Saturday, November 3, 2018

Honour and sacrifice in the Republic of Singapore Air Force RSAF A-4 Skyhawk Crisis


There are families in Singapore who have endured the pain of losing a loved one in a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training accident. The family of Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Captain Seah Boon Thong, who died at the age of 25 in a 1985 plane crash, is one such family.

This close-knit family's irreplaceable loss has not stopped the Seahs from contributing to Singapore in the same field - national defence - that CPT Seah gave his life to.

Even if you are from Singapore's defence eco-system, there's a good chance you may not see the link between CPT Seah and his only brother, the eldest among boy-girl-boy siblings. But you and your loved ones would probably have travelled on the MRT trains, buses or taxis that his brother is now responsible for as Chairman of the Board for SMRT Corporation Ltd. This is his current contribution to Singapore that crowns a distinguished career in the defence and energy sector.

We start the story of the Seah brothers, Boon Thong and Moon Ming, from a botched birth registration that saw the youngest son's name recorded wrongly as "Boon" and not "Moon" - the generational name for the boys. Unless you saw them standing side by side, it was not apparent looking at a name list that they were brothers.

Boon Thong was the pride of the family and the toast of Hwa Chong Junior College (now Hwa Chong Institution) when he was chosen as a President's Scholar in 1979 - the second such scholar for Hwa Chong. He received his scholarship from then Singapore President Benjamin Sheares on 1 July of that year - a date which coincided with SAF Day - and flew to University College, Oxford, to further his studies.


Upon graduation, he joined the RSAF and was trained to fly the McDonnell-Douglas A-4 Skyhawk. In the early 1980s, the A-4 Skyhawk was the most numerous jet fighter type in Singapore's young air arm. The refurbished ex-United States Navy fighter-bombers formed the main strength of the RSAF's strike force that also comprised Northrop F-5 Tiger II supersonic interceptors and Hawker Hunter ground-attack fighters.

On Thursday 25 July 1985, CPT Seah made his final flight with 145 Squadron.

Lined up on Runway 36 at Tengah Air Base, CPT Seah and two other planes were cleared for takeoff at 9.36am that morning.

Less than a minute after commencing his takeoff roll, the single-seat A-4 Skyhawk was airborne. The directional heading of 360 degrees pointed the fighters due north. Three seconds after liftoff, a fire warning in the cockpit and a black plume of smoke from the tail pipe signalled trouble. The engine was on fire with the blaze fed by a broken hydraulic pressure line that affected flight controls.

An air traffic controller at the TAB control tower reported seeing "an explosion". It was CPT Seah ejecting from his stricken plane.

The Skyhawk crashed at 9.40am some 1.9km east of an islet on Singapore's northwestern shore called Pulau Sarimbun. In its entire service life, the doomed Skyhawk had clocked 3,766 hours of flying time - which was within its design limit. It was the aircraft's ageing Wright J65 engines that were giving up in the high humidity and heat of Singapore's climate.

CPT Seah's body was found three days later after an extensive search by the Marine Police and Republic of Singapore Navy. He left behind a wife whom he married in April that year.

Skyhawk Crisis
The loss of CPT Seah came during a dark episode in the RSAF's annals called the Skyhawk Crisis. From October 1984 till March 1986, the RSAF lost two pilots and five Skyhawks in 17 months. It was an unsustainable attrition rate. The losses were traced to Wright J65 engines, an engine type no longer made by its manufacturer. Spare parts were hard to obtain, components were pricey and OEM support had dried up.

RSAF Skyhawks had dropped out of the sky for various reasons since they entered operational service in the mid-1970s. But to lose five aircraft within a relatively short space of time raised suspicions of a systemic anomaly bordering on a crisis considering the large number of Skyhawks in RSAF service and the pivotal role they served in the SAF's deterrent posture.

Although press reports on the accident quote the Singapore Ministry of Defence as saying this was a routine training flight (which was true), the determination of the RSAF's Skyhawk community to keep their ageing fighter-bombers flying is evident only when you connect the dots. CPT Seah and his colleagues took to the air just a day after another Skyhawk was lost in the Malacca Strait some 35 nautical miles from Singapore. The pilot, Captain Cheong Seng Chee, 31, was saved within 30 minutes by an RSAF rescue helicopter.

One fatality from two Skyhawk crashes in as many days hit the RSAF's flying community hard. The actual losses belie the poor aircraft availability during the period caused by defective engines that grounded more than a handful of flights. As reliability plummetted, there were concerns over the RSAF's operational readiness as the air force's main strike force could be crippled.

Still they flew. RSAF A-4 drivers ventured out to sea, far from home in single-engine Skyhawks with J65 powerplants of dubious reliability, not knowing when any of them would end up as the next casualty.

If ever you need an example of a community with the fortitude and commitment to get on with the job, this was it.

In the meantime, Singapore's defence engineers came into play.

What followed was a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Four engine types were considered for a re-engining programme for the Skyhawk, with the General-Electric F404-GE-100D eventually picked to power the Skyhawk. This was a non-afterburner variant of the F404 engines fitted on US Navy F/A-18 Hornets - a warplane that was regarded as the US Navy's latest strike fighter in the mid-80s.

We know how this story ends: Re-engining proved immensely successful and was carried out in Singapore with a tight timeline. Problems that plagued the problematic J65s vanished with the new engines. This was complemented by a revamp of the Skyhawk's weapons delivery and navigation system (WDNS) to sharpen the fighter-bomber's ability to detect, track and deal with various targets. Refinements such as a new wide angle heads-up display that projected flight and targeting information on a transparent screen above the pilot's cockpit panel, a laser spot tracker under the nose and radar warning receivers on the nose and tail cone to warn of hostile emitters were added to modernise the combat capabilities of these Vietnam War-era fighter-bombers.

On 19 September 1986, the first phase of the re-engining programme conducted its first test flight with an American test pilot, Mr Tom Wagner, at the controls. This followed 16 months of development during a critical phase in the RSAF's decision-making process when air force planners had to decide whether to proceed with giving the Skyhawks a new lease of life, or buy a new warplane to replace these fighters. The first option was cheaper but unproven. The second more expensive option promised to sweep aside hand-me-down fighter planes and usher in a new era for the RSAF at a time when neighbours were mulling cutting edge fighters such as the Tornado.

By 1990, the RSAF had gained so much confidence with the re-engined Skyhawks that it reformed its Black Knights aerobatic display team to demonstrate the performance of its revitalised A-4 fleet. At Asian Aerospace 1990, RSAF Super Skyhawks thrilled the crowds with their formation flying and aerobatics that showed off the high roll rate of the A-4 and powerful thrust-to-weight ratio that gave it a faster rate of climb in the vertical.

