Saturday, June 29, 2013

Weaknesses unmasked: Singapore's Psychological Defences weather challenges as haze pushes air pollution into uncharted territory

State of neglect: The poor condition of this Civil Defence banner urging Singaporeans to get their homes "CD Ready" is an apt reflection of the level of emergency preparedness in Singaporean homes.

For years, Singaporeans had been urged to be better prepared for natural and man-made emergencies.

How many of us actually listened?

In comes one puff of smoke from Sumatra which sends the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) to a historic high and all of a sudden, Singaporeans scramble to respond to the mother of all hazes.

Knee-jerk responses by Singaporeans heeding that wake-up call when a known irritant (the haze) moved us into unknown territory (PSI at hazardous levels) brought out the best of the kiasu ("afraid to lose" in Hokkien dialect) and kiasee (afraid to die) Singaporeans.

N95 face masks were so scarce that retailers who tripled the price of such flyweight masks found no problem finding buyers when the haze thickened. Ounce for ounce, N95 masks sold at $10 apiece at the height of the haze were probably worth their weight in gold.
Hot sellers: Singaporeans sucked out stocks of air purifiers to guard against the haze. If you visited a home electronics store in Singapore over the 22-23 June weekend, you did not need directional signs to the air purifiers. Just head to the largest group of shoppers in the store and that would get you there. 

Air purifiers disappeared from home electronics stores islandwide. Some consumers were so desperate, even display sets were snapped up at the height of the haze from 19 to 22 June. The lucky few who snatched the last boxes off the shelf clung on tightly to their precious air purifiers with both hands, looking for all the world like they were clinging on to the last life jacket on a sinking ship.

Singaporeans tracked the PSI Index more closely than stock market indices, diligently refreshing computer screens hourly for the latest indictor of air quality (or lack thereof).

Psychological defences tested

Through all this, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) got a resounding answer to its community relations watchword: Is Your Home CD Ready?

We are not.

Indeed, the Lion City's psychological defences have not seen a more severe test since the SARS crisis 10 years ago.

Granted, nobody has died because of the haze. And official guidance on how we should interpret 24-hour PSI data shows that air pollution is not as dire as netizens make it out to be – never mind the dramatic before/after pictures of city sights when the PSI shot to Hazardous levels.

But it is precisely how this island nation reacted to this haze that reveals telling signs of how we as a country might behave when we are jolted out of our comfort zone.

The prognosis isn’t pretty. With our weaknesses unmasked, Singaporean watchers know that our psychological defences need to be made more resilient if we are to weather future shocks better.

Top of the bucket list of improvements is crisis communications.

Crisis comms during the haze

While the haze in something Singaporeans have lived with before - at least since around 1997 when PSI readings last touched record levels - the situation a week ago ushered Singaporeans into unfamiliar territory as our city-state had never before seen three-hour PSI readings shoot past 300 points.

This explains why clear, timely and credible communications are of utmost importance during the haze. It was a Known-Unknown situation during which people would naturally look to their country's leadership for guidance, support and understanding.

It was a golden opportune to regain build trust and win hearts and minds.
To be sure, the job of projecting one's messages across various platforms in the real world and in cyberspace was made more challenging by the fact that the haze crisis situation is the Singov's first big test of its haze drawer plan since the 2011 General Election. Why does it matter? It makes a difference as the ground today is less sweet and Singaporeans tend to be more circumspect.

So spokespersons for officialdom had to work much harder to help their public relations (PR) messages sink home as they faced a larger audience of sceptics and a more vociferous crowd of netizens. They really earned their pay this month.
Singaporeans may not be able to control the origin of the haze. We are, however, certainly in control of how we choose to react to the haze situation.

What triggered Singaporeans to suck up supplies of N95 masks around 20/21 June when three-hour PSI readings soared?

It is probably because people believed two things:
First, that their lives were in danger from bad air.
Second, that the peril could be mitigated with N95 masks or air purifiers.

This desire to live on, to take control of one's fate by protecting oneself against air pollution is a silver lining amid the gloom brought on by the haze.

It would be infinitely more worrying if Singaporeans didn't care anymore because it reflects that we as a nation have lost all hope for our collective future and the will to fight on.

The resourcefulness and drive with which Singaporeans sought out haze protection (N95 masks, air cleaners, last minute holidays abroad under clear skies) are indications that Singaporeans are more resilient than people give them credit for.

Spin doctors who had their ear to the ground should have calibrated official responses to take into account the innate tendency of Singaporeans - of all races, we would like to emphasize - tend to err on the side of caution, no thanks to the kiasu instinct inherent in this country. This is the default behavioural response of most Singaporeans in the absence of credible assurance.

Crisis comms could have done better.

Table of precedence: Air quality tracked by Singapore's three-hour PSI deteriorated to the Hazardous level on Thursday 20, Friday 21 and Saturday 22 June, triggering calls for the public to be kept better informed. 

The great PSI debate

It is regrettable that official efforts to paint a stoic, business-as-usual picture ended up hurting the feelings of a number of Singaporeans at a time when all people wanted was a clear, no BS indication of air quality through the PSI readings.

