Sunday, October 14, 2012

Show-and-tell at the Republic of Singapore Navy's (RSN) elite Naval Diving Unit

As cameras and mobilephones clicked away at some of the fittest Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) warfighters you can find, a four-storey structure emblazoned with the words HMS Terror loomed above everyone.

This was not one of Her Majesty's Ships but a Hull Mock-up System whose namesake commemorates the real HMS Terror - a Royal Navy monitor armed with 15-inch guns. HMS Terror (warship) was sent to the then Colony of Singapore to protect the island while the Singapore naval base (now Sembawang Shipyard) and coastal fortifications were being built.

Blast from the past: The Royal Navy monitor HMS Terror photographed in 1933. Her 15-inch guns were from a turret built for the battleship HMS Furious, which lost her guns when she was converted to an aircraft carrier.

Today's HMS Terror (training aid) is a part of Sembawang Camp that has been fought over more often and more fiercely than other part of the historical military site that overlooks the Johor Strait (to add to the confusion, Sembawang Camp used to be known as Terror Barracks). The combatants belong to the Republic of Singapore Navy's (RSN) crack Naval Diving Unit (NDU), who use the training aid to sharpen skills needed to board ships or structures at sea and then take over control of the target vessel/structure through force of arms.

Training for our combat divers takes place far beyond the fenceline of NDU.

The was plainly evident from the type and variety of qualification badges proudly worn by NDU divers on their Number 3 uniforms when the crack unit gave about 80 Singaporean community leaders a rare look at what goes on in their camp this Sunday morning.

The coveted Budweisers indicate the diver had trained with the United States Navy's elite Seal unit. Some wore badges earned from Australia's Special Air Service while others donned para wings earned during special forces training in South Africa.

Reading the salad bar of RSN regulars, one could tell who had been on real missions - the medal for Operation Flying Eagle (2004 Boxing Day quake/tsunami relief mission) being one that I always look out for. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find two NDU divers standing side by side in their No. 3 uniform with exactly the same combat skills badges and operational experience.

Show-and-tell at NDU helped civilians better understand how they earn their pay. The corporate video screened repeatedly as visitors waited for the event to get underway underlined the challenges NDU tadpoles (i.e. trainees) encounter on their journey to becoming full fledged frogmen. Even military novices among the visitors realised immediately that NDU is no ordinary SAF unit.

If walls could talk, one would probably learn of the hardship tadpoles of past batches had to endure during 120 hours of Hell Week "Team Building Week" that pushes everyone to their limit, and then some.

Even so, it was an eye-opener to learn that NDU counts two Singaporean women among its elite group of combat divers.

It was tantalising to accidentally overhear that the RSN plans to stage a Navy Open House in April 2013.

It was reassuring to know that even with the tough physical and mental pressure that tadpoles have to endure, there are many full-time National Servicemen handpicked for the job who are determined to qualify as a combat diver.

These youngsters do so with full awareness that completion of Team Building Week marks the start of even more challenging training to come. And throughout their NS commitment, they will shoulder some of the most complex and demanding maritime security taskings the SAF is tasked to execute. Those who made it take the demanding regime in their stride and the esprit in the elite unit is something one has to see firsthand to appreciate.

But the real value of the visit came from helping citizens keep in touch with their citizens' armed forces.

It also gave the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF an opportunity to stay in touch with the community's viewpoints on defence and security matters. Questions fielded by Dr Mohammad Maliki bin Osman, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Defence and National Development who hosted the visit, and MINDEF/SAF officials probably gave them a firsthand feel of things on the minds of Singaporeans.

One hopes such community relations will continue in other parts of the SAF as the effort to generate and sustain mindshare with Singaporeans is one with a long time horizon.

A hit with visitors: Community leaders watch NDU combat divers demonstrate what they can do underwater, which includes reconnaissance from sea to shore, sea mine disposal as well as the ability to approach a target vessel underwater with minimal signature. 

It is difficult to put a finger on the ROI from rostering dozens of NDU personnel for Sunday duty and for the assorted cost items involved in making such visits a success. But if one considers banking positive emotional capital as one measure of success, then this morning's visit most certainly helped MINDEF/SAF bank even more emotional credits.

From a personal standpoint, it was a pleasure revisiting a unit last seen in November 2007. The opportunity to walk the grounds of a camp that groomed successive cohorts of NDU divers whom I met during Ops Blue Orchid 1 and Ops Flying Eagle strengthened one's appreciation of what NDU divers have to go through to qualify for operational taskings.


Anonymous said...

Including meeting those you "played" mahjong with?

Subparnaming said...

Good name.

Why could they not use it for our new Subs?

RSS Terror and Tormentor would strike more fear than the lame Swordsman and Archer.

David Boey said...

Dear Anonymous 11:57 PM,
Ah... a topic I steered well clear of.

In any case, the pace of leadership renewal in SAF units unfolds so quickly that the NDU of today has probably long forgotten about the incident. :)

Best regards,


hobbit1964 said...

Dear Mr Boey

A friend of mine alerted me this evening to the fact that you published an article in the Air Forces' Monthly on the helicopter operations in Acheh. I have also been told that a picture of M23-10 appeared in your article and I did fly that very machine while I was there though the prospect that you snapped my picture is beyond far-fetched.
I served 26 days from day 2 of the tsunami HADR operation in Acheh as a helicopter detachment commander flying the Nuris for the RMAF, and I wonder if you would so kindly clue me in as to how I may read said article, and I imagine laying my hands on the relevant magazine would be too small a needle in a haystack long lost in the past.
I have since left service and now am employed as a First Officer in an offshore helicopter company and have moved on to the Super Cougar civilian variant EC225.
I look forward to hearing news of any kind, good or less than good.
In the meantime, be well down there south of the border.

David Boey said...

Dear Kaptain Jeffrey,
It is always a pleasure to hear from personnel deployed for relief work after the 2004 Boxing Day calamity.

The 26 days I spent in-theatre with the SAF and TNI left a lasting impression and I cherish memories of that assignment dearly.

The article you refer to was published in the April 2005 edition of Air Forces Monthly. I received two copies from AFM and sent the other copy to the SAF commander who led the Meulaboh mission, whom I have known since he was a 2LT.

M23-10 was one of a pair of TUDM Nuris we encountered in Meulaboh. I recall vividly the exasperation of SAF Guardsmen in charge of the landing strip by the coast as your Nuris seemed to ignore their TAG and came in to land anyway one fine morning, seemingly oblivious to their frantic wave-offs.

You must have seen them and I have always wanted to hear TUDM's account of this episode. The Singapore DPM/Defence Minister was then en route in an RSAF Chinook, which explains why they wanted to keep the landing pad clear. :-)

I can send you a high-res scan of the article you requested. Please email me at

Let's chat more offline.

With best regards from south of the border,


hobbit1964 said...

WILCO to all of the above.

Anonymous said...

Why does the NDU use Colt Commando and not SAR21?

SengkangBabies said...

Terror Barracks ? Thanks for sharing some background on why Sembawang used to be notorious.

And I am definitely looking forward to the Navvy open house in 2013.

Anonymous said...

I also have been personally involved with highly classified missions which I cannot diclose here. These missions are considered high classifications and top secrets.

Anonymous said...

Junior is doing his reservist there now....surprised me that they are issued with the army (green) pixelized version of camo !