Among airshow attendees was Moon Ming, who was flying the flag for the Singapore defence industry.

As for the Seah family, Moon Ming did not allow the loss of his brother to unsettle his desire to serve the Singapore defence industry. He climbed the rungs from junior engineer to emerge as founding president of local defence electronics company, ST Electronics, and has since earned a string of accolades and chairmanships of august organisations. Long after the tears had dried, the older of the Seah brothers was determined to continue contributing as best he could to Singapore.

More than 30 years after that fateful day and despite the many corporate achievements to his name, there's always a place in Moon Ming's heart for the younger brother whom he never got to grow old with.

Epilogue
Until its retirement early this century, the RSAF did not lose a single A-4 Super Skyhawk to flying accidents. The Skyhawks made their final flight over Singapore on 31 March 2005. Twelve twin-seater TA-4SU Super Skyhawks (some with VIPs aboard) did the honours. At the time, the RSAF had another 10 twin-seater TA-4SU Super Skyhawks in Cazaux, France. It was a disproportionately large number of "trainers" for the air force. Till this day, the TA-4SU's wartime role has not been declassified.


Republic of Singapore Air Force Skyhawk Crisis incidents
10 Oct 1984: A two-seater TA-4 Skyhawk crashed in the Strait of Malacca 30nm west of Singapore. Pilot CPT Kwok Him Yick, 28, ejected safely and was rescued by a passing fishing boat while LTA Khoo Seng Kim, 26, missing. LTA Khoo's body found was on 18 Oct 1984.

24 July 1985: CPT Cheong Seng Chee, 31, ejected over Strait of Malacca 35nm off Singapore. He was rescued within 30 minutes.

25 July 1985: CPT Seah Boon Thong, 25, ejected over the Johor Strait minutes after an engine fire was reported. His body was found three days later.

22 Oct 1985: LTA Leow Yong Yean, 22, ejected safely south of TAB. He was picked up by boat and then airlifted by rescue helicopter to TAB.

3 Mar 1986: A two-seater TA-4 Skyhawk piloted by CPT Tsu Way Ming, 29, and LTA Goh Char Li, 22, crashed into the sea southwest of TAB. Both were rescued by helicopter.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Expensive Plaything? Consider the Tribe, the Natives and the Other Side


When defending a nation whose first military defeat may be its last, is there no price too high to pay to stave off national extinction?

With vulnerability as the start point for any discussion on expensive war machines, dissenting voices face an uphill battle making their point.

High price tag and costly sustainability over its projected life cycle? The nation can pay for it. So, Buy.

The flipside of not buying? Apocalyptic, nightmarish scenarios where the nation will pay a far higher price if certain capabilities are absent. So, Buy.

One does not have to resort to scare mongering to drive the point home. And in situations where theoretical possibilities are discussed and nobody has the definitive answer, it is natural and expected that one should err on the side of caution. So, Buy.

Unique to certain nations, the acquisition of high-priced armaments exerts a dynamic that goes beyond superficial arguments of whether one is getting bang for buck. Performance data will often be used to debunk skeptics. Mind you, these data points use numbers that outsiders like you and I will be forced to take at face value because the data is often hard to verify as they concern operationally sensitive or commercially competitive matters. You will find it virtually impossible to apply Reagan's advice to "trust but verify" when it comes to establishing whether MTBF, life cycle cost or cost per flight hour are what they are made out to be.

The dynamic we are talking about concerns human factors that impact feelings in the tribe, among the natives and also how people on the other side of the border view any arms purchase.

The Tribe
If we agree that expensive war machines have shrugged off teething issues and work as advertised, one has to work through the difficult issue of who gets to use these silver bullets.

Peculiar to geographies where CEP does not simply refer to weapon accuracy but the current estimated potential of men and women who step forward to serve the armed forces, this is a tricky issue.

There have been past instances where book smarts does not equate street smarts. Add a complex environment where one has to fight in three dimensions and one gets to realise why individuals with the right stuff are so highly cherished in established air forces.

But if one is to treat a command tour as a tick in the box, then you have a problem when an expensive war machine is used like a stage prop, or worst, a crutch so that a high flier has something nice to show on the resume, whatever the shortcomings. It's been done before: Sunrays who are extinguished within the opening bouts of mock battles. CMIs who miss the datum by minutes when precision is expected/demanded. Highly esteemed leaders who need someone to countercheck every command call.

Among the Few, those hand-picked to operate expensive war machines will emerge primus inter pares. In a highly-competitive environment with many talented individuals to choose from, it is up to the system to demonstrate that they truly deserve their perch.

The Natives
While what goes on within the tribe (usually) stays within the tribe, people deserve to know what they are paying for.

There's usually something nice to write about new war machines, more so for expensive ones. You can count on the arms factory concerned to trot out an impressive list of war-winning attributes for its product.

With an eye-popping price tag, one should hope tax payers get what they pay for.

The flip side is what happens if and when the armament fails to deliver. Defence enthusiasts would probably have come across the statistic of a certain warplane with a combat record of a hundred plus victories with zero losses. It makes a useful factoid journalists are likely to use. But that same war machine fielded against a rag tag militia (with no air force worth talking about) has not only failed to quell the opposition but is said to have been clawed out of the sky by ground-based air defences. Did the much-touted warplane deter? No. Did it defeat the enemy decisively? No.

The shock effect of situations where the highly-acclaimed fall from grace is magnified for small nations, particularly those with net-savvy natives. This means one should mind those sound bites right from the get go and not get blown away with the hype in an attempt to justify cost.

The Other Side
While mindsets in places with a tame mainstream media can be managed with careful curation of information, how folks across the border view new armaments is beyond one's control.

If new weapon platforms and systems deter or at the very least impress, then this is a good outcome.

But if for all the hype and ballyhoo nothing stirs in their loins (i.e. balls shrink), then you have a problem.

In some armed forces, it is popular and even fashionable to study the success in battle of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The IDF's ability to bounce back from surprise attack from multiple foes, their conduct of a short war wrapped up in less than a week, their wielding of air and tank heavy forces with aplomb have won them acclaim and admiration from untested forces eager to emulate their mastery of the art and science of war.

Where Arab armies failed, a small force in Lebanon has proven otherwise. Combatants from Hezbollah have fought the IDF to bloody stalemates with no warplanes and no tanks. Their battle staff has been content to allow IDF complete air supremacy, knowing full well IDF warplanes are virtually useless once the rockets fly.

You can bet the neighbours will watch with interest whatever new kit is fielded.

Once can expect the difficult gestation for new platforms to be alluded to by observers on the other side. Snarky remarks are par for the course.

