Friday, December 30, 2011

45 Years of National Service: NS defaulter's homecoming for National Museum concert

45 Years of National Service 1967-2012.
This blog will mark the 45th year of NS in 2012 with a series of articles on defence matters Singaporeans can relate to. Your story ideas are, of course, welcome.

In a year that will mark 45 years of National Service (NS) in Singapore, one of the first classical concerts for 2012 will feature a piano recital by someone whose name is inextricably linked to national disservice.

Yes, Singapore-born British pianist convicted NS defaulter, Melvyn Tan, is coming to town.

His case was mentioned in Parliament in January 2006. His name was flamed by netizens in numerous discussions on NS obligations for Singapore-born males.

And in a bizarre example of freaky coincidences, his name appeared in a membership recruitment advertisement by SAFRA, the government-linked club for Operationally Ready NSmen (i.e. reservists) and full-time NSmen, in December 2005. Till today, I fail to see the humour of this ad. Maybe it's just me but I believe some defence issues are no laughing matter. The use of Melvyn Tan's name is a hideous example of black humour that parents of NSmen who gave their lives for their country will not find amusing. Please click on the image below and look at the name on the mock Safra card. It may have passed the spell check but the sanity check on this ad was sorely lacking.

Melvyn's homecoming next week, some six years after he triggered the most intense debate on NS defaulters in recent memory, is a timely reminder that time will heal most wounds. He has been elevated from the status of social pariah to a foreign talent courted by Singapore. Good for him.

Indeed, the newspaper article (see opening image) in the 29 December 2011 edition of the 90 cents newspaper sings praises to Melvyn without a single mention of his central role in triggering the debate on NS defaulters. The omission of this fact from an article published by a newspaper of record is interesting to mull over. He must be pleased as punch that his name now graces the national broadsheet under more cheerful circumstances.

Apparently forgiven by Singaporean authorities (because he has paid his fine?), forgotten by Singapore's mainstream media (because the writer did not check Newslink?) and overlooked by netizens who kicked up such a fuss in 2005, Melvyn is due to play at the National Museum of Singapore Exhibition Galleries. The duration of the event from 5 January to 27 January 2012 probably means he will be in Singapore to celebrate the Lunar New Year with his loved ones.

People who followed the Melvyn Tan saga probably recall that he was fined S$3,000 by a Singaporean civil court in 2005 for evading NS 28 years ago. The Tan family also forfeited the S$30,000 security deposit - in then-year dollars a princely sum - coughed up by Melvyn's parents in 1974 when he flew to London to study music.

When this amount of money is spread over a 10-year training cycle that most NSmen undergo and with the 2.5 years of full-time NS factored into the calculus, the penalty that the system extracted from the Tan family is in my opinion a small price to pay. It works out to a sum of S$2,640 a year for every year of NS Melvyn avoided, or just S$220 a month. Pocket change for well-heeled Singaporean families.

In exchange for this fine, the media attention and (apparently transient) cyberspace notoriety, Melvyn kept 2.5 years of his youth (NS was reduced to two years of full-time service in 2004) and was spared the kind of training Singaporean males are put through to keep the city-state safe.

While he chased his dream in London in flagrant disregard for his promise to return to serve NS, his loved ones back home slept safe and sound under the security umbrella carried aloft by every Singaporean son who answered the call to serve their country. His parents will never know the anguish that Singaporean families - especially mothers - experience when their sons and loved ones enter NS.

It is cruel comfort to families of NSmen who died that a defaulter ended up losing a hefty bond and fined by the system. In the past 45 years, a sizeable number of teenage soldiers and middle aged NSmen have died in the course of duty, each one an irreplaceable loss to a society whose birth rate is rapidly in decline.

If Melvyn really wants to put the past behind him, perhaps he could dedicate his performance to the NSmen who died serving their nation while he was away. It would inject meaning to his performance in a year in which Singaporeans will be reminded of how generations of NSmen have served with pride, dedication and distinction.

There must be pockets of Singapore's expatriate community with Singapore-born sons in the same boat as Melvyn who have calculated the possible impact of evading NS. All sorts of schemes and means will be tapped to keep their sons out of uniform. Some families may look at his imminent homecoming with relief and a sense of assurance that the system is able to forgive and apparently forget as grave a transgression as running away from the Singapore Armed Forces.

The Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) had better update its tip sheet for National Education discussions on "The Case of Melvyn Tan" because scheming minds may conclude that the price of defaulting NS isn't that onerous afterall.

It appears that if one pays the penalty for defaulting NS, then the system and Singaporean society will someday forgive, forget and say: let's move on.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Update to Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) website

Good to see the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) website refreshed on Tuesday 20 December 2011 with information on rebranded air force squadrons. The revamp is commendable.

But the website team should watch out for typos, especially those that can be caught by a spell check. Poor QC affects the credibility of the platform and messaging.

See if you can spot the glitch by clicking on the image above.

I know it's neither easy nor straightforward because this blog has its fair share of typos and grammatical errors. Get another pair of eyes to proof read information before anything goes online.

If website information is intended to tell our air force's side of the story during an infowar, the presentation and text must be top notch.

See how the experts do it here.

Don't let your IOs down.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A rail security threat: SMRT's failure to heed wake-up call from London Bombings, learn lessons from Exercise Northstar V

Please take part in the latest polls. Your opinions matter.

Six years after train and bus commuters were killed by terrorist bombs in the City of London, Singapore's largest train operator, SMRT Corporation, has yet to heed that wake-up call.

If SMRT's top management does not change its mindset, it may be time for a new broom to sweep clean because the stakes are too high and apologies are wearing thin.

The company's complacent attitude towards transportation security was laid bare in the most public manner imaginable during Thursday evening's train breakdown when rush hour commuters were stuck in trains for as long as 78 minutes.

All that while, hapless commuters were left - some literally in the dark - with no information and were running out of patience, time and fresh air. SMRT is lucky nobody died.

On Saturday morning, the SMRT train system in the heart of the Orchard Road shopping belt broke down again.

The impact on Singapore's economy through lost retail and food & beverage receipts is not insignificant, considering this is the holiday period for many heartlanders.

SMRT should consider itself lucky the system did not fail during the school examination period weeks ago as there would be hell to pay if students missed their papers.

In my view, the damage to public confidence from these breakdowns is more important than monetary losses from lost sales. It is also harder to quantify (hence the poll). Singaporeans must be wondering what more can be done to improve corporate governance in SMRT. Do we need to see people die on our trains before decisive action is taken?

We used to be so proud of our MRT system. People took trains from Toa Payoh to Yio Chu Kang for their first ever ride - when they had absolutely no agenda in the vicinity - just to ride the trains. Even as litter bugs defy government fines elsewhere, our trains were kept litter and graffiti-free years after they were commissioned into service. Train mishaps, like the two trains bumping one another at Clementi MRT station in August 1993, drew sympathy from heartlanders, not fury and spiteful comments we see today.

Even before SMRT opened for business, medals for bravery were won by engineers who were building MRT tunnels. The engineers used their construction know-how to bore into the debris of Hotel New World in March 1986, creating rescue shafts for our then-new Singapore Civil Defence Force.

That was the SMRT I grew up with.

Have complacency, avarice and sheer arrogance ("People can board the train, it is whether they choose to.") now become enshrined as corporate values for today's SMRT Corp?

This post will address the security aspects of the MRT breakdown and assess the information management during the episodes. There are already many sites in cyberspace railing against SMRT, so our assessment will focus on two themes:
1. Causal factors versus consequence management
2. Medium versus message for mass communications

Causal factors versus consequence management
Red flag: Failure to learn and internalise lessons from the Northstar series of public transportation exercises, particularly Northstar V on 8 January 2006 which involved four MRT stations.

Things do break down.

To use a Rumsfeldian phrase: "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know."

There are many reasons why a train network could fail.

Some causal factors are well known to the railway industry because rolling stock has been ferrying people underground for more than 100 years. Some factors, like terrorism, are new. Some are hideous like suicides. And some will catch us blindsided despite all the horizon scanning we may do. Live with that fact.

But there is a difference between being blindsided and failure to make the system more robust by dealing with any fallout, whatever the causal factor. The shambles we witnessed on Thursday evening emphasize how much more SMRT has to get its act together.

Whether due to mechanical fault or human error, the end result for a transport operator would be the same: A surge in the number of commuters, longer wait times and shorter tempers. In many respects, the surge can be estimated mathematically because passenger loads on typical days and the frequency of trains/buses can be guesstimated from passenger throughput statistics.