With the advantage of 20:20 hindsight, it is all too easy to dismiss calls by the public for more responsive, spot PSI data as unnecessary, even alarmist. Afterall, the bad air did not last long.

But what if it did? What if the PSI remained persistently high?

The call to look at the 24-hour PSI reading ignores the fact that most people do want to continue living their lives as normally as can be. With visibility dropping fast especially on Thursday 20 June and Friday morning on 21 June, do you not think Singaporeans need - indeed deserve - to know if they should stay indoors at that point in time rather then venture outside to do everyday things (buy lunch, visit clients, fetch kid from school, bring parents to market etc etc)?

Except for the net savvy who are plugged perpetually into cyberspace through tablet PCs, mobile devices or PCs at home/office, many Singaporeans were left to fend for themselves and had to rely on their survival instinct and common sense to figure things out.

Remember that this isn't disaster country where people grow up experiencing PSI 300 as occasional inconveniences from their youth.

When even our senior citizens gasp at the haze situation, officialdom should have stepped in decisively with clear, unambiguous advice - when to take cover, when to sound the all-clear when pollution dips.

Disconnect with reality

Instead, there was a palpable disconnect between those three-hour PSI readings and the situation outside our windows.

Granted, Singaporeans should wean themselves off the nanny state mentality where we need our nation's leaders to tell us when we can venture outside and when not to do so. But there's a first time for everything and the crisis comms standby plan - one assumes they DO have one - should have public communicatons and responses tiered to kick in at various PSI levels, especially when the PSI hit the Hazardous zone for the first time.

Left to fend for ourselves when we most needed guidance, can you expect Singaporeans not to feel disappointed, letdown by a system which their tax dollars pays for?

What is all that technology for weather monitoring if we do not use it astutely?

Value of PSI readings

PSI readings are quantifiable. Impressions and perceptions aren't.

PSI readings can be validated. This part of weather analysis isn't voodoo science. Impressions, on the other hand, can be subjective and paint a picture totally out of sync with reality.

In a worst-case scenario of spiraling public doubt and dwindling public confidence, poor impressions can hurt Singapore's global standing by fuelling impressions that the value of business at all costs supercedes the well-being of her citizens.[Note: Elections in other countries have been lost over reasons more trivial than this.]

This negative impression could cloud future investment prospects especially when foreign companies who put a premium on talent development and quality of life issues read Singapore's reaction to the Big H the wrong way.

This disconnect was palpable on the morning of Friday 21 June, when the three-hour PSI reading for 8am registered 158 while the smoked out view told a different story. If there was a turning point during the haze when the National Environment Agency's (NEA) PSI lost its fan club, this was it.

Measured, disciplined, rational approach to haze response

Such negativity could have been arrested by a measured, disciplined, rational and calibrated approach to our haze response.

We had that chance when the three-hour PSI entered the Hazardous zone last Thursday and Friday.

We could have shown how our compact city-state leverages on technology to issue timely alerts for people to yes, stop work and stay indoors till the situation cleared as the PSI indicated the air quality was hazardous.

Yes, spot PSI readings fluctuate wildly because the air quality in realtime fluctuates wildly. Explain that to Singaporeans and you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that even the most strident noises in the real world and cyber world are not as unreasonable as you think.

One should have confidence that such hard, realtime data will help calm the public rather than having people rely on guesstimates which may prompt them to view the situation with more negativity than it deserves.

Singaporeans deserve to know how high the PSI readings actually reached during that fateful Friday when the three-hour reading touched a record 401 points. There are rumours, totally unsubstantiated and unproven but spread with utmost seriousness, that the PSI that morning was far higher than the average. Dare NEA tell us what the upper limit was?

What's noteworthy is this: After all the hot air ventilated by Singaporeans, the PSI debate has been left unresolved. The compromise is having BOTH the three-hour PSI and 24-hour PSI readings on local channels, with Singaporeans left to decide their own fate.

Counting on national resilience

As a people, we Singaporeans have endured tolerated weathered many Singov measures that foreigners might recoil in horror against if similar measures were executed in their respective countries.

* We lived through Home Quarantine Orders imposed during SARS, a situation which foreigners might regard as akin to home detention.

* Contact tracing done during SARS went without a hitch in Singapore. Elsewhere, people may feel this is a gross violation of privacy.

* Singaporeans have accepted compulsory National Service (NS) as a fact of life, even at the cost of training deaths of young Singaporeans which broke the hearts of more than 100 families across our island since 1967.

If Singaporeans' confidence will collapse because of a high realtime PSI reading, then we might as well pack up and close shop as the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) won't save us when the enemy is at the gates (as total pandemonium would have broken out).

To suspect that Singaporeans cannot deal with spot PSI readings is to reveal one's disconnect with ground sentiments - a worrying trend when it comes to crisis communications because it shows one doesn't know the audience.

Strategic advantage

Pairing spot PSI data with a public alert can be done today. Infrastructure for a nation-wide alert already exists in the form of the SCDF Public Warning System that can broadcast the tone urging people to tune in for an emergency broadcast. We are the only country in ASEAN and one of the few in the world where every corner of mainland Singapore can hear PWS alerts.

