Sunday, May 5, 2013

Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) Navy Day 2013: Harnessing information as an instrument of naval firepower

Visit the modernised Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) at the Navy Open House from Saturday 18 May to Sunday 19 May 2013 at Changi Naval Base.

"Like" the official Republic of Singapore Navy Open House Facebook page:

At war, at sea, at night, the name of the game for Singapore's navy in the 1980s was see-and-be-seen.

The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) Patrol Craft A-class RSS Freedom, rigged for night action, was all set to do just that during a naval war game in the South China Sea.

The crew had festooned their Patrol Craft with a string of lights fore to aft. It was almost like dressing ship for a naval review, except that RSS Freedom's role during the war game had a more serious intent. She would be a Trojan Horse, steaming at a slow rate of knots among brightly lit fishing craft that plyed close to commercial shipping lanes off the coast of Malaysia.

During the night encounter exercise, RSS Freedom's job was to spot the enemy warship - played by a frigate from a FPDA country - and tip-off Missile Gunboats (MGBs) lurking just off the visual horizon. No missiles would actually fly. Everything was simulated through voice comms with umpires stepping in to help decide who saw whom first and who got their decks shot out from under their feet.

RSS Freedom's "camouflage" was her ability to blend in with the coastal fishing craft which used light bulbs and flood lights to attract and thereafter entrap schools of fishes.

The Vosper-built patrol craft armed only with guns (and nothing larger than 40mm) would entrap too, and would let missile boats punch the lights out of the commerce raider, assuming the enemy commanders let their guard down. That was the theory.

There was no finesse to this naval tactic devised by Fleet RSN, no consideration for stealth and nothing deserving of a Defence Technology Prize.

Naval warfare of that era was conducted within visual range of the commerce raider with the reasoning that the sheer amount of contacts would clutter the radar scope of the opposing man-of-war. Anyone scanning the horizon using night vision scopes (this was 1980s technology) would have the image flare whenever it came across the brightly lit small craft.

Freedom had her own night sights installed on the 0.5 inch Browning heavy machineguns (B guns) on either side of her open navigation bridge. These were presently concealed with grey spray covers, which would be removed once the cat-and-mouse night action got underway.

Had RSS Freedom roamed the waters blacked out, the warship would have stood out as a critical contact of interest among the surface clutter.

So long as she kept her lights on, RSS Freedom was safe from visual and radar observation.

Out of sight but not out of contact, the upgraded MGBs waited for their call to action. Their Harpoon missiles could reach beyond the horizon and had a longer reach than Gabriel anti-ship missiles.

Singapore's upgraded MGBs still carried both. While the Harpoons outperformed the Gabriels on paper, the ability to guide the missiles after launch made the Gabriels useful for hit-and-run tactics in congested waters.

On the other hand, the Harpoon's longer legs would only be a tactical advantage if the MGB could tell the missile where to look for its intended target.

That's where the Mark 1 eyeballs on RSS Freedom, now dressed as a coastal fishing craft, would play their part.

At the time, a rudimentary attempt were made at putting eyes in the air to extend the awareness of RSN warships with the Colosa project, which added a surface search radar to the belly of Republic of Singapore Air Force SC.7 Skyvans.

Hardware aside, some of the tactical coordinators who joined the upgrade Skyvans on maritime air surveillance flights came from the RSN. Their job was to assess surface tracks on the radar scope to place RSN task groups of fast missile boats in optimal position for gun/missile engagements while friendly surface forces were still outside the radar detection range of the hostile vessels.

To symbolise tighter coordination and cooperation between Singapore's air and naval forces, Skyvans from RSAF 121 "Gannet" Squadron carried the RSN insignia on their nose for the first time.[This practice was followed in later years after a "proper" Maritime Patrol Aircraft, the Fokker 50 Mk.2S, joined the RSAF. The air force's S.70B Seahawk naval helicopters also carry the RSN insignia.]

Gannets gather: Half the fleet of Republic of Singapore Air Force Skyvans, operated by 121 Squadron, seen here on the taxiway. Can you spot the difference between upgraded Skyvans and the tactical transport variant?

The box-like twin-engined tactical transport joined the naval battle unarmed. Her value was information provided to the RSN's surface situation picture from her belly radar. It was a good effort, except for the fact that Skyvans were not optimised for night flying over the open sea and had to shadow surface vessels outside the range ring of their anti-aircraft gun or missile armament.

If this early attempt at integrated warfare took place for real, the Skyvans would have acted as eyes for the Fleet and Republic of Singapore Air Force strike packages sent aloft for anti-shipping flights.

Low-level flights during FPDA war games of that time, governed by rules of engagement under FACES (Formal Agreement for Conduct of Exercise Starfish) and FAME (Formal Agreement for conduct of Maritime Exercises), often saw RSAF warplanes skimming the wave tops at mast top height. It was not uncommon for RSAF F-5s to streak by so low that each warplane generated its own rooster tail wake as hapless warships attempted to bring their AA guns to bear.

The takeaways from yesteryear was the game-changing value of being able to see first, see more and decide and act more decisively than one's opponent.

Such evolutions do not kick in automatically. There are naval forces around the globe who go out to sea in vessels with vintage electronics that are several generations behind the kind of technology on mobilephones carried by the young sailors who man these ships.

In the Singapore navy, progressive capability upgrades and replacement programmes for its fighting ships (and now, naval aviation) are discussed, planned, implemented and refined with a time horizon of many years. Naval acquisitions due to urgent operational requirements can, of course, take place much faster if the button is pressed.

In today's RSN, surface combatants no longer sail into battle with strings of electric light bulbs as part of their tactical equipment.

Battlespace awareness can be built up and refreshed using multiple sensors to the extent that the naval platform engaging a target may be able to let its missiles fly using target data handed over from someone else.

Comparing the 80s tactics with what we do today, naval tactics of yesteryear seem hopelessly outdated.

But we learnt and internalised the value of harnessing information as a game changer. And we can do this using C2 and BM systems we develop in-house, with a speed and weight of fire that shortens the endgame.


Anonymous said...

RSN has grown since its inception days. All this are thanks to the visionary leadership and the many men and women who has served for the past years!!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all your depictions of tactical scenarios. If they were made into a CGI film it would be a real treat.

Abao said...

In this 21st century, we will need more investments in naval and air assets, especially with a exhausted US and expanding China.

While we still have the 5 power defence pact, the only probable support in future will probably be the Australian Fleet and the small LCS Fleet stationed in Singapore.

We will need to continue investing in a strong fleet if we are to keep the sea lanes free from Hegemonic influences

Anonymous said...

I know we have stealth frigates, but for near shore fighting, nothing beats corvettes and patrol vessels. I hope the replacements for the MGBs can carry not only Harpoon, but the Gabriel IV or V.

David Boey said...

Dear Anon 6 May 3:42 AM,
The air force has done something like what you suggested in past years. Comes in censored version released on CD-ROM and uncensored versions for internal audience.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

I was onboard RSS Freedom P70from 1979 to 1982 vocation: Radar Plotter

David Boey said...

Hi Anon 28 Oct 2:03 PM,
Sounds like an interesting assignment.

RSS Freedom brought me out for my first trip out to sea. Freedom plus two MGBs.

Was hopelessly seasick. Puked over the gunny sack of rice in the passageway. :-/

Have since found my sea legs and sail much better now. It is pure joy being out in the open sea aboard a grey deck.

Best regards,