effectively bilingual.

The Public Affairs (PAFF) directorate at Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) has a larger headcount and more elaborate structure, which covers external and internal media, as well as community relations (they handle noise complaints etc) and media monitoring, among other duties. It also commands a huge budget for some events.

If asked to compare the two organisations, my sense of the matter would be that KEMENTAH has a stronger media relations arm. KEMENTAH puts in far more effort cultivating goodwill with the Malaysian and foreign media and has more field experience with media escort duties in the Lebanon, Timor Leste, Cambodia and in Bosnia.

Over in Singapore, the Boxing Day tsunami relief operation in 2004/2005, Operation Flying Eagle (OFE), brought into sharp relief the need for MROs who are trained and supported for field operations. Many of the MROs I worked with during Operation Flying Eagle made wonderful PR people during peacetime situations. But a fair number struggled to cope with the rigours of military life. The MROs aboard RSS Endurance were rotated three times during my 25-day embed with the SAF.

PAFF's MROs would have been combat ineffective had they been deployed to support a hot war scenario. KEMENTAH's MROs, on the other hand, are military officers and would be better suited to the demands of a military operation.

The Director Public Affairs (DPA) of that era recognised this weakness and began fielding uniformed Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officers as MROs.

That effort has been compromised by what I see as a serious leadership issue within PAFF. In all my years of journalism, I have never seen the department so rundown. There are probably more PAFF staff who want to quit the department now than at any other time in recent memory. Those of you who know what's going on, would know.

Spin masters: The Malaysian Armed Forces Public Relations team, led by then Lieutenant-Colonel Fadzlette (seated, second from right). Fadzlette was promoted to full Kolonel and now works for the Malaysian Prime Minister's office. Those who know her will probably agree she's a credit to the Malaysian military.

At the most basic level, Malaysia's defence eco-system has a happier PR arm. Malaysian defence PR officers are treated as professionals and not shouted at with foul language like recruits when things go sour; their budget may be smaller than PAFF's but they make up for this with warmth and hospitality when hosting the media. They are open to suggestions and criticisms from the media and do not hide things from higher ATM leadership.

In my opinion, the Army Information Centre (AIC) is the strongest entity that MINDEF and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) possesses should MINDEF/SAF be required to field MROs during an Operation Other Than War or short war scenario that KEMENTAH is prepared for.

It was AIC that provided the backbone for defence information ops in Meulaboh during OFE, with LTC Chin, MAJ Justin, CPT James providing the media with the pulse of the operation.

AIC has benefitted from having a previous Assistant Chief of General Staff, Operations (AC Ops), who previously held the DPA post. Colonel Benedict Lim was the first DPA to move to the AC Ops post.

The first two DPAs both retired from their post. The third moved to the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore. The fourth moved to the Singapore Discovery Centre and left from there. The fifth retired from the SAF and moved to SMRT. The sixth retired and moved to the National University of Singapore. The seventh DPA was COL Benedict, who was appointed AC Ops and has since moved on to head the SAF's Armour Formation as Chief Armour Officer.

Dzirhan Mahadzir has kindly shared his observations on defence media relations in Malaysia. His views are supported by feedback I've received in past engagements with friends from Malaysian defence publications such as ADJ and my personal dealings with KEMENTAH.

The Military and the Media: A Malaysian Viewpoint
By Dzirhan Mahadzir
Malaysia Correspondent, Jane's Defence Weekly

From my personal observations, the Malaysian Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) Public Relations (PR) and the three Services PR are very easy to approach.

In fact, we can even drop in to their offices without making an appointment and the officers are more than willing to attend to us if they are around and not tied up with work and meetings or at the least have a quick word with us as to our requests.

I have also noted that the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) Service Chiefs always ask journalists during events whether the media arrangements were satisfactory. I would say that although Malaysia is less formal and organised compared to Singapore MINDEF PR, they do a number of things which gives journalists a number of accessibility.

For instance, some of the yearly activities are:
Service Days and Armed Forces Day (Hari Angkatan Tentera): A dedicated press conference with the Chief of Service where you can ask any questions (can go on for 1-2 hours) followed by tea with the Chief, also one to one interviews arranged for TV and written replies given submitted to specific private questions by the media (for exclusive purposes).

