Friday, April 10, 2020

Circuit breaker Day 4 pix: Singapore Army M-113 Ultra with special urban ops cupola

"Fitted for but not with" is a description applicable to many Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) war machines.

This M-113A2 Ultra is fitted with something seldom seen. The armoured personnel carrier has additional armour protection for its CIS 40/50 cupola which mounts a CIS 40mm automatic grenade launcher and a CIS 50 12.7mm heavy machine gun. I saw an Ultra in this configuration only once. This was back in July 2006 when the Singapore Army showcased its urban warfare capabilities to the media at Exercise Urban Dominance. They told the media that if the need arose, M-113 Ultras could be retrofitted quickly with such armour kits.

The add-on armour is made up of armoured glass panels that encircle the cupola. A small gunshield, much smaller than the Vietnam-era Armoured Cavalry Assault Vehicle gunshield kit, improves frontal protection. The cupola is no longer exposed to sun and sky as an armour plate provides top protection.

The armour kit protects the gunner, who was previously exposed from shoulder-level up, from small arms fire and shell fragments. Armoured glass enhances situational awareness in closed terrain during military ops in urban terrain.

The experiment was a precusor to SAF "closed hatch" CONOPS, as demonstrated by the new Hunter AFVs.

Here's what an Ultra 40/50 cupola looks like without the add-on armour kit.

P.S. No Navy pictures? Yes, have. Just hang on a bit please. :-)

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Circuit breaker Day 3 pix: Republic of Singapore Air Force RSAF Super Skyhawks in Cazaux

A sight never to be seen again: Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) TA-4SU Super Skyhawks and A-4SU Super Skyhawks in Cazaux, France, where they served 150 Squadron as Advanced Jet Trainers.

The RSAF shipped 18 Skyhawks to France in 1998 by sea with 10 twin-seat variants outnumbering the single-seat A-4s. Fun fact: 150 Squadron continued to fly its Super Skyhawks years after RSAF Skyhawks made their "last flight" in Singapore on 31 March 2005.

I visited Cazaux years ago when Skyhawks were still active to see the AJTs in action. RSAF 150 SQN now flies the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Advanced Jet Trainer which was inaugurated by Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen in September 2014. In July 2018, the RSAF and the French Air Force marked the 20th anniversary of 150 Squadron at Cazaux Air Base.

Cazaux detachment: We have not forgotten you in this COVID-19 pandemic. That I can assure you. Am glad the MRTTs are back in SG and that SQ has a sizeable number of A380s and 777s on hot standby.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Circuit breaker Day 2 pix: Singapore Army Armour Formation AMX-13 SM1 Tank Crew

Social distancing? What's that?

One of the last batches of Singapore Army AMX-13 SM1 trainees gather in front of their French-built light tanks at Sungei Gedong Camp in early November 2006. This was the day then Minister for Defence, Teo Chee Hean, announced that the army had purchased Leopard 2A4 main battle tanks. The German-made Leopards were acquired second-hand from the Bundeswehr (German armed forces).

At the time, the APFSDS-T round (Project Spider) was still classified. I was allowed to write about it 10 years later (!) for one of the books that marked the 50th anniversary of Singapore's Defence Technology Community. I wrote two chapters (development of armoured fighting vehicles and development of small arms) for the book on Land Systems.

The young SM1 tank crews, then serving their full-time National Service, would have completed their NS obligations by now. I wonder what they're up to now.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Republic of Singapore Air Force RSAF Hawker Hunters

Special Hunter: This Hawker Hunter was one of the specially modified birds flown by the Republic of Singapore Air Force 141 Squadron. Note the blanked off 30mm Aden gun ports and the unusual attachment protruding from the gun bay. The attachment is believed to be a recce sensor. This RSAF Hunter also has what appears to be a ventral chaff/flare pack just before the air brake.

From now till the end of Singapore's "circuit breaker" interlude (7 April to 4 May 2020) that attempts to break local transmission of the COVID-19 virus, Senang Diri will post a selection of pictures from our collection. Hope the pictures will help you fight boredom.

We start off with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Hawker Hunter as Singapore marks Fighter 50 this year - 50 years of fighter aircraft operations (1970-2020).

Take care. Stay strong. Stay at home.

Hunters roll past the crowd line at Paya Lebar Air Base in the early 1980s during an RSAF Open House. This was the first time I photographed the Hunter. The camera was a simple Yashica point-and-shoot autofocus film camera.

The Hunters carried the heaviest gun armament among all the RSAF fighters, with four 30mm cannon. In the 1970s and 80s, the RSAF Hunter force represented a formidable ground attack strike force, backed by A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bombers and F-5 Tigers IIs providing top cover. The Rolls-Royce Avon engine that powered the Hunter emitted a rather distinctive howling sound, especially when the fighter dashed past at high speed and at low level. If you've heard it before you're unlikely to forget it. Aviation enthusiasts call it the "Blue Note".

Monday, April 6, 2020

Foreign workers should not be weak link in Singapore's efforts to fight COVID-19

Hearts and minds: More than 10 years ago, Resorts World Sentosa and dormitory operator, 5 Star Dormitory Management, worked in concert to maintain workforce health at the little-known dormitory on Pulau Brani. Every foreign national who stayed at the quarters had his country's flag display (see below for the reasons). I had also suggested that we printed pictures of the integrated resort for workers so they could show their families what they were building. The posters were very well-received.  

Foreign worker dormitories must not be the weak link in the chain as Singapore fights the coronavirus pandemic.

With 20,000 foreign workers now quarantined at two dormitories, it should be clear that a COVID-19 outbreak that gets out of hand in these quarters will have serious consequences. Singapore's healthcare system will need to ramp up quickly to accommodate and treat these patients if many workers fall seriously ill. Law and order situations may flare too, if remaining residents beset by fear and anxiety want to leave the premises without permission.

Singapore's whole of government approach must cascade its messages to our foreign worker communities quickly and effectively. This is harder said than done. Foreign worker communities present disparate challenges, chief amongst which are the different languages, attention span and levels of literacy within these communities.

