Friday, October 26, 2012

SMRT Circle Line disruption: Telling the rail story

If the two SMRT breakdowns last December provided students of crisis communications with dozens of newspaper articles as food for thought, the total breakdown of SMRT's 35-km long Circle Line last night provided us with a stark contrast in crisis comms management.

Instead of blanket coverage in the prime pages of The Straits Times (ST), Singapore's only English laguage broadsheet, news of the unprecedented outage is buried on Page 10. The story is a page lead of modest length and no photograph. It does not indicate if SMRT was approached for a comment.

And the story on a service disruption that involved some some 30 Circle Line train stations on the eve of a long weekend and during Halloween season when thousands of revellers would have thronged nightspots was graced by a quote from just one commuter.

The freesheet Today goes one up with a Page 1 story on the SMRT incident. Alas, the story is derailed by a headline which understates the severity of the problem. It reads: "Major disruption on Circle Line, hundreds affected". North Korean press minders have found their match.(Note: SMRT said on Friday that 10,500 people were affected.)

Sugar coating problems with public transportation is not the way to win hearts and minds. People affected will talk. Those unaffected but not unaware will realise the scale of the breakdown. And when people compare what they hear with what they read in the papers, the disconnect between perception and reality will force the thinking public to make a stand.

The first thing to go out of the window when sugar coating problems is credibility.

Once that is lost, the next domino to fall is trust.

Once trust is damaged, people may think the worst of small-scale system disruptions which make it to the mainstream media in future because readers may think the story was deliberately downplayed even if it wasn't. It may also lend credence to rumour mongers who make mountains out of molehills, confusing people who have no beacon of trust to guide them.

From a rail operations standpoint, SMRT should count itself lucky the Circle Line did not breakdown hours earlier during the evening rush hour as thousands more would have been affected in a grim replay of December's outage.

From a print operations standpoint, the 10:26pm service disruption left the print media precious little time to orientate the newspaper to cover the event as the print deadline loomed. The worst possible time for such incidents to take place would be mid afternoon, just before ST editors convene their afternoon editorial meeting (the Nicoll Highway collapse hit that sweet spot, leaving the newspaper ample time to redraw the line up of stories to maximise coverage of the disaster).

Lucky for SMRT, the late night incident also missed the broadcast media's primetime news slots.

From the perspective of crisis comms students, it will be interesting to see the effort made by SMRT to apologise for explain the incident. The longer the delay, the less newsworthy the story. This means SMRT may enjoy a reprieve from this incident not because of better crisis comms preparedness, but from sheer good fortune that the timing of the outage fell solidly in its favour - even with the entire Circle Line affected.

Indeed, the lack of ad hominem attacks on SMRT's new Chief Executive could be explained by the lack of mention of his name in both ST and Today's story. There was no press conference to chair, no media scrum to battle, no SMRT personality to bear the brunt of commuter's anger.

It could be different next time - once the honeymoon is over.

You may also like:
Lessons from SMRT crisis comms from Saw Phaik Hwa. Please click here.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Show-and-tell at the Republic of Singapore Navy's (RSN) elite Naval Diving Unit

As cameras and mobilephones clicked away at some of the fittest Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) warfighters you can find, a four-storey structure emblazoned with the words HMS Terror loomed above everyone.

This was not one of Her Majesty's Ships but a Hull Mock-up System whose namesake commemorates the real HMS Terror - a Royal Navy monitor armed with 15-inch guns. HMS Terror (warship) was sent to the then Colony of Singapore to protect the island while the Singapore naval base (now Sembawang Shipyard) and coastal fortifications were being built.

Blast from the past: The Royal Navy monitor HMS Terror photographed in 1933. Her 15-inch guns were from a turret built for the battleship HMS Furious, which lost her guns when she was converted to an aircraft carrier.

Today's HMS Terror (training aid) is a part of Sembawang Camp that has been fought over more often and more fiercely than other part of the historical military site that overlooks the Johor Strait (to add to the confusion, Sembawang Camp used to be known as Terror Barracks). The combatants belong to the Republic of Singapore Navy's (RSN) crack Naval Diving Unit (NDU), who use the training aid to sharpen skills needed to board ships or structures at sea and then take over control of the target vessel/structure through force of arms.