Open days will also include specific media activity hosted by Chief of Service personally, Armed Forces Day includes media day activity hosted by CDF and organised by one of the service, Minister in attendance if schedule permits.

Mindef PR media tour: normally to East Malaysia, journalists taken to Spratly Islands, CDF and Minister in attendance, with service chiefs if they are available.

Mindef Media Night: Minister, CDF, Chiefs of Service and senior officers in attendance, open to all working in media, media heads at Minister/CDF table, Editors and senior journalists will sit at tables with top brass there. Awards given for Mindef coverage, performance by MAF personnel and media.

New Chief appointment: Official press conference in which the new CDF or chief of service introduces himself to the media and gives his vision/mandate.

Hari Raya Open House:  No equipment, just a Raya open house to eat and drink but very good for meeting military officers informally and building rapport, all three Services and MINDEF hold their own open house at different times.

This is addition to any other media event Mindef PR or the service wants to organise, exercises (especially joint exercise with foreign military) access is often pretty good, the RMAF always has C-130 seats to take the media to wherever the exercise is taking place and camera crews/photographers are often arranged for photo ops. The only exercises normally off limits will be naturally Special Forces (SF) exercises though exceptions can be made.

I have to say that the majority of the media and military here have a pretty good relationship that reporters often don't have to ask the military to go the extra mile for them because we already know that if we are not getting something, it's a given that it's not possible for various reasons rather than the military not trying or thinking about it. And we also get a heads up often from the MINDEF and Service PRs on upcoming activities even though a formal press release has not come out yet.

I think one of the main factors why military-media relations in Malaysia is pretty strong is that journalists and the military often meet because MINDEF and MAF have a lot of events such as cheque presentations ceremonies, veterans recognition, sports etc and media are always invited to cover even minor functions.

From what I see on MINDEF SG, most events appeared to be covered in-house. In Malaysia, while there is in-house coverage, the media is almost always invited, and even if there is little response, MINDEF PR Malaysia still continues to send out invites for such events in the future rather than be discouraged and discontinue.

On the rapport between Malaysian top brass and most journalists, I think what helps is that, unlike Singapore, where only the Chiefs tend to be in more contact with journalists, the MAF through various public and media events allows officers from Kolonel upwards to come into contact with journalists. In the MAF, promotions and age levels are not as quick as in the SAF, so journalists have more time to know MAF officers before they become the top brass of the MAF and establish a personal rapport.

One other thing is perhaps the fact that unlike Singapore, the MAF is a volunteer military and thus more open to public comment and criticism.

I presume perhaps it is because of Singapore's rigid and hierarchical system, plus the fact that male citizens all undergo NS, there's a mentality (not just in SAF but SG government) that citizens and journalists should not question the SAF.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 8(b) The Write Stuff

Please read Blue on Blue Part 8(a) before coming here.

Serious defence matters were discussed over dinner. One of the topics du jour being the death of a Singapore air force doctor in Australia.

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) doctor had been found dead after he was declared AWOL – Absent Without Official Leave – and my dinner partner apparently had a low impression of the deceased officer.

In my opinion, the public duel between the dead doctor’s family and the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), fought in the pages of Singaporean newspapers, did not endear the family to my dinner partner.

He seemed visibly agitated when he said that if that officer were alive, he would charge him for deserting his post. He repeated the phrase “he deserted his post” twice for effect.

Leaning over the table, he whispered a suggestion that the young officer had contracted AIDS.

Intelligence preparation (IPB) of the info-ops battlefield, like all other IPB processes, calls for decision-makers to examine all intel at hand. The situation report, prepared from the best available information, helps decision-makers deliberate the Enemy’s Course of Action and Own Course of Action, weighing the pros and cons of various decisions and the probable outcomes. All information warriors do this.

So it was no surprise that gossip about the RSAF doctor would have been picked up by anyone who followed the case closely.

It was not what was shared, but the manner in which the remark was made that saddened me deeply.