More than 10 years ago, my employer assigned me the task of managing foreign worker issues. I partnered a team of former Singapore Police Force officers led by Mr Oh Kar Chye (who once headed the SPF Security Command) to roll-out our hearts and minds plan. To be frank, the foreign worker dormitory built on Pulau Brani was terra incognita for the former cops and myself (a former journalist) but we managed as best we could.

Our brief was simple: Keep the workers happy and healthy so that the tight construction timelines for the massive Resorts World Sentosa integrated resort worksite would not be compromised by health issues, dormitory squabbles or work-to-rule situations (i.e. strikes).

We sought to build up emotional capital with the workers by demonstrating that they were an integral part of the IR project. They were not cogs in the wheel but were human beings from many nations - places like Bangladesh, China, India, Malaysia, Myanmar and several more - who came to Singapore to make a living.

We worked with the dormitory operator, 5 Star Dormitory Management, to chart out a calendar of events where we could mark special occasions (eg Singapore's National Day), country-specific dates or festivals that were meaningful to the workers.

Suggestion boxes and helplines were placed prominently at the dormitory entrance, complemented by our weekly walkabouts to gather feedback. This gave workers and 5 Star the chance to defuse any simmering issues before they exploded.

Believe me, the foreign workers were a creative lot. A samsu distillery that used glass bottles, plastic buckets and tubes was discovered and dismantled. There was at least one cigarette smuggling ring that was busted. There was the occasional fight between various nationalities and theft in dwelling.

But by and large, workforce health was vibrant. From what the foreign workers told us, they felt the care and concern from 5 Star and the client (RWS) was genuine. It indeed was, and those of us assigned this task did our best to make the workers feel at home.

Building goodwill: Am pleased to report that my suggestion for printing posters of the RWS integrated resort for foreign workers proved a hit with the dormitory residents. Workers took pictures and asked for additional posters as souvenirs. Many workers told us they were proud to show their family members they were working on a prestigious project to build the integrated resort.

Among my suggestions accepted by the work group was the hanging of flags (see above) representing every nationality housed on Pulau Brani. No matter how small the national contingent, every foreigner housed at the dorm saw their national flag at the entrance. It was aesthetically pleasing but there was a deeper reason behind the addition of national flags. Now that many years have passed and RWS has been built successfully, I can perhaps share the rationale for doing so. I reasoned if a riot broke out in the dormitory, disgruntled workers were less likely to burn down dormitory infrastructure when their own national flag hung (out of easy reach) in the facility itself. And so, the suggestion was implemented, the flags went up as required and were quite well received by residents.  :-)

Loud and clear: Here's something we couldn't show back then. It's a long-range acoustic device. It was part of standby drawer plans sketched out by a group of former police officers and I for handling disruptive situations. Thankfully, the situation in the Pulau Brani dormitory was harmonious. Never had to trigger the standby plans. 

The RWS CSR team worked hard to keep the workers well fed. Buffet lines were set up on special occasions, like National Day and religious festivals, with special meals for the dormitory residents. It was a treat they all enjoyed - free and sumptious meals served by the dormitory operator or RWS staff who volunteered for the occasions. Bangladeshi and Indians enjoyed the special meals during Chinese New Year, and likewise the substantial PRC community liked the treats during festivals celebrated by their fellow workers.

During one Chinese New Year shutdown, we brought all the workers for an outing at the Singapore Zoo in batches. The reasoning was that an idle mind is the devil's workshop and so we sought to keep them occupied with the excursion. An early suggestion was to bring them to Sentosa to spend a day at the beach. But bearing in mind many couldn't swim, that idea was discarded for safety issues.

Having messages displayed in Singapore's four official languages was irrelevant at the Brani Dormitory. We learned that we had to display important messages on fire safety and personal hygiene using simple infographics or had them translated into other languages that the workers understood.

The social capital was built up steadily and the RWS work site did not suffer any stoppages due to workers downing tools or health matters. The closest call we had was when shuttle buses bringing the workers from the worksite to the dormitory were late for some reason. Voices were raised and the situation quickly dissolved into an angry shouting match between a bus attendant whom the workers said was rude and the tired workers. SOC was activated. From what I recall, the SOC troop drove along the causeway into Sentosa, made a loop and drove back to the mainland in full view of the workers. The message was loud and clear. Not a single SOC trooper had to disembark from the Ang Chias and the workers reformed the queue to wait for the resumptionn of the shuttle buses.[The bus attendant was counselled and we never had a repeat of that incident.]

Thankfully we never had a pandemic on the scale of COVID-19. Having been through SARS, the former SPF officers and I both resolved to keep the Brani quarters a liveable and pleasant place to stay.

To dormitory operators and officials tasked with the quarantine of those 20,000 workers, take care of them well with proper allocation of space. Maintain onsite infrastructure like toilets and shower areas properly. Get ground feedback to prevent issues from festering unnoticed. Go the extra mile to make the place liveable.

I wish the dormitory operators fighting the COVID-19 situation all the very best. Remember to raise and sustain emotional goodwill as much as possible. Your sincerity will not go unrecognised and they will repay your goodwill.


(Above) Text used by RWS in 2009/2010 for a printed collateral to thank its construction workers.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue: Asia Security Summit will not convene in 2020

The 2020 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) would be untenable as no one can say how long countries will close their borders in response to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation. Even if delegates can get to Singapore when airline flights have dried up - some military delegations have flown to Singapore using their own aircraft in the past - defence ministers and armed forces chiefs are likely to be heavily engaged in their home nation's efforts to fight the virus. Defence chiefs many not be able to spare a weekend in Singapore, bearing in mind the travel time and the expected quarantine period upon returning home. 

One should also remember that the defence relations aspect of SLD would be jeopardised during this period of social distancing. Event highlights such as the lunch for defence ministers traditionally hosted by Singapore, numerous courtesy calls between ministers and armed forces chiefs, and the close mingling between delegates cannot take place as before. As the absence of such activities would dilute the value of the security talks, it is understandable and prudent for the event to be postponed. 

