Monday, October 8, 2012

Fighting ships deserve a fighting chance: Time to relook naval base security

Block 214 Bravo, Changi Naval Base (CNB), is unique among all of Singapore's naval facilities. It houses the only sheltered - some would say blast-resistant - berths built for the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN).

Inside the stout walls of this otherwise plain looking, box-like structure alongside CNB's East Wharf are berths where the RSN's diesel-electric submarines can be secured pierside where the sun doesn't shine.

Even in daytime, work that takes place inside Blk 214 Bravo is done under artificial lighting by 171 Squadron's submariners, whose corporate office at Block 214 is a short walk across the concrete hardstanding and overlooks the massive structure.

The submarine pens are the only passive defence for Singapore's warships at the naval base. All other men-of-war that call CNB home such as the Formidable-class stealth frigates, Endurance-class tank landing ships and assorted small craft used by the Base Defence Squadron remain unprotected by physical infrastructure like hardened walls.

Enter the Sea Soldiers, the Singapore Navy's post 9/11 answer to the heightened security climate.

The RSN has had servicemen guarding its warships and bases since eons ago. To test its drawer plans, HQ RSN has staged defence readiness war games such as Exercise Papermate and the Gondola series of naval base defence exercises since the RSN was renamed from the Maritime Command on 1 April 1975. Exercise Gondola is said to have undergone several evolutions with the scenario of the war game expanded in scope, scale and complexity as the years went by.

What the Sea Soldiers bring to the table are enhanced capabilities that Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) infantry are trained with (like chem-bio defence and small unit tactics) as well as fast craft tactics, techniques and procedures that are necessary for sea screening duties within and in the vicinity of RSN naval bases.

Think of the Sea Soldiers as RSN security personnel who serve a force protection function that falls in between those of regimental policemen (RPs) and full fledged naval infantry. When first publicised around 2006, these Sea Soldiers appeared to be a credible force that no naval base could do without.

Alas, their structure and organisation appeared to be letdown by a mindset that placed Sea Soldiers of the Base Defence Squadron low on the table of precedence when it came to the distribution of the SAF's latest infantry weapons.

Even in 2006, Sea Soldiers were armed with M-16 rifles that were being phased out of the Singapore Army's frontline combat formations as warfighters in these formations swapped their ageing rifles for the SAR-21 5.56mm assault rifle.

We thus had a curious situation where the RSN's latest warships (i.e. the Formidable-class stealth frigates) relied on Sea Soldiers carrying the SAF's oldest rifles for force protection. RSN personnel entrusted to guard Singapore's most expensive warships had better be able to shoot straight because their M16s were fitted with nothing better than iron sights. They carried no side arm and drove around the base in unarmoured patrol vehicles - not quite a force to be reckoned with if you think about it.

In terms of numbers on duty at any time, the amount of frontage each Sea Soldier had to defend was considerably more than an average infantryman deployed on the FLOT.

Apart from worn out M16s, the Sea Soldiers' armoury had another curious medieval oddity - meat hooks that were towed behind speeding fast craft in the (vain/improbable/futile) attempt to scare the wits out of the Enemy's underwater intruders.

Other countries use seabed sensors so sensitive they could probably hear a seahorse fart to detect underwater craft like submarines. In Singapore, our Sea Soldiers are expected to go into operations like seaborne rodeo cowboys trailing meat hooks and tossing scare charges into the water.

If you really believe Fleet RSN is worth investing in, then the safety and security of RSN war machines and Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) assets should be placed uppermost on the priority list even ahead of Army combat formations.

If our Army has to deploy for action, this deployment in its projected area of operations can only take place under the security cover provided by the air force. The Army's heavy stuff isn't going anywhere unless carried there by the Navy. Aerial resupply can only carry that much to the fight. A sizeable amount of war material will have to get there by sea via the RSN's extant fleet and requisitioned merchantmen.

This explains why both RSN and RSAF will be top on the priority list should deterrence fail and the SAF has to do what it is trained to do. Only a fool of an opponent would sit and wait while the clarion call mobilises the full force potential of the SAF.

One hopes the intervening years since the initial burst of publicity on Sea Soldiers has given these personnel more punch.

Their role is vital because any warship lost prior to or during action cannot be easily replaced. Indeed, the same argument extends to the need for the air force's war machines to be better protected.

Their mission is challenging as CNB and its western stablemate, Tuas Naval Base, have piers that are wide open to outside observation.

The Sea Soldiers had better be good at the game because our sea borders are porous and open to anyone or anything with the determination to get through.

In 1990, three bull elephants demonstrated just how porous our sea borders are when they swam 1.5km across the Johor Strait and landed (apparently undetected) on the military training area on Pulau Tekong. No only was the SAF caught unaware by these visitors, the lumbering pachyderms evaded capture for several days while on Pulau Tekong.

