Sunday, June 27, 2010

Takeaways from NDP rehearsals

There's no time out for Singapore's citizen soldiers, even with National Day Parade (NDP) rehearsals in full swing every weekend till 9 August 2010.

Just ask the Singapore Army's Leopard 2 main battle tank (MBT) tank crew.

Last week, the 48th Battalion, Singapore Armoured Regiment (48 SAR), brought their Leopard 2A4s outfield. After the exercise ended, 48 SAR had to prepare its big cats for a date with low loaders. A convoy brought the MBTs to their form-up point for the first National Day Parade Combined Rehearsal (CR1) on 19 June 2010. Sorry can't be more specific, but if you know, you know :-)

By the time the Leopards were unloaded and secured in the vehicle laager, it was early Saturday morning.

Along with other elements of the NDP 2010 Mobile Column, 48 SAR did one run past the Padang under blazing hot Saturday sunshine before preparing for the parade's full sequence later in the day. By the time the participants returned to their unit, Sunday morning was also upon them.

A look at the NDP 2010 rehearsal calendar may fuel the incorrect idea that parade participants have loads of time to get things right.

In practice, they only have two full rehearsals to get things squared away. The last full rehearsal ended a few hours ago. As I type this, Mobile Column participants have just sent their vehicles back to their parking lots and will send arms before bedding down for the night.

By CR3, the third Combined Rehearsal, parade participants will be performing in front of their parents and loved ones at a special closed door preview just for families of NDP participants.

CR4, 5 and 6 are National Education (NE) shows attended by thousands of primary school students - certainly not the place to goof up.

The Parade Preview will be attended by the Singaporean public and is the last full dress rehearsal before Singapore celebrates its 45th year of independence on 9 August.

For an accidental nation, the SAF's order of battle, firepower at its command and slew of defence operations it undertakes everyday are all noteworthy achievements.

What the SAF protects, others covet. Which is why there's no let up in SAF ops.

Island defence and protection of installation operations spearheaded by the Island Defence HQ continue unabated, 24/7, with or without NDP.

The coastal defence screen put up by naval and Police Coast Guard patrols deters opportunistic sea robbers from landing on our shores. It may sound incredible but in the 1980s, sea robbers from Indonesia were known to target sites on mainland Singapore as far apart as the East Coast Sailing Centre and fishermen off Tuas. The opportunists are still around and if one weakens the Maritime Security Task Force elements, they'll hit Singapore again within a month.

The SAF's war games calendar, so vital for honing integrated operations between land, air, sea and intelligence forces, remains as packed as ever. Indeed, the SAF is one of the few Asian nations for whom the sun never sets on its military training. This is because SAF training takes place round the clock and round the world, thanks to training detachments in  places including, but not limited to, Australia, Brunei, Thailand, India, Sweden, France and across the continental United States.

Coming back to NDP, the rehearsals are among the SAF's largest peacetime operations.

The two hours or so of NDP pomp and ceremony, the massed displays and sing-alongs, capped by the oh-so-expensive fireworks, demand an army (no pun intended) of logistics and communications specialists to get things right.

Each NDP demands and practices many other skill sets too.

During NDP, Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) warplanes and helicopters fly racetrack orbits in holding areas, waiting for their cue to wow NDP spectators. That holding pattern takes into account weather patterns, the height of the cloud base and has secondary and tertiary holding areas built in. When the ground controller (callsign: Mothergoose) whistles the birds in, the flying participants make an entrance timed to the second - give or take several seconds or so.

The same skill sets are used during close air support missions when a ground forward air controller (GFAC) cues the heavy hitters onto their targets.

The thousands of NDP participants need to be fed and watered and the amount of food that caters to people with different dietary requirements is mind boggling.

This goes along with a medical preparedness plan that can handle medical situations from people who faint while on parade to large-scale evacuations due to natural or man-made situations like an attack by terrorists.

If the two situations above sound faintly similar to non-combatant evacuation operations, it's because they demand the same core skills and attention to detail.

As for my personal favourite, the Mobile Column, the effort needed to deploy hundreds of vehicles and track their subsequent dispersal across the island is a complex operation that many tend to overlook.

To be sure, many countries have fielded their own Mobile Columns during military parades. But few do so in a city state with an urban density like Singapore's. If road closures are ineptly handled, the tailback of traffic and knock-on effect this will have on arterial roads could result in massive traffic jams across the island.

To avoid traffic snarls, each Mobile Column must deploy in proper march order and stick to a pre-scouted route and movement schedule. That said, it takes the dedication of the Military Police Command to ensure march discipline at various traffic control points.

Similar skill sets for convoy management and routing would be used should the Singapore Army need to deploy its full force potential.

If you think about it, get the privilege to tour the NDP's back-of-house operations or hear about the NDP experience from people in the know, you will quickly realise the enormity of the tasks that each NDP Executive Committee has to bear.

At a more basic level of addressing commitment to defence, it should be obvious even to folks who are not defence watchers to realise that a citizen's army succeeds or fails based on the support from its people.

