Thursday, May 1, 2014

Too smart for our own good

After firing several million rounds over several years under operational conditions without a single stoppage, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) wrote to the weapon's maker to report a happy "problem": The ADF was still trying to figure out the weapon's mean time between failures.

The killing power from this weapon's prodigious rate of fire and accuracy has made this weapon sought-after by warfighters the world over.

Only in Singapore do we have an issue with this instrument of war.

Against a mountain of endorsements, only in Singapore can we find fault with the weapon by fussing over engineering that has evolved from generations of gunsmiths since the first Gatling gun was fielded.

Despite the weapon's fearsome reputation as a man-stopper, you can count on one hand the number of such weapons in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) arsenal.

Yes, this is a sad story that would become tragic if a single SAF man or woman died because of the lack of firepower in battle, slaving over a GPMG when they could bring on the rain on the Enemy and flatten them swiftly and decisively.

Make no mistake: Our special forces operatives would love to get their hands on as many of these weapons as they can. Ditto our Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) helicopter squadrons.

Procurement impasse
None will come their way until our defence engineers can convince themselves the weapon is safe to operate. You see, after the SAF acquired a trial batch for operations, additional procurements were tripped up by concerns over the possibility of a cook-off.

Concerns raised are valid.

Such attention to the quality of our firearms is commendable - and we say this with absolutely no sarcasm - as the safety and reliability of our war machines and instruments of war should be beyond doubt.

But this issue has had the weapon's maker perplexed as it ignores the weight of evidence that underlines the performance of the said weapon under demanding operational conditions.

Testimonies amassed from established armed forces like the ADF count for nothing. Neither do explanations that the cook-off cannot occur as imagined by the defence engineers concerned, simply because the rounds are not chambered in the part of the weapon our defence engineers have an issue with.

Sadly and embarrassingly speaking, this episode which is making its rounds among defence-aware individuals worldwide -  repeat: worldwide - is one case where our defence procurement processes are too smart for its own good.

Book smart, members of the project team in question undoubtedly have the paper qualifications needed for the job at hand.

What they perhaps lack is the exposure to the art and science of gunsmiths.

With more years in this field, they would also gain from additional exposure and experience that will help them appreciate weapon engineering considerations whenever foreign arms vendors come a-calling to introduce a new weapon.

So the Triple Es comprising Education, Exposure and Experience should be kept robust and balanced in our defence eco-system.

What we have witnessed is a procurement impasse as the project team concerned struggles works at gaining a deeper understanding of the mechanics of a proven weapon.

In the meantime, who loses? It is our men and women in the SAF who deserve every technological and operational advantage Singapore can give them before they deploy for operations.

This episode is noteworthy because our defence procurement processes and protocols are known worldwide for their rigour and no-nonsense approach to weapon evaluations. We are respected as a smart buyer. We have been feted as a reference customer by arms makers whose products survived intensive scrutiny by our weapon procurement teams.

Success stories
What happened in this instance should not detract from successes in military engineering that buffed up Singapore's reputation in the defence science and engineering realm.

Successes are lauded each year during the Defence Technology Prize ceremony, which are the Oscars of Singapore's defence science community.

Declared projects form the familiar narrative that underline and emphasize the Lion City's prowess in military engineering.

The low-profile projects reinforce this narrative by providing tantalising suggestions and hints at the breadth and depth of our weapons engineering capabilities.

Years after the RSAF stood down its A-4SU Super Skyhawks with one last flight across the island, Singapore watchers who scrutinised the size and composition of  the final formation that comprised a dozen TA-4SUs may have been puzzled at the RSAF's need for so many twin-seat Super Skyhawks. Add to this the 10 TA-4SUs in Cazaux, France, and one would have a good idea of the number in the RSAF orbat.

The project to weaponise the twin-seat Super Skyhawks as Wild Weasel radar-killers under Project S must rank as one of the lesser-known success stories in our defence science annals. The sizeable number of such warplanes available for special missions strengthened the air force's ability to carry out its assigned tasks in contested airspace with a cost-effective and hard-hitting warplane in the vanguard of air strikes. Our defence eco-system performed eminently well in this instance.

It is perhaps not surprising that cases where we could have done better become talking points, precisely - or thankfully? - because such episodes are uncommon.

Dog bites man is often not considered newsworthy (caveat: depending on which body part is bitten). But not the other way around.

Gossip surrounding the project involving the weapon with the high rate of fire is a man-bites-dog moment that makes it an instant talking point.

It will not break the system because our defence eco-system is strong and enduring.

But we have much to learn and internalise from this episode because we can do better when handling similar cases in future.

14 comments:

Autumn Leaf said...

Hi David,
What weapon is the said weapon in your post?

~ anakin said...