The Home Team and SAF deploy a lot of manpower and assets to protect the event round the clock. Postponing the event would allow the Home Team and SAF to give their fullest attention and support to Singapore's pandemic response efforts.

Tensions in hotspots like the South China Sea, sea piracy and the threat of terrorism have not gone away even as COVID-19 ravages countries worldwide. 

As governments worldwide focus their attention on the pandemic, it is essential that defence diplomacy engagements continue to allow differing points of view to be aired. It is important for Track Two efforts such as the SLD to stay active, perhaps by video conference or online workshops on topical security issues, to keep potential flashpoints in check.

You may also like:
19th Shangri-La Dialogue,  scheduled for June, called off due to coronavirus outbreak, Straits Times, 28 March 2020. Click here

Thursday, March 19, 2020

COVID-19 situation: Please share with Singapore students in the United Kingdom

Please share if you have any fellow Singaporeans (citizens and Permanent Residents only) students in UK looking to return home:

Dear Singsoc leaders,

We understand that many Singaporean students are trying to secure flights back to Singapore. We have struck an exclusive ticket arrangement with Singapore Airlines for you to travel back to Singapore from 19-31 March 2020, subject to availability. We are offering this facilitation to students first as the rest of the Singaporean community based here are more rooted and have other support.

Singaporean students (citizens and PRs) may register your interest at and refer to the detailed instructions within. Singapore Airlines will get in touch directly with you. Singapore Airlines will do all possible to contact you at least 24 hours before your allocated flight, and will reach out with more lead time wherever possible. Once ticketed, Singapore Airlines reserves the right to rebook your travel on an alternative flight due to operational contingencies. This special arrangement with Singapore Airlines is exclusively for Singapore citizens and PRs. Entries/expressions of interest by non-Singaporeans will be treated as void.

Your safety is of utmost importance and rest assured that the Singapore High Commission in London is looking into getting additional flights if there is high unmet demand, including for further arrangements in April.

Singapore Airlines has advised that if students wish to return urgently, they may proceed to Heathrow Airport T2 to standby for a flight on the day itself. However, Singapore Airlines cannot guarantee that they will be accepted but there is a chance that Singapore Airlines will have some seats available. In such a scenario, you should preferably not have already put in a request through this system as we would like to avoid duplication and clogging up the system. We seek your understanding and cooperation to ensure the smooth operation of this system we have put in place, which we would fine-tune as necessary.

Please stay in close touch with us, monitor your health, and continue to stay united as one Singapore community! #SGUnited


Advisory for Singaporean Students Studying Overseas Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore 17 March 2020

I know a number of Singaporean students overseas visit this blog. Please read and heed the advisory below as commercial airlines are cutting capacity by the day. Transport services that bring you to airports with international connections may also be cut back, unreliable or unavailable during this period.

Singapore has the capability and capacity to stage mercy flights. But such flights may be denied if overseas airports are closed for reasons beyond our control.

Decide and act fast.

Stay safe. Good luck.


Advisory for Singaporean Students Studying Overseas
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore
17 March 2020

1 Given the evolving COVID-19 situation and rapid increase of COVID-19 cases around the globe, we encourage Singaporean students studying overseas to consider returning home soon. Institutes of Higher Learning in Singapore have begun recalling their students currently on overseas internship or exchange.

2 Many countries are imposing travel restrictions or closing their borders, transport operators and airlines are cutting services, and many services and facilities, including educational institutions, have also been closed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

3 The Government will liaise with airlines to facilitate flights to key cities when necessary during this period, to cater to demand for return flights to Singapore.

4 In the meantime, to all overseas Singaporean students yet to return home, please observe the following:
Take all necessary precautions, observe good personal hygiene, monitor local developments, and heed the advice of local authorities.

eRegister with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) at at the earliest opportunity to enable MFA to contact you should the need arise. Students should also check the Ministry of Health (MOH) website ( and MFA website for the latest measures implemented by Singapore.

Ensure that you will have continued access to medical facilities near you, and that you have appropriate health insurance coverage.

Be prepared that these medical facilities may become overwhelmed, and may not be able to provide the same level of care and support as in Singapore.

Be prepared to source for alternative accommodation in the event of hostel closures.

Factor in the risks of severe disruption to travel routes and further travel advisories / restrictions at short notice, which may affect your travel plans to return home.

Discuss with your educational institution on arrangements for you to continue your learning in Singapore.

5 Should you require any assistance while overseas, please contact your educational institutions, student associations, the nearest Singapore Overseas Mission or the Singapore Global Network ( for guidance. The Ministry of Education may also be contacted at

6 In the event that you require consular assistance, please contact the nearest Singapore Overseas Mission ( or call the MFA Duty Office at +65 6379 8800 / +65 6379 8855.

Ministry of Education
Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Monday, March 16, 2020

Will Singapore-Malaysia land and sea crossings face tighter border controls if COVID-19 cases in Malaysia shoot up?

The two crossings across the Strait of Johor that link Singapore and Malaysia are among the world's busiest border crossings.

The sheer volume of people, vehicles and commerce that use the Johor-Singapore Causeway (>250,000 people daily) and the Malaysia-Singapore Second Link (>110,000 people daily) make closing these crossings a daunting prospect.

But don't be surprised if Singapore strengthens border controls at its land links in response to the sheer number of COVID-19 cases in Malaysia to align the Federation with the rest of ASEAN.

On Sunday, it was announced that Singaporeans and Malaysians using the land and (very limited) sea crossings between Singapore and Malaysia from 23:59H today (16 Mar 2020) would be exempted from the 14-day Stay-Home Notices (SHN) that are applicable to all visitor arrivals who have been to ASEAN countries in the last 14 days prior to coming to Singapore, as well as visitors with a travel history to Mainland China (excluding Hubei), France, Germany, Iran, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland or the United Kingdom in the last 14 days.