Each NDP therefore represents an ideal platform for the SAF to touch base with Singaporeans.

And if one takes the morale, attitude and turnout of Mobile Column participants as a reflection of how NDP participants feel about their burnt weekends, I am hopeful the vast majority will take these CRs in the right spirit.

To be fair, I'm sure some NDP participants do occasionally feel they'd rather be elsewhere. And it's no fun being yelled at by your Captains in public for not getting the gun salute timing right. My PRIDE Day suggestion to these young officers: Next time, ask the drivers to switch off the engine of their vehicle before you talk to your men. Practise the drill, then switch the engines back on after that. Your voice can never match that of a dozen idling vehicles and I don't think the Singapore Army trains its soldiers to lip read.

At times, one might naturally feel frustrated practising the same confounded sequence over and over again, in stifling heat and with a roaring engine inches away from your face.

But up and down the Mobile Column during last week's CR1 and Saturday's CR2, Mobile Column participants seemed in high spirits.

It should be obvious to all Mobile Column participants - vehicle commanders, drivers, crew and assorted road marshals  - that thousands of Singaporean will line the roads during rehearsals to watch your vehicles roll by. They do so because the Mobile Column appears once every five years and is a thrill to watch.

I'm sure some of those eyeballs belong to foreign observers who will take their cue on the SAF's modernisation drive from things they observe.

At an NDP years past, a foreign military officer wasn't interested in the song and dance items but kept his eyes peeled for the manner in which the show timing and sequences were managed. He walked away impressed and told a friend of mine assigned as his liaison officer that the SAF knew its job. This was pre-Operation Flying Eagle and the SAF's performance during that demanding post-tsunami relief mission in two theatres (Indonesia and Thailand), plus the round-the-clock coordination of international relief in Singapore, validated the foreign officer's takeaway from NDP.

I am quietly confident that you will all get your sequences right and vehicle alignments right.

In time, I'm sure you will also eventually understand that the Mobile Column is more than just a 12-minute sequence past City Hall.

This show of force, this rolling arsenal, all that firepower on the move, is a palpable and visible reminder to all of how far our country's defence and security forces have evolved since the last Mobile Column rolled by in 2005.

Lastly, it's about nation-building and our Army connecting with the people.

Years after NDP 2010 when you grow up, I bet some of you will burn your own Saturday afternoons to watch future generations of SAF personnel strut their stuff in war machines we dare not even imagine today.

When that day comes, you will realise the bigger impact the long hours of rehearsals has had on your life.

See you next week at CR3.

Acknowledgements: I'm grateful to the NDP 2010 EXCO for sharing Mobile Column rehearsal timings and for tolerating stalkers. : )


bdique said...

Probably can't make it for a few more weeks, which is a really pity :( nonetheless awesome pics!

Anonymous said...

It has always been speculated that singapore operates Centurion MBTs under the name Tempest.

Now that the Leopards are public and we are even displaying the "zhnged" model. Perhaps it would be nice to let the Tempest out in public as a gesture of thanks to the old crews. Of cos.... assuming those rumoured tanks even exist.....

ZJZ said...

David, I read with interest about the various flypast of yester-years you mentioned when a large number of aircraft and types are involved.

However, personally, I am most impressed with a particular event that RSAF did back in 1992 or 1993, where they organised the Air Tattoo at the National Stadium. At that particular event, I recalled all RSAF aircraft types doing low level flypast over the National Stadium. I wonder how many people actually remembered this?

David Boey said...

The NDP 1984 flypast had the most number of fast jets - three waves of 15 Hunters, 15 A-4s and 15 F-5s. The numbers swell after you add the rotary wing participants.

The flypast you're referring to took place during the SAF Military Tattoo in 1990. It involved 26 fixed and rotary wing aircraft.

You're right in saying that it was a sight to remember.

Till today I can recall the C-130, E-2C and Skyvan flying in formation at low level.

In that year, I was an NSF in PAFF. It was a busy spell for the directorate as we had the SAF Military Tattoo and SAF at 25 Exhibition at PLA, in addition to the usual annual events like the Best Units publicity, SAF Day, NDP etc.

ZJZ said...

Hi. Thanks for correcting my memory of the event. I am surprised not a lot of people remember the event at all. I cant find anything in Google as well. Strange.

Those were the days where the SF260 and S211 are still around....

Anonymous said...

Were those pants uncomfortable?

xtemujin said...

Nice catch of the NDP participants and people from all walks of life checking out the tanks.

Daniel said...

Good read. Even one who is not familiar with your work could see your passion in SAF and defense of our country.

Anonymous said...

I often joke that the NDP is the largest performance evaluation exercise for promotion in the largest stat board in Singapore, and it looks like the description is not too far off, based on the required activities and skills you describe...

Anonymous said...

I actually stopped watching NDPs when the mobile columns were not part of it and when the venue was moved to the stadium. Having been part of a matching contingent before at the Padang, it was quite a grand moment even then as an NSF, you cursed the weekends burned. Should be quite nostalgic for me this year.

Anonymous said...

Very good pictures taken, able to share?