There was an encore a year later on neighbouring Pulau Ubin, this time by a sole elephant which swam there from Johor. The northern shore of Pulau Ubin has since been fenced to deter snakeheads running human smuggling operations from putting their human cargo ashore on that unwatched shoreline.

Did we learn anything at all from these "intrusions"?

In 2004, three fugitives from Malaysia landed on Singapore soil without being intercepted. Once again, Pulau Tekong was the scene of a flurry of activity as the Tekong manhunt cranked into action. Scores of SAF troops were deployed for cordon and search operations, police coast guard ringed the island while RSAF helicopters buzzed overhead. The trio were eventually apprehended (by police Gurkhas) but not before making a hammer blow on the ability of the tech-heavy Third Generation SAF to solve basic security scares like a manhunt.

When pitted against opponents who dare, our fighting ships may be put out of the fight before they sail into action. Only then will the next generation of Sea Soldiers be armed to the teeth - by which time it would be too late.


Anonymous said...

i beg to differ. M16 may not be inferior to the SAR21. Both are equally capable infantry small arms. M16 is battle tested while the SAR21 bags more built-in gizmo's like the x1.5 scope and Red Dot/IR dot aimer. i think the most important element is the training of soldiers in their small arms proficiency. i belong to the old timers on the M16 platform. In fact AR15 Carbine! i love my Carbine. Then during reservist they put us on a 2 day SAR21 conversion course... bad move. Overnight our muscle memory on the M16 platform got redundant. If there is a war tomorrow, i will accidentally "lost" my SAR21 in a fire fight (if i survive LOL) and will pick up an enemy or allied trooper M16 rifle or M4 carbine. I trust my M16 and i understand the proper usage of it, its pros and cons. Lighter than the SAR21, care to fire single shot to lower the probability of jam and thereby conserve rounds. Surprisingly accurate on my iron sights. Lightly grease the bolt carrier with gun lub using your finger, cock the charging handle a few times to ensure bolt carrier and upper receiver is well lub which one has applied earlier. Boy, i miss the smell of the lub with burnt cartridge in an empty chamber with the bolt carrier pulled back! Can instinctively feel the magazine release spring loaded button with my right hand index finger while my right thumb is within easy reach of the safty-single-auto selector. Instinctively my left hand grab for a magazine change just forward of the trigger guard, with my master eye still on the iron sight and with my peripheral vision see the full magazine enter the mag well, no need to take my eyes off the sights and the potential target. It just feels natural on my hands and when sling, on my body. From BMT to SAFTI to unit from Rifle PT to skeletal battle order SOC to 300m rifle range run down to unit operational exercises, the M16/AR15 has always been my companion. So if a soldier is issued with whatever platform, let him stick with it. Of course this only applies to your typical soldier not some SOF types whom MUST be well verse and flexible in all small arms usage. My wish is for the current SAF soldier to be very proficient in the SAR21 rifle. One day my sons will beg to differ with me as they become proficient on the bullpup platform. David, thanks for the memories :-)) cheers.

David Boey said...

Dear Anonymous,
Almost seems like you had a mental orgasm with that ode to the M16, typed at one go with no paragraphing. :)

In skilled hands, even a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver can be lethal.

Felt the Sea Soldiers at least deserved proper weapon optics for their M16s.

Anyone going to make a pitch for the Self-Loading Rifle? We used those once upon a time. :-)

Best regards,


TheSounDOne said...

Hi Anonymous,

Your description of M16 is turning me on!!!!

Hi David,

Reference to SLR, if I remember correct, the marine police was using it once upon a time together with the sterling sub machine gun. With the weight of the SLR and 7.62mm caliber, would it be an more effective weapon when u are shooting from a boat that is constantly moving on the waves?

Anonymous said...

Hi David,

I agree with your observations.

There are numerous examples in WWII, Vietnam & Falkland Wars, civil war in Sri Lanka, Entebbe raid & the recent Afgan raid etc which clearly demonstrate that considerable damage can be done on high value targets by even small numbers of well trained & determined raiding parties. Clearly, the SAF is not doing enough to deter & repel such attacks which can be conducted in peacetime by terrorists & in war by special forces. These raids are "low cost" in terms of resources and losses compared to the considerable damage ( material or psychological ) inflicted.

Even a handful of strategically positioned & hardened "pillboxes" with expansive fields of fire in airbases each with 4 to 6 troopers armed with optical / thermal sensors, sniper rifles, GMPGs and 40 mm AGLs will exact a high price on raiders. Coupled with aggressive off base patrolling, small lightly armored 4X4s armed with GPMGs or 40 mm AGLs can repel such attacks.