"We do have to put in place some special considerations for Malaysia because of the close proximity and the high interdependency between our two countries. So for now, the arrangements which I've just described will not apply to our sea and land crossings with Malaysia," said Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong.

"We do need precautions to be taken at these checkpoints but it is going to be more complex given the high volume of people moving in and out of these checkpoints. On our land crossing alone, 300,000 people move across the checkpoints every day. So it is more complex. We want precautions to be taken there, so separate arrangements are being worked out through the bilateral joint working group we have with Malaysia. They are already in discussion and will work through separate measures."

If COVID-19 cases in Peninsular Malaysia shoot up, it is possible that we could see more stringent entry requirements such as the SHN restrictions applied to all visitor arrivals coming via the Causeway and Second Link. The mechanics of any moves to curb travel across the land links, and the duration of such steps to tighten land border controls, will be interesting to watch as it had never been attempted in recent memory.

It might be prudent for Singaporean companies and multinationals that rely on Malaysians who come to Singapore via the land links to prepare for that eventuality if they want to continue using the services of their Johor-based staff. For instance, such companies may need to help staff living in Johor with temporary accommodation in Singapore to save them the daily commute.

Alternatively, these companies should be prepared to replace Malaysian staff from Johor with Singaporean workers in the interim to avoid labour disruptions that the SHN will inevitably bring on company operations.

In addition, it may also be necessary and sensible to stockpile supplies and components sent on a just-in-time basis from across the Causeway as we are clearly living under extraordinary circumstances with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prepare a Plan B. That day may come.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Help Singapore Armed Forces SAF overseas training detachments gear up to fight COVID-19

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has a global footprint thanks to friends and partners who have helped Singapore's military raise and sustain overseas training detachments. One phrase that aptly describes the SAF's training tempo is that training takes place around the world and round the clock.

With COVID-19 declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation yesterday, the SAF will have to deal with challenges around the world and round the clock as training detachments in countries from Australia, France, the United States and several more places gear up to face this global health crisis.

The issue is relevant and urgent. Yesterday, Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) reported that four Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) regular servicemen who tested positive for the coronavirus after returning from France have been hospitalised, while another two were placed on home quarantine as they were close contacts. The six RSAF personnel were on the same official overseas duty trip from Feb 15 to March 7.

The MINDEF statement added: "The SAF had already reduced its overseas training deployments and exercises in view of the COVID-19 outbreak, and will continue to adjust such activities where necessary depending on the conditions within the host country. All SAF personnel, both locally and abroad, have been instructed to take precautionary measures which include social distancing to mitigate the risk of infection."

From what we've seen in the media, there is a clear asymmetry in the readiness and success of countries worldwide when it comes to dealing with COVID-19. Especially for larger countries, healthcare coverage can be patchy - excellent in big cities with the scope and scale of medical capabilities trickling downhill as one moves into the hinterland.

This hinterland, far from populated areas, is where many of our SAF detachments reside. We need to embrace SAF overseas training detachments and their supporting communities as wider stakeholders, as Singapore hunkers down for a protracted struggle with this new virus.

There are hundreds of SAF personnel and their families now overseas. Mind you, military service is NOT the kind of job that offers a work from home option. Our men and women in uniform overseas who concurrently juggle their SAF duties with their role as head of household do not have the time to prepare their homes against the pandemic. The Singapore homefront must therefore lend a hand and be prepared to do so quickly:

Surgical masks: Open the national stockpile to SAF overseas detachments. You've read about panic buying in large cities from Australia to the US? Imagine the situation in small mom-and-pop convenience stores in outlying areas like Cazaux in France or the outskirts of Mountain Home in Idaho where bigger stores may be many miles away. The isolation of military air bases and camps is now their source of vulnerability as such places are at the fringe of their local supply chains. Even the US Navy facility in Yokosuka, Japan, has reported a run on essential items. In short, airfreight masks and in large quantities and have them delivered to SAF detachments overseas.

SAF personnel who fly the flag overseas have always embraced their counterparts in the same base as their wider family. We need to sustain that goodwill. We have done so in the past with socio-civic projects and need to consider doing so now. This means that mask manifest will have to be a little longer to cover not just the headcount for SAF regulars, NSFs and their dependents but also some of their base counterparts. We cannot save the whole of Bordeaux, Queensland or Western Austalia, but should consider a goodwill quantity for units in the same base that fly and work alongside the SAF in foreign countries.

Information: You may have heard how Singapore has been praised for its handling of COVID-19. Sooner or later, it will become a talking point overseas. Now we don't expect SAF personnel, especially non doctors, to give chapter and verse on Singapore's virus containment/mitigation measures. And our chaps must also know when and how to disengage. One useful way is to point to a fact sheet that summarises what's been done in simple Q&A and infographics (or even a short video clip). This can be fact checked for accuracy, made as a PDF and sent to every corner of the globe which has an SAF presence to keep everybody up to date.

Specialised support: Singapore may be able to keep the pandemic in check on home ground. Things may be swell in Paris or Washington D.C. But does anyone know how the medical infrastructure in outlying foreign regions will cope? In a worst-case scenario where a community with a sizeable number of Singaporean families is affected, we need to think about how Singapore can lend a hand to the host nation at a time when that particular outlying area may not be top priority for foreign crisis planners.

Keep such places on the radar even as Singapore's whole of government approach focuses its firepower on the home front. Their well-being is very important too.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

The secret to best-selling military fiction: Author Larry Bond talks about writing and research

I'm a great believer in thorough research for several reasons, but one non-obvious reason is that it's easier to write about what's real than make it up. - Larry Bond, author.

Those of you who love military fiction would probably have heard of American writers like Tom Clancy and Larry Bond.

Larry launched his writing career in the mid-1980s when he co-wrote the war story, Red Storm Rising, with Tom. The book was an instant hit. Red Storm Rising tells the story of a fictional conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, describing how war might unfold with contemporary weapons then fielded by NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The book also described speculative platforms like stealth fighters. The bestseller has been used as a text at the United States Naval War College and similar institutions. 

