As the country with the largest and most powerful air force in Southeast Asia, Singapore's defence planners would certainly know a thing or two about the dangers of air power unleashed.
The firepower demonstration staged yesterday (Tuesday Arizona time) as part of the Forging Sabre war games provide telling signs to how the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) might swing into action during a conventional war.
To those who looked beyond the obvious, the air and land strikes emphasized the value of Dynamic Targeting, directed by battle managers from a hub for fire control orders that allocated and prioritised targets according to their potential danger to SAF forces.
On Tuesday afternoon, Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen saw first hand how the Singapore Army and Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) work in concert to knock out an enemy's air power.
The narrative for the 12-minute firepower demo - the largest and most complex staged by the SAF since Exercise Forging Sabre 2011 - appeared like the game plan for a hot war scenario. It also appeared to explain why the RSAF has invested heavily in advanced multirole strike warplanes like the F-15SG and F-16C/D as well as precision guided munitions that can hit targets at long range, with deadly accuracy, day/night, not forgetting an advanced command and control battlefield management network to pull its combat forces together.
Dr Ng arrived at NATO Hilll, a hill top observation point in the United States military's Barry M. Goldwater Range, in an RSAF AH-64D Longbow Apache which gave the minister a guided tour of part of the expansive range, some 19 times bigger than Singapore. This vast desert openness in Arizona is the arena for Exercise Forging Sabre, a two-sided combined live-fire exercise that will involve some 700 full-time national servicemen, operationally-ready National Servicemen and SAF regulars from 2 to 17 December.
Arrayed before NATO Hill were targets the SAF was tasked to demolish within minutes. Whether by intention or uncanny coincidence, the narrative for Forging Sabre's light and sound show reflects the logical sequence for taking out conventional threats.
From here, we have a ringside seat as the SAF's meanest and deadliest war machines move into action. It was executed according to the sequence below.
Cripple the rocket launchers
First to go was a remote-controlled vehicle that ran for its life along a sinuous desert dirt track, raising a banner of dust in its wake. This simulated a moving target, in this case a rocket launcher. The moving vehicle was tracked by SAF sensors that guided a laser JDAM bomb dropped from a high flying F-15SG warplane, orbiting at some 16,000 feet, dead on target. After the strike, the narrative indicated that the F-15SG returned to its holding area to await orders to take out another target. As each F-15SG can carry up to 15 JDAMs, the war load of the RSAF's most advanced warplane is noteworthy, considering Singapore has bought 24 of these combat proven warplanes.
Blind the anti-aircraft radars
Next on the target list were radars for the enemy's anti-aircraft weapons. Two F-16 warplanes entered the arena to deliver a pair of laser guided bombs on a "radar site". As the bombs blew the target apart, the F-16s left the scene at high speed, releasing a trail of blazing flares that could have deceived heat-seeking missiles launched against them. The evasive manoeuvres were not just for show: during the air strike mock SAMs were launched against the jets to simulate an enemy air defences abuzz with retaliatory moves.
Clip the wings
After this strike came the main strike team, made up of just two F-15SGs. Each carried four Mark 84 2,000-pound bombs - the largest bombs in the RSAF's arsenal - to demolish aircraft fuel and ammunition storage at a hostile air base. As the bombs blasted the simulated air base, they created a tall column of smoke that marked the death of an air force. The narrator noted that a real air base target may involve eight or more F-15SGs, and that single strike by a fraction of what would be fielded in a shooting war gave observers some idea of the damage such a main strike could inflict.
It is interesting to note that the opening phases of the Forging Sabre firepower demo placed air bases and surface to air missile sites high on the target list, as such a game plan was indeed pursued by air power planners who fought in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. SAF defence planners understand that warplanes are weapons only when they are in the air, sustained with weapons, fuel and pilots. A warplane on the ground is a high value target just waiting to have its wings clipped.
Shred the tank columns
In came the Apache attack helicopters that drizzled a simulated town with rockets fired at a column of enemy vehicles parked in civilian areas. Red buildings indicated civilian targets that could not be hit as these could result in civilian casualties. The cloud of rockets that smashed the tank column would have shredded enemy armour and stopped a real one in its tracks.
Strike the command centre
The finale came from the Singapore Army's HIMARS - its name means High Mobility Artillery Rocket System - which were tasked to destroy static, high value targets such as command posts. The observers on NATO Hill scrutinised the live firing area to pick out the HIMARS launchers.
Those who failed to spot them could not fail to notice the tendrils of smoke which rose from the desert floor, pointing towards the direction of the simulated enemy.
From start to finish, the successive blasts of flame and steel at various desert targets appeared to be random, uncoordinated shows of strength, each war machine creating a bang on its own.
Nerves that move the muscle
Behind the scenes, the hive of activity at the Forging Sabre Command Post tells a different story. Each warplane and attack helicopter did not fight its own private duel, but delivered its punch as part of a larger effort at wielding the SAF's ground and air combat forces to deliver an integrated strike.
Seeing such battle managers work in concert with the sharp end of the SAF like Commando teams, rocket artillery, warplanes and attack helicopters at Forging Sabre show how far the Third Generation SAF had advanced to sharpen its deterrent edge.
By day and by night, enemy battlefield targets came under the closest scrutiny by the SAF and received violent treatment as precision weapons and relentless strikes tore apart the enemy's war fighting potential. At Forging Sabre, precision strikes spoke the language of deterrence.
Words into action, action into results that indicated the score card should the SAF ever swing into action would aim to clip the enemy's wings and blunt hostile rocket launchers should deterrence ever fail.
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