Mind you, SMRT had a dress rehearsal six years ago during Exercise Northstar V. This was Singapore's first civil emergency exercise that tested the readiness of train and bus operators, first responders and government authorities should terrorists mimic the playbook for the London/Madrid bombings.

Why was knowledge management so poor that lessons from that exercise could not be applied, tested and refined in the past six years?

Was Northstar V merely a wayang (Malay word for stage play)?

Looking at SMRT's December debacle, it is worrisome to think that our transportation security apparatus has been taking us for a ride all these years.

Minister for Transport Lui Tuck Yew put it succinctly when he told the media: "You see, our exercises are perhaps very scripted - we know what the scenario is, we know what is happening from one time period to another, and therefore people are geared to respond in a certain way."

Anyone who has served National Service in Singapore would probably nod in agreement.

Mr Lui is well qualified to make such as statement. Before entering politics, he served the Singapore Armed Forces, leaving the military as Chief of Navy with the rank of Rear Admiral.

Even if Northstar was a public relations circus, a serious after-action review (AAR) would have exposed areas in which SMRT should pay close attention to.

Was a proper AAR done after Northstar V or was the exercise a waste of tax dollars?

At a minimum, it should have identified a need to put shuttle buses on short notice for bridging services between train stations that are taken out of service (whether due to known knowns or unknown unknowns). In the Singaporean military, standby units are assigned are assigned a NTM and have to be ready to move within a specified time.

To be sure, placing a shuttle bus operator on a 30 minute NTM seven days a week would cost a chunk of change.

But in a city state where citizens are discouraged from owning cars, isn't such an investment worthwhile? Is the profit motive for SMRT such an overriding concern that they are happy to bet against Murphy's Law?

SMRT's beleaguered chief executive, Saw Phaik Hwa, may not realise this but she has several high-ranking former SAF officers in her management team. These include SMRT's senior vice-president for communications and services, Goh Chee Kong, who retired from SAF service with the rank of Colonel. As an Armour officer, NTMs would not be alien to COL Goh.

When I interviewed SMRT officials several years ago, I met a combat engineer who retired as a Lieutenant Colonel prior to joining the company. Among other things, this officer had taken part in SAF operations in UNAVEM. I am not sure who writes his pay cheque these days, but the point is that SMRT has a number of former military personnel the company can count on during a crisis.

I worry for the SAF if the training these officers received was discarded the moment they stepped into civvie street.

Being Malaysian born, Ms Saw may not fully appreciate the value that SAF personnel bring to her boardroom.

Any inquiry into SMRT's December debacle must look into the management style in the company. In particular:
1. How many of the SMRT personnel who took part in Northstar V in 2006 are still with the company today? What has been done to preserve institutional memory?
2. Why is SMRT's knowledge management so piss poor? What lessons were internalised from Northstar V? Prove it through documentation.
3. How often are emergency procedures practised, whether on table top exercises or full-troop exercises involving mock passengers?

A Red Team, given the mandate and authority to ask difficult questions, would help SMRT protect its stakeholder interest with a more robust consequence management plan.

As things stand, we heard SMRT's Goh say they could not cope with outages at more than four stations - which, interestingly, matches the number of stations involved during the Northstar V practice. On Thursday, some 4,000 people were trapped in trains during the breakdown at 11 stations.

So SMRT only "fights current" and never practices "fighting future" by scaling up its SOPs to cope with larger and more complex scenarios for consequence management? No wonder Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cut short his holiday...

Medium versus message
Red flag: Failure to provide accurate, relevant and timely updates on the situation. Failure to empower SMRT train drivers to speak to commuters. Lack of credibility in reporting the situation.

The company's failure to tackle crisis communications exacerbated the situation, fraying tempers and derailing the credibility of SMRT's corporate mouthpiece.

The seed of doubt was planted before Thursday's massive system failure when SMRT reported that some 1,400 commuters were affected by the fault on the Circle Line between Marymount and one-north stations from 6am and 11:45am. Why were so few commuters affected?

Second, the SMRT spokesman claimed lights and ventilation kicked in when trains lost power. But first person accounts and images of commuters standing in the dark paint a different picture. If there were no emergency lights, was there back-up ventilation? Even if ventilation was provided, would this be sufficient for a crush load of passengers? Was it prudent to keep passengers sealed in the train for up to 78 minutes?