We are honoured and humbled to have had the opportunity to learn about writing from Larry (seen above in 2018). Here are excerpts from Senang Diri's Q&A with Larry Bond.

1. How long did it take you and Tom Clancy to plan and write Red Storm Rising, counting from the day the idea
 was first raised till the book was published?
LLB: We weren't keeping exact track, but I would say about 1.5 years.

2. In the pre-internet era, what were three challenges when researching military themes?
LLB: Information had to come from commercially published sources or personal contact. Often the kind of information Tom wanted wasn't about the technical characteristics, but the subjective experiences of service members. We made field trips to Aberdeen Proving Grounds, the Norfolk/ Virginia beach area to interview operators and get hands-on experience.

I can't list "three challenges." Our goals were:
  1. To depict the operation of military equipment and service members in a plausible, easily understood narrative.
  2. To craft an exciting story with a military theme.
The tanks, fighters, and other gear in Red Storm and all the other military thrillers serve the same purpose as horses in a western or swords in a samurai story. They are tools that the heroes need to do their job. They can be unusual or flashy, but should never become the center of attention. The story is about the characters, not the equipment.

3. What impact has the internet had on the speed with which you can uncover information for your writing?
LLB: I have yet to find a single app that lets me type faster, but there are several tools that I would miss if the internet disappeared.
  1. One of the ones I use most is the ability to check the spelling of foreign names or words. Before I had to use the dictionary or an atlas, with much page turning. This allows me to get back on task quickly.
  2. Another is Google Earth and Google Maps, which lets me easily place the action in real-world locations. I can either find a location suitable for the action, or shape the action based on the actual terrain, which makes the writing almost an interactive experience.
  3. The ready availability of photos and diagrams, and better yet, videos. It's great to call up a YouTube video of a tank firing or a missile launch and keep that in mind while I describe it.
4. How has the US DOD responded to the plots and concept of operations for various weapons described in your books? Was there ever a concern you had described events or battle scenarios too close to reality?
LLB: None in my recollection. I have asked questions during visits and interviews that were not answered, based on classification, but nobody's ever raised a fuss. Once service members see that you're trying to get the story straight, they'll work with you to help build the story. And the best stuff isn't classified. 
When I visited a fighter squadron while researching Red Phoenix, they helped me figure out which widget on an F-16 could get shot up so that our hero could fly for a little while, but not make it all the way back to base (engine oil pump). They also shared personal experiences of ejecting from an F-16, which was amazingly useful, and little bits of fighter culture that I'd never find out on my own.
While the internet helps a lot, it can only answer questions you ask. It can't tell you what you didn't know you needed to know.

5. How do you balance writing a credible story with the need to preserve opsec? Does self-censorship even arise when you are writing?
LLB: Security never's been an issue. I've had security clearances, and there are two broad categories of classified information: Technical specifications, and operational plans. The technical stuff is so far down in the weeds that it would bore a reader, and isn't necessary to tell the story. The operational plans - what they actually plan to do - don't matter, because I've got my own plot, and by the way, I know what battles will be won or lost by each side before I start typing. The good guys cannot get their act together before the end of act two.

6. How would you respond to people who suspect that classified information was used for your books, which is why they sound so authentic?
LLB: That they don't understand a) How much information is available in the public arena, and b) that you don't need that kind of information to tell a good story. 
After Hunt For Red October was published, and people I worked with found out that I knew Tom, asked me to confirm that he was with the DIA or ONI or some other alphabet agency. Tom had never been in the military and had never had a security clearance. If you read HFRO carefully, looking for "sensitive details," there aren't any.
And here's a writer's trick. If you're missing a piece of information, write around it.

7. Do you work out your plots in advance before beginning each novel?
LLB: Absolutely. Not only because I want to avoid writing myself in a corner, but because the story usually has many events happening around the world, and the sequence is important. It makes starting a new chapter easier if I know in general what's supposed to happen.

8. Do your characters ever take on a life of their own and influence the direction of your stories?
LLB: Yes. That's one of the fun parts. Obviously characters start out with certain roles, but as I write, and I have them react to each situation, sometimes the most honest reaction is not what I envisioned. It can result in a minor character take on a larger role, such as the Russian grandmother in Cold Choices, but it can also mean a minor character ends up disappearing when I discover that they can't advance the plot.

9. Do you write specifically for your readers or do you write the sort of novel you would like to read?
LLB: Both. If I can't stand my own stuff, I'd be a pretty poor writer. I try to write so that if someone in the military service reads it, they don't cringe, and hopefully enjoy it. And if it works for someone who's "in the business," then I know that the civilian reader is getting an authentic story.

10. Would you describe where you write? With portable digital devices, can you write on the go or is there a favourite desk/room where inspiration flows?
LLB: My office is a second-floor bedroom, making for a wonderfully short commute. I do believe in the "cabin in the woods" meme. If I'm writing away from the house and its distractions, even just sitting in an airline seat, my output increases. But I don't have a "special spot" - or maybe that's what my office is.

11. Do you have a word count per day or do you let the story develop naturally during each writing session? Is there a fixed time of day/night when you write best?
LLB: I start in the morning and write until I'm done. Starting in the afternoon doesn't work for me. I know other writers are much more productive. Unless I'm late, I'll aim for 1,000 words a day. I've peaked at about 2,500, but I think all three Muses were backing me up that day.

12. What's next, writing-wise?
LLB: I've got a lot of projects underway, but most of them have to do with our publishing company, the Admiralty Trilogy Group. Chris Carlson, who I've written the last six books with, and I have ideas for more more stories, but being a publisher takes up a lot of our time.

You may also like:
For the patient reader, military secrets are self-revealing. Click here

Friday, February 28, 2020

For the Patient Reader, Military Secrets Are Self-Revealing

Tom Clancy (1947 - 2013)

Connecting the dots is a game you may have played as a kid.

For the late American author, Tom Clancy, connecting the dots meant fusing openly available information to form a big picture. He used this technique frequently when researching the capabilities of a weapon platform or system, or how it might be used in battle.