What's even more noteworthy and more difficult to discern - unless one makes the effort to know the neighbours better - is any pivot in their understanding of how warfare might be conducted if forced to decisive battle on their soil, and their confidence in emulating conditions that led to the IDF stalemate even if it means going to Paradise.

If the new playbook by the other side works, then you have a problem because the new, expensive war machine will fail to deter even before it arrives.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Best parts about the Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (Malaysian Armed Forces)



The Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (ATM, Malaysian Armed Forces) has weathered the ups and downs of many economic cycles/crisis which have affected its defence budget.

Despite occasional bouts of belt-tightening, the ATM has scored noteworthy achievements in its transformation from a COIN-oriented to a full-spectrum conventional warfare force.

Shrewd defence planning by committed ATM staff officers willing to challenge conventional thinking has resulted in the following features that make the Malaysian war machine a force to be reckoned with:

* Tentara Darat (Malaysian Army) is the region's biggest user of M134 7.62mm miniguns (Indonesia's TNI is number 2). With a rate of fire of 50 rounds per second, the minigun is an ideal weapon for the ATM's anti-invasion block force.

* Malaysia will operate the smallest attack helicopter in Southeast Asia, the MD-530G Little Bird. Pound for pound, the yet-to-be-delivered Little Bird will be the region's most heavily-armed attack helo. Its diminutive size makes it ideal for out-of-base operations in jungle/plantation landing pads.

* TUDM is armed with the region's fastest anti-radiation missile, the Russian-made supersonic Kh-31P missile, tailored made to hunt and neutralise integrated air defence networks.


* An innovative naval staff worked closely with Malaysian industry partners to convert a former Petroliam Nasional mobile offshore production unit and an Malaysian International Shipping Corporation cargo ship as Sea Bases. This is HANRUH - Pertahanan Menyeluruh (Total Defence) - in action.

* TLDM (Tentera Laut Diraja Malaysia, Royal Malaysian Navy) has been operating naval helicopters for years earlier than the Singapore navy. TLDM started with the Westland Wasp HAS.1 before trading these old birds for the Super Lynx 300 naval helicopter, which Malaysia ordered as its launch customer.

* Malaysia has as many air bases in West Malaysia as Singapore but has numerous (60+) alternate bases in the form of civilian airports, plantation and austere airstrips to disperse its air assets.

* TUDM was the first air force in Southeast Asia to train with United States Air Force F-22 Raptors. This took place during Eksesais Cope Taufan in June 2014.



* Speaking of HANRUH, multiple Malaysian agencies such as the National Security Council, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Education, Lembaga Tabung Haji (haji pilgrims fund board) and Markas TUDM (Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia, HQ Royal Malaysian Air Force) planned and executed the farthest and largest non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) flown by a Southeast Asian air force. This was done at short notice with no opportunity for rehearsal. Codenamed Operasi Piramid, the February 2011 NEO airlifted Malaysian nationals from riot-torn Egypt using aircraft from TUDM, Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia. TUDM sent three C-130H-30s to the Middle East within 24 hours of activation, with airliners augmenting TUDM thereafter. A total of 3,482 Malaysians were airlifted via 18 sorties flown by TUDM and Niner-Mike assets.

* The ATM has far lower rates of myopia among its warfighters than the SAF compared to a neighbouring country.

* Malaysia has more hard copy and digital defence periodicals than Singapore to win hearts and minds.

* ATM's psywar network has amassed hard-won experience from the two emergencies.

* Malaysian forces are among the few in the world to have fought and defeated a communist insurgency.

* Jungle warfare expertise of ATM is world-renowed.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Aboard JMSDF ship JS Kaga in Singapore: Design shows lessons learned from Pacific War aircraft carrier operations

The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) started the Pacific War with some of the most advanced, largest and innovative aircraft carrier designs in that era. By the end of hostilities in 1945, the IJN had learned hard lessons from the flaws in design and operational employment of its fleet carriers, light carriers, escort carriers, as well as aviation-capable ships such as the Ise-class hybrid battleships and Mogami-class aircraft carrying heavy cruisers.

Operational and technical matters aside, the failure to recognise the extent to which its naval code had been compromised by Royal Navy and United States Navy cryptographers and inadequate anti-submarine protection also contributed to the loss of many IJN vessels.

An opportunity to tour the JS Kaga showed that the ship's designers have incorporated lessons learned from aircraft carrier operations in the past. Kaga is the second of the two-ship Izumo-class, which are the largest surface combatants in the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF).

Hurricane bow: The enclosed bow was a feature of the British Pacific Fleet's fleet carriers. This design feature improves sea keeping in heavy seas. Only one IJN aircraft carrier, Taiho, had her bow fully enclosed. JMSDF Izumo-class helicopter destroyers and the smaller Hyuga-class helicopter destroyers were built with enclosed bows.

Island superstructure: You might think an island on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier helicopter destroyer is a basic necessity. But IJN carriers like the Zuiho-class, Ryujo, Ryuho and smaller Taiyo-class escort carriers among others dispensed with the island totally, making these ships quite literally flattops. Over in England, the Royal Navy's WW2 aircraft carrier, HMS Argus, was also built with a flattop and no island superstructure.

IJN carriers such as the Akagi and Hiryu had their islands built on the "wrong side", i.e. on their port side when designs of the period all tended to place the island on the starboard side of the carrier. The reasoning was that the landing pattern for Akagi and her carrier division partner, Kaga, could take place simultaneously with both carriers sailing alongside.

The vertical funnel trunked within the JS Kaga's superstructure marks a departure from previous Japanese designs that had a curved funnel that vented the exhaust efflux downward towards the sea. JS Kaga follows current design convention where the island superstructure is offset to starboard.


Hangar and elevator deck: JMSDF Izumo-class ships have two methods to move her air group from the hangar to the flight deck. Helicopters can be lifted by the elevator or deck edge lift. Note that US Navy Nimitz-class carriers have ditched the deck elevator totally, with her designers opting instead for the deck edge lifts. Among the advantages of the deck edge lifts is the freeing up of precious hangar space. Kaga's deck plan above shows that the deck elevator well occupies about 20% of the floor area on the hangar deck. Deck edge lifts also allow oversized aircraft to move between hangar and flight deck, without dimensional limits imposed by the deck elevators. In addition, there is a school of thought that the deck elevators compromise the integrity of the flight deck with the large opening. 

During the Pacific War, dive bomber pilots used to aim their bombs at the carrier's deck elevators as a successful hit on the elevator would have a better chance of penetrating to the hangar deck. IJN carriers such as the Hiryu and Taiho both had their elevators inoperable/jammed after dive bomber and torpedo attacks. 

Kaga's deck plan also shows that the hangar deck can be sub divided into four separate compartments. This improves the ship's survivability by preventing fires from spreading quickly in the hangar as the compartments are screened off from one another by blast-proof doors.

Kaga's deck elevator takes about 20 seconds to move from the hangar to the flight deck. 



Kaga's hangar, looking towards the bow and the deck elevator in "down" position. When Kaga is closed up for action stations, the view forward would extend till the first row of blast-proof doors that will move into position on rails visible on the hangar roof, at the frame just before the yellow forklift on the ship's portside.

A single blast door is used to seal off the hanger from the deck edge lift, turning the hangar into an armoured box. Note the arrangement of pulleys at the left side of the door. The US Navy's USS Wasp (CV-7) successfully pioneered the use of a deck edge lift and this feature was added to the Essex-class fleet carriers.

Eleven panels of blast-proof doors seal off a compartment on Kaga's hangar deck. On US Navy Nimitz-class carriers, the conflagaration or CONFLAG stations seal off their sections using blast doors that move into position from either side of the hanger. On Kaga, these doors roll into place from the ship's portside. Such doors prevent fire from spreading quickly throughout the hangar, isolating damage within sealed compartments for fire-fighting and damage control teams to deal with.



Inside Kaga's spacious wheelhouse, with flat screen navigation panels and the ship's wheel (below). Air traffic control and deck handling areas for embarked helicopters are located in a separate station aft of the superstructure. During the Pacific War, experience aboard IJN fleet carriers like Akagi and Kaga showed that their small island superstructure had inadequate space for ship and aviation control functions.



Note the compartmentalised sections in Kaga's hangar, deck edge lift and the space taken up by the deck elevator forward.

Despite the readiness of Japanese ship designers to embrace features such as the hurricane bow, enlarged island, deck edge lift, improved FFDC and sectionalised hangar space found on foreign aircraft carrier designs, some traditions have been retained on Kaga. JMSDF ships continue to use bugle calls to sound activities like flag raisings and salutes.






You may also like:
Yashukan War Memorial Museum shows Japan's road to war. Click here
Visit to the Hikawa Maru Museum. Click here
Visit to Yashukan War Memorial Museum. Click here

Friday, October 19, 2018

JS Kaga visits Singapore as part of Indo Southeast Asia Deployment ISEAD 2018


You choose your words carefully when describing the JS Kaga (DDH-184), the Japanese ship that arrived at Changi Naval Base at 9am on Thursday morning (18 Oct'18) with her destroyer escort, JS Inazuma (DD-105), for a six-day visit to Singapore.

Though she is painted haze grey and conforms to the mental picture most people would have of an aircraft carrier, with a flight deck stretching the 248-metre length of the ship from bow to stern, the Japanese describe her simply as a "helicopter destroyer".

Looking every bit a warship in her grey warpaint and armed with guns, missiles and anti-submarine helicopters, the 19,500-ton Kaga does not serve with a navy but the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF).

You watch your metaphors too when mulling over whether Kaga's arrival was intended to send any signals to defence watchers. Regional defence chiefs are now in Singapore for the 12th ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM), which will take place over the duration of Kaga's visit to the Lion City. In addition to defence ministers from the 10 ASEAN nations, the ADMM-Plus summit involves defence ministers from Australia, China, India, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, the United States and of course, Japan.

Asked about the timing, the JMSDF admiral commanding the deployment brushed it off as "a coincidence".

Stretch that metaphor and one realises that Kaga's port call comes close on the heels of last Sunday's Self-Defense Forces Day, which was marked by a parade, drive past of tanks and flypast by warplanes and combat helicopters. After reviewing SDF troops and their armaments, Japan's Prime Minister Shizo Abe used the occasion to renew his pledge to push for a revision of Japan's war-renouncing constitution, specifically Article 9 that expressly forbids mention of SDF forces.

The delicate handling of Japan's military posture may sound petty until one realises that Tokyo pulled out Kaga's sister ship, the JS Izumo, from South Korea's International Fleet Review just last week after a disagreement over what flag Izumo should fly. The diplomatic kerfluffle was triggered by Seoul's insistence that the Rising Sun flag, which reminds Koreans of Japan's militaristic past, not be flown on the Izumo during the fleet review.

Decades after the end of the Pacific War, wounds run deep in Asian countries once occupied by Japan.

Tokyo therefore realises it must tread carefully even as it adjusts the SDF's defence posture overseas. The JMSDF has maintained a presence in regional waterways for years, perhaps on account of the fact that some 90 per cent of Japanese oil imports from the Middle East have to sail through regional sea lanes. So while the United States makes headlines every now and then with its assertive rendition of freedom of navigation operations spearheaded by US Navy warships, it is worth remembering that Tokyo is also fully aware that a forward presence in Southeast Asia is necessary to watch over its economic lifelines.

Despite the high-profile US Navy presence in the Indo Pacific, it may surprise you that apart from the Thais, the Japanese are among the top two visitors to the Republic of Singapore Navy's Changi Naval Base. JMSDF ships use the base and others in the region to sustain a presence far from home but many of these routine deployments go unpublicised.

Singapore's strategic location at the southernmost tip of Asia, which is the swing around point for all ships using the straits of Malacca and Singapore to move from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, has made the city-state a popular port call for regional navies.

According to Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), Singapore facilitates the transit of vessels from many countries through our ports and facilities. Navies across the world, from Brunei, China, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand and the US, to name a few, routinely visit RSS Singapura - Changi Naval Base (CNB) for refuelling and replenishment. MINDEF's records show that ever since CNB began operations in 2001, the naval base flanking the Singapore Strait has hosted more than 2000 visits by foreign warships from 30 countries, a testament to the strong friendships forged between the Republic of Singapore Navy and other navies. In other words, a foreign ship docks at CNB about once every three days.

Enter Kaga's latest foray into the region and the media attention generated at each port of call. Her voyage comes a year after JS Izumo, the name-ship of the JMSDF's largest class of ship, made her maiden trip to Southeast Asia. JS Kaga is accompanied by the destroyer escorts, JS Inazuma and JS Suzutsuki (DD-117. This ship did not join Kaga in Singapore as she is en route to Japan). Kaga's longest deployment from Japanese home waters has seen her visit the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India. Singapore is her last stopover before she returns to Japan via the South China Sea.

One can tell the Japanese are serious about projecting the right image for Kaga when they dedicate a microsite in Japanese and English on the JMSDF webpage to her two-month deployment. What's more, they coined a new acronym, ISEAD 2018, for this deployment. This stands for Indo Southeast Asia Deployment.