Third, the picture of SMRT's vice president for rail operations playing the part of usher is unfortunate. Was this staged for the media to show that SMRT's management is hands on? After three outages in four days, shouldn't a VP's time and energy be better applied? Are there no reports to analyse, no engineers to interrogate, nothing in the back office to attend to? Will the system fix itself? If the system is so short of manpower they need a VP to play usher, SMRT is in deeper shit trouble than you and I can imagine.

If the events played out this past week were scripted for TV drama, the result would probably be rated as a black comedy or a B-grade farce.

That "Income opportunity" alert to taxis that went viral: Why are mass broadcast messages not read and rechecked before the send button is pressed? Can you imagine the furore if the breakdowns were caused by terrorists?

Going onto Twitter and Facebook will not innoculate SMRT against crisis communications woes. Instead of adding more tools to its tool box, it should focus not on the medium but the message it wants to convey to stakeholders.

The value of the content and timeliness of information dissemination is more important than boasting how many social media channels you maintain.

To be sure, it is easy being an armchair analyst with 20:20 hindsight spouting all sorts of gibberish on things that need fixing. So easy being wise after the fact.

This is precisely why we started a Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS) system some years ago. It helps identify problem areas and shows how upstream factors can impact elements downstream. In the case of SMRT, the RAHS would indicate how multiple outages reported at the 11 stations on Thursday would affect road and bus transport after the commuters are left stranded with no train services.

Is SMRT even aware we have such a system? It should now that Colonel Patrick Nathan has joined the company as its director of security and emergency planning. As an RSAF officer and one of the principal staff officers at the National Security Coordination Centre, he should know what resources SMRT can call into play.

The mainstream media should also do its part to help restore public confidence in Singapore's rail network. In doing so, trying too hard to manage public opinion would cause more harm than good.

A classic example would be Friday evening's story by ChannelNewsAsia, aired on its 9:30pm news bulletin. Its main premise was that not everyone felt the SMRT CEO should resign. Four commuters were interviewed and the standuppers for two of them were repeated twice, so we saw the two blokes appear four times. You can probably guess that the interviewees voiced the opinion that her resignation is not necessary.

Such stories fuel ridicule in cyberspace because ground sentiments are very different from the Orwellian reportage presented on state television. Why bluff ourselves? If people are angry, so be it.

Check out the segment from 6:00 mins onwards. Compare and contrast this with comments you read elsewhere. Are we on the same planet?

To do better, the broadcast journalist should have reported results of a street poll involving a respectable sample set (say 100 commuters) and spliced footage from the interviewees to reflect results of this poll for a balanced story.

Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was famously quoted saying in 1992 that 99 per cent of Filipinos are waiting for a telephone and the remaining one per cent for a dial tone.

We make sympathetic noises when the Singaporean media reports on brownouts or mismanaged public infrastructure in regional countries.

Now, tables have been turned.

As Singaporeans watch SMRT swing into damage control mode, how do you think our neighbours are reacting to our woes?

Related post:
Security breach at SMRT Bishan depot: A rail security headache. Please click here.

Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) should pay closer attention to info ops

Singaporean warplanes made a positive and decisive impact during the Forging Sabre live-fire exercise - striking assigned targets within minutes - but the same cannot be said of its info ops apparatus that manages its webpage.

Two months after the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) renamed some of its units, the RSAF webpage has yet to be updated to reflect the new nomenclature.

Accurate, relevant and timely information-sharing with netizens is evidently not a priority for the RSAF.

If the scenarios played out during Exercise Forging Sabre were to take place for real, the Third Generation RSAF will find itself scrambling to catch up with an enemy better prepared, better staffed and fully committed to winning the battle for hearts and minds.

As the Israelis learned during various operations across their borders, those at the receiving end of air strikes will let fly with a barrage of accusations that non combatants were killed, religious places desecrated and disproportionate military force was used.

The international media loves this sort of stuff because it makes wonderful newspaper copy and is a Made for TV moment.

It would be totally idiotic for us in Singapore to learn this the hard way when there are ample examples that make a clarion call for info ops to complement military ops.

It is therefore baffling and disappointing to see a half-hearted attempt at cobbling together facts and figures to inform and educate netizens about what is arguably the most powerful air force in South East Asia.

Many defence buffs who have visited the RSAF website end up disappointed. And so they take their eyeballs elsewhere.

The failure to build up and grow its market share is regrettable.