Training for our combat divers takes place far beyond the fenceline of NDU.

The was plainly evident from the type and variety of qualification badges proudly worn by NDU divers on their Number 3 uniforms when the crack unit gave about 80 Singaporean community leaders a rare look at what goes on in their camp this Sunday morning.

The coveted Budweisers indicate the diver had trained with the United States Navy's elite Seal unit. Some wore badges earned from Australia's Special Air Service while others donned para wings earned during special forces training in South Africa.

Reading the salad bar of RSN regulars, one could tell who had been on real missions - the medal for Operation Flying Eagle (2004 Boxing Day quake/tsunami relief mission) being one that I always look out for. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find two NDU divers standing side by side in their No. 3 uniform with exactly the same combat skills badges and operational experience.

Show-and-tell at NDU helped civilians better understand how they earn their pay. The corporate video screened repeatedly as visitors waited for the event to get underway underlined the challenges NDU tadpoles (i.e. trainees) encounter on their journey to becoming full fledged frogmen. Even military novices among the visitors realised immediately that NDU is no ordinary SAF unit.

If walls could talk, one would probably learn of the hardship tadpoles of past batches had to endure during 120 hours of Hell Week "Team Building Week" that pushes everyone to their limit, and then some.

Even so, it was an eye-opener to learn that NDU counts two Singaporean women among its elite group of combat divers.

It was tantalising to accidentally overhear that the RSN plans to stage a Navy Open House in April 2013.

It was reassuring to know that even with the tough physical and mental pressure that tadpoles have to endure, there are many full-time National Servicemen handpicked for the job who are determined to qualify as a combat diver.

These youngsters do so with full awareness that completion of Team Building Week marks the start of even more challenging training to come. And throughout their NS commitment, they will shoulder some of the most complex and demanding maritime security taskings the SAF is tasked to execute. Those who made it take the demanding regime in their stride and the esprit in the elite unit is something one has to see firsthand to appreciate.

But the real value of the visit came from helping citizens keep in touch with their citizens' armed forces.

It also gave the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF an opportunity to stay in touch with the community's viewpoints on defence and security matters. Questions fielded by Dr Mohammad Maliki bin Osman, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Defence and National Development who hosted the visit, and MINDEF/SAF officials probably gave them a firsthand feel of things on the minds of Singaporeans.

One hopes such community relations will continue in other parts of the SAF as the effort to generate and sustain mindshare with Singaporeans is one with a long time horizon.

A hit with visitors: Community leaders watch NDU combat divers demonstrate what they can do underwater, which includes reconnaissance from sea to shore, sea mine disposal as well as the ability to approach a target vessel underwater with minimal signature. 

It is difficult to put a finger on the ROI from rostering dozens of NDU personnel for Sunday duty and for the assorted cost items involved in making such visits a success. But if one considers banking positive emotional capital as one measure of success, then this morning's visit most certainly helped MINDEF/SAF bank even more emotional credits.

From a personal standpoint, it was a pleasure revisiting a unit last seen in November 2007. The opportunity to walk the grounds of a camp that groomed successive cohorts of NDU divers whom I met during Ops Blue Orchid 1 and Ops Flying Eagle strengthened one's appreciation of what NDU divers have to go through to qualify for operational taskings.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Fighting the plasma war with the Singapore Armed Forces Battlefield Management System (BMS)

In peace and war, there is such a thing as Too Much Information.

Being able to see first, see more, decide and act faster is a double edged sword: Warfighters with such prescience may be embolded to stay and fight - or they may flee in the face of superior numbers.

This is the dilemma posed to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as it taps on military technology to give its warfighters a better sense of the battle situation than ever before.

The Battlefield Management System (BMS) showcased during Exercise Wallaby this past week is arguably a step forward in exploiting computers, assorted military sensors and the wonders of modern info-comms technology to produce a best effort, realtime picture of the battlespace.

