Friday, October 9, 2009

Padang quake relief'09 Part 2

My earlier post makes a case for not taking the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) airlift capabilities for granted.

Scroll down to read a letter from a Singaporean who was recently stranded in Padang.

Hopefully the powers-that-be see merit in responding to his letter professionally and not by dancing round the issue.

If you've the opportunity to witness military forces at work during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) missions, you may come to realise that accurate yet perishable information as well as incomplete or conflicting information - what Clausewitz might dub the fog of war - often clouds attempts at maintaining situation awareness during HADR ops.

My sense of the matter is that the impression that either MFA or the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) got its lines crossed lines must be addressed thoroughly. At stake is the RSAF's effort to coax Singaporeans and defence observers into acknowledging that it is a 3rd Generation Air Force that can deal a swift and decisive blow during operations.

Along comes Mr William Teo and his party of shutterbugs, who felt stranded at Padang while a ghost plane circled the airport for three hours. Can you sense the exasperation in his letter?

Had a reporter been allowed to accompany one of the C-130 relief flights, that journalist would have been able to file a firsthand account of the difficulties and challenges involved in flying the Singapore-Padang air bridge. But I guess it's safer for MINDEF's Public Affairs Department (PAFF) to stick to a tried-and-tested, albeit predictable, CONOPS for HADR information management.

When the Air Power Generation Command (APGC) was unveiled, journalists were trying to figure out how APGC fitted into the way the 3rd Generation RSAF carried out its business. The Padang mission, being the first mercy mission flown by APGC's Transport Group, would have been an ideal platform to showcase how APGC is mission ready, round the clock. Anchored on a real mission, Singaporeans could have been informed and updated on APGC without the rhetoric that PAFF trots out in its news releases.

While PAFF (hopefully) gets its act together, do remember that these flights by 122 Squadron are no milk runs.

Airspace over disaster areas is usually congested with airspace management done on a "see and be seen" regime when air traffic controllers are over stretched. This happened in Banda Aceh after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which is why the RSAF sent its Mobile Air Traffic Control (MATC) cabin to the city's damaged airport.

Factor in damage the airport runways may have sustained, unpredictable after shocks, crowded taxiways and the need to get aid supplies off the ramp quickly and one can imagine the enormity of the tasks that 122 SQN personnel performed in Padang.

PAFF's use of the New Media as a means for rapidly disseminating information is praise-worthy. But if you strip away the story datelines and names of interviewees, stories on the Padang mission might sound like clones of previous quake relief operations, such is the similarity of medical cases treated in such situations.

Absent thus far are stories on how the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) medical team remains mobile, on the Civil Military Relations aspect of the operation that explains where and how the team leader conducts his operations with the TNI, and stories on how the team sustains itself in theatre thanks to a logistics chain that stretches all the way to the MSA in Singapore.

It takes some brainwork to engineer this sort of publicity and the United States have fine tuned its gig over numerous missions.

In contrast, we in Singapore tend to score own goals. The dynamics of the rivalry between the SAF and Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) in cornering media attention often results in attempts at one upmanship.

I sensed similar rivalry during the Tekong manhunt years back when the SAF and Singapore Police Force jostled for airtime and newspaper space. And we appear to be seeing such dynamics at play right now in Padang.

This rivalry probably explains why coverage of the return of the SCDF's Lion Heart team to Singapore glossed over that all-important ride provided by the C-130 drivers. There would be no quake relief forces without the SCDF. But remember there would be no Lion Heart mission without those C-130s.

Perhaps next time, RSAF C-130 drivers should install a taxi meter in their glass cockpits (upgraded by ST Aero, but I digress), slaved to fuel consumed by the transport's four T-56 turboprops and calibrated according to the number of air miles chalked up. Present the bill upon arrival to the SCDF team and ask if they'd like to pay by cash, NETS or credit card. Charge extra for outsized cargo.

In the meantime, the US military has chimed in by taking an active part in operations around Padang. The fact that US armed forces personnel hit the ground days after other Asean countries sent aid isn't relevant to telling a good yarn. Who keeps score anyway?

In such situations, being first on scene is often secondary to being seen as doing something. And when the US flexes its military might, it usually does so in a headline-grabbing way.

It won't be long before international news wires file first person accounts from ride-alongs with US helos or transport aircraft. Throw in the obligatory picture of an American serviceman cradling an infant and their PR coup would be complete.

So, we live and learn. Hopefully....

The Straits Times
Forum Page
Oct 9, 2009
Sad Singapore story out of Padang, in two parts...

I WAS one of 11 Singaporeans caught in the Padang quake while we were in Sumatra for a photography trip. Our priority was to get the first flight back to Singapore on Sept 30.

As Tiger Airways had a scheduled flight the next day, we called to ask if we could get on the flight. We called repeatedly, but to no avail.

Although we heard that all flights were cancelled on Oct 1, we went to the airport anyway and were surprised that other commercial flights were operating as usual.

We managed to get 11 tickets from AirAsia, although we were booked to fly out on Tiger on Oct 3. We had no choice as there was not a soul at Tiger's booth at Padang airport. But that was not the end of our Singapore story. After we had booked our Air-Asia tickets, we received a call from a representative from the Singapore Embassy asking us if we wanted to be evacuated from Padang by a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) plane, which was leaving Padang at about 8.30pm on Oct 1. We gladly accepted the offer and arrived at the airport an hour before the scheduled departure.

But no RSAF plane was in sight. At 9pm, we received a call telling us the plane was circling in the air for three hours waiting for approval to land. Just before midnight, another call informed us that the evacuation had to be aborted because approval to land was not given.

After our arrival in Singapore, we were told that the plane did not even take off that day. We are puzzled as to why we were told the plane was in the air for three hours, and hope the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will enlighten us.

William Teo


FIVE-TWO said...

had PAFF been as dialled in to the new media as Minister George Yeo, we would have tweet updates and facebook mission page complete with photos, and video clips the charlies droning off in pairs. I can even rope in voice over artistes...

goat89 said...

BAH! Just politics! Better get their game up! Things are so different now!

Ben Choong said...

its really sad when US Navy is sending off photos after photos of thier efforts in Padang, whereas ours is an intermittent trickle compared to thiers (our photostream has no new updates since 7 Oct)

goat89, how I lament this situation: there's nothing to put on Today's Pics :'(

Anonymous said...

The Transport Group is not under APGC. Please check your sources.