Young Singaporeans keen on building a career with the RSAF would probably make the website their first stop before making a decision of a lifetime. Having dated information on the website sours the organisation's corporate identity. It sends a negative first impression to these youngsters when the Air Force could have made a lasting impression from the first click.

Being first with the news is vitally important too during situations like this.

Above all, defence analysts from friendly and potentially hostile locations must be persuaded that the website is well worth visiting.

To those who know, there are individuals in AOD who have gone the extra mile to make sure commentators understand what the RSAF is all about. In many respects, I believe their effort has not been in vain. This is why I find the disjoint between the work of these info ops professionals and the half-baked website somewhat intriguing.

Maybe the website is outsourced to the lowest bidder? Or the job of updating the site assigned to people at the bottom of the pecking order (i.e. overworked NSFs)? Could budgets be so strapped that the trickle of funds from the billions spent on defence can't even raise and sustain a website with eye-popping pictures and engaging stories?

One would hope they get their house in order and do so quickly. If the RSAF is not careful, it could end up in a situation like this.

At the current state of play, one can trawl up much richer and more useful information on the RSAF from fan sites and, indeed, Wikipedia, than the paltry data presented almost as a token on the RSAF's home page.

Why must this be so?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

RSAF datalinks put through stress test at Exercise Forging Sabre

Eagle strike: A Boeing F-15SG Strike Eagle pays compliments to a ground target during Exercise Forging Sabre with a 500-pound JDAM bomb. The warplane is flown by a Republic of Singapore Air Force detachment located in Idaho for an intensive work up.

The job of defending Singapore's skies in wartime is a complex one.

Doing the same in peacetime is complex too.

At the Exercise Forging Sabre war games now taking place in the American state of Arizona, Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) warfighters practice drawer plans for complex air operations against simulated air and ground threats over a battlespace many times the size of Singapore island.

Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) war machines now gathered at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona tell only part of the story.

Also serving a pivotal role is a datalink that will be tested during the intense air activities on and above the expansive Barry M. Goldwater Range. This piece of defence electronics is arguably less photogenic than a F-15SG Strike Eagle with wall-to-wall bombs or an AH-64D Apache gunship loaded to the hilt with rocket pods and anti-armour missiles.

But the datalink is an advantage RSAF aircrew want to fight with, as Forging Sabre has apparently demonstrated.

The exercise enables the RSAF Air Combat Command (ACC) to test, validate and refine its concept of operations for wielding airpower in the defence of Singapore by fighting for and securing air superiority in the SAF's projected area of operations.

When deployed against a threat(s) armed with high performance warplanes and over a battlespace infested with anti-aircraft teams, ACC battle managers know that such air superiority cannot be assumed nor guaranteed.

Battle managers: Republic of Singapore Air Force and Singapore Army warfighters execute an integrated strike mission from the Exercise Command Post during the Forging Sabre war games.

During Exercise Forging Sabre, Team RSAF and their friends from the Singapore Army's Special Forces are being put through intensive hard fighting in contested airspace, day and night.

Commander ACC and XFS Exercise Director, Brigadier-General Lim Yeong Kiat, told The Straits Times that the war games are "as real as it gets".

BG Lim said:"Previously, we focused separately on the tactical development of troops, setting up and fine-tuning the command headquarters and testing new weapons.

"We're now ready to bring everything together in more realistic missions... We want to train the way we fight."

Airpower begins with us: A Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) armourer loads a live 500-pound Laser JDAM onto a Boeing F-15SG Strike Eagle flown by the RSAF. At the core of Team RSAF's ability to generate and sustain airpower is the synergistic relationship forged between aircrew, groundcrew and ACC battle managers during exercises such as Forging Sabre.

The air combat manoeuvres are more than shadow boxing. About 40 precision-guided munitions such as Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs and Hellfire missiles will be lobbed, dropped or fired during simulated combat missions that RSAF defenders will unleash day and night to crunch down enemy forces.

This includes Laser JDAMs that Singapore bought to meet and greet moving targets such as enemy tanks.

Away from the fireworks, datalinks have been working tirelessly to keep their masters informed and aware of the situation in the air. It is a stress test like no other because of the number of warplanes up in the air, the distances at which they fly, live ordnance carried and the duration of some sorties during Forging Sabre.

Such prescience gives RSAF defenders a crucial advantage in understanding what is going on around their aircraft and decide how best to fly and fight the enemy.