Indeed, SAF warfighters gain a clearer appreciation of situation not by poking their head outside their armoured vehicles but by viewing the flat plasma screen of the BMS and toying around with its features.

In an instant, friend and foe shows up in vivid colour on the bird's eye view of the map grid. Text messages and pictures can be sent from one BMS-equipped platform to another as fast as one's fingers can type.

With SAF war machines exchanging information with one another as the battle unfolds, new hostile elements can be added when they are encountered. This keeps the air and ground situation picture refreshed.

BMS is the visual representation of knowing yourself and knowing your enemy. This display of Precision Information would have knocked Sun Tzu off his chair.

Dangers of tech infatuation
But hardware alone does not guarantee victory and the reliance on technology - left unchecked - could morph into an infatuation with technology, putting in a gizmo for the sake of doing so.

Having data sent wirelessly exposes the SAF to attempts to disrupt, degrade, destroy or exploit such free to air information. Boffins who work for the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF are betting on the improbability that algorithms that encrypt the data can be broken.

During the Second World War, the Germans made the same bet - and lost. The secret behind the breaking of the Enigma codes is so closely guarded that the full story has yet to be unclassified decades after many German U-boats were sunk.

If a clever Enemy can read our mail, this would be an advantage that an astute Enemy would keep quiet about. The Allies certainly behaved this way. They exploited Enigma judiciously, sometimes to the extent of allowing convoys to fall into ambushes set by German submarines as a sudden course diversion with no Allied surveillance assets in sight may have aroused German suspicions that their codes had been compromised.

Even without the threat of code breakers, Too Much Information could bedevil Singapore's citizen soldiers.

Corporate warriors would be familiar with bosses who demand near instantaneous responses to emails, day or night, work day or weekend. With BMS, the SAF could breed a keyboard warrior mindset where soldiers are fixated more with trading information on the BMS, than in using BMS to fight the battle.

Breaking point
Too Much Information could also unnerve the troops when the tide turns against them. The BMS is a boon to morale when things are going your way and the red Enemy icons are erased one by one, indicating you are winning. But if the reverse happened, this bird's eye view might test the fight or flight instincts that are in every soldier. And let us be frank, that flight instinct will kick in for some commanders. Should that happen, the realtime tracking would show this in an instant, thus challenging the rest of the team to make a call whether or not to stay or abandon the position.

In all gunfights, there is a breaking point - that test of will to fight - at which the skirmish line loses its critical mass. That breaking point is the moment at which astute commanders viewing the situation can sense that the tide has turned (for or against their favour, depending on which side you're on). A rupture of defence lines can be turned into a rout by concentrating combat power at that weak spot.

This is why commanders like to lead from the front - not because they are bullet-proof but because it gave them a firsthand view of the state of play and critical junctures at which immediate and violent action against the opposing force should be initiated with remorse or delay.

Another worry with BMS is the possibility that the system could fall into Enemy hands intact. Should this happen, the Enemy would be presented with an information bonanza. To guard against this, SAF war machines that carry BMS are said to have a master key that wipes out all data in an instant. But to assume that a soldier can assess the situation so astutely and time his/her action of wiping out the data so precisely is asking too much of our citizen's army.

Pulp fiction and real shooting wars are peppered with situations where incredibly close calls ended up with the hero living to fight another day. Are we to expect BMS custodians to sit in their vehicle wondering if they should trigger a system shutdown the moment the first enemy rounds start plinking their armour? And when is that kamikaze moment? When the enemy is at the top hatch of your vehicle?

Modern warfare is filled with examples of the Enemy capturing military hardware largely intact. It is dangerous, indeed foolhardy, to assume the SAF is innoculated against this malady. Vehicles could fall out of one's hands by accident, design or inept command decisions. If popular brands of smart phones can be cloned, what makes you think the SAF's BMS cannot be reverse engineered?