The senior Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officer seemed almost smug, sneering at the misfortune of a dead RSAF medical officer when the situation called for sympathy with the family during their time of grief. To be sure, the officer’s parents had disputed MINDEF’s account of events. But they had lost a son. Considering the tragic circumstances the family was grappling with, I strongly believe that such behavior should not be construed as hostility. Why get angry with the family?

In my opinion, it looked as if my dinner partner was gloating that the AIDS rumour had suddenly cast a cloud over the dead doctor’s character. Did the AIDS rumour suddenly make the dead man appear less than virtuous and his family’s arguments, ergo, less worthy of serious debate?

I made a mental note that if this officer was ever miffed with me, this sort of attitude would probably discount any previous goodwill I had with the system once he swung into character assasin mode. Sadly, events have validated this hypothesis.

This attitude probably explains the verbal sparring that I'm told took place at this year’s SAF Day Media Reception.

The annual affair is valuable as it gives defence professionals and the Singaporean media an informal setting to put a face to a byline, build rapport and sort out misunderstandings.

I’m given to understand that a local newspaper used the occasion to discuss several issues directly with a Deputy Secretary from MINDEF. He proved a most attentive and understanding arbitrator. The paper’s news editor and reporter aired their views on how MINDEF’s response to a certain story could have been handled better.

This wasn’t a bitch fest. Both sides appeared keen on ironing out issues that hamstrung defence media relations.

I hear that the reporter had put in a request to write about a certain defence issue. Weeks after the request was tabled, MINDEF promised a response. The story was put on what newspaper folk called a "sked" - or schedule of stories due for publication. From hearsay, MINDEF's reply came in after midnight. This delay caused the newspaper to miss offstone - which is newspaper-speak for its print deadline.

[Note: This is serious as it has a knock on effect on the time at which newspaper subscribers receive their morning paper. What's more, if the paper arrives past a certain time, some advertisers will be compensated because their potential audience would have left for work without seeing their ad.]

A scribe who witnessed the midnight theatrics in the newsroom recalled: "MINDEF's PR people only came back with their reply past midnite when questions were sent to them weeks ago. This caused the paper to bust offstone. The Night Editor was livid and screamed at the reporter so loudly the roof could've collapsed."

As the journalists described the story's painfully long gestation to the DS, it did not take long for the officer’s antenna to pick up the conversation. True to form, he glided over to his boss. He immediately went on the offensive and said in front of the DS that the reporter had been rude to his media officer.
I'm told by a third party that the senior officer later berated the reporter (not the editor, who would have scolded him back pronto) and exclaimed how he had to step in as the reporter was “yapping like a puppy” to his boss.

If MINDEF/SAF isn’t ready for feedback at such events, the system will never improve. Are you surprised at the drop in morale at MINDEF's Public Affairs (PAFF) directorate?

Alas, it wasn’t always like this.

Years ago, I attended an SAF Day Media Reception and spoke to then Deputy Secretary (Policy), Mrs Chua Siew San, for the first time. At the time, I was a journalist with the Business Times.

I went up to her to say hello. After the usual pleasantries, Mrs Chua cut to the chase and brought up a heap of past issues that bugged her – that I had stalked RSAF air bases (guilty as charged), that I had watched one of the SAF's beach landing exercises with a foreign DA (ditto) and was generally a nuisance because of my inquisitiveness.

The conversation was emotionally charged as Mrs Chua and I made our points in such a forthright manner that everyone else at the event left us alone to sort things out. I’m told this went on for about half an hour.

As expected, everything Mrs Chua had heard about me probably came from her military security watchdogs. So I used the opportunity to give my side of the story.

After our first conversation, Mrs Chua said I could contact her directly whenever I had problems.

That direct line was most appreciated. In hindsight, I should have used the courtesy more often.

In early 2003, when the 90 cent paper’s Editor-in-Chief, Mr Cheong Yip Seng, proposed that I transfer to the paper as its Defence Correspondent (the paper’s Home section was being revamped, this was post 9/11 and they wanted to boost coverage of defence and security issues), Mrs Chua was the first person I wrote to. Mr Cheong noticed my work as I had contributed a number of commentaries to the 90 cents paper while I was at BT - one debunking Malaysia's reading of a book written by my university tutor, Dr Tim Huxley.