This is a strategic advantage that ought to have swung into action during bad air periods to underline Singapore's measured, rational and disciplined approach to dealing with the status quo.

It is true that our small size puts us at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to a call for workers to down tools. In larger countries, the national economy can continue to hum along even after one (or several?) cities are taken offline.

In the Lion City, taking Singapore offline means shutting down the national economy. It is, admittedly, a tough judgment call to make. Life must go on. We cannot expect food to drop from the sky. We have to justify our existence in this world.

Leaving it to the discretion of companies to decide when and under which conditions to stop work risks unbalanced responses from industry as manpower planners look over the fenceline to see what their neighbours/competitors are doing.

As the world grows more green conscious, what sort of signal are we sending potential foreign investors?

Noise from the internet cannot be wished away or dismissed with platitudes.

And just as the national response should be calibrated carefully, PR statements should be crafted to build confidence and not sow seeds of doubt.

The statement that Singapore had 9 million N95 masks stockpiled, for example, is unfortunate. It came at a time when there was a fierce selloff of N95s island-wide and most people we unable to get hold of a single one. Instead of calming nerves by showing we have all the N95s we need, that 9,000,000 figure did not resonate with heartlanders as they shuttled from one pharmacy to another in their vain search for those elusive N95s.[Note: This was before NTUC's haze response plan creaked into motion.]

Related publicity showing all hands on deck, with volunteers helping the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) made a perfect photo opportunity. Volunteers and SAF personnel formed a human chain to unload boxes of N95 masks one box at a time. This one picture says a lot about how our haze response plan could have been better executed.

Foreign defence professionals who study the picture (above) may conclude (wrongly?) that the mighty Third Generation SAF has some way to go before all that integration and tri-Service cooperation works as advertised.

Is this the message we want to send, that in the entire technologically advanced 3G SAF, we have to break bulk when a forklift or hand pallet truck could have done the job in mere minutes, leaving the volunteers time and energy to focus on value-added stuff?

One would imagine that the haze response drawer plan would have mapped out drop-off locations across Singapore, indicating the number of N95s needed and the population density around the drop-off point.

Commonsense would make you pick places with loading bays at the same height of truck cargo beds to make unloading easier, or perhaps choose a truck with a mechanised tailgate.(Stand at the unloading bay of a supermarket to watch how commercial operators do it.)

For a country which pushes the Total Defence message regularly, the haze response was an ideal PR platform to showcase civil resources in action. But ask yourself if we could have handled the situation better.

New normal 

If there's any good news from the haze, it's the fact that Singaporean homes have never been better stocked with N95 masks and air purifiers.

The haze has done more than any SCDF publicity campaign to get Singaporeans to make their homes "CD Ready". We as a country are now better prepared should we need to mask up for a flu pandemic, because this country is crammed to the gills with N95s.

If the severity of the haze is a new normal, our island nation needs to better prepared for the next big one.  

The tools are there.

There's no shortage of manpower in the SAF or SCDF. And we had all the leadtime to prepare and practice as the last bad haze was back in 1997 - 16 years ago.   

What did we do in the interim?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Haze watch 2013: Role of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) in combatting the haze

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) ability to see, hear, know and act upon military situations that may threaten the Lion City can be optimised to combat environmental calamities such as the haze.

Enhanced situational awareness brought about by being able to see first, see more, decide and act decisively can crimp forest/plantation/peat bog fires before they flare out of control.

Close and long-standing ties between the Indonesian military (TNI) and SAF could, for instance, extend to the realm of overhead surveillance.

The TNI and SAF already cooperate on many fronts, with Indonesian warships sailing to the republic for lessons in areas such as sea mine detection and disposal.

The tri-nation Malacca Strait Coordinated Patrols have seen maritime patrol aircraft from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore coordinate maritime air surveillance over the busy shipping lane in the fight against sea robbers and pirates.

With transboundary pollution making headlines on either side of the Malacca Strait, it is timely to examine if regional military-to-military cooperation can be extended to the area of surveillance using assets in space.

Imagery Support Group
Such expertise is closely guarded among regional militaries. In the SAF, the subject matter experts for satellite imagery resides with the Imagery Support Group (ISG).

But while military forces keep their cards close to their chest, satellite imagery of high resolution is readily available from commercial operators to anyone with deep wallets.

The military's contribution is its ability to keep a close watch on areas of interest 24/365, with an intimacy and comprehensive awareness unmatched by commercial satellite operators.

In the context of haze prevention, a close watch on Indonesian fire risks could nip the situation in the bud the moment overhead birds capture the telltale flare of a fresh blaze. In the United States, some recon birds have eyes so sensitive that they are optimised to watch for the exhaust plume from ballistic missiles the moment their main engines flare.

It is likely that ISG will, someday, be able to perform similar magic.

However, the kill chain would not be complete without the assistance of, and coordination with, Indonesian authorities who can supply boots on the ground to investigate the fire at source and deal with it decisively.