Another point worth considering is the way Gen Y citizen soldiers fit into the tech-centric SAF. Much ado has been made about their higher education levels - 60% of full-time National Servicemen having attained a polytechnic diploma or better. Their ability to work with high tech gizmos like BMS makes a cheerful story for MINDEF/SAF. Their mastery of keystrokes, their rapid-fire SMSes conjure visual images of tech-savvy NSFs tailored just right for the tech-centric Third Generation (3G) SAF. It's almost like the wired generation of Gen Ys and 3G SAF were made for one another, with such a serendipitous pairing resulting in increased combat power.

Indeed, the increasing reliance on plasma by the 3G SAF has evoked comparisons between the colourful moving icons marching across SAF plasma screens with those fought on computer games.

Such comparisons are unfortunate. They do nothing to harden mindsets to the reality that fighting real operations is not a computer game.

In war, Game Over is for real.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Sea Soldiers outline 4D strategy to protect Singapore's naval bases

Pulled from the archive, these articles published in August 2003 in Lianhe Zaobao, a Chinese language Singaporean broadsheet, showcase the Republic of Singapore Navy's newly unveiled Sea Soldier force protection troops.

The anti-diver hooks that intrigued some readers in an earlier post is shown below. It is a matter of conjecture just how effective this device would be in real operations.

Fishing for trouble: A Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) Sea Soldier at Changi Naval Base demonstrates how the anti-diver hooks are used to snare underwater intruders.

Deter, Detect, Defend, Defeat: The Singapore Navy's force protection Sea Soldiers demonstrate their range of capabilities in this 2003 article.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Exercise Wallaby 2012: Terrex steals the show by projecting infantry to the close-in fight faster than before

If distances fought over during Exercise Wallaby by Singaporean soldiers were paced on foot, VIP visitors like Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his retinue watching the light and sound show during the war games on Wednesday would need lots more time to see the live-fire action unfold.

Thanks to the eight-wheeled Terrex infantry fighting vehicles, a battleground that took a day or more to cover on foot can be swept over in an hour - or less depending on how aggressively Terrex commanders want their drivers to floor it.

It's high summer in the Australian outback in Queensland where the heat at high noon can send the temperature soaring to around 40 degrees Celsius. Water is what you yomp on your person. Meals are what you pack as combat rations - if you get the chance or appetite to eat it after an exhaustive yomp.

The "enemy" is not the motley group of troopers playing the role of Enemy combatants. Closer to heart, it's the blazing heat and the omnipresent threat of sunstroke or heat exhaustion. With the dry bush crackling underfoot with every step, seasoned Wallaby veterans know another danger comes from bush fires sparked off from misfired rounds. And as the threat from scorpions looms larger than simulated minefields, every soldier takes extra care to watch their step.

This isn't walking weather. But the challenging environment is just the thing for forging knights out of full-time National Servicemen - some of whom had never been on an airliner prior to their flight to Queensland, Australia. Even for officers and men from the 5th Battalion Singapore Infantry Regiment (5 SIR) who have taken part in fun runs and half marathons and trudged the hills of Pasir Laba, movement to objective on foot with weapon in their arms and war material slung on their back would see them crank out 4km/h on a sustained pace on a good day.

At Exercise Wallaby 2012, movement to objective is measured in double-digit kilometres distances. The map squares between FUP and exercise objective may have multiplied, but the time given for the battalion to achieve its mission has shrunk correspondingly (some would say, wickedly).

This quicker pace underlines the faster tempo at which 5 SIR - one of the Singapore Army's Motorised Infantry battalions - can roam across the battleground at a faster clip than previously. Their Singapore-made Terrex ICVs fuse information gathered from the Singapore Army's ground sensors like movement detectors, tactical UAVs like Skyblade and Skylark to give its passengers a clearer sense of what lurks beyond the next hill or urban street. Such precision information complements orders for precision manoeuvre - which essentially means getting our soldiers to where it matters without making wrong turns on unfamiliar ground or showing up when the show is over.

In the wide expanse of the Aussie outback which can easily swallow several Singapores with room to spare, Terrex drivers clock more driving time per day than they ever did back home. Without familiar landmarks to guide one across the simulated battleground, poor land navigation could send soldiers charging into the wrong place at the wrong time, bringing the vehicle commander's career to a proverbial dead end.