I had asked for Mrs Chua's frank views and she did not disappoint. Indeed, I contacted her even before I told my own mother I was going to write for another paper.

I'm grateful for Mrs Chua's support.

My move to the 90 cents paper was the start of a wonderful run of defence stories by the newspaper.

By early 2004, the 90 cents paper had published a series of stories on SAF Elite units. Interestingly, the Singapore Police Force got wind of it and jumped in with their Special Tactics and Rescue (STAR) unit, which is why the STAR unit may look out of place juxtaposed with crack SAF combat capabilities.

We had our issues. There was hell to pay after the 90 cents paper reported that Singapore was prepared to send SAF troops to Iraq.

The story appeared the day that the President of the United States, George W. Bush, visited Singapore, so the timing couldn’t have been more unfortunate. Yes, alamak. I received a terrible shelling from MINDEF.

It was a result of ambiguous guidance from the then Director Public Affairs, Colonel Bernard Toh, when I asked him if the thrust of the story was accurate (the MFA statement about Singapore’s intention to send forces to Iraq was regrettably vague).

I can tell you now that COL Toh and I didn’t speak to one another for days. He initiated a meet up, we revisited the issue to troubleshoot the mistakes and decided to move on. We both apologised. He was a consummate officer and a credit to MINDEF/SAF’s defence information machinery.

The winning of hearts and minds is a long-haul process that calls for a tremendous amount of empathy, patience and the ability to give ground when the occasion demands.

This is why I stated in an earlier post that some officers may not have the right temperament for public affairs work. This is not to say such characters make poor officers. Aggression, a certain shrewdness in forging alliances – whether on the battlefield or in MINDEF - and stubbornness in sticking to one’s point of view even when your troops think otherwise and despise you, may be traits that will help your command from disintegrating into a disorganised rabble.

In peacetime situations, such mindsets may even help you win one of those shiny Best Unit Trophies and all the bragging rights that come with this achievement.

But defence public affairs and defence information management is a whole new ball game.

Some officers are naturals and excel at winning hearts and minds. Others have ample room for improvement, failing to even win the hearts and minds of their own officers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 8(a) Private Affairs

The Singapore defence ministry's Public Affairs directorate (PAFF) is ailing. Don't take my word for it. Please see the following comments from an insider.

I am posting the comments with the writer's permission because I feel you need to know the state of play at PAFF.

The comments will help you figure out why PAFF officers are demoralised and why some have voted with their feet. It helps explain the Singapore media's exasperation when trying to write credible stories about the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) - some newspaper editors have essentially turned their back on MINDEF/SAF.

I will not turn my back on the SAF because the prevailing attitude at PAFF is alarming.

You think you had a bad day at work or at your unit? Read on and reflect.

Dear David,
Just a quick email to tell you how much I have enjoyed reading your blog. Most, if not all, of your remarks about Public Affairs are spot-on.

I have one comment though.

I believe you must be aware that Public Affairs' "behaviour" as a whole is very much the result of one person's misguided "leadership" and mismanagement. Unfortunately, each time you mention Public Affairs in your posts, it does come across that everyone working in Public Affairs thinks and behaves like that misguided being.

Nothing can be further from the truth. Most Public Affairs officers are decent folks. Most do not have a choice but to do his bidding - they do not agree but they have no choice, largely because they have no other options but to carry on working at Public Affairs even if they have to drag themselves to work each day and face his nonsense. The few who have choices and options have demonstrated their disagreement by leaving.

I should know. I am one of the lucky few who were able to find another job before handing in my letter.

Perhaps in your subsequent posts, you should consider drawing a clearer distinction and direct the fire at that one being instead of pointing at the entire Public Affairs directorate. On behalf of my genial but hapless former colleagues and good friends I have left behind in Public Affairs, I thank you in advance.

Do keep on writing!