If the MSCP has helped the Indonesia, Malaysian and Singaporean militaries overcome inertia in working together, and if the Changi Naval Base Command & Control (C2) centre has helped forge better understanding among regional military forces, it is perhaps time for ISG to run a regional satellite imagery centre to keep an eye on impending environmental situations.

Such situations would include the haze and calamities such as flooding, earthquake relief, tsunamis etc.

UAVs for haze watch
Coming closer to earth, the SAF should consider deploying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for haze watch.

At present, Singapore can photograph regional hotspots and shares this regularly online on government sites such as the one by the National Environment Agency (NEA).

But there is a dead zone between the time hotspots are photographed on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and the time smoke gets into your eyes. And by the time NEA tells you about it through Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) updates, that data is three hours old.

Modifications made to SAF UAVs could see them deployed as aerial meteorological stations, equipped with air sensors that investigate air quality in international airspace some distance from Singapore's shores.

Surely minitiarised and ruggedised PSI sensors can be added aboard a UAV to turn it into a flying air sensing platform? If our defence engineers can do that, the achievement would be worthy of a Defence Technology prize and would be cheered by Singaporeans as the forward intelligence would allow planners here to find out the extent and composition of smoke plumes as they drift to Singapore.

Such work is admittedly dull, literally dirty and dangerous; just the thing UAVs are built for. :-)

Public Warning System (PWS)
The intel picked up by ISG and UAVs would mean nothing to Singaporeans, if heartlanders are not warned in advance before Hazardous conditions descend on this little red dot.

I know many friends and colleagues who were bitterly disappointed on black Friday yesterday, when the PSI hit an all-time high of 401 points (Hazardous). Those of you in Singapore would probably have seen, smelt and experienced firsthand the choking conditions brought about by the dense 400 PSI-level haze.

But what we saw and breathed in was confirmed in retrospect by NEA's three-hour readings.

If the worst happened and a killer 600 PSI-level plume drifted towards Singapore, would we find out only after half the Singaporean population is knocked out in a Bhopal-like disaster?

We already have the capability to forewarn Singapore residents of trouble. This lies in the island-wide network of Public Warning System (PWS) sirens.

In the opinion of this blog, the PWS should have been sounded the moment air monitoring stations detected bad air that crossed into Hazardous territory.

Not to do so is a letdown for the millions of Singaporeans who are not lucky enough to be connected to NEA's online updates.

Blaring the PWS would not kill or mitigate the haze. But early warning which the PWS was designed to do would help Singaporeans know that trouble is approaching and do something about it (example: remain indoors with In-place protection protocol).

Water bombers

The final suggestion came from a reader who wrote an email about the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) that can be installed about tactical airlifters such as the Lockheed C-130.

It is interesting to note that the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) can role change its Charlies for special duties of an electronic nature, but has yet to consider turning the C-130 into a flying water bomber.

Doing so would allow Singapore to lend its weight to regional fire fighting efforts - not just in Indonesia as such blazes also affect our neighbours like Australia and Thailand.

In the bigger scheme of things, MAFFS would allow Singapore to provide first responders who could act on the intel provided by the regional satellite surveillance centre.

And should best efforts fail and the blaze produce another haze plume, then up go the UAVs flying at various altitudes to provide Singapore with forward, one bound ahead awareness of the size, max height and lethality of the haze plume.

Forewarned with such intel, authorities would be in a better position to use the PWS to alert the population of impending Hazardous conditions long before the murk hits your window.

Such assets would allow the full spectrum SAF to better protect Singaporeans from external threats during a OOTW situation.

It is one thing for the haze to irritate Singaporeans when fires are started with no ill intent or by nature.

Imagine the impact on this country if fires are deliberately lit on a scale unseen before as an act of eco terror. That is one terror threat our full spectrum SAF cannot properly address despite its current order of battle and multi billion dollar budget.

Haze watch: Heartware and psychological defence during the 2013 haze
Eco Terrorism

PSI: Realtime indications of air quality needed during haze crisis

Singapore's defence and security services can detect incoming air attack, hostile warships and submarines as well as land-based threats.

The island nation has a comprehensive Public Warning System which is designed to alert residents of impending threats (mainly air and artillery strikes).

But when it comes to smoke from Indonesian forest and plantation fires that is now causing the haze that has blanketed Singapore, the multi-spectrum Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is a bench warmer.

When facing a clear and present danger to our health and well-being (i.e. the haze), we could do better giving Singaporeans better situational awareness.

Indeed, Singaporean residents unplugged from cyberspace have no indication of air quality.

Net savvy individuals who arm themselves with phone apps for hourly PSI (Pollutant Standards Index) updates from the National Environment Agency (NEA) have to contend with three-hourly PSI readings which, by the admission of officialdom, fluctuate widely.

There is a disappointing disconnect between what Singaporeans need to know and an apparent effort by officialdom to put on a stoic business-as-usual, keep calm and carry on mentality.

With the amount of money Singapore has spent in wiring up this island, it is hard to imagine why NEA cannot provide realtime PSI readings.