I come from the generation of NS men trained on M16s. I consider the M16 a better weapon and much lighter rifle than the SAR21 which is unduly heavy with much poorer ergonomics. Even with iron sights I can easily & consistently hit targets out to 200 m with my M16. If equipped with Prails & modern optics such as ACOG, I consider the latest M16 variants superior to the SAR21.

Our FDSs are ill equipped to face special forces. Our troopers need
to be more highly trained with emphasis on sharpshooting, have body armor, night vision equipm, side arms, modern rifle sights, some 7.62 rifles and even 6shot grenade launchers to outgun the enemy.

Coupled with perimeter intruder detection systems, 4X4 armored mobile patrols, offbase patrolling, armored mobile reponse teams, "pillboxes" & realistic training will annul this "cheap" option of neutralizing SAF's strategic assets.

Concerned Singaporean.

Ah Tiong strikes back said...

Aiyah M16 good enough oready.

What you want is tech lah.

But gun, so long as not rusty can shoot bullet, same same mah?

Anythingelse is frankly wayang.

PondicherryBrigadeCommander said...

Heavy duty weapon that can reach out and touch someone like a Barret.50 sniper rifle maybe useful.

Also don't understand why the more highly trained NDU are not used. These 'sea soldiers' frankly seem a bit kuching kurat.

We also have USVs in operation so at the moment, I suppose, we are not relying on just pillboxes.

...and who is to say that we do not have underwaer sensors?;)

Anonymous said...

why not armed everyone with machine guns & bazooka to patrol the harbour?

Anonymous said...

Do you guys notice special forces around the world are using the M16/M4 variant even though their country standard infantry is using the indigenously produced bullpup configuration ? I wonder just because people got bullpup we also must have? Strange. Must ask lim chuan poh LOL.

Anonymous said...

i believe not just RSN bases need to reconsider their security arrangements and doctrine, land bases and RSAF bases should also rethink.

It doesn't take much to penetrate any military installation in Singapore with just a little observation..

Anonymous said...

No frogman or minisub detection & countermeasures systems in our Naval base is inexcusable considering the literally billions of dollars worth of hardware in dock.

Imagine the potential disaster caused by a handful of enemy frogmen.

What are our naval planners thinking ?!

Limpet Mine

Anonymous said...

On the subject of M16 vs SAR21, sorry David for spamming this good article with the subtopic.

i want to propose to SAF to allow NSF/NSman the option to purchase their personal weapon! Pls hear me out, thanks.

i think Singaporeans NS soldiers will welcome this choice given by mindef. Go to milblog and milforums you will find many NSF and NSman military enthusiates. Not all but i believe a sizable as time passes will come around to this idea.

NS soldiers are allowed to purchase their personal weapon of choice. BUT, a BIG BUT, you will NEVER be allowed to bring it out of camp. Only during time when war is imminent or during in-camp-training. The rifle/weapon will be kept by an armoury, opportunity for entreprenuers to set up armskote company pte. ltd. to manage NS soldiers personal weapons. The NSman can go to the approved privatised rifle shooting range to draw their weapon out from the armoury and do practice there and return, sign-in after use for safe keeping. An annual fee will be levied, of course. During ICT, they can engaged CISCO security company to do secure delivery of the weapon to his army camp armskote. He can then draw the weapon for his ICT training. So this means that army camp armskote has to be professionalised and not relying on reservist attend Bs, excuse medical soldiers, etc. to act as armskote man. Again, opportunities for local start-up armskote SMEs to thrive.

The approved personal weapon of choice will be limited to 5.56mm x45 NATO rounds calibre, namely:

1) SAR21 CIS assault rifle
2) M16S1 CIS assault rifle
3) M4 Carbine Colt Armalite
4) HK416 H&K assault rifle
5) Ultimax-100 Mk5 CIS light machine gun

weapon sub-system allowed include:
1) 40mm grenade launcher attachment
2) M7 M16/SAR21 compatible bayonet
3) M16/SAR21 compatible magazine

A weapon accessories industry will be viable, much like the cell phone accessory industry LOL. Local start-up SMEs can bring in ACOG sights, P-trails attachments, various 5.56 magazines, aluminium or synthetic, light attachments, even NVD attachments, etc.

For soldiers who want to dispose of their weapon, the mindef "e-bay" portal will facilitate this transaction. DBS/POSB VISA/MASTERCARD can offer 0% interest free loan for NS soldiers.

NSman who have RODed may also be a target consumer. This group of "old soldiers" will by then be financially stable and maybe out of nostelgia or want to acquire a new hobby, may decide to purchase a weapon for practice.

i know SAF don't issue side arm except to a very select group of soldiers. We can also offer side arm sales. Of course, during ICT, no side arm 9mm ammunition will be made avail to them, nevertheless, they can draw out the weapon for training, to get use to the weapon holster and added weight.

Why not? Thanks David once again for riding on your blog. :-))