This blog is noteworthy. After reading your blog for years, this is the closest that I have come to reading what the Americans are known well for doing: lobbying.

I do not know how much info you have your hands on for the SAF and the Australians. More often than not, there are always more to what meets the eye.

If the particular weapon is so fantastic, we should see more countries using it, in BIG quantities. I mean, EVERYWHERE. I'm sure there must be reasons to turn down such a 'fantastic' weapon that you talked about.

David Boey said...

Dear ~anakin,
This blog carries commentaries with opinions and points of view argued along certain lines.

It is not a news site. Please know the difference.

Our views do not have to be aligned all the time. No one has a monopoly on opinions. Indeed, your perspectives to the same issue are welcome as they serve as thought-drivers.

So to all readers here: Step forward (as many, like Anakin, already have), don't game the system by trolling anonymously and your view will be published for all to ponder.

re: Weapon that is fantastic. Respectfully, you push the point to juvenile extremes. A weapon with superior killing power and high rate of fire would demand a robust logistics chain that can keep it amply supplied with ammo.

In drawing up tables of organisation and equipment (TO&E), there may be other options that can do the job more cost effectively with less ammo expenditure or offer the ability to reach targets behind cover using indirect fire. This is why as fantastic as certain weapons may be, a special forces armskote is a wonderfully diverse treasure chest of all sorts of armaments. There are tradeoffs to factor in and this explains combined arms and the rationale for a TO&E for light forces populated by various armament types.

Before this piece was written, someone provided a tutorial on the piece of equipment and addressed - with the real thing in front of us - concerns over the cook-off issue. Am quite hands on, as those who have met me would have discovered. Time in AZ was maximised nicely.

Thank you for sharing your point of view.

Best regards,


David

The said...

Are you referring to the Metal Storm, M134 or M61 Vulcan? Your reference to the ADF would suggest that the weapon's maker is Australian - Metal Storm seems to be what you are talking about without mentioning it by name.

Chan J Y Joel said...

David, it appears you are referring to the M134(?) but in earlier posts on your blog it appears to already be in use.

I do enjoy reading your blog, but your cryptic references are sometimes frustrating.

Hodge Dislodger said...

I'm with Chan JY Joel. I enjoy reading your blog, but some of your posts seem to be written for a narrow audience of those "in the know." Perhaps, Anakin's earlier comment on lobbying isn't that far off the mark if you're trying to indirectly shape decisions/opinions by talking only to those with influence who read your blog. I heard the PM does, so maybe ... :)

What you do on your blog, of course, your prerogative, but it does frustrate many of us who are curious about what's being discussed, and would like to participate in the discussion too. Or perhaps not all posts are intended for public consumption, even though they are public?

Personally, I think it'd be better if you stopped hinting at the knowledge you had, and just shared it. It'll make your blog a lot more readable. I'm guessing if there were op-sec concerns, hinting at a secret or sensitive information would already be a violation of it?

Consider this reader feedback :) I'll always respect what you write and how you write it because it is your own blog, but it'd be great if you were more inclusive, rather than exclusive.

Charlton Ng said...

i think the standard 7.62 GPMG needs to be replaced.
no doubt it makes the 5.56 sounds like a child's cry. But just feel that compared to what im seeing in u tube, the fire power really not there lah.

not to mention the gpmg in our arsenal does feel/look very old.

Chan said...

Metal storms has been out of the scene for a long time. Definitely not it.

David Boey said...

Dear ~anakin et al,
If you're alluding to an Aussie product, you're barking up the wrong tree.

Am not so impressionable nor pliable by foreign vendors to hawk a product with little staying power (try reloading the thing under fire) and no battle testimonies on this blog.

The ADF was cited as their positive remarks are noteworthy, particularly because they refer to a foreign (i.e. non-Aussie) product. And yes, this weapon is in service in sizeable numbers worldwide, which is why armament experts are intrigued by our reservations.

The last few pars of this post sugarcoat the issue. That's the ACCORD side of me talking. But make no mistake: Our international reputation has been hurt by this episode.

Don't shoot the messenger. TY.


David

David Boey said...

Dear Hodge Dislodger and Chan J Y Joel,
In the real world, am always delighted to accommodate people who want to discuss defence matters as it is a pleasure meeting kindred spirits.

Many who recognise me at events like the airshow or assorted SAF open houses/exercises (even at Forging Sabre!) have stepped forward to say hello and share their views on blog posts. I welcome all and treasure your feedback.

At the risk of sounding calculative, such engagements are valuable as the conversations help one with ground-sensing, especially for issues that someone else disagrees with. You need to know why, what are the bugbears.

I was taught that if an idea has sound basis, one should welcome any and every opportunity to explain it as you should have the confidence that it was thought-through properly and rigorously. If not, welcome the different point of view as a red flag and relook the issue again carefully because crowd sourcing may have uncovered something that was missed.