From a medical and academic perspective, the logic that 24-hour PSI readings are better suited for "calibrating" national responses is hard to argue against.

Those numbers may be fine for the head, but not the heart.

In building a case that Singaporeans fixated on minute-to-minute (i.e. realtime) readings would be akin to "chasing one's tail" (Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Today newspaper, Page 2, 21 June 2013), government spin doctors are missing the forest for the trees.

When Singaporeans look out of their window and see landmarks disappearing at an alarming rate, we need advice and some immediate indication to help us plan our course of action.

What does a PSI of 401 Hazardous mean?

The NEA escalation ladder for its PSI readings indicate action items (stay indoors etc etc) but could do better explaining the health implications of the various health advisories. In other words, what is the impact on your health when the PSI is Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy, Hazardous?

Should we allow mum to walk to the supermarket to buy groceries? Is it safe for junior to go to the playground? Can our loved ones still go for their evening walk?

These are everyday issues heartlanders have to deal with minute-to-minute.

They are judgment calls we have to make, go/no-go decisions that are better served by being appraised of the situation with figures we can trust showing the situation right now, not backdated averages of what had been in hours past.

The information world abhors a vacuum.

In the absence of clear guidance from NEA, what do we resort to as our guiding light?

We probably use guesstimates of the air quality based on what we can see ("Oh, that building was visible when PSI was xxx points, so I guess it must be around xxx points now"), anecdotal advice from self-professed weather experten, noise from the Internet.

If there is some technical hurdle to sharing realtime PSI computations, then please say it, explain it to Singaporeans to help us help you manage public morale.

At the present time, such morale isn't great.

Use of SAF assets in combatting the haze

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Guide to radars and defence equipment installed on HDB blocks and commercial buildings in Singapore

Sea sights: A unknown radar and EO mounted on the roof of HDB Block 14 Marine Terrace commands a panoramic view of the Singapore Strait, a major artery of world trade. The radar is thought to be the Elta EL/M 2226 Advanced Coastal Surveillance Radar (ACSR).

11 March 2023 update: Books Kinokuniya in Singapore has stocked Pukul Habis. Please visit its main store in Ngee Ann City or Bugis Junction, or check the Kinokuniya online store here. The title should be available via Kinokuniya Malaysia soon. Please enquire with the KL store.
For readers elsewhere, please check the Amazon sites that serve your location. "Look Inside" function on some sites shows sample pages.



United Kingdom: Look Inside

USA: Look Inside. When ordering from Singapore, please click on the "Shipping to Singapore?" button. Ignore the "Temporarily out of stock" notice on the page.

In May 2013, a written reply to a question raised in the Singapore Parliament on "defence equipment installed on HDB blocks" got us curious about the type and number of such hardware atop public housing built by Singapore's Housing and Development Board (HDB).

The question and answer is reposted in its entirety below.

Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) website.
Posted: 13 May 2013, 2100 hours (GMT +8)
Written Reply by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen to Parliamentary Question on Defence Equipment Installed on HDB Blocks

Assistant Professor Tan Kheng Boon Eugene: To ask the Minister for Defence
(a) whether defence equipment, such as radar, are installed on HDB blocks and, if so, what are the reasons for doing so;
(b) how are public health, safety and security concerns managed and mitigated; and
(c) whether these installations pose an added danger to HDB residents during times of military conflict.

Dr Ng Eng Hen: "There are less than a handful of defence equipment installed on HDB blocks as part of SAF's surveillance network to ensure Singapore's security. These were sited only after all other viable alternatives had been exhausted. These equipment pose no adverse effects on health of individuals as they keep well within international norms and standards required by local agencies. In fact, the measured levels are similar to base stations for mobile phones that have been set up by commercial telcos across the island.
These installations protect all Singaporeans as they serve to prevent attacks on Singapore."

Senang Diri's findings
About Asst Prof Eugene Tan's question:
We found that Asst Prof Eugene Tan's family lives in Marine Parade. This could have triggered the question from the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) on this somewhat arcane subject as hardware - which this blog believes to be "defence equipment" - was observed on a block of flats in Marine Parade.

His question on public health could have stemmed from worries over long-term health implications having his loved ones in the vicinity of "defence equipment" which appears turned on 24/7.

In the United States, for example, there have been concerns that overhead power lines may have led to a rise in childhood leukemia. Whether living nearby to "defence equipment" (such as radars) in Singapore would result in elevated cancer risks and other health complications would be areas of concern for the layperson.

About Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen's reply:
The pointed questions on 1) public health, safety and security and 2) whether these installations pose a danger to civilians (HDB residents) during a war were only partially answered.

In the opinion of this blog, DM's reply did not address the question "whether these installations pose an added danger to HDB residents during times of military conflict". In simple language: Would the installations, presumably used by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), represent a legitimate target under the laws of armed conflict?

In addition, DM's reply that there are "less than a handful" of defence equipment installed on HDB blocks led to speculation over MINDEF/SAF's definition of what constitutes "less than a handful". We set the number at less than five HDB blocks.

The obvious question was where these blocks are located.