There are two stakeholders intended for this public relations blitz: Japan's Asian neighbours and her domestic audience. The former need to be desensitised to the notion of Japanese ships operating in regional waters while Japanese nationals need to be exposed to and accepting of Tokyo's push to deploy the SDF on missions farther and of longer duration than ever before, even as Article 9 awaits a review.

This year, the Japanese have apparently made special efforts to ensure its message is not lost in translation. At the media briefing aboard Kaga, Rear Admiral Tatsuya Fukuda, commander of Escort Flotilla 4 and the senior JMSDF officer leading ISEAD 2018, delivered a four-minute speech on the deployment and took questions from the media in English, surprising even Japanese correspondents who expected his remarks to be delivered in Japanese. This was unlike last year's briefing aboard Izumo, which was done in Japanese with the sparse English translation after lengthy remarks in Japanese leaving journalists to surmise that key sound bites had been somehow omitted.

Seen at face value, Kaga's presence appears to underline Tokyo's intention to build on Izumo's high-profile regional tour last year. Implicit in this deployment is the message that Southeast Asian nations should regard JMSDF visits as the new normal.

In this regard, one can expect Tokyo to play the long game by using its largest JMSDF vessels in emissaries of naval diplomacy, during which joint exercises with regional navies serve as confidence-building measures. During ISEAD 2018, the JMSDF's decision to step up engagements by planning, coordinating and hosting exercises with partner navies during Kaga's deployment marks a noteworthy departure from its largely passive presence during Izumo's voyage, which saw the ship joined in maritime training hosted by other naval forces. 

There is also real training value for JMSDF personnel as they navigate regional sea lanes, especially through choke points such as the Straits of Malacca and Singapore which are among the world's busiest sea lanes. The experience running a big ship through narrow and congested sea lanes, constrained by the traffic separation scheme (TSS) as AIS collision alarms flash regular warnings and as some vessels ignore rules of the road is something that simulator training cannot faithfully replicate. It has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Over time and with successive deployments, the JMSDF will enlarge the pool of personnel who have experience sailing in the region even as their port calls become less newsworthy. Tokyo will come to regard regional waters as its traditional training or deployment areas, especially after neighbouring countries grow accustomed to the JMSDF's annual flag-waving deployments.


There is, however, a new aspect peculiar to ISEAD 2018 that last year's deployment of Izumo did not have to contend with. Kaga's name once graced one of six Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carriers that launched the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December, 1941, bringing the United States into the Pacific War. When you strip away all the niceties that downplay Kaga's obvious naval capabilities, her farthest voyage from Japan serves as a trial balloon to test the waters - figuratively speaking - and gauge the readiness of regional partners in accepting a man-of-war whose name echoes of Japan's militaristic past.

With Singapore marking her last port call before her return trip to Japan, Tokyo must count itself fortunate that Kaga's name has not rankled regional sensitivities.

When Kaga sets sail for Japan next Tuesday (23 Oct'18), you can bet the planning cycle for next year's instalment of ISEAD will attempt to set the bar even higher.

For Southeast Asia's maritime nations, this means adusting to the new reality that the JMSDF can be expected to assert itself even more in years to come and will return time and again to regional waterways, in peace but in strength.


You may also like:
Straits Times commentary on JS Izumo's 2017 deployment. Japan's warship on long and distant service. Click here

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Singapore's National Day Parade 2018




Amazing isn't it?

Singapore island, aka the Little Red Dot, seen from the perspective of the Singapore Army's crack Red Lions Commando parachute display team. This photo mozaic was stitched together from a video that shows the commandos rehearsing for this evening's 53rd National Day celebrations in Singapore.

On the far right (east) of the landmass is Changi. To the left (west) is Jurong and Tuas, with Pandan Reservoir visible as the glistening patch near the top left. The green patch of the central catchment area with the freshwater reservoirs can also be seen.

From east to west, about 50km. North to south, a mere 22km.

You are looking at the most densely defended country in Southeast Asia. Within the field of view of the Red Lions, the city-state has the:
Most number of armoured fighting vehicles in Southeast Asia.

Heaviest concentration of tube and rocket artillery.

Biggest number of combat engineer bridging rafts.

Deepest underground ammunition depot.

Largest fleet of fast landing craft.

Extensive naval sealift.

More combat warplanes, hunter-killer submarines and MBT types than the neighbours.

Region's highest density of SAMs.

Neighbourhood's only counter rocket artillery and mortar (C-RAM) system.

Unrivalled military training arrangements globally.

And yet, critically vulnerable. See for yourself:
No strategic depth.

A currency backed by no natural resources.

Open border with the home shore minutes away from the world's busiest sea lane.

Exposed to artillery, special forces and rapid deployment parachute forces.

Lack of economic hinterland.

High density of ageing population.

Virtually no room to manoeuvre on home ground.

Heavy reliance on open access to sea and air trade routes.

Your back towards the sea any way you face.

Sleep well at night?

Many of us do, blissfully unaware of Singapore Armed Forces and Home Team units serving as the city-state's sentinels whose sensors watch above and beyond the border, and can see beyond the obvious.

We thank them all. :-)

Monday, July 30, 2018

Overlooked at the RSAF 50th anniversary flypast at the National Day Parade 2018 Preview 1

In plain sight: Can you spot the "Timika 1996" streamer awarded to RSAF UAV Command?

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) marks its 50th anniversary with a flypast at this year’s National Day Parade (NDP).

Many of you staying around the holding areas for the RSAF aircraft and helicopters may have noticed the upsized air segment or heard the flypast roar into action during the rehearsals.

At last Saturday’s NDP preview, the commentator said the flypast was made up of every manned aircraft used by the RSAF. While technically correct for Singapore-based RSAF aircraft, it would have been nice to also recognise aircraft based outside Singapore that carry the RSAF insignia proudly. These are the Pilatus PC-21 flown by 130 Squadron as trainer aircraft at the Royal Australian Air Force Base Pearce in Perth, Australia, and the Aermacchi M-346 which is operated as an advanced jet trainer by 150 Squadron in Cazaux, France.

A 130 Squadron Pilatus PC-21.(Photo: Ministry of Defence Singapore)

A trio of 150 Squadron Aermacchi M-346 advanced jet trainers.(Photo: Ministry of Defence Singapore)

The commentator could have said:“In addition, the Air Force also flies PC-21 trainer with 130 Squadron in Australia and the M-346 advanced jet trainer with 150 Squadron in France”.

Afterall, without these overlooked squadrons/aircraft, the flypast would not be possible. It would also be a subtle way to remind the public that RSAF training takes place round the clock and round the world, with detachments sustained in Asia, CONUS and Europe  - a feat many Singaporeans take for granted.

