Saturday, June 25, 2011

Singapore National Day Parade 2011: Combined Rehearsal 2 - Getting it right

Every Saturday from now till National Day on 9 August, Singapore's warfighters will get a chance to practice cueing, coordinating and integrating moving parts from many organisations.

It is not easy and 3G or not, sometimes things do not pan out as the timesheets recommend.

Those of you who have seen how military operations are executed may realise that the skill sets involved in giving a datum call, say for a fly past, is very much the same as that required to whistle up an air strike and ensure the time over target is spot on.

Today's CR2 rehearsal had one such snafu - one which plane spotters would have noticed.

Our people do not always get things right at each Combined Rehearsal (CR), but you can bet the after-action review will be rigorous and lessons learned keyed into powerpoint notes ahead of the next pre-show briefing.

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), tasked to lead the committee formed to plan, organise and stage Singapore's birthday parade, is afterall a learning organisation.

The value of Combined Rehearsals (CR) staged ahead of the National Day Parade (NDP) goes above and beyond moving a parade from concept to reality.

At every CR, thousands of NDP participants have to be marshalled and deployed to a show site on time and in a logical sequence.

With show centre at The Float in Marina Bay located in a city-state which is one of the most densely-populated places you can find in Asia, moving all those people, equipment, show props and uniforms is part military art, part logistical science with a fair bit of luck thrown into the matrix.

Participants also need to be fed and watered. School kids need to return home safe and sound and at a decent hour before bedtime. When things screw up, some unhappy parent will voice displeasure with an inevitable letter to the newspapers demanding an explanation from the NDP Executive Committee (EXCO). Despite our best efforts, things have gone awry in past years - just check the Straits Times archives for evidence of such letters.

This means communications management is also vital. The age of new media and net-savvy Gen Y participants means every NDP EXCO has its work cut out for it when trying to balance the need to preserve NDP surprises till the actual day and the reality that Gen Ys will tweet, MMS or blog about the CRs and quite possibly give the game away. It does not help that NDP rehearsals held outside the National Stadium since NDP 2006 are in public areas in the city - well within reach of telephoto lenses and digital zoom of uninvited guests. This presents an excellent lesson in opsec management.

In the same way, the medical plan in the post 9/11 era goes beyond having a stretcher party on standby. Evacuation plans need to cater for a packed gallery of 25,000 plus parade spectators as well as thousands more NDP participants.

Sentinel: NBC detector from the Singapore Combat Engineers Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Explosives (CBRE) Defence Group temporarily installed on the roof of a building around Marina Bay as a tripwire to alert authorities of changes in the ambient air quality.

Wind sensors, building configurations and standby areas for immediate response units need to be scouted out and drawer plans rehearsed discretely. Computer modelling is also done to predict how chemical plumes may be dispersed by the wind.

The medical contingency plan puts SAF and Home Team units that are trained, organised, equipped and supported for urban terrorism through exactly the same routine prescribed in their ops manuals. Again, the CRs are no waste of time as staff officers walk through plans, policies and procedures and tweak outdated CONOPS for more effective incident management.

The CR may be a dress rehearsal for the actual parade, but for the ready response forces, the CR is no dress rehearsal as medical emergencies can strike anytime.

And with millions of eyeballs following the event every 9 August, parade snafus seldom go unnoticed.

Lessons from previous NDPs show that despite all the hard work and rehearsals, all that fancy communications gear and timesheets, it is the human factor that matters most.

Isn't this the same in war?

This humbling lesson is taught time and again, either during CRs or even at actual NDPs. From what I hear, officers at the receiving end usually emerge better and sharper as the NDP is such a high profile event that the learning point is not something one can evade easily.

So when cold fireworks were triggered earlier than expected at the Benjamin Sheares Bridge during NDP 2007, Commandos had to make the split second go/no go decision whether or not to rappel down the bridge with the blizzard of sparks uncomfortably close. The Commandos did so, bravely. And NDP spectators were none the wiser.

And when a parade commander mistimed the number of feu-de-joie (fire-of-joy) rifle volleys, the ensuing mix up among the guard of honour (GOH) contingent was a drill shambles the camera could not hide -not on live television. The solution in NDPs that followed was to place a soldier whose sole task was to mirror commands given by the parade commander. In previous years, the parade commander's orders were obeyed by the GOH standing behind him. The parade mimic thus gives the parade commander a better idea of the parade stance of the GOH by looking at the mimic.

Just as some errors are caused by the human factor, whether or not the right lessons are picked up and internalised depends very much on another human factor - the attitude of an NDP EXCO to learn and emerge as competent professionals and not to turn mistakes into a finger-pointing exercise or to slay a scape goat.

For one thing, rehearsal snafus should be celebrated as they give the EXCO time to iron out kinks before the actual event. Would you rather the mistake is made on 9 August?

And if Murphy's law strikes again, one can argue that it is far, far better for misunderstandings to take place on the parade ground than on the battleground.

No comments: