Saturday, January 11, 2014

Hits and misses explaining the Third Generation SAF

Combat pilots usually take centre stage during pre-flight briefings for a test flight involving a war plane.

On this occasion, it was a defence engineer who was the centre of attraction, ringed by a circle of the air force's high fliers as something new, something bold and hitherto untried was showcased.

As a constellation of stars, crabs and bars listened intently, the defence engineer explained how the black box would help get the Jet in and out of contested airspace safely.

It is a challenge explaining how precision this-and-that can sharpen the ability of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to achieve its mission, in peace or war.

Making people realise and appreciate the impact that precision information, precision manoeuvre and precision strike bring to the battlespace is important both for sustaining commitment to defence among Singaporeans and deterring the adventuresome from testing the system.

Such awareness-building is challenging. This is because sense-making is more difficult to demonstrate than, say for example, a straight off firepower display where guns bark or missiles fly.

When the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF are determined to do so, it can achieve wonderful things.

The Jet, of course, was a war horse on the cusps of an ambitious upgrade that would give it a fresh lease of life.

You couldn't buy this gizmo off-the-shelf. It was home grown. Unique. Tailored for the Air Force's specific operational requirement that would see the Jet fly in to and out of airspace infested with unfriendly missiles.

Neither could curious eyes spot the device as it was embedded within the Jet. Yes, clever. But an engineering headache no less.

The usual option was to hang a similar device in a pod from a hardpoint. But the Air Force's Operations & Doctrine warfighters wanted to save every available hardpoint for extending the Jet's reach (fuel tanks) or hitting power (assorted munitions).

Some other way had to be found for its life insurance.

A good example was the media engagement during Exercise P in 2008 when the Singapore Army showcased its then-new Advanced Combatman System (ACMS) to the Singaporean media.

Time, effort, patience and, above all, trust (repeat: trust), went into the media engagement plan which helped defence writers get a better grasp of what ACMS was all about.

MINDEF/SAF could have simply pumped an acronym-laden fact sheet to media outlets and ticked off a box, having done what was expected.

But it went the extra mile by getting soldiers to demonstrate how wrist-mounted keypads could be used to send and receive messages, between sections in the infantry platoon and higher HQ. It showed the kind of messages that could be sent, like SMSes, and had full-time National Servicemen and regulars talk about their experiences "dialling a bomb". They took every question under the sun, answered with aplomb and confidence and their faith in their equipment was palpable.


The defence engineer proposed keeping the black boxes under the skin of the Jet. No protuberances or air scoops would be needed, he said, as these would disrupt airflow. Whether by accident or design, this resulted in a cosmetically implanted device, so cleanly inserted that it kept the basic lines and profile of the Jet.

In short: you wouldn't even know it was there.

Warfighters were intrigued.

But how, asked one, would you cool the thing?

It was an intelligent question that the defence engineer had anticipated. He let his audience soak up the question and ponder over it before stepping forward with a reply.

"Wax", came his laconic reply.

He scanned his audience and watched with satisfaction as the reply intrigued more than satisfied their curiosity. So he waited for the other shoe to drop.

"But how...?"

With a smile, with years of experience explaining hard to understand concepts in disarmingly simple terms, the engineer spoke like a teacher in front of class of eager beaver students.

"The wax will melt when the device is powered up. The melting cools the electronics." He couldn't resist, adding as a punchline, that a similar cooling device was used on NASA spacecraft.

"But will there be enough and where will the wax go?"

Trade secret. He knew and his audience knew the technicalities need not be explained in minute detail. A separate technical assessment team had put the idea through the proverbial washing machine, testing its technical viability and probing for possible flaws. None were found.

"By the time all the wax melts, your mission will be over."

It was as simple as that and the Project team went on to win a rather distinguished prize. It is this sort of narrative that has hoisted one's immeasurable respect for that particular Air Force that benefitted from such expertise. All this done and achieved quietly behind the scenes, out of sight but not out of mind.

The media engagement during Exercise P was an outstanding success.

Convinced, impressed, educated, it led to the realisation that a humble Singapore Army infantry section leader could, if necessity demanded, call upon everything the SAF could throw at the enemy.

This led to yours truly coining the evocative phrase that ACMS gave soldiers the firepower of the SAF in a backpack. MINDEF/SAF never indicated its reaction to the phrase. But the fact that then Minister for Defence Teo Chee Hean used the same words at least twice signalled that the commentary had hit the sweet spot.

The time spent outfield during Exercise P wasn't the secret that helped the phrase "firepower of the SAF in a backpack" bubble into one's stream of consciousness. It was a by-product of the winning partnership between newsmaker (MINDEF/SAF) and reporters as they navigated in new, uncharted territory heralded by the introduction of ACMS. It would not be business-as-usual for networked infantry and we all realised the dawn of a new paradigm.

It was the trust engendered between newsmaker and reporters, the open and frank conversations that proved to be the winning formula.

In the years since 2008, much of the narrative on the Third Generation SAF has been anchored on more or less on the same phrases that are sounding clich├ęd: sense-making, firepower, arsenal, find-fix-and-finish, knockout blow.

The defence reporting scene here has yet to lift itself to the next level, a higher plane of discussion of the 3G transformation as our fighting forces continue to evolve.

XFS provided a ripe opportunity to level up. But that chance came and went and we failed to capitalise on it.


Anonymous said...

If they are so smart, why dont they help in the helping the hospitals..ensuring that there are sufficient beds and doctors ..instead of expensive aircrafts / pilots..