We found radars on HDB blocks in Marine Parade and in Woodlands.

* Both radars were installed on the roofs of 25-storey point block HDB flats. These were built before legislation made it compulsory for flats to have a household bomb shelter.

* Radars in Woodlands and Marine Parade are of different types. The one north keeps an eye on Malaysia while the one in Marine Parade scans coastal traffic towards Indonesia's Riau archipelago.

Radar at Block 215 Marsiling Lane, Woodlands - Elta EL/M 2226 ACSR short range radar?

The Woodlands radar has a commanding view of either side of the Causeway road and rail link which connects Singapore with Malaysia. It appears to be sited there to keep an eye on seaborne traffic in the Johor strait.

This apparatus on Block 215 Marsiling Lane is the northernmost radar site on the Singapore mainland.

We are not radar experts but the shape and form of the antenna appears to conform to that of the Israeli Elta EL/M 2226 short range gap-filler radar.

A close look at the infrastructure on the roof indicates that there may be an electro-optical (EO) ball mounted on one corner of the roof. The images you see above were captured from Johor.

Radar along Keppel Road

For the sake of completeness, the survey included commercial premises. This resulted in the addition of a building along Keppel Road to the findings. This radar is of a different type from the arrays seen in Woodlands and Marine Parade and appears to be connected with the control of shipping entering and leaving Singapore harbour.

Radar on HDB Block 14 Marine Terrace - Elta EL/M 2226 ACSR?

The radar on Block 14 Marine Terrace is fitted on the life machinery room of the block of flats, which was built in the 1970s on reclaimed land. The HDB point block has four units on each floor, each with a different facing linked by two lifts in a central lift shaft, for a total of 96 units.

The unknown type of radar comprises two dish arrays stacked one on top of the another. The shape and form of the radar antennae is thought to resemble the extended range variant of the Israeli Elta EL/M2226 Advanced Coastal Surveillance Radar (ACSR). The X-band device is said to be able to track 500 surface contacts simultaneously.

If this is the case, then this would confirm the emitter as "defence equipment" used by the SAF to build up its sea situation picture.

The orientation of surveillance is south-facing, towards Indonesia's Batam and Bintan islands. On the north-facing side, there appear to be baffles behind the radar which screen the emitter from TV and assorted aerials which crown the roof of Block 14.

Sweep rate was observed at around 60 revolutions per minute. At its perch 26-storeys above ground (including the lift machinery room), the radar horizon has an unobstructed view of all coastwise traffic in the Singapore Strait.

As with the arrangement at Marsiling Lane, there appears to be some sort of electro-optic device paired with this radar. This device is backed by the same sort of baffle which screens the device from the radar immmediately behind it.

Some views of the radar antenna are shown below for radar enthusiasts. Please compare and contrast the images with that of the Elta EL/M2226 ACSR.

Elta EL/M 2226 Advanced Coastal Surveillance Radar (ACSR)

Legitimate target?
The addition of "defence equipment" such as radars and EO on civilian buildings may make such property legitimate targets during a war should a belligerent want to knock out the SAF's eyes and ears.

It will be clear that hostile action taken to destroy, degrade or disable the radars will affect residentials not just in the host block, but those hunkered down in apartments in the immediate vicinity who are in the blast radius of ordnance dropped on the radars.

It will be interesting to know what sort of drawer plan MINDEF/SAF have drawn up for a Period of Tension which would ensure the safety and wellbeing of residents who live with a radar over their heads.

Should you know of any other HDB blocks with radars on their roofs, please contact me at

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Ship without joy: The Republic of Singapore Navy target vessel Jolly Roger

4 December 2022 update: 

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To our weapons development teams, defence engineers and test pilots. Thank you for the work that you perform and the responsibilities you shoulder. May your stories be told some day.

The first part of this post is opinion based on present-day observations. The rest is fiction - leave you to decide which part may have actually happened. :-)

Impact zone: You wouldn't want to be on the deck of the target ship Jolly Roger II when the Singapore Armed Forces conduct guided weapons trials using her as the aimpoint. The original Jolly Roger is rumoured to have been sent to the bottom of the South China Sea by Paveway LGBs dropped by the Republic of Singapore Air Force.
Singapore is among the few countries in Southeast Asia with defence technology know-how that can customise off-the-shelf weapon systems and platforms for its specific operational requirements. Special vessels like the Jolly Roger II serve a vital role in such efforts.

Ignored during a public event, she is a bomb missile attention magnet during secret military trials. The Republic of Singapore Navy's target ship, Jolly Roger II, leads a life of striking contrasts.

Virtually ignored at the Singapore Navy's largest public event, the Navy Open House, Jolly Roger II becomes the centre of attention during Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) guided weapon trials, most of which are classified secret and above.

Modified from a barge design with inputs from Fleet RSN, Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) naval architects designed Jolly Roger II to resemble a typical fast attack craft (FAC) of no particular design (or nationality) with a notional gun turret forward, a superstructure and mast and assorted structures aft.