Describing the exercise scenario, BG Lim told cyberPioneer:"We will simulate a war game scenario where we have a "red" team acting as the opposition, as well as a "blue" team which will have to develop an operational plan against them. The "blue" force will have to contest for the airspace, and fight and win air superiority. They will also have to conduct dynamic targeting to destroy military targets such as enemy capabilities as well as dent their will to continue to fight with us."

Somewhere out there over the Barry M. Goldwater Range are aggressor warplanes looking for trouble. The RSAF aircrew could not see them as the enemy lurked far beyond visual range. Thanks to the datalinks, the aircrew knew where hostile threats were and could decide and act accordingly.

Air threats were not the only items displayed on the cockpit multifunction displays - flat screens on the instrument panel that show icons of friendly, hostile and unknown elements in the battlespace.

The locations of enemy air defence sites allowed aircrew to weave their way into contested airspace while avoiding the range rings of anti-aircraft gun and missile units.

At the same time, these anti-aircraft units and other hostile ground forces could be assigned as targets and demolished with concentrated firepower till the threats were neutralised, to use the clinical lingo of RSAF mission planners.

After viewing the integrated live-firing, RSAF Chief of Air Force Major-General Ng Chee Meng (above) said that Exercise Forging Sabre 2011 provided an excellent opportunity for the SAF to validate its integrated strike capabilities in a realistic and challenging environment.

CAF said: "I am very impressed by our people's combat proficiency, professionalism and dedication. I saw for myself today how our airmen and soldiers worked to bring together a sophisticated suite of both sensors and shooters, like our F-15SGs, F-16C/Ds and Apaches, to effect an integrated strike against a variety of targets, including mobile targets. This in itself is a very complex operation and I think they have done very well."

The irony is that the number of targets assigned to the shooters will grow as the SAF's sense-making improves.

Adding datalinks tightens the sensor-to-shooter process. To understand what this means, imagine the steps taken from the time something (eg a tank, ship or plane) in the battlespace is detected, identified and assigned as a hostile entity to the moment when the SAF assigns a shooter (eg a tank, warship, warplane or weapons team) to engage that threat.

When everything has to be done manually and verbally, the process naturally takes a longer time. The longer this takes, the more the data "ages" because a moving target may no longer be where it was when first detected. And we haven't even addressed the impact of the stress of battle, human error or mechanical failure.

Before datalinks, the process of coordinating an air battle was no different from Second World War days when voice communications were used to marshal and deploy RSAF fighter aircraft.

The noise of shrieking jet engines, the stress of keeping a vigilant watch against aerial threats and garbled voice comms diluted the pilot's ability to process the tracks shared by a ground controller vectoring a GCI or even a E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft.

Pilots had to pay close attention to what was said and mentally calculate the location, height, heading and speed of the tracks rattled off by the controller to figure out who was flying where. All this while flying the aircraft and trying not to get shot out of the sky.

Even for high performance aircraft such as F-15SG Strike Eagles, misunderstanding ground cues could result in wrong actions. This was seen during a National Day Parade Combined Rehearsal this year when a flight of F-15SGs had to abort their flypast when a cue to "hold" was misinterpreted and the flight missed its ingress datum.

Datalinks cut the chatter, presenting the data visually, securely and in real-time.

Studies by the United States Air Force (USAF) have proven that in two-sided air-to-air tactical engagements, the side that wielded information as a weapon racked up lopsided kill ratios against the one that did not fight with datalinks.

Exercise Forging Sabre is likely to demonstrate similar results to RSAF umpires charged with scrutinising how the air battles are fought, won or lost.

And these results are likely to be cascaded to RSAF squadrons on home turf, half a world from the largest and most complex air defence exercise intended to keep ACC poised and ready.

Past postings on Forging Sabre:
Reflections on Exercise Forging Sabre 2009: Every round counts. Click here
Practising the art of war at Forging Sabre. Click here
Forging sabres, forging knights: Making the most of battlefield experiments. Click here

This piece is dedicated to the people who will never win a Best Unit trophy, not because these warfighters are no good but because they do not officially exist. I have the highest admiration and respect for you.

All images are from the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).

Saturday, December 3, 2011

All US-based Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Air Combat Command detachments set to converge on Arizona for major war games

At a time when Singaporean families are enjoying the year end festive spell, several military families from Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) units based in the island Republic and the continental United States (CONUS) have their sights on Exercise Forging Sabre - the largest and most complex air-ground war games involving CONUS-based warplanes and helicopters.