If poor vehicle navigation is a potential career-killer, the VC's insurance is a rugged computer mounted in each Terrex called the Battlefield Management System or BMS. It shows a bird's eye view of what around the fighting vehicle in various scales, colour or infrared. Need something to watch your backside? Soldiers use ARSS (pronounced as "arse", no kidding!), the 11-camera All-Round Surveillance System that projects images of the immediate surroundings to the passengers.

But to get the insurance payout, VCs and drivers must be smart enough to use the system under simulated battle conditions. At Wallaby 2012, with live ammunition onboard and enemy simulators determined to put the unwary out of action, it's as real as it gets.

With onboard sensors showing where all friendly vehicles (Blue Force Tracking) are located, the battalion can project its infantry speedily, all this while giving each vehicle a clear idea where its counterparts are. This allows multiple approaches to the objective using sensors to give the infantry battalion forward sensing unheard of in the pre-Terrex Singapore Army. Varying the approach axis creates the element of surprise and allows the battalion to upset defended areas by having forces show up where they are least expected.

Once the objective falls within the range rings of onboard armament, so does the Terrex as it faces opposing forces. Here's where concentrated firepower from Army artillery batteries and/or air force Apache attack helicopters is expected to tilt the balance in a coordinated light and sound show that underlines what precision firepower means.

That's the theory behind Motorised Infantry.

Reality, as we all know, may be rather different and one should watch the results played out during Wallaby to see how readily, aggressively and competently infantry commanders adapt to the faster pace of battle.

Please stay tuned for Part 2 which will be the Wallaby AAR. Many thanks to Australian plane spotters keeping an eye out for action and their ears open for gossip. Catch their reports on the Central Queensland Plane Spotting site here. G'day all.

Comment: The 90 cents newspaper's use of the term "foot soldiers" in its article on Exercise Wallaby is quaint but somewhat misplaced. It brings to mind images of a medieval army where you have foot soldiers as well as assorted types riding into battle on horses, chariots or elephants. Why not just call them "infantry"? We didn't have 45 years of National Service without most Singaporean households knowing what infantry are all about and Singaporeans who don't know would probably not even be bothered to read the article.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Fighting ships deserve a fighting chance: Time to relook naval base security

Block 214 Bravo, Changi Naval Base (CNB), is unique among all of Singapore's naval facilities. It houses the only sheltered - some would say blast-resistant - berths built for the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN).

Inside the stout walls of this otherwise plain looking, box-like structure alongside CNB's East Wharf are berths where the RSN's diesel-electric submarines can be secured pierside where the sun doesn't shine.

Even in daytime, work that takes place inside Blk 214 Bravo is done under artificial lighting by 171 Squadron's submariners, whose corporate office at Block 214 is a short walk across the concrete hardstanding and overlooks the massive structure.

The submarine pens are the only passive defence for Singapore's warships at the naval base. All other men-of-war that call CNB home such as the Formidable-class stealth frigates, Endurance-class tank landing ships and assorted small craft used by the Base Defence Squadron remain unprotected by physical infrastructure like hardened walls.

Enter the Sea Soldiers, the Singapore Navy's post 9/11 answer to the heightened security climate.

The RSN has had servicemen guarding its warships and bases since eons ago. To test its drawer plans, HQ RSN has staged defence readiness war games such as Exercise Papermate and the Gondola series of naval base defence exercises since the RSN was renamed from the Maritime Command on 1 April 1975. Exercise Gondola is said to have undergone several evolutions with the scenario of the war game expanded in scope, scale and complexity as the years went by.

What the Sea Soldiers bring to the table are enhanced capabilities that Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) infantry are trained with (like chem-bio defence and small unit tactics) as well as fast craft tactics, techniques and procedures that are necessary for sea screening duties within and in the vicinity of RSN naval bases.