Speaking of being overlooked, the parade commentary should have highlighted the streamers carried by the colours for Headquarters Commando and the RSAF Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Command. These streamers were awarded to recognise the contributions and achievements of the Commandos and UAV Command who saw action in separate Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) operations more than 20 years ago.

The Commandos earned their operations streamer for the SQ117 hostage rescue in 1991 while the RSAF UAV command was awarded its “Timika 1996” streamer for its deployment of a Scout UAV detachment to support a TNI-led hostage rescue mission in Indonesia’s Irian Jaya province. 

People sometimes criticise the SAF for being an untested force. These streamers tell a different story.

It’s been more than 20 years since Timika and what used to be hush-hush shouldn’t be anymore, particularly in an important anniversary year for the Air Force and with a streamer held high by the UAV Command ensign in plain sight, visible to one and all.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

DSTA organises first Technology Summit for key players in world's defence technology arena

Source: DSTA

Secret weapon know-how and international conferences make strange bedfellows. But that has not deterred Singapore from bringing the two together at the world’s first defence technology summit.

Close on the heels of the Trump- Kim Summit, Singapore will host another high-level, first-of-its-kind meeting next week (28-29 June 2018). It's called the Singapore Defence Technology Summit and will pull in top defence officials who plan and implement weapons programmes.

Organised by Singapore's Defence Science & Technology Agency (DSTA), the Tech Summit emphasizes the republic's ambition to be a key player in the defence technology arena.

Hard won track record 
In order to do so, Singapore must demonstrate that it has attained a respectable level of competence, experience and exposure to plan, execute and sustain complex engineering projects. Having shown we have arrived is just part of the story.

Singapore must also convince its peers that the city-state's value in collaborative efforts cannot be inferred from its size alone. And while we proudly proclaimed 50 years of defence technology experience in 2016, our legacy is eclipsed by nations who have amassed experience in the art and science of war since the time of edged weapons.

When one remembers that defence professionals are not the easiest audience to impress - particularly those exposed to leading edge defence technology and those who have wartime experience - our defence managers, scientists and engineers should use the summit as a platform for show-and-tell. That much is clear from the summit’s programme. It includes site visits for delegates to learn about military technology and non-defence innovations such as the management of shipping in Singapore port (one of the world’s busiest with a vessel entering or leaving every minute), the Woodlands checkpoint (the world’s busiest land border crossing) along with presentations on the airbase of the future (this will replace Paya Lebar Air Base after 2030) and the Singapore navy’s latest warship, the Littoral Mission Vessel.

According to DSTA, more than 400 delegates from 17 countries, including the heads of defence procurement agencies in Asian and European nations, are due to attend the summit from next Thursday at the Shangri-La Hotel. An international slate of delegates from about 10 countries are scheduled to speak at the event.

Getting delegates here is due in no small measure to Singapore’s reputation as a reference customer for defence purchases. Our rigorous no-nonsense approach to managing weapon purchases from concept to retirement, a discipline known as Life Cycle Management, and capabilities for customising weapons to suit the Singapore Armed Forces specific operational requirements are well-regarded. Many delegates will probably come to network with Singapore’s defence professionals, convinced that their time here will reap dividends from lessons learned and current best practices.

Success factors
The Tech Summit’s success, however, goes beyond securing a respectable turnout and hosting the event efficiently. Being the first of its kind, DSTA has no reference points to calibrate success. Complicating matters further is the lack of any expectations that the event will result in a declaration of any sort.

Beyond polite chit chat and the exchange of name cards, it is worth it? After all, secret weapons and open sharing make strange bedfellows. This is particularly the case when delegates from countries such as the United States, China, the Middle East and Europe sit in the same room to talk about defence and security matters.

If the Tech Summit can strengthen Singapore’s standing as a credible player in defence technology development and management, the event would contribute meaningfully to the republic’s strategic goal of being a thought-leader in this arena.

Remember that reputations are transient and can disappear if one is not careful. Singapore's "reference customer" accolade was earned the hard way and we have had our fair share of blind alleys and challenges. External factors such as the dot.com boom at the turn of the century resulted in a number of defence engineers moving to chase their dream in the private sector. The lessons on talent management and staff retention drummed home the message that People are our most vital resource.

It is therefore vital that Singapore continue to punch above its weight and learn from the best, and the summit has immense value for host and visitors alike to engage in meaningful exchanges.

In his speech during the defence budget debate, Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen first broached the idea of the summit. Dr Ng said: "I believe that Singapore can lead in defence technology even though we are small. So to achieve that aspiration, DSTA together with our national universities, A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research), government agencies like GovTech (Government Technology Agency of Singapore), Cyber Security Agency of Singapore, National Research Foundation, the Singapore Economic Development Board, will host an inaugural Singapore Defence Technology Summit in 2018.

"I asked staff whether there were any global defence summits in the world. They said that there weren't any, and I replied, "That is good, let us try". This Summit will provide a global platform to invite luminaries, leading figures, to come share their views. It will give us a window into the future. Not only that, it allows opportunities to network and increase our access to new ideas and innovation. Because you and I know that for defence, for us, it is existential - we need to deploy technology because other factors are working against us."

The post-Cold War consolidation of the world’s defence industry has been rapid and vicious. Scores of small players were forced to exit the scene, edged out by the double whammy of dwindling defence spending and their inability to keep pace with disruptive technologies and industry flux. In the United States, for example, fewer than 20 of the top 100 defence firms that existed in 1991 are still around today. European defence firms have endured a similar crunch. Those that survive represent the best of the best. They are likely to only want to do business with strong partners who can value-add to a relationship. This is why it is vital that Singapore make its voice heard.

Balancing the Need-to-share/Need-to-know
In this regard, Singapore’s defence professionals maintain a tricky balance between need-to-share and the restrictive need-to-know domain.

In past years, Singapore has worked around this conundrum by publicising some projects after they have been surpassed by newer, more capable systems. The rationale is that defence cognoscenti can work out their “guesstimate” of Singapore’s capabilities by joining the dots from open source data points. We did this in 2004 at the TechX exhibition when a locally-developed TV-guided glide bomb went on show for the first time. This was some 20 years after the bomb had been proven during weapons trials using a Republic of Singapore Air Force A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bomber.

More recently, a 2016 book commemorating the Defence Technology Community’s 50th anniversary profiled a 1999 project to develop autonomous vehicle concepts. This nugget of information was aimed at prompting defence observers into thinking about Singapore’s current autonomous vehicle capabilities as the 1999 project has been wrapped up and consigned to history. The book also revealed how defence engineers developed an anti-armour munition for now-retired SM1 light tanks. At the time, the sabot round codenamed Project Spider* was the most powerful anti-armour round fired by the tank's 75mm gun.

