Saturday, April 30, 2016

Show-and-tell by the RSN Naval Logistics Command (NALCOM) telegraphs deep expertise in naval logistics

With a radiant flash, the Oto Melara 76mm gun burst into life, firing shells at a rate of two per second at its target.

At the maximum range of 10km for surface targets, even slight deviations in the barrel elevation and azimuth, combined with the forward movement, pitch and roll of its parent warship could send shells off target.

The result: mission fail.

This is why the gun mount and the naval gunfire fire control system for weapons like the 76mm gun must be integrated properly and maintained in tip top condition to keep the Navy's warships fighting fit.

During a visit to the Naval Logistics Command (NALCOM) at Changi Naval Base yesterday morning, the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) showcased how NALCOM logisticians and engineers keep its surface warships, unmanned assets and submarines prepared and ready for naval operations on and from the sea.

NALCOM weapon engineers also explained the intricacies of naval gunnery, with a naked Oto Melara 76mm Super Rapid gun used for a demo of the ammunition feed cycle.

The visit for members of the Advisory Council for Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD) was hosted by Senior Minister of State (SMS) for Defence and Foreign Affairs and Chairman ACCORD, Dr Maliki Osman.

Not shown nor explained but implied by the presence of civilian defence contractors tasked with electronic warfare (EW) portfolios, embedded with NALCOM squadrons as part of its "integrated workforce", is the fact that the sharp end of the Navy's warfighting potential is made up of a lethal combo of hard and soft-kill options.

The depth of NALCOM's expertise in underwater naval technology was also implied when Dr Maliki led ACCORD members to view a diesel-electric submarine (SSK) undergoing an overhaul in a covered workshop along the South Wharf.

From the outside, Block 322 at CNB's shiplift compound is plain and functional, its box-shape and covered roof unlikely to win it any architectural prizes.

This sheltered facility - protected from the elements, lightning and prying eyes -  is where NALCOM takes apart, services and reassembles every major SSK component. The 7.5 tonne overhead crane which runs on rails spanning almost the length of Blk 322 allows NALCOM naval engineers to lift out every major item within the SSK's hull, including the propulsion plant and sensors like the bow sonar.

The overhaul involves more than an oil change for the boat's engines and a new paint job. Indeed, the work that goes on inside Blk 322 reflects how far and how fast the RSN has progressed since the decision was made in the 1990s to acquire several Sjöormen-class submarines from Sweden for the RSN to evaluate the need for a submarine capability.

For Singapore's defence engineers to master complex engineering projects like the overhaul of submarines shows that RSN and defence industry engineers have long passed the beginner's stage in submarine maintenance work.

The purchase of two Type 218SG submarines from Germany is likely to lead to the construction of a second specialised workshop in due course.

Alongside the shiplift compound, one sees naval craft maintained by NALCOM for live-fire practices. The modified Fast Craft Equipment Personnel (FCEP) waterjet-propelled landing craft and the target barge provide telling hints of the level of realism injected into Fleet RSN war games that are supported by NALCOM.

The FCEP suggests the size of targets that naval gunners are trained to target and sink, with the large orange net indicating that the small landing craft could simulate larger targets with sensors used to track near misses.

Berthed alongside Mike 2 at the South Wharf is another naval oddity. The features on the Jolly Roger target barge, which makes it resemble the silhouette of fast attack craft typically found in this region, give you an idea of the size of surface targets that sensors on RSN and RSAF guided munitions have to find, fix and finish. If the Jolly Roger could talk, this target barge would tell you that she has survived more live-fire munitions than any other RSN asset, as evidenced by the patched up hull and shrapnel scars.

Beyond the hardware, NALCOM's ability to surge to a war readiness footing from peacetime manning was evident during the briefing by Commander NALCOM, ME7 Andy Tay. About 49% of NALCOM is made up of Operationally-Ready National Servicemen (NSmen).

The implication is that a fully mobilised, war-ready NALCOM will be larger than what you see now.

Some of these personnel could be deployed to serve aboard requisitioned merchant ships - ships taken up from trade, to borrow Royal Navy terminology - to bolster the RSN's ability to embark troops and equipment, as well as munitions or POL to resupply the fleet during operations.

Indeed, past civil resource requisition exercises have seen vessels such as hovercraft enlisted into NALCOM service and commercial vessels fitted out as hospital ships.

During a POT, the Civil Resource Generation Centre under NALCOM's Force Generation SQN can "plan, track, requisite, retrofit and generate" CR vessels for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). In other words, civilian craft could be given some teeth.

This role takes a leaf from naval operations where the value of a standing force of men-of-war is strengthened immeasurably when augmented by civilian vessels.

During WW2, a shortage of anti-submarine vessels resulted in the arming of fishing trawlers for ASW duty by the Royal Navy.

Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the trapped British Expeditionary Force from Europe, owes its success to scores of  civilian vessels which answered the British Admiralty's call for everything that floats to assist with the sealift of BEF troops from Dunkirk.

The rapid repair of the American aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, damaged by Japanese bombs during the Battle of the Coral Sea in WW2, is another noteworthy example of the value of naval logisticians. Repairs that were estimated to take 90 days were done in just three. In the race against the clock at Pearl Harbor, naval engineers and civilian dockyard hands worked flat out to get the crippled carrier mission ready as US Navy codebreakers had estimated that the Japanese were preparing for a large-scale operation around Midway island.

The Yorktown's subsequent appearance during the clash around Midway island surprised the Japanese as their analysts had not reckoned on her being ready for combat so soon after Coral Sea. The Japanese thought the US Navy was coming to battle one carrier short.  

Back home, NALCOM has thankfully been spared the horrors of war.

However, NALCOM's operational record supporting operations other than war reflects the command's mission readiness, breadth of capabilities and depth of expertise when men and women of our Navy are tasked to deploy for long and distant service.

Without its war machines, the RSN would not have key enablers for safeguarding Singapore's access to the sea lanes.

And without NALCOM, the RSN would not have its war machines.

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