Monday, November 9, 2009

In A-stan: Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister/Defence Minister

Posted on the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) website today. Note that the date of the visit has been left out of the MINDEF statement, indicating that specific details about the visit have probably been kept hush hush to preserve opsec.

Note also the pair of Singapore Artillery Arthur radars deployed behind the hesco barriers. Pity can't see the MID plates. : (

The Arthur Weapon Locating Radars do not provide 360-degree coverage, but their ability to keep a potential fire arc under electronic surveillance enables troops at the base to concentrate resources on blind spots.

The Singapore Artillery's concept of operations would usually see firefinder radars slaved to one or more 155mm heavy artillery gun detachments. Fire data processed by Arthur is transmitted to 155mm battery commanders for counter-battery fire missions. The radars are designed to track the trajectory of rockets, artillery shells and mortar bombs and can plot their source even before the first round impacts its target.

In the Afghanistan deployment, the Arthur radars have been deployed mainly for a defensive role of providing early warning to troops at their forward operating base.

Without the Arthur radars, troops at the base would often realise they are under attack only after the first rounds impact the base. The Arthur team therefore provides the essential early warning for troops to take cover.

I have the highest respect for the SA gunners, the SOTF elements, signallers and combat medics who made the deployment to Oruzgan possible and wish them well.
The Security Command (SECCOM) of the Singapore Police Force ensured the security of Minister Teo's entourage during the trip deep into one of Afghanistan's restive provinces.

Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Teo Chee Hean, Visits Singapore Armed Forces Troops in Afghanistan

Posted: 09 Nov 2009, 1325 hours (Time is GMT +8 hours)

Firefinders: Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Mr Teo Chee Hean, greets (from left) Major Jackson Wu, Major Collins Pang and Lieutenant-Colonel Percival Goh during his meeting with Singapore Armed Forces troops deployed in Afghanistan. The person in uniform to Mr Teo's immediate right is from the Singapore Police Force's SECCOM close protection team. These police officers are trained for VIP protection.

Swift and Precise: Major Vincent Koh, detachment commander of the Singapore Armed Force (SAF) Arthur Weapon Locating Radar (WLR) team, updating Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Mr Teo Chee Hean, on the team's combat deployment in the Afghan theatre. Behind them is one of the two Arthur WLRs deployed in Tarin Kowt, Oruzgan Province, to detect, track and pinpoint the source of incoming rocket and tube artillery projectiles, as well as mortar bombs. The swift and precise data processed by the Arthur team gives troops the vital early warning to take cover in the event of harassment fire.

Last week, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Teo Chee Hean visited Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) troops deployed in Afghanistan to get a first-hand feel of their operations in Oruzgan and Bamiyan province. He was accompanied by Chief of Army Major-General Neo Kian Hong and other senior SAF officers.

During the visit, Mr Teo met the SAF Weapon Locating Radar (WLR) team at their operating base in Tarin Kowt, the provincial capital of Oruzgan. Mr Teo was briefed on the WLR team's tasks and responsibilities by Team Commander MAJ Vincent Koh Han Seah, and visited the team at their deployment site. Mr Teo interacted with the SAF troops, who shared with him their operational experiences during the two months they had been there.

Speaking to the 17-man WLR team, Mr Teo emphasised the important role that they were playing in Afghanistan and Singapore's overall contributions to international security operations.

Mr Teo said: "I can see the tough and challenging conditions you operate under many miles from home. The SAF's deployments to Oruzgan and Bamiyan are important for the people of Afghanistan and are a part of Singapore's overall contribution to international security operations. I have full confidence that you will continue to do Singapore and the SAF proud in carrying out your duties vigilantly and professionally."

The WLR team was deployed to Tarin Kowt in September this year to provide early warning of rocket attacks and enhance force protection measures for International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel at the base. There will be a rotation of teams in January 2010 with the second team taking over till June 2010.

While in Tarin Kowt, Mr Teo also visited the field hospital where a 20-man SAF medical team was deployed from November 2008 to May this year to provide emergency and trauma care and primary healthcare. The SAF will be deploying a medical and surgical team to this field hospital in Oruzgan in the coming months.