Said to unfold in Arizona in the coming week, Exercise Forging Sabre (or Saber if you prefer American spelling) will unleash Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) warplanes, attack and heavy-lift helicopters over a simulated battlespace more than eight times the size of Singapore.

Exercise Forging Sabre (XFS) is also expected to feature the largest number of Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs dropped during an SAF integrated warfare exercise to prove that the air force can create a big bang wherever within the RSAF's strike radius and whenever SAF mission planners dictate within.

Unfettered by tight airspace restrictions over and around Singapore (which will be lifted in times of hostilities), RSAF air warfare planners and their Singapore Army counterparts have scripted war games that will pit XFS participants against simulated enemy targets in the air and on the ground.

The exercise hardware represents the tip of the spear for the RSAF's Air Combat Command (ACC), which is the air force organisation responsible for keeping Singapore's airpower poised and deadly for air operations round-the-clock in all weather.

War machines include the F-15SG Strike Eagle (the RSAF's most advanced all-weather strike aircraft), the F-16C/D Fighting Falcon, as well as AH-64D Apache attack helicopters and CH-47SD Chinooks.

This blog understands that the Singapore Army is expected to have boots on the ground too. The small size of Army ground surveillance teams is out of proportion to the damage these soldiers could inflict when they call in loitering RSAF warplanes.

It is understood that their insertion into simulated hostile territory will be aided by RSAF Chinooks. These choppers will fly as assault transports, screened by gun and rocket-armed Apaches and guarded by top cover from fighter planes as the Chinooks push deep into contested battlespace to insert Commando long range reconnaissance patrols.

Working far from the JDAM impact points are ACC weapon specialists and aircraft engineers. They will be responsible for keeping flying machines mission ready as well as bombing up F-15SGs, F-16s and arming Apaches with a range of munitions.

It goes without saying that thirsty fighters need to be fuelled and onboard stores such as chaff/flare decoys replenished before the next flight fight.

During XFS, RSAF air warfare planners are expected to be challenged as they practice planning, assembling, despatching and recovering strike packages that could contain warplanes and attack helicopters with different flying characteristics and weapon loadouts.

The complexity of this task is best understood when one remembers that there about 500 different ways to hang things onto an F-16's wing tips, wings and belly.

RSAF air warfare planners are expected to be assessed under time pressure as they pick the right mix of weapon stores, sensor/target designation payloads and fuel tanks of various capacities for every aircraft/helo in the strike package. At the same time, they have to right-size strike packages to fight and survive in contested airspace and plan their ingress/egress routes.

It is arguable that against an enemy out to kill you, there is no such thing as too much firepower. But as friendly forces fend off the simulated enemy onslaught in XFS round-the-clock, RSAF war planners must pace the tempo of their missions judiciously. This will ensure that they can dish it out to the enemy even when a flood of orders arrive.

With combat-proven American warfighters curious to see how all this is orchestrated by the SAF and with HQ RSAF eager for updates several time zones away, this will add to the pressure of an already complex exercise involving several tons of live ordnance, thousands of gallons of highly flammable jet fuel and multiple sorties by high performance (read: expensive) warplanes and helicopters.

Above all, every XFS participant needs to be kept safe till the show is over.

The addition of JDAMs will add a fresh dimension to XFS. In the previous exercise in November 2009, laser-guided Paveway bombs were used to change the landscape as the air force and Army HIMARS rocket launchers blunted enemy movements with coordinated air-land counterstrikes.

This year, satellite-guided JDAMs allow RSAF aircrew to hit more precisely and with greater autonomy than the Paveways, which need a ground or airborne laser to help the sensor in the bomb's nose home in on the laser beam (which is why it is called a LGB).

A single F-15SG orbiting hostile territory could, theoretically, take out multiple targets in one pass while its pilot, weapon systems officer and all the odds lumps and bumps on the Strike Eagle keep an eye out for enemy combat aircraft out to molest the warplane.

Speaking of lumps and bumps, another critical component of XFS are the black boxes so crucial for tightening the SAF's sensor-to-shooter loop.

XFS is expected to stress test datalinks that allow SAF air and ground units to build a clearer air situation picture. But we'll save that for another post as XFS gets underway.

Check Six!