Wednesday, August 11, 2010

NDP 2010 Mobile Column: Achieving Mission Success

The guy wearing civvies (above) at the last Mobile Column command brief on National Day wasn’t what he seemed.

His tee shirt - one of thousands made for the National Day Parade 2010 – and blue jeans made him blend in with NDP spectators on the streets. But there was good reason why he listened intently to the staff officers giving the briefing.

Lam Pei Sien. Colonel, Singapore Army. Passport Number: 70xxxxx X. He commanded them all.

As chairman of the Mobile Column and Celebrations Committee, COL Lam was a picture of studied calm hours before the 210-vehicle Mobile Column advanced into Singapore’s heartlands on 9 August 2010.

The manoeuvre was last practised at the 2005 National Day Parade. Many of the staff officers from NDP 2005 who helmed the event have moved on to senior appointments or left the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

To put things in perspective, many of the teenage full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) who drove or commanded SAF war machines at NDP 2010 were only in Secondary Two (Eight Grade or Form Two equivalent) or Sec 3 the last time the Mobile Column was seen during National Day.

To casual observers, the NDP 2010 Mobile Column team made up of more than 900 SAF and Home Team personnel was about as raw, untested and inexperienced as you could assemble.

But what they lacked in experience, they more than made up in enthusiasm, creativity and hard training.

Months before H Hour, the NDP 2010 Executive Committee (EXCO) built a 1:1 scale driving route that replicated every street corner, turn and the length of the Padang. Markers placed on the road indicated the points where Leopard 2A4 main battle tanks would swivel their turrets and dip their 120mm guns to salute the President. There was even a mock saluting platform for the tank commanders to salute. The Padang, an open field in Singapore's city centre, was the parade venue for Singapore's 45th birthday.

It was fortuitous that the first rehearsals were conducted on Sundays in Tuas, an industrial area in western Singapore, out of sight from the public. The first sessions bordered on organised mayhem, with vehicle alignments haywire and out-of-shape formations. Drivers moved in fit and starts as they eyeballed one another and attempted to drive in a straight row in close order without hitting one another. As the parade was months downstream, there were morale issues to tackle as some servicemen – admittedly just a handful of NSFs - found it a bloody waste of time practicing so hard for the 15-minute drive past Mr President.

These internal rehearsals soon gained traction. As vehicle alignments and formations were slowly perfected and drivers gained confidence, things fell into place smoothly.

As part of the planning process, SAF staff officers gathered satellite images of Singapore and used these to brief drivers of their driving route to the heartlands, which are housing estates in the west, north and north eastern parts of the island.

Experiments were conducted using SAF vehicles in the dead of the night, when traffic was light, to ensure that armoured and outsized military vehicles could negotiate neighbourhood roads safely without damaging civilian property. The vast majority of the drivers, however, had to wait till 9 August itself for their heartlands adventure.

Fast forward to 9 August 2010 and 26,000 people packed spectator stands built at the Padang and along St Andrew’s Road to cheer on the Mobile Column. Abour 100,00 others stood around Marina Bay. By then, the 210 vehicles had rehearsed in front of a live audience at least five times – CR 3 in front of family members of NDP participants, at the three National Education shows and the Parade Preview.

They could see for themselves that crowds of Singaporeans and tourists would pack the roadside for hours just for a sneak peak of the Mobile Column – a moving display that appears once every five years.

COL Lam’s attitude on National Day is one indicator of an effective planning staff. The concept plans, strategies, operational and tactical details had been hammered out way before H Hour over many burnt weekends and late nights. So there was little for him to do that morning but order his staff officers to move plans into action.

On National Day, staff officers who briefed Mobile Column participants for the last time made an all-out effort to coax everyone to give their all. They went beyond the scope of their briefings on issues such as engine start times and the scheduling of toilet breaks to rally everyone.

It was the crowning moment of a sustained hearts and minds effort to boost the morale of Mobile Column participants and make sure they were fully committed to the event.

From what I observed, they were preaching to the converted.

Mobile Column rehearsals consumed many weekends and nights. Thousands of mosquitoes have Mobile Column participants to thank for the blood feast over the past months. And who likes to be yelled at for not getting the timing of that blasted vehicle salute spot on?

But on National Day, months of practice paid off. SAF and Home Team officers and men were confident the show would come together, that Singapore would see the best-ever Mobile Column fly the flag proudly.

COL Lam did address his men. Twice in fact: once to Formation Liaison Officers and the second time at a massed briefing for drivers and vehicle commanders. Predictably, the battle cry was for them to give their all. Do their best. That after months of rehearsals, today was the big day. Be safe, look out for one another.

It is one thing to second guess what a commander might say. It is quite another to hear him say it. And when timed at the right moment, delivered to the right audience at the right forum, the effect can be electrifying. See their group hug here.

To those who know, the way in which the SAF trained and conditioned supposedly raw and inexperienced city boy warfighters for the Mobile Column mirrors its approach to defending Singapore.

Insightful defence observers would realise that land warfare manoeuvres practised over the vastness of the American plains, Australian outback, Indian desert or South African veldt replicate - almost kilometre for kilometre – the distances the SAF is prepared to travel to strike and kill a hostile army.

You only have to look at the hand-drawn markings on map overlays to realise that towns, bridges, plantations and obstacles that an aggressor may throw in the path of SAF manoeuvre units are replicated in these war games. Some obstacles are simulated with the help of award-winning innovations. Please turn to page two after you click here.

Thanks to friends overseas prepared to host Singapore's citizen army, these division-size exercises give the SAF’s air and land forces full freedom of action unavailable in the city state. Full-troop exercises are complemented by classified computerised war games that replicate the SAF's likely battlespace in frightening detail.

Another takeaway from the Mobile Column is the hearts and minds effort showcased by COL Lam’s team. This can be seen in the way Singapore reaches out to friends in the region to explain its deterrent posture by building partnerships for peace. At the same time, the defence eco-system reaches out to inform, educate and reassure Singaporeans that force will be met with force.

Friendships are forged through mutual respect and understanding, a spirit of give and take, a commitment to give diplomacy a chance and a willingness to live with national quirks that every society has.

Good sense and good neighbourliness ensures that the war machines Singapore has invested heavily in will serve only as crowd-pleasers once every five years at National Day.

May the SAF's war machines remain clean and polished for years to come.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another awesome, insightful post, David. Thanks!