Mr Teo also visited the Winter Deployment Team (WDT) in Bamiyan led by Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Chan. The 3-man WDT, deployed in November 2009, serves as part of the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team, and works closely with the local government in the delivery and distribution of humanitarian aid donated by the SAF to the local populace.

The WDT will be in Bamiyan till May next year. The WDT replaced a 6-man construction engineering team deployed to Bamiyan from April to October this year for 6-months, to supervise the construction of a Paediatric and Women's Ward extension for the Bamiyan Provincial Hospital, as well as a security wall around the Provincial Administrative Building.

The SAF has made deployments to Afghanistan since 2007 as part of Singapore's contributions to multinational stabilisation and reconstruction efforts there.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

10 things to know about Blue on Blue

1. The shortest Blue on Blue post garnered the most number of responses - mainly from MINDEF/SAF personnel who know Darius Lim. I'm keeping the offline remarks offline, but I wish you could see what was said.

2. I left the 90 cents paper on 30 April 2008 to join the Sentosa IR. I have since published 13 commentaries in the 90 cents newspaper. Each carried the tagline stating clearly I was the "former Defence Correspondent". One commentary was quoted by DPM Teo Chee Hean at a closed-door MINDEF briefing, so I hear. One commentary was reprinted by Air Force News in full. One Army SSSO quoted another commentary at a briefing for his PSOs, so I hear. The RSN noted in its post event debrief that the commentary on the MGBs beat all other articles combined, so I hear.

Do you get PIONEER magazine? Please check out my commentary in the January 2009 issue, pages 22-23. The credit line reads:"David Boey was a writer with PIONEER during his National Service days. The former Straits Times journalist has been reporting and writing on the Singapore Armed Forces for the past 16 years."

Just so you know, PIONEER is published by PAFF.

3. My last engagement with PAFF was on Wednesday 26 August 2009. This was one year, three months and 26 days into my new job. I attended a briefing on the Terrex ICV by COMD 9DIV/CIO at the Murai Urban Training Facility. 9 DIV/INF was an excellent host.

4. The follow-on to this was the media preview on Monday 31 August 2009 at Pasir Laba Camp. My access to this event was withdrawn on the morning of the event. I emphasize: on the morning of the event. So much for "See you on Monday".

Please see point 2 for the number of engagements I had with the SAF after leaving the 90 cents paper. Each resulted in a commentary. The engagements include one trip to the United States to witness the F-15SG roll-out, one 2D/1N live-firing exercise with the RSN, one flight aboard 127 SQN's Chinook, one ride on a Terrex with COMD 9 DIV and his weapon staff officers.

This is the video I shot of the Terrex demo.

5. On 26 Aug 09, a MINDEF rep pulled me aside (the Terrex Project team, STK and DSTA representatives and 90 cents reporter saw this) for a "four eye meeting" after the Terrex demo. He informed me that so-and-so was upset about two things. These were:
a) My "threat" to write about the Forum Page letter on my blog
b) My comparison between AIC and PAFF on

6. I responded by stating:
a) At the time, I had not even started a blog. I said I would do so if no reply was forthcoming because Singaporeans needed to know. The blog went live shortly after the AOH incident the following Monday (31 Aug 09).
b) AIC vs PAFF. I stand by those comments. They were crafted as a stimulus for the directorate to improve.

7. A militarynut commented about conflict resolution. This is one of the forthcoming Blue on Blue topics. Please wait for it.

8. Blue on Blue is not about an irascible ex-journalist who gets into a hissy fit because access to an SAF event was denied. The mindset exhibited by PAFF today will, in my honest opinion, set MINDEF/SAF up for trouble because the bullying culture burns bridges and erodes people's confidence with the defence establishment. Singaporean households may tolerate such crap because they have weathered training deaths for the past four decades. Our foreign talent families won't. Think about that.