In some instances, it may indicate how some communications can be better calibrated. For example, I sometimes meet people whose confidence in the SAF sags because they perceive a capability gap when in fact, such a capability is already operational but you cannot say it. So you concede ground and try to address the matter by laying easter eggs when appropriate. People eventually catch it.

That's the level of engagement I practice in the real world with people who introduce themselves properly.

My ROE are the same for the cyberworld. It would be nice, indeed proper, for discussions to take place between known individuals. We see this happening on Facebook often enough, even in cases where people agree to disagree.

Am not on FB for the simple reason that readers can search for blog posts more easily. The dashboard which studies web traffic also points out what readers are after and where they come from. For example, we noted a recent spike in interest in an old post titled An Open Letter to 24SA.

Have reflected upon the points you both raised above, and from others on previous threads. Three options:
1) The salt and pepper can be easily left out and the commentaries would (hopefully) still make nice reading without that extra zing.

2) Things can be described fully, in which case I have little doubt that there will be a knock on the door in pretty short order.

3) Calibrate commentaries carefully and insert easter eggs not to test the system or to act smart, but as an attempt to raise the bar where defence discussions are concerned. The audience isn't as narrow as you portrayed. Regulars and those in the units concerned would know and this is a pretty good sample set to begin with.

The allusions help with real world discussions behind closed doors with ground rules properly laid out. MINDEF/SAF and whoever else would know they can start the conversation at a certain level of domain knowledge and the exchange is much richer from this implied understanding that comes from joining the dots. There are things people cannot state outright and when they talk in code or in parables on subjects like deterrence, you need to be able to give the system the confidence you can figure things out.

There has been no defence blog that spotlights MINDEF/SAF matters the way we do, so this blog is forced to navigate uncharted territory carefully.

As we do so, I ask for patience and understanding from readers and authorities alike as we strike a balance between fostering a healthy level of discussion while respecting opsec not just for the SAF but FPDA partners and special friends.

Thank you for allowing the opportunity to address your feedback and suggestions.

Enjoy your weekend.

Best regards,


David

John said...

David,

Are you referring to the M2 Browning?

~ anakin said...

Hi David, thanks for your replies.
I believe you have heard from the supplier's perspective as well as your own assessment (based on their brief/demo). How about any insider information from the SAF/user perspective? That would really present a balanced article on the issue.

earlyfalloutboy said...

Let us gamely guess the nature of the weapon with the information available. The ROE I imagine David would expect would be no reference to SAF sources.

Here is what we know so far:
- The weapon is suitable for use by helicopter crews and special operations forces (not necessarily foot bourne). As such it may be light but not necessarily man portable.
- The weapon may be replacement for the GPMG or may take the place of the GPMG as the heaviest or most potent weapon available to helicopter crews and special operations forces.
- The “weapon” itself may or may not have lethal effects.
- The weapon has a reputation for reliability that may or may not be well known.

My own guess is the weapon may in fact be smart ammunition or enhanced warhead rounds, such as for the 40mm automatic grenade launcher (however I do not believe that 40mm smart rounds are any more prone to cook off). I believe Singapore does manufacture some 40mm smart or enhanced warhead ammunition for export, but they are not in local service or publicly acknowledged.

@John 4/5/2014 6:02PM,

The M2 Browning was once in SAF service before it was replaced by the CIS .50 Heavy Machine Gun.

Zi'Ang.C said...

to those interested, based on the application(s) of the weapon listed by david as in his post, id believe the weapon in question is the M134.

without speculating too much on possible cause(s) of such an adverse assessment, the ammunition can be as guilty as the gun, and to discuss gun + ammo as a single entity isnt particularly fair to the weapon maker.

to break down my earlier point, there are many factors in both ammunition and weapon that can make/break a weapon system in testing & evaluation (T&E). ammunition batches are notorious for that faulty round in a million (and its not easy to catch such rounds in sampling and QC), and to complicate things further, every consigment of ammunition will (tolerably) vary in many aspects, from propellant quality to warhead quality etc... the same goes for the weapon as well... variation in parts, configurations, metallurgy all have implications on ROF and MRBF.

to give another example of how faulty ammunition can break a (presumably) working weapon system, the XM25 programme (or Increment 2 of the OICW programme) was put on hold due to chamber explosion. the weapon had worked very well in Afghanistan, and was well-reviewed by the soldiers using it. id think, the same applies to the weapon mentioned by david as well, that faulty ammunition essentially "gave the weapon a bad name in Singapore".

even all that said, yes im sure that Singapore can definitely tighten up its weapons evaluation protocol. while such an evaluation may seem immature and unjustifying for the weapon on question, the AARs should, and will definitely float issues in other areas that i believe will be addressed.

cheers.