Tom spoke about his modus operadi in a 1987 New York Times interview: "Using unclassified information, he said, it is sometimes possible to infer secrets about the 'operational capabilities' of certain weapon systems such as the Stealth bomber. He calls this process 'connecting the dots' because it links bits of information to form a big picture."

Thanks to his patience and eye for detail, Tom set the benchmark for military fiction. His first book, Hunt for Red October, which was published in 1984, stunned naval officers for its realism. He also wrote bestsellers such as Red Storm Rising, Patriot Games, as well as Clear and Present Danger. He died in 2013 at the age of 66.

Tom's research was so thorough that John F. Lehman Jr., who was then Secretary of the Navy, joked in 1985 that the author would be in trouble in he was in the US Navy. Mr Lehman told the NYT that he recalled telling Tom in a good natured way: ''If you were a naval officer, I would have you court-martialed because of all the classified information in your book.''

Up to that time, Mr. Lehman said, ''operational procedures of antisubmarine warfare had been classified.'' But, he added, Mr. Clancy had simply ''pieced it all together by voraciously reading the open literature for 15 years, things like the Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute.''

Today, the internet gives patient readers a wealth of information to data mine. The NYT story below is worth reading as it prompts information managers to think about how Tom Clancy might ferret out information in this day and age.

TOM CLANCY'S BOOKS PUT BITS AND PIECES TOGETHER; For the Patient Reader, Military Secrets Are Self-Revealing
By Robert Pear
New York Times 30 August 1987

FROM the wealth of authentic detail in his best-selling novels about superpower brinkmanship, many people assume that Tom Clancy must have served in the armed forces.

In fact, he has no military experience. But he has been reading naval history since the fifth grade, he is fascinated with technology and he reads many specialized journals and reference books intended for engineers and military officers. And the way he has brought it all together in print is an illustration of the kind of synthesis, using only unclassified materials, that Government officials are increasingly concerned about.

Mr. Clancy, who minutely described sophisticated weaponry in such books as ''The Hunt for Red October'' and ''Red Storm Rising,'' said that no one in the Government had given him ''classified information of any kind.'' But he recalled that when he had lunch at the White House in 1985, John F. Lehman Jr., who was then Secretary of the Navy, asked him who had ''cleared'' the information in his first book, ''Red October,'' about the hunt for a defecting Soviet submarine.

Mr. Lehman, in an interview last week, recalled telling Mr. Clancy in a good-natured way: ''If you were a naval officer, I would have you court-martialed because of all the classified information in your book.'' Up to that time, Mr. Lehman said, ''operational procedures of antisubmarine warfare had been classified.'' But, he added, Mr. Clancy had simply ''pieced it all together by voraciously reading the open literature for 15 years, things like the Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute.''

In the course of research for his books, Mr. Clancy also spent a week at sea on a Navy frigate, went aboard several submarines, interviewed intelligence officers, studied a $10 war game and talked to a Soviet defector.

In an interview from his Maryland home, he acknowledged that there may be some validity to the Reagan Administration's concern. Using unclassified information, he said, it is sometimes possible to infer secrets about the ''operational capabilities'' of certain weapon systems such as the Stealth bomber. He calls this process ''connecting the dots'' because it links bits of information to form a big picture.

Nevertheless, it is, he said, unwise for the Government to try to restrict access to unclassified information in the public domain. ''One of the reasons we are so successful is that we have a free society with open access to information,'' he said. ''If you change that, if you try to close off the channels of information, we'll end up just like the Russians, and their society does not work. The best way to turn America into another Russia is to emulate their methods of handling information.''

Besides, he said, ''the principle of deterrence depends on having the other guy know something about what we do. If everything we do is secret, they won't know enough to be afraid of us. Secrecy is a tool for national security, but like any tool it must be used intelligently.''

Mr. Lehman agreed that ''there should never be any kind of Government restraint on unclassified literature.'' He said that Mr. Clancy's accurate portrayal of undersea warfare had helped people understand the damage done by the Walker family spy ring, which sold Navy secrets to the Soviet Union, and by the Toshiba Corporation subsidiary that sold sensitive technology to the Russians, enabling them to make quieter submarines.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Singapore's ST Engineering unveils new Counter Unmanned Aerial System weapon system

Take note of this new remote-controlled weapon system as you may well see it at an air base near you. It's a new Counter Unmanned Aerial System (C-UAS) designed and made in Singapore by Singapore Technologies Engineering.

The C-UAS, which has yet to be named, was shown for the first time at this month's Singapore Airshow 2020. It was developed as an in-house project to provide law enforcement agencies and armed forces units with the capability to detect and engage drones out to 1,400m away. Starting from a clean sheet, the design team took about six months to develop a working prototype.

Hard and soft kill options are available using ST Engg's family of 40mm grenades packed with explosives or a new programmable round with a streamer payload (see below) respectively. The latter deploys a web of streamers that are designed to entangle the rotors of drones, thus bringing down the device. The streamers are said to be effective out to a radius of 5m.

Target acquisition and tracking is aided by an unknown radar sensor (above) that was absent during the airshow's media day. The planar radar antenna, which was fitted to the U-CAS RCWS during the trade and public days of the show, tracks aerial targets and calculates the required lead angle for the gunner to aim off. It is said to increase accuracy substantially compared to non radar-guided engagements as gunners tend to have difficulty with depth perception when aiming solely using the optical ball camera.

High and low velocity C-UAS rounds have time fuzes preset electronically to detonate the 40mm projectiles close to the target. For maximum effectiveness, the U-CAS gunner would usually fire a pattern of three to four time-fuzed 40mm grenades with the help of the radar to enmesh the drone within several simultaneously exploding clouds of streamers.The programming kit also works  with hard kill 40mm grenades.

The sharp end of the U-CAS comprises HE or HEDP grenades fired from a pair of six-shot Multiple Grenade Launcher. During operations, the MGLs are stowed under steel covers that pivot forward to provide access for reloading or servicing the MGLs. Alternatively, 5.56mm Ultimax 100 LMGs or 7.62mm GPMGs can be fitted to the U-CAS weapon cradle. The effective range for high velocity 40mm grenades was quoted as 1,400m while low velocity grenades are effective out to 300m.