9. Compare for example the reassuring statements made by US defense officials after the Fort Hood tragedy to get to the bottom of things with the wall of silence after the Land Rover death. The Fort Hood tragedy is being investigated by US authorities, yet this has not stopped US defense officials from issuing words of comfort and pledges to leave no stone unturned. Such statements mean alot to NOKs.
As 2LT Daryl Loh's father put it so succinctly, news of training deaths hits the hearts of families who lost their loved ones in previous accidents. These families were given a solemn pledge that the system would improve. Has it, really?

10. PAFF's punitive mindset makes this outfit by far the worst I have ever encountered since the first DPA was appointed. If this is how they treat someone who has said good things about the SAF, ask yourself how they would treat the Singaporean who is a single mother/father, or heartlander, or student who raises a point about a matter of public concern, or how they might treat you.
They may call themselves a Public Affairs Directorate but putting fresh paint on a collapsing house won't change anything.

You are all Thinking Soldiers. I have faith that the vast majority of you would be able to sense what's going on.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Update: Blue on Blue

A reader has asked why the weekly series of rants is titled Blue on Blue. (Yes, the reader is a girl).

I explained that Blue on Blue is military-speak for friendly fire situations when your own side shoots at you. By similar logic, Blue on Blue situations also occur when you open fire on your own side.

Those of you who have been following the series may realise what triggered the series. Please refer to a previous post titled Shooting the messenger. I was initiated into the world of blogs after the Army Open House 2009 incident.

Next week, we'll cast the spotlight on a light and sound show called Exercise Forging Sabre, which is due to see the Singapore Artillery's HIMARS rocket artillery battery make its debut in the United States.

I will not suffer fools and will not tolerate bullies either.

As my posts will show, the bully boy attitude poisons the trust Singaporeans place in our defence establishment.

To everyone who has contributed words of support, encouragement and story ideas, thank you.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Defence Info Ops Exercise - Vehicle Recognition

SAF Vehicle Recognition

Please identify this vehicle and state the armament it carries.

I'm keen on seeing the responses this post generates. :-)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 7 The Enemy Within

Enemy Within

I was 23 when I won a prize in the CDF Essay Competition, organized by the Singapore Command and Staff College.

As I was the ghost writer, I did not receive the Merit Award from the Chief of Defence Force (CDF, who was then JP). But it was a proud moment for me and the bigger prize was learning firsthand about the system’s sensitivity towards Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training deaths.

When I became a journalist with the 90 cents paper years later, I knew this delicate subject needed to be handled with extra care and sensitivity.

The essay, Enemy Within, was submitted under a friend’s name at his behest. He had been “arrowed” to submit an entry so that his unit could say it participated in the annual competition for SAF officers. His superior was looking for a tick in the box, not a prize-winning effort. My friend then asked if I could be his ghost writer. I agreed more out of curiosity as I wanted to see how my essay would fare when fielded against SAF officers.

Enemy Within won a Merit Award. This means it was placed third to 10th among the field of 220 submissions.

Sharp-eyed readers may realise that the compilation of entries for the 1993 CDF Annual Essay Competition published by the Pointer Journal in 1994 misses one entry. Only the top three essays were published, plus six Merit Award essays and one Commendation Award essay (11th to 20th). The missing essay is a Merit Award winner titled the Enemy Within.

I learned later that the judges felt that the essay raised valid points – which is why it won a Merit Award. But the system wasn’t ready to share the essay as a learning tool for a wider SAF audience.

Seen in isolation, that act of self-censorship would seem a non-issue.

But the officer who submitted Enemy Within lost his cousin in an SAF training accident. He had hoped the essay would emphasize the importance of training safety and command responsibility. This did not happen and he was disappointed with the system's attitude (he has since left the SAF).

The officer’s cousin died after his Super Puma ditched in 4.5 metres of water in Poyan Reservoir in August 1991. The helicopter flipped onto its back, as helicopters are known to do during water landings. Choppers have a high centre of gravity because their heavy engines are mounted high on the airframe and by the laws of physics, tend to flip upside down during water landings if flotation bags are not deployed.

Two Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) captains died in the crash. They were just 24 and 28 years old. The 21-year-old aircrewman survived and was spotted sitting on the belly of the upturned Super Puma.