Stories abound on how Singapore has benefitted from the 5,000-strong community of defence scientists and engineers that the republic has nurtured for over 50 years. During the 2004 Sars crisis, military night vision technology was adapted to develop fever scanners. In 2016, data analysts from GovTech and DSTA used their know-how in operations research to identify a rogue Circle Line MRT train whose faulty signaling equipment led to a series of disruptions on other trains.

Alas, the full suite of capabilities will never be revealed. As Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said at the DTC’s 50th anniversary exhibition: “The ones that are the most impressive, are the ones that we don’t show.”

On the sidelines of the summit, our defence experts should do their utmost to share unclassified stories of the work among foreign delegates because such sharing engenders confidence among our friends and partners.

Such stories also contribute immeasurably to deterrence as potential adversaries are left wondering else Singapore’s defence technology community has been busy tinkering with.


Note:
Yours truly was the author of the story in the Defence Technology Community’s 50th anniversary book that unveiled the armour-piercing fin-stabilised discarding sabot APFSDS anti-tank munition developed under Project Spider. The effort to upgrade AMX-13 light tanks to SM1 standard under Project Archer was also declassified for the book.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Future of Malaysia's defence scene, LIMA and Defence Services Asia as Malaysia ushers in a new government

Incoming: Mohamad Bin Sabu ("Mat Sabu"), Malaysia's new Minister of Defence, is congratulated by the Malaysian Army. Photo: Malaysian Army News

Outgoing: Dato' Seri Hishamuddin Tun Hussein, caretaker Minister of Defence during the Defence Services Asia 2018 show, announces the April 2020 dates for the next instalment of the arms show on 18 April 2018. A new Malaysian defence minister will have the honour of declaring DSA 2020 open. 


Wait till after the elections.

That was the line that many defence professionals at last month's Defence Services Asia (DSA) arms show in Kuala Lumpur heard or were told, whenever conversations touched on acquisitions by Malaysia's defence ministry.

Well, the Malaysian General Elections have come and gone. The caretaker Minister of Defence who so cheerfully hosted many official delegations at DSA 2018, Dato' Seri Hishamuddin Tun Hussein, has lost his job. Henceforth, all major acquisitions will be reassessed by a new government led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

So what's next for Malaysia's defence scene?

In the short-term, this quite possibly means that big-ticket purchases coveted by the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) will be put on hold. Notable examples include the Multi-Role Support Ship for the Royal Malaysian Navy, as well as plans to buy M-109 155mm self-propelled guns and even more Pakistan-made Baktar Shikan anti-tank missiles for the Malaysian Army. A question mark also hovers over the plan to acquire light strike vehicles for Malaysian Army special forces. For now, it appears that European ambitions to fill the Royal Malaysian Air Force requirement for a Multi-Role Combat Aircraft will remain a pipe dream.

Do not, however, mistake the change in administration as a precursor to a softening in Malaysia's defence posture.

While media reports laud Dr M with the honour of being the father of modern Malaysia, let's not forget that the back-from-retirement-PM also presided over the transformation of the MAF from a counter-insurgency force to one trained, organised, equipped and supported for a full spectrum of conventional warfare operations.

Under Malaysia's long-running PERISTA programme to modernise the MAF, Malaysia's war machine made significant leaps in capability, lethality and defence readiness under Dr M's watch. It was no mean feat, with the MAF fighting to fulfill its wish-list with budgets constantly under pressure and with a defence procurement process whose choices were sometimes perplexing from the standpoint of whether the MAF was getting maximum bang for buck.

In retrospect, there were some missed opportunities that could have seen the Federation surpass capabilities fielded by its neighbours. But the original specifications underscore the ambitions of Malaysia's defence planners to field weapons, such as the Tornado IDS and ECS variants proposed under a 1988 MOU with Britain, that could shake the centre of gravity of possible adversaries. Plans to introduce up to 27 patrol craft also never saw the full complement enter service. Only six were eventually ordered. These are the Kedah-class MEKO 100 offshore patrol vessels.

Seen with a broader time horizon, however, Dr M's tenure as PM resulted in big gains for Malaysia's military.

In 1994, the Rapid Deployment Force centred on 10 Briged (Para) was established to give the MAF the capability to insert and support brigade-level airborne operations. Dr M himself did the honours as 10 Bgd was declared operational.

At the turn of the century, Malaysia moved towards introducing its first main battle tank when the Polish-made PT-91 was brought to Malaysia for field trials. This resulted in the purchase of the PT-91M Pendekar MBT and variants such as bridge-layers and recovery vehicles.

Around the same period, the Brazilian-made ASTROS II rocket artillery system was acquired, marking a substantial jump in hitting power for the Malaysian Army as the ASTROS II was fielded as the Keris. Nominally a tactical weapon system, the 90km range of the Keris Sistem Roket Lancar Berganda (SRLB, multiple launch rocket system) enables the weapon system to exert a strategic influence when ranged against  geographical entities, such as the city-state of Singapore, whose size is dwarfed by the Keris SRLB range ring.

So what do these historical snippets say about the future of Malaysia's defence scene?

As far as defence shows such as the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace show (LIMA) and DSA are concerned, it is likely that future editions of such exhibitions will continue to stay relevant to the world's defence industry.

LIMA is held at Langkawi island every odd-numbered year. Dr M is Langkawi's Member of Parliament. Do you think the new PM would pull the plug on the show? Not likely. If anything, the next LIMA in March next year will emerge new and improved, and will be used to showcase Dr M's promise to island folk to bring prosperity to Langkawi through tourism receipts etc.

As for DSA, held every even-numbered year, the next show in April 2020 will allow defence companies to court Malaysia's defence establishment on a more level playing field.

Remember that for every weapon platform or system that clinched Malaysian contracts previously, or were under consideration under the Najib-led government, there would be competitors who claim that they too could have fit the bill.

The review of government purchases gives the also-rans a golden opportunity to make their sales pitch yet again. And if the new government's administration of defence contracts plugs the leaks, figuratively speaking, this would lead to a more effective Malaysian war machine as the best and most cost effective military solutions are fielded.

There's another spin to Malaysian defence shows that resides outside the defence sector. This is the filip to the local economy that comes from staging such shows. Spinoffs run into millions of Ringgit, from hotel room nights booked by exhibitors and visitors, to spending on F&B receipts, transportation and communications and huge bills racked up for the logistics of setting up and displaying their products at the exhibitions. Just look at the DSA 2018 visitor tally. The four-day show attracted 50,000 trade visitors from 64 countries, and recorded 350 VIP delegations from 44 countries - figures that attest to DSA's claim as one of the world's top five defence shows. Even if you strip away local attendees, it is big business. These are compelling numbers not easily swept aside.