What a joke...

Anonymous said...

And what would you expect them to do? Empty all stocks of GS tables and convert them to makeshift beds? Press all NSF mos to the hospitals, regardless of the fact that manpower at medical centers are woefully short to begin with? Open up all the BCS for civilian use, even though it isn't as efficient?

Anonymous said...

I'm always confused by references to the 3G SAF - is the SAF transforming into a 3G force, or is it already a 3G force. I've seen both used.

David Boey said...

Dear Anon 10:30 PM,
Think of 3G more as a journey than a destination with a specific end point.

During the transition phase 10+ years ago, the 3G transformation was characterised by experiments. That's when some thought 3G is all about being unmanned or replacing manpower with technology.

It's more than that. This explains why the storytelling has to likewise evolve to help everyone keep pace with new developments in fighting concepts and technology that improve the sensor-shooter loop managed by people but enabled by networks.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

all defence reporters in SG to get a master's degree in defence studies (sponsored by the local media outlets) ?

Anonymous said...

And when do u think marks the end of 3G and the start of the term 4G? When the planners think of the next stage doctrine of fighting with revolutionary approach?

Anonymous said...

And what would you expect them to do? Empty all stocks of GS tables and convert them to makeshift beds? Press all NSF mos to the hospitals, regardless of the fact that manpower at medical centers are woefully short to begin with? Open up all the BCS for civilian use, even though it isn't as efficient?

Wow.. you are so should be the Defence Minister..and maybe trained all NSF men to learn first aid also..

You are so clever...and no need 3G or 4G..when the enemy is inside already...or inside but not within the country..

Anonymous said...

Oops..someone had a better idea than you:

Quote from TRE.

Are army bases more important than citizens’ health? Face the fact, Internet is defeating Singapore Propaganda House. They have been in power because of their grip on the media. What problems? All the problems and the evil side of PAP are being brushed aside by the devilishly clever Singapore Propaganda House.

Reading the Singapore Propaganda House’s depiction of the 50 years of PAP rule is like watching an Indian movie, where the heroes are always right and they always win. The result? Singapore is now becoming a third world country. The worst part is their inept performances are being rewarded with monstrously huge salaries beyond our imagination. What kind of leaders are we having in Singapore?

Do we have an insane government with so many army bases? Drive around in Singapore. Have you ever wondered why there are so many army bases? Changi to Changi village, whole stretch of of it. Mandai, Sembawang, Yishun, Lim Chu Kang, Tuas, Hillview, Tekong etc. They occupy large chunks of Singapore’s land.

Is our Government suffering from OCD?

Anonymous said...

By the way, the SAF MOs also cannot take care of the NSF men who are injuried etc...and the injured NSF men will then have to be brought to the local hospital, so might as well deploy the SAF MOs to the nearest local hospital, instead of wasting time for the injured NSF men, who might be saved...

What do you think..3 G or 4 G is better..

Anonymous said...

Insecurity will always lead some people to build up their military to stay in place.

Anonymous said...

The acid test in how good the "black box" actually is when it ( or any defence system made in Singapore ) translates into major sales in the international defence market.

We can use Switzerland , Sweden and Israel as the standard by which we must aspire to where defence equipment is concerned. All are small countries with very innovative defence equipment which sell very well in the international market.

Anonymous said...

Anon at Jan 12 7:59 PM has a point.

As long as NSF patients are brought to the Medical Centre as a rule and not straight to the hospital, it is inevitable that there will be unnecessary deaths in future.

Anonymous said...

All NSF MOs are trained in advanced trauma life support/ advanced cardiac life support.

If you have a collapse case/ trauma case, you want initial on-site stabilization (e.g. early intubation, early access to defibrillation, early thoracostomy etc.) before you send to A&E for definitive care. It boggles the mind how some can think that spending more time in the ambulance is superior to receiving initial stabilization by a doctor.

Anyway enough about this. This post is about the 3G saf, please don't hijack the thread.

Anonymous said...

If people want to discuss this, let them discuss lah. Also a serious topic right?

You remove compulsory NS then maybe, just maybe we don't have to discuss this.

Anonymous said...

Think you have to refer to the few deaths of NSF men...who can be saved if they are directly routed to the hospital...Maybe DSTA so called scientist or defence experts..can look into relocating the hospital / SAF medical centre together...

What do you think...DPM Teo

Anonymous said...

If the SAF Medical Doctors are deployed to the local hospital,

a: they are also serving National Service, as what one foreigner MP had stated.

b: with the resources,like other doctors available, they are able to identify the problem faster.

c: The SAF Medical doctors, can help in other emergencies, if they are too free, having relationship with their fellow officer.

Anonymous said...

1. What us the primary role for the SAF doc in the orbat? We should not mix up with civilian doc.
2. Go by the role & responsibilities for army medic doc, training requirements is different. Should they equip wtih the right skill set if butron press or it too late?

Anonymous said...

Well, asked our foreigner MP, who says that he is doing his working in the local hospital...

Well, our so called defence experts can explain to you..if you don't know what the is the different between ARMY Doctors..and Civilian Doctor..

Anonymous said...

Can't believe our PAP ministers made such a royal cock up as to be short by a few hundred hospital beds since a few years ago.

Anonymous said...

Not being racist but what was the race and/or nationality of the engineer who suggested wax, and which company was so audacious?

Anonymous said...

Dont think he dare indicated the race...cause it is another groupthink within the elite group...

Anonymous said...

Nationality is fine to ask. Why should race be relevant?