Her "gun turret" has no barrel, her "bridge" is windowless and being unpowered, a pufferfish could outswim this floating curiosity. But her shape is about right and when an active radar seeker is locked on to Jolly Roger, the radar return is said to closely mimic that of a FAC.

The target barge is the only surface vessel in the RSN painted in three colour paint scheme of white, black and grey and has more anchors than any other man-of-war in Fleet RSN. Numbered markings on her hull help Singaporean defence engineers calculate the effectiveness of weapons trials, particularly the centroid for radar-guided munitions.

She has been attacked relentlessly by live ordnance on more occasions that any other RSN surface vessel, sometimes almost to the point of destruction. Point detonation, delayed action, proximity fused, sea skimming at wave top height, sea skimming with pop-up terminal dive, glide bombs, dumb bombs, smart munitions delivered by naval or air force war machines - the punishment that Jolly Roger II has endured probably makes her the most miserable ship in the Singapore Navy.

Jolly Roger II will never be named Best Ship. She is a ship without joy, but she is lucky.

Despite the ferocity of attacks unleashed by the SAF, Jolly Roger is virtually "indestructible" because the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) will pay to have her rebuilt every time. These unpublicised trials allow MINDEF/SAF to customise guided weapons for the SAF's specific operational requirements, to make bespoke ordnance that countermeasures cannot fool and which give Singaporean warfighters something special to wield against hostile forces.

Indeed, guided weapon trials are so important to MINDEF/SAF that money was spent rebuilding Jolly Roger whereas the hulk of the Anti-submarine Patrol Vessel RSS Courageous was never made seaworthy again.

That rebuild was necessary, thanks to the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) which sent the original Jolly Roger to the bottom of the South China Sea decades ago during guided weapon trials which cleared the upgraded Northrop F-5S for the maritime strike role using Paveway II laser-guided bombs.

One can only imagine what could have happened.

First aloft was a E-2C Hawkeye from the RSAF's 111 Squadron.

The airborne early warning (AEW) turboprop would play the role of range warden this tropical morning by using her saucer-shaped radar to check the exercise area for air and surface traffic that should not be in the area.

Inside the Hawkeye's cabin, air force radar plotters noticed that a fixed datum marked on their PPIs was constantly circled by surface vessels and a large mothership. The surface vessels moved in elliptical race track patterns while the large blip appeared happy to mark time at a slow rate of knots.

That fixed datum was their contact of interest: the Navy's target ship Jolly Roger. Surface contacts circling her were Missile Corvettes (MCVs) from the RSN's 188 Squadron. They too were range wardens and were tasked to sanitise the area of underwater contacts (i.e. foreign nation submarines).

The large blip was an Endurance-class tank landing ship, configured as exercise control for the trial involving 500-pound GBU-12 laser guided bombs that were en route from Paya Lebar Air Base. Also wandering aimlessly in the vicinity (but maintaining a respectful distance from the target ship) was an ocean tug which towed Jolly Roger all the way from Bravo Whisky to one of the grids in the the South China Sea Delta area.

The MCVs had their fish out for some time and both Commanding Officers had their warships closed up for action stations.

With Variable Depth Sonars systematically pinging the depths around Jolly Roger, ASWOs aboard the MCVs scrutinised the sonar returns tell tale signs of underwater objects. There was nothing found (which should be the case) and the underwater situation picture was clear.

The MCVs continued on their assigned sector search pattern towing their VDS at the stern with an umbilical cable that connected warship to underwater sensor tens of metres beneath the missile boats.

The MCVs could not see the RSAF Hawkeye circling high over the exercise area. But the air situation picture compiled by the Sea Giraffe radars on Valiant and Valour gave Principal Warfare Officers on both ships a good idea of what was in and around the MCVs.

Anchored to the seabed by four anchors, two from the bow and two off her stern, Jolly Roger was not going anywhere.

She was the star of the show and like all stars, commanded attention from cameras and an attentive audience.

If you stood on her deck, you could have seen the hardworking MCVs steaming purposefully in racetrack patterns with their madly spinning Sea Giraffe radars scanning the heavens.

Farther off midway to the horizon to the South of the exercise area, the dark silhouette of RSS Endurance and the tug was a fixture that had stayed in placed for the past few hours.

Defence engineers from the Defence Materials Organisation (this was pre-DSTA) and Naval Logistics Department officers who were the last souls aboard Jolly Roger to check on her battery-powered test equipment couldn't help but notice the picture of serenity while on the barge. A ship at sea is a noisy place with assorted plant and machinery needed to sustain life aboard the ship giving those onboard hardly a moment of quiet. It was so different aboard Jolly Roger.

Before they were taken off by an FCU from Endurance, those aboard Jolly Roger were treated to an unblocked view from horizon to horizon with no exhaust fumes, noisy air vents or diesel engines to disturb the peace.

If this was a pleasure cruise, the sun, wind and water around the Jolly Roger would make this a fine sailing day indeed. Telemetry cameras aboard the target ship showed nets placed on the impact side of her hull barely stir in the soft sea breeze and (almost) dead calm sea. Exercise planners couldn't ask for better conditions to monitor the weapon trial. Alas, that peace and quiet would not last long.