While the instinct for some (most?) of us is to kill any pesky drones that come our way, ST Engg's U-CAS team argues otherwise. There's merit in soft kill options such as streamers that allow you to recover the damaged drone for forensics. This will allow you to find out what the drone operator was looking at and also trace the identity of the perpetrator. The streamers also disable and force down a drone immediately, unlike some soft kill options using disruptive signals that may lead to the drone escaping home on its default setting when the control signal is lost.

The alternative when such civil considerations aren't needed is to simply blast the drone out of the sky. In such cases, ST Engg offers a selection of 40mm grenades with High Explosive, High Explosive Dual Purpose and grenades fused for the electronic Air Burst Munition System, all of which would easily shred unarmoured drones.

Drone killer: Singapore Technologies Engineering's U-CAS weapon station seen at the Singapore Airshow preview. Note that a strobe light has replaced the thermal camera in the first image above. Radar antenna has yet to be installed above the LRAD.

Friday, February 21, 2020

A fresh look at the Singapore Technologies Engineering BR18 5.56mm assault rifle

See no touch: Singapore Technology Engineering's BR18 5.56mm bullpup assault rifle displayed at the Singapore Airshow 2020. Note the health advisory, which is a result of heightened vigilance after the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus in the city-state. The BR18 traces its roots to the SAR-21 rifle (below). The SAR-21 MMS variant is shown here for comparison.

Singapore's BR18 (Bullpup Rifle 2018) 5.56mm rifle that was first shown at the Singapore Airshow 2018 did not spawn a "BR20" at last week's Singapore Airshow (SA 2020).

The Singapore Technologies Engineering BR18 that was displayed at SA 2020 was similar to the rifle we saw at the air show two years back. One very very minor difference was the lack of the name embossed onto the rifle butt, which was visible on the 2018 version. The rest of the furniture and firing mechanism was the same.

The BR18 is a development of the BMCR (Bullpup Multirole Combat Rifle), which was first seen at the 2014 edition of the Singapore Airshow along with the Singapore Technologies Kinetics (STK) CMCR (Conventional Multirole Combat Rifle). Click here for our 2014 blog post on these Singapore designed firearms. The BMCR was refined into the BR18, ditching the finger snapping cover plate at the butt which concealed the firing mechanism. The CMCR has since disappeared from view and development of this weapon is understood to have been suspended. 

We understand the BR18 has yet to find a launch customer. With foreign armies moving back to assault rifles of conventional layout, as seen in the popularity of the FN SCAR and the H&K 416 series, it remains to be seen how the Singapore Army's SAR-21 successor would evolve. Thus far, the SAR-21 5.56mm assault rifle appears firmly entrenched as the principal firearm for Singaporean soldiers, with variants such as the SAR-21 MMS (Modular Mounting System) augmenting units with the original SAR-21 variants.

And while the SAR-21 family expands, it's worth remembering that the M-16S1 continues to arm a number of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) units, particularly rear area units like those that guard air and naval bases.

One noteworthy development to the SAR-21 involved the modification of the rifle foregrip as a control console for a palm-sized micro Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). The modification is intended to allow infantry to launch and direct their own UAVs to scout round street corners or peek over the roof of nearby buildings or terrain features. Here's a video that shows how the foregrip is detached from the SAR-21 MMS.
I Can See Too: This is the micro UAV controlled using the detachable foregrip of the modified SAR-21 MMS.
The BR18 seen at SA 2020 compared to the BR18 first shown at SA 2018 (top). Broadly similar with the BR18 displayed in 2018 that was stamped with a name plate on the rifle butt.

You may also like:
1. A look at the Singapore Technologies Kinetics BR18 rifle (2018 blog post). Click here

2. Singapore's BMCR rifle - the world's shortest bullpup rifle (2014 blog post). Click here

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Three shocks in Singapore's COVID-19 fight

Singapore's ongoing fight against COVID-19 could face three stress points that you and I need to watch out for.

The first stress point will come about if and when SG Govt reports the first victim. During the SARS pandemic in 2003, there was a 24-day interval between reports of the first SARS case (1 Mar 2003) and the first SARS death (25 Mar 2003). Singapore reported its first Novel Coronavirus 2019-NCoV (now named COVID-19) case on 23 Jan 2020. While both viruses are different, any COVID-19 fatality that occurs before the 24-day window may lead people to infer (wrongly) that the new virus is more deadly.

Being transparent is important. When communicating complex medical matters, some of which involve patient confidentiality, public comms must be propagated clearly and simply to help people understand the issue. Thus far, Singapore has done well.

Remember too that SARS did not face the onslaught of social media that we see today. The NOKs and family of people being treated need to be shielded from media scrutiny. In their rush for a human interest story and while working under deadline pressure, journalists may inadvertently end up stressing out the NOKs as well as people in the community where the victim lived or worked.

The second shock will occur if COVID-19 proves harder to beat than originally thought. Thus far, the messaging in Singapore has built the impression that while the new virus is more contagious than SARS, it is less deadly. In layperson's understanding, getting it will be like getting hit by the flu bug. News that COVID-19 deaths in China have surpassed China's SARS death toll 17 years ago are unsettling because the grim tally contradicts the messaging that the new virus is "less harmful". If the quarantine period proves to be longer than the 14-day precautionary window, then the public needs to be assured that the various measures at limiting the spread of the virus in Singapore continue to be effective.

The third shock concerns the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition or DORSCON threshold, which many people in Singapore are watching closely. While it is unlikely to move from the current DORSCON Orange to Red (the highest level of alert), people should be told what are the likely triggers for condition Red. This will help the public better understand the data shared almost daily on the COVID-19 situation. People hear a mass of data every day. Thus far, the outlook has been lousy with the number of cases and people in ICU (eight as of 12 Feb 2020) going higher.

