Friday, November 27, 2009

Exercise Forging Sabre: Closing thoughts

Practising the ART of war at Forging Sabre
Accurate, relevant and timely battlefield information helped Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) smart weapons blast their targets with devastating effect during the Forging Sabre war games.

The firepower unleashed by Singapore Army and Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) war machines during Exercise Forging Sabre represented the sharp end of the fast-improving Third Generation SAF.

Sight unseen is the process of refining raw data into timely intelligence for SAF commanders.

The ability to see first, see more and understand the unfolding situation in the battlespace at a faster clip had a positive and decisive effect on SAF warfighters. The location and dispositions of hostile units could be charted rapidly while Blue Force Tracking marked out the friendlies.

The end result was a tigher sensor-to-shooter loop that slashed the amount of time taken for SAF battle managers to achieve a kill.

Battlefield intelligence could be soaked up by the Army’s ground reconnaissance units, camera-equipped RSAF unmanned aerial vehicles or national assets that contribute to Imagery Intelligence (IMINT).

A key capability not demonstrated during the land-based war games (for obvious reasons) were advances the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) has made in UAV operations at sea. These include sea trials of the NATALEE series of naval drones that range ahead of the Navy’s missile-armed frigates and submarine task groups to suss out hostile forces.

The SAF did not fly its warfighters halfway around the globe to practice the technical aspects of shooting.

This is why sharp-eyed netizens noted that the SAR-21 5.56mm assault rifles carried by some Army commandos were dummies. But the commandos who fought in the combined arms live-fire exercise (CALFEX) at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, had a bigger mission to accomplish.

The war games marked the first time a commando team had guided a 2,000-pound laser-guided bomb during a CALFEX.

At Exercise Wallaby in 2005, I interviewed a commando team that sent a pair of “live” Spike missiles downrange to a target nestled behind an Australian ridgeline in the Shoalwater Bay Training Area. The commandos had practiced the firing routine many times in Singapore on simulators. But doing it for real, having a "live" missile dart out of the launch tube trailing a fibre optic wire and watching it blot out the target with a flash gave the commandos a kick like no other.

It is likely the commandos at the Forging Sabre CALFEX would have their own war stories to tell, had they been interviewed by the Singaporean media.

Moving on to the Army's heavy muscle, the task of bringing HIMARS rocket artillery into action is also something the Singapore Artillery’s gunners can practice anytime in Singapore. At the risk of belittling the HIMARS rocket artillerymen, it does not take much battle sense to fire the HIMARS rockets.

As the rockets are guided by GPS satellites, they will find their own way to the target once the firing data is keyed in correctly.

The psycho-motor action that leads to the firing of an artillery weapon – whether by firing lever, lanyard or toggling a switch – is so simple that VIPs like politicians are sometimes invited to do the honours. It is a made-for-television moment as the VIP walks up to the weapon and unleashes hell.

The value-added that SAF warfighters achieved at the land warfare manoeuvres came from the opportunity to test out, validate and refine ways of wielding the SAF as an integrated fighting force.

The Third Generation SAF is a moniker flogged to death in umpteen ministerial speeches and media articles that describe the Singapore military's transformation drive. Inspired by the telco industry, the catch phrase indicates how the SAF wants to rewrite the way its warfighters would wage war should deterrence fail.

Precision strikes using smart munitions and attacks in the enemy’s depth with long-range weapons were vividly demonstrated during the Forging Sabre CALFEX phase.

To witness speed of manoeuvre, one has to study how Army and RSAF units ranged far and wide across the Australian outback during Exercise Wallaby.

Central to both war games was the use of battlefield intelligence as the first line of defence.

Sensors that go above and beyond the forward edge of battle area to collect battlefield data - round-the-clock in peace and war- give tiny Singapore more depth by securing a virtual hinterland that hostile forces do not want to encroach upon. SAF intelligence assets are the ones that are first in the virtual hinterland, tirelessly building up the electronic order of battle and physical TO&E of hostile entities - be it a non-state actor such as a terrorist cell or a drawer plan by a conventional army to achieve a first strike.

Hostile entities who over-estimate their capability or under-estimate Singapore's resolve would learn quickly how much information the Lion City's intelligence apparatus can pick up for target persecution.

Timely intelligence allows SAF units to put mission first, bolstered by the confidence that they have thoroughly routed their opponent on the virtual hinterland even before the first warshot is discharged in anger.

This is the unseen aspect that was put into play at the Forging Sabre and Wallaby manoeuvres.

Because long before a HIMARS rocket leaves its launch tube or an RSAF strike package leaves the ground, SAF intelligence planners would have mapped out a list of potential targets for SAF deep strike missions. They are intended to cause maximum hurt - because this is the linchpin of deterrence - but with minimum collateral damage.
Without such strategic target data, the long range of HIMARS would count for nothing as the rockets may be wasted on low value targets that tactical artillery weapons, say for example 120mm mortars or 155mm tube artillery - could engage.

Now that both exercises have wrapped up successfully, the SAF will have heaps of information to plough through in its after-action analysis of both war games.

On occasion, units may not move quickly enough or air strikes could have been better coordinated or the simulated enemy not hit hard enough.

Such is the value of war games. They afford SAF units the opportunity to work out the kinks in the system and improve upon slack areas.

Mind you, SAF warfighters do not have to wait for large-scale exercises to test how various units come into action.

Every year, during the National Day Parade (NDP) practices, patches of air space around tiny Singapore are mapped out as holding areas for RSAF fighter aircraft and helicopters.

SAF personnel also practice the routing, timing and march order for vehicle convoys.

The resupply of thousands of parade participants and the job of ensuring the safety of some 25,000 parade spectators is a military operations in urban terrain that few military forces get to practice.

There’s also the combat air patrols – no secret to residents who live around RSAF air bases – armed with "live" ammunition that form an aerial shield during high turnout events like NDP and the annual Formula 1 night race. Not forgetting the contributions from the airborne early warning E-2Cs that fly race track patterns in the sky.

To those in the know, the training value that the SAF derives from “routine” events such as NDP practices is clear. One just has to look beyond the obvious.

This commentary is dedicated to all SAF officers and WOSEs whose units can never participate in the SAF Best Unit Competition. Thank you for keeping us safe.


FIVE-TWO said...

Thank you for helping us remember and appreciate those who support the sharp end of the stick.

And I love your choice and construction of words.

goat89 said...

Thanks for those who keep us safe and ops running smoothly from unknown places! Thx for the write up Mr Boey!