Think of the Sea Soldiers as RSN security personnel who serve a force protection function that falls in between those of regimental policemen (RPs) and full fledged naval infantry. When first publicised around 2006, these Sea Soldiers appeared to be a credible force that no naval base could do without.

Alas, their structure and organisation appeared to be letdown by a mindset that placed Sea Soldiers of the Base Defence Squadron low on the table of precedence when it came to the distribution of the SAF's latest infantry weapons.

Even in 2006, Sea Soldiers were armed with M-16 rifles that were being phased out of the Singapore Army's frontline combat formations as warfighters in these formations swapped their ageing rifles for the SAR-21 5.56mm assault rifle.

We thus had a curious situation where the RSN's latest warships (i.e. the Formidable-class stealth frigates) relied on Sea Soldiers carrying the SAF's oldest rifles for force protection. RSN personnel entrusted to guard Singapore's most expensive warships had better be able to shoot straight because their M16s were fitted with nothing better than iron sights. They carried no side arm and drove around the base in unarmoured patrol vehicles - not quite a force to be reckoned with if you think about it.

In terms of numbers on duty at any time, the amount of frontage each Sea Soldier had to defend was considerably more than an average infantryman deployed on the FLOT.

Apart from worn out M16s, the Sea Soldiers' armoury had another curious medieval oddity - meat hooks that were towed behind speeding fast craft in the (vain/improbable/futile) attempt to scare the wits out of the Enemy's underwater intruders.

Other countries use seabed sensors so sensitive they could probably hear a seahorse fart to detect underwater craft like submarines. In Singapore, our Sea Soldiers are expected to go into operations like seaborne rodeo cowboys trailing meat hooks and tossing scare charges into the water.

If you really believe Fleet RSN is worth investing in, then the safety and security of RSN war machines and Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) assets should be placed uppermost on the priority list even ahead of Army combat formations.

If our Army has to deploy for action, this deployment in its projected area of operations can only take place under the security cover provided by the air force. The Army's heavy stuff isn't going anywhere unless carried there by the Navy. Aerial resupply can only carry that much to the fight. A sizeable amount of war material will have to get there by sea via the RSN's extant fleet and requisitioned merchantmen.

This explains why both RSN and RSAF will be top on the priority list should deterrence fail and the SAF has to do what it is trained to do. Only a fool of an opponent would sit and wait while the clarion call mobilises the full force potential of the SAF.

One hopes the intervening years since the initial burst of publicity on Sea Soldiers has given these personnel more punch.

Their role is vital because any warship lost prior to or during action cannot be easily replaced. Indeed, the same argument extends to the need for the air force's war machines to be better protected.

Their mission is challenging as CNB and its western stablemate, Tuas Naval Base, have piers that are wide open to outside observation.

The Sea Soldiers had better be good at the game because our sea borders are porous and open to anyone or anything with the determination to get through.

In 1990, three bull elephants demonstrated just how porous our sea borders are when they swam 1.5km across the Johor Strait and landed (apparently undetected) on the military training area on Pulau Tekong. No only was the SAF caught unaware by these visitors, the lumbering pachyderms evaded capture for several days while on Pulau Tekong.

There was an encore a year later on neighbouring Pulau Ubin, this time by a sole elephant which swam there from Johor. The northern shore of Pulau Ubin has since been fenced to deter snakeheads running human smuggling operations from putting their human cargo ashore on that unwatched shoreline.

Did we learn anything at all from these "intrusions"?

In 2004, three fugitives from Malaysia landed on Singapore soil without being intercepted. Once again, Pulau Tekong was the scene of a flurry of activity as the Tekong manhunt cranked into action. Scores of SAF troops were deployed for cordon and search operations, police coast guard ringed the island while RSAF helicopters buzzed overhead. The trio were eventually apprehended (by police Gurkhas) but not before making a hammer blow on the ability of the tech-heavy Third Generation SAF to solve basic security scares like a manhunt.

When pitted against opponents who dare, our fighting ships may be put out of the fight before they sail into action. Only then will the next generation of Sea Soldiers be armed to the teeth - by which time it would be too late.