These aren't bland statistics. Behind each number are people who care about the patients. Their loved ones are probably wracked with worry as Singapore charts uncharted territory with this new virus.

Help people make sense of that mass of numbers. If people know how far from the Red threshold the (insert a number) COVID-19 cases discovered is, such awareness will help people build up a stronger sense of assurance as it takes away the needless uncertainly and gnawing anxiety from guessing how many more cases will push Singapore to declare DORSCON Red.

Even if the situation is dire and we're one case away from the trigger, it is better for people to know how that threshold was calculated. There's already a fair bit of freelance game theory out there with people guessing how many more cases will need to be announced before we tip into the red. If current projections show it is unlikely, then help people get a reality check while understanding the risk factors that we need to watch out for.

Once people understand DORSCON thresholds, then imagine the groundswell of positive energy that will emerge when Singapore turns the corner and case loads start to drop.

We all hope for the best. But we should all gird ourselves for the likelihood that things may get worse before they get better.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) optimises Independence-class Littoral Mission Vessels for naval helo and UAV operations

Ready, Aye Ready: All eight Republic of Singapore Navy Littoral Mission Vessels gather for a family photo on 31 January 2020 at Tuas Naval Base in Singapore. Spot the differences?

All eight Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) Independence-class Littoral Mission Vessels (LMVs) graced the commissioning ceremony for the last three hulls - RSS Fortitude, RSS Dauntless and RSS Fearless.

Sharp eyed observers might have noticed subtle differences (visible in the top picture) between the ships. Cognoscenti and warship otakus might have understood that the differences go beyond deck markings for the Independence-class LMVs.

Still lost? The images below might help.  

Upper deck modifications split the LMVs into two distinct types. Four can operate S-70 Seahawks while the rest serve as landing pads for naval Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Even with deck markings on LMVs dedicated for UAVs, a Seahawk can land on deck though it will be a much tigher fit.

So looking beyond deck markings, the significance of dedicating half the LMVs for UAVs points to a sea change in the concept of operations (CONOPS) for the RSN. Unlike the Victory-class Missile Corvettes (MCVs) that were retrofitted to fly ScanEagle UAVs, the LMV flight deck allows this class of ship to operate larger, more capable UAVs. This includes those that can take-off and land vertically. The elderly 62m MCVs, which are the RSN's oldest surface combatants, launch their ScanEagles via a pneumatic ramp and recover the asset via a sky hook system but do not have the space for VTOL UAVs.

This begs the question: Why not simply operate UAVs from LMVs with painted helideck markings? You could indeed but the wide-decked LMVs come with operational considerations which we won't talk about.

The distinctions are not in the same order as the characteristics that differentiate broad-beam Leanders from the early Leanders but they underline the RSN's focus on UAVs as core assets for maritime operations. The analysis needs to go beyond the rudimentary conclusion that one has a painted deck while the other was left naked. It's more than that...

In time to come, UAVs are likely to evolve beyond sensor platforms. Operational experience gained from sea time with UAVs such as the Singapore-developed V15 series will lay the foundation for the MCV replacements as well as larger assets like the Joint Multi Mission Ship.

It is heartening to note that the LMV project team has had the foresight and creativity to adapt the hull form for naval helos and VTOL UAVs.

Now that all eight have been commissioned, the hard work lies with writing and refining CONOPS for maritime UAVs, thus laying the foundation for future RSN combatants that can operate manned and unmanned naval aviation on and from the sea.

Friday, February 7, 2020

‘Good friends stick through thick and thin’ - Singapore's defence minister visits Singapore Airshow 2020 flying display teams

This afternoon, Singapore's Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, visited flying display teams that will take part in the Singapore Airshow 2020, which takes place from next Tuesday till Sunday (11 to 16 Feb 2020).

During his walkabout at Changi, Dr Ng interacted with pilots and ground crew from the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), the United States Marine Corps (USMC), United States Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) and the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Ba Yi aerobatics team.

Dr Ng had a firsthand look at Ba Yi's Chengdu J-10 fighter jets, and the United States' fifth generation fighter jets such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and the Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, all of which will perform at the Singapore Airshow for the first time. Dr Ng also visited the RSAF's integrated display team of Boeing F-15SG fighters and Boeing AH-64D Apache helicopters.

Dr Ng told the media that the Ba Yi team from China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) underwent "stringent tests" to ensure they met Singapore’s criteria before coming to Singapore to perform.

“We have been very careful, and the PLA had been particularly careful that they observe all requirements that were needed to be healthy and they underwent stringent tests,” said Dr Ng on the sidelines of his visit.

“You’ve got to understand that they, just like the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces), are also concerned about the virus spreading within their own ranks,” he said.

The minister noted that the team’s presence at the airshow, despite its contingency back home, is a testament to “how strong our relationship” is.

“You know this phrase, ‘good friends stick through thick and thin’, and I want to thank both the US as well as the Chinese military for being with us in this airshow,” he said.

Dr Ng thanked all the teams for their support and participation in this Singapore Airshow, and underscored the strong bilateral defence relations Singapore has with both countries. 

He said: "I am very thankful that for this Airshow, apart from the Republic of Singapore Air Force that is performing, that we also have the United States Air Force (USAF) and United States Marine Corps (USMC), as well as the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) here with their wonderful planes performing. It is really a vote of confidence; it is also a measure of how strong our relationship is... 

"The USAF and USMC not only are here now but in fact, what they have brought for this Airshow is more than they have ever done. For the first time in the region, they have both the F-22 as well as the F-35Bs performing... 

"For the PLAAF, the People's Liberation Army Air Force, I had visited China last year and signed the enhanced Agreement on Defence Exchanges and Security Cooperation. At that time, I invited them both, Vice Chairman Xu QiLiang and General Wei Fenghe for the Ba Yi, the famous Ba Yi to perform in the Airshow. And the reason being that, this year is the 30th year of diplomatic ties and we thought that would be a good way to commemorate the 30th anniversary."

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PLAAF Ba Yi team makes its Singapore Airshow debut. Click here