After this catastrophe, the RSAF made Helicopter Underwater Evacuation Training mandatory for all rotary-wing aircrew. I was perplexed why it took two fatalities during a water landing to nudge the air force to introduce such training and wrote about it in Enemy Within. The grieving family too, felt perplexed.

I cited three other examples to buttress the key point in the essay – which argued that many life-saving military innovations stem from simple ideas. It made the point that military personnel, regardless of rank, who fall asleep at the switch are the weak links in the chain and a hazard to their friends and comrades. This explains the essay's title: Enemy Within.

I cited three examples of military innovations:
First, the use of day-glo panels as an anti-fratricide device during the first Gulf War.
Second, the improvement made to the Ultimax 100 Mark III light machine gun by placing the carrying handle on its barrel rather than the receiver (which allows the gunner to change the hot barrel without gloves, unlike the U-100 Mark II variant).
Third, the heavy mast on the Springboard ships that made them unstable even in moderate seas.

One of the trademarks of my writing style when I'm addressing an SAF audience is the inclusion of one example from the Army, Navy and Air Force.

The RSAF example was the Super Puma crash.

Fast forward 16 years to 2009 and one finds the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) Public Affairs Department (PAFF) exhibiting the same behavior towards SAF deaths.

I’m of the opinion that more pro-active handling of situations involving SAF deaths would crimp persistent and highly-damaging rumours of cover-ups by the system.

I cite the death of an RSAF regular, Corporal Ricky Liu Junhong, in November 2007 as an example. Corporal Ricky collapsed at the tail end of his 2.4km run at Paya Lebar Air Base on 15 November 2007. The 20-year-old was rushed to Changi General Hospital, where he died nine days later on 24 November 2007.

When PAFF apparently failed to issue a news release on CPL Ricky’s death, as is usually expected after a training death, one of his friends tipped off the Today newspaper, a Singaporean free sheet.

RSAF personnel who knew about the incident talked to the newspaper as they thought his loss had been hushed up. The story in Today was published on 29 November 2007. In the Internet age of near-instantaneous news reporting, the speed at which CPL Ricky's death was reported seemed glacial.

CPL Ricky died serving Singapore. He reportedly crawled the last 20 metres to the finish line of the 2.4km run but collapsed before reaching it.

If PAFF had issued a news release the day he died, that would have done much to comfort CPL Ricky's family and friends. Instead, we heard nothing from PAFF. Not a squeak until MINDEF's spin doctors were queried by Today.

The journalist who broke the story, Leong Wee Keat, Senior Reporter at Today, shares how he got the story: “Yes, there was no news release issued. A member of the public called us regarding the death, which we confirmed with someone we knew from the air base. MINDEF did not issue a statement till we contacted them on the incident. When we spoke to the family, the sister was relatively calm (compared to other grieving families we tried before). They also sought answers but MINDEF said the incident was under investigation.”

The 90 cents newspaper did not report this story and I got shelled after the morning post-mortem for missing this story.

In my opinion, situations like this result in PAFF scoring an own goal. Their dilatoriness, apparent command indecision and inability to see the big picture perpetuates the mindset that MINDEF is out to cover-up training deaths. This is most unfortunate because I know MINDEF’s higher leadership works assiduously to assure Singaporeans that the system is transparent and there will be no cover-ups of SAF deaths.

I can see why CPL Ricky’s friends were concerned enough to call Today.

When I queried someone from PAFF, that person explained that they did not see the need to issue a news release as CPL Ricky died more than a week after he was sent to hospital. I could not see the relevance or logic of this weak defence. In my mind, PAFF seemed as if it was trying to keep the tally of training deaths low. That person could have done so reasoning that fewer reports on SAF deaths would mean less damage to public perceptions towards the SAF. It was a noble, if misguided view.

I suppose this is what that person regards as Care for Soldiers? Please see this previous post: Wall of silence.

With this sort of shoddy service, I can see why many Singaporean parents continue to be concerned whenever their sons enlist for two years of National Service.

I can also see why talk of cover-ups continues to make its rounds.

If I had to update my prize-winning essay, I would cite the current day PAFF as another example of the Enemy Within.