Furthermore, Dr M's government's desire to review all big-ticket purchases does not magically erase threat assessments by the MAF. Current and emerging threats will need to be addressed, eventually. Malaysia's military will still need to be given the tools to do the job, eventually.

Dr M had done so in the past.

And once Dr M sorts out short-term domestic issues, he can be expected to help drive the MAF to the next level of readiness and capability.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Guide to Malaysian Armed Forces number plates and Malaysian Army vehicle markings

Top of the list: The Malaysian military's number plate, Z1, is the counterpart to 10 MID used in Singapore. Z1 is used by the Malaysian Chief of Defence Force. The 1 MID number plate is reserved for high-ranking MINDEF guests.

Tracked and wheeled transport used by the Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (ATM, Malaysian Armed Forces) are readily identifiable by their Z prefix.

The naming convention for ATM vehicle number plates is a further aid to observers. This is because the number plates are assigned according to the branch of the ATM that the vehicle serves. This is quite unlike the nomenclature adopted for Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) vehicles, which share a common MID identifier that is unique to SAF military vehicles.

Malay terms will be used for the ATM Services (i.e. army, navy, air force) as this will help you better understand how Malaysia assigns number plates to its military vehicles.

The Z prefix can stand alone or it can be followed by another letter. No more than two letters have been seen preceding the numerals, which can be up to four digits long. We have yet to observe Z-plate ATM vehicles with five digit numerals.

Among the Z-plate vehicles, Z1 stands is at the top of the table of seniority. It is a number plate assigned for Panglima ATM (Chief of Defence Force). Staff officers subordinate to PATM typically receive staff cars with a single Z letter, with the level of seniority denoted by the number that follows the Z prefix – the smaller the number, the more senior the officer.

Allied to the single letter Z-plate is the ZZ-series. This double letter prefix is typically seen on vehicles assigned to Kementarian Pertahanan (KEMENTAH, Malaysian Ministry of Defence), almost all of which are civilian models from a bewildering array of suppliers.

Vehicles assigned to the Tentera Darat (Malaysian Army), Tentera Laut Diraja Malaysia (TLDM, Royal Malaysian Navy) and Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia (TUDM, Royal Malaysian Air Force) are assigned double letter prefixes as follows:
ZA, ZB, ZC and ZD: Tentera Darat, with ZC apparently the latest series for army vehicles.
ZL: For TLDM vehicles, with the letter “L” indicating Laut (Sea).
ZU: For TUDM vehicles. The letter “U” in this instance indicates Udara (Air)







Vehicles fielded by Malaysian Services chiefs take the numeral “1” (obviously), with ZL 1 and ZU 1 denoting Panglima TLDM and Panglima TUDM respectively. Note that Panglima Tentera Darat is assigned ZD 1 and not ZA 1, with the letter D denoting Darat (Land) to identify the Chief of Army’s personal staff car.

Number plates are issued with white characters on a black background. There appears to be no standardised fonts and two types of fonts have been observed on a single vehicle. The vast majority of ATM number plates do not come with borders, but there are exceptions and Condors have been observed with a non-standard design which features a white border around the edge of the number plate.

Interestingly, ATM MT Lines appear to take a liberal approach to housekeeping: We have observed Malaysian military vehicles with hand-painted number plates, though such instances are rare.

Two of a kind: Note the different font types found on the Condor armoured personnel carrier (left) and AV8 Gempita armoured fighting vehicle. Malaysian Army vehicles have been seen with different fonts on the same vehicle. An example being the PT-91M Pendekar main battle tank, ZC 415, which exhibits a number plate on the front and a stick-on marking on its rear in distinct fonts.





Non-standard: Here are examples of non-standard ATM number plates. The Ferret scout car (above), ZD1-2447, follows an unusual naming convention as the letters in the prefix usually stand alone and are not alpha-numeric. Another non-standard marking is the hand-painted number plate for ZC 2008, a Handalan truck.

Malaysian Army insignia and tactical signs
Apart from looking at the Z-series number plates to find out which ATM branch the vehicle comes from, the insignia and unit markings are another aid to the vehicle ownership.

ATM vehicles typically carry two markings on their front. The marking on the left of the vehicle is for the parent unit, while the marking on the right-hand side is for the tactical sign of the subordinate formation/unit. Markings on the doors of the vehicles may carry the unit insignia, which complements the tactical sign on the vehicle.

The images below will help you identify Malaysian Army vehicles that you might see on the road. At the top of the table of precedence/protocol is the ATM insignia, followed by the Tentera Darat insignia.
The markings below denote the 12 brigeds (brigades) in the Malaysian Army.




The formation sign for the senior unit is found on the left hand side of the vehicle front, and the tactical sign (red and yellow denoting Kor Armor Diraja). Overlaid with the number 2, this tells us the Condor serves 2 KAD under 3 Divisyen. The white border on the number plate is not commonly seen on Malaysian military vehicles. Note that on the Condor below, the tactical marking is found on the side of the vehicle rear, with the unit insignia (green square) on the door of the vehicle.
Photo credit: Berita Tentera Darat

This rear view of a Handalan truck shows the placement of the insignia and tactical sign, which denotes the 7 Transport Company (the number 7 on the yellow/blue tactical sign for Kor Perkhidmatan Diraja or Royal Service Corps) and the 7 Briged's black scorpion insignia.

Political appointees to Malaysia's defence ministry are given the honour of carrying their title above their civilian number plate. This example shows the vehicle for a deputy minister of KEMENTAH. Bodyguard vehicles that accompany key appointment holders carry civilian license plates, but for opsec reasons, we will not discuss these numbers.

Trailers carry the prefix T/Z, followed by the numerals.

While such colourful markings are displayed during parades or static displays, some assets appear to shy away for overt announcements of their identity and have been seen with markings covered up. Black plastic which is cut from trash bags or black tape is commonly used as a temporary measure to hide the insignia and tactical markings of ATM vehicles that would rather remain anonymous.

Blacked out: There are instances when units would rather move about anonymously. The ambulance above has its unit insignia and tactical sign blanked off. It is believed to belong to the 3 Medical Battalion under 3 Divisyen. Another way of covering the markings is to use mud (below), though this is a temporary measure that would wash of during a river crossing or after the next rain shower.

You may also like:
Guide to Singapore Armed Forces MID number plates. Click here
Guide to Malaysian Army Formation patches. Click here