You heard the jets before you saw them. The high-pitched whistle of F-5s with the deep howl of an F404 turbofan from a re-engined TA-4SU Super Skyhawk broke the morning calm as the trio of RSAF warplanes swept across the target ship on a low level, high speed pass.

Jolly Roger's executioners had arrived.

The pair of F-5s comprised a single-seater recently brought up to F-5S standard under Project Mxxxx. On her Number 2 and Number 4 pylons hung blue painted bombed with olive green heads and fins. A centreline tank gave her the legs to make it from her base in Paya Lebar out to the SCS and back again. End to end, the flight would take around 45 minutes.

The F-5F was there as a chase plane and cameraship to film the bomb release and impact sequence. The F-5F led the trio in a echelon left formation: F-5F, F-5S and TA-4SU Super Skyhawk during the flypast over Jolly Roger.

The Super Skyhawk had no ordnance underwing. Two wing tanks on her inboard pylons and a sensor pod on her centreline was her contribution to today's activities.

Flypast over, the trio of warplanes continued their flight across the Jolly Roger from South South West then turned east in a gentle bank.

Inputs relayed by voice from the orbiting E-2 and radio updates from the MCV duo indicated that the range area was clear. This was pre-Battlefield Management System and the air, surface and sub surface situation picture had to be slowly compiled from assorted platforms working alone but connected via secure radio.

If Jolly Roger was the star, the LST Endurance was show central. Here was where the exercise director called the shots and gave his go/no go for the action.

Jolly Roger had attracted a tri-Service audience from the SAF. Uniforms, unit patches and caps from Singapore Army formations, RSAF and RSN squadrons added colour to the hand-picked audience who had gathered to watch the show. There was a good number of civilians onboard too - big guns from MINDEF Level 5 and project engineers from DMO and the Defence Science Organisation. So both sides of the Ops-Tech relationship were well represented.

Satisfied that it was all systems go, the Colonel ordered the RSAF air liaison officer to get the birds into position. The message was relayed by UHF to the orbiting warplanes.

Showtime was about to commence.

With range rings drawn around the Jolly Roger, the idea was for the Skyhawk to illuminate the target using her laser designator while the F-5S glide bombed the ship from standoff range using a pair of 500-pound Paveway II LGBs.

The F-5 would release her bombs several miles from Jolly Roger to simulate a maritime strike delivered at the outer limit of naval anti-aircraft artillery (40mm, 57mm or 76mm) of the simulated threat vessel. Keeping the F-5 well above 10,000 feet simulated an attack posture which would keep the warplane out of reach of SHORADS which, at the time, were appearing aboard regional warships thanks to energetic sales efforts from European missile salesmen.

The trio were now split up. The TA-4 approached Jolly Roger from one compass bearing while the F-5S and her faithful F-5F cameraship flying shotgun ingressed from another bearing. The flying had to be carefully coordinated as the bombs had to remain within a 60 degree cone from the point at which the laser spot hit Jolly Roger.

At a pre-determined range, the F-5S bomb truck called "Ten seconds" to the Skyhawk followed by "Laser On!".

The TA-4 started the show by lasing the target from a standoff distance:"Laser On!"

At the same time, the F-5S pilot turned his switches to "live". The laser spot tracker on his HUD is now hot and the pilot called out "Spot" to indicate that seeker heads on the GBUs have zeroed in on the invisible laser spot on Jolly Roger miles downrange.

Cleared by UHF from Endurance to come in hot, the F-5S rolled into a dive from around 20,000 feet - steep or not is a matter of perception - a manoeuvre which raised the fighter's airspeed to around 450 knots. Bomb release was done at around 15,000 feet to simulate SHORADS avoidance while giving each projectile sufficient KE to reach the impact point.
At that distance miles from impact, it would take a sharp eye indeed to spot the 50-plus metre long target ship amid the slight haze common in the South China Sea at that time of the year.

Weapons release saw both GBUs drop launched from the F-5S milliseconds apart to effect safe separation from the parent aircraft. Relieved of nearly a tonne of bombs, the F-5S pilot felt his aircraft bump upwards twice in rapid succession.

It was time to simulate the evasive manoeuvre after weapons release. The F-5S banked hard right with both burners cooking, leaving the cameraship darting ahead alone to trace the flight of the GBUs to impact.

Egress was done at high speed of around 550 knots - the faster the better - but for this weapons trial, he converted high speed into height by pulling his nose up at 30 to 40 degrees before wingover to recover to level flight. The sleek warplane sought out and joined up with the twin-seat Skyhawk in loose tactical formation. For now, both RSAF war machines orbited the Jolly Roger to observe their handiwork.

Jolly Roger's executioners now became spectators.

The endgame was pretty swift and tidy.

With no explosives in the bomb casings, just ballast to simulate the aerodynamics of a live 500-pound bomb, exercise planners had expected the GBUs to hole Jolly Roger at two places and leave her otherwise undamaged. There would be no heat, blast or destructive shrapnel to damage the target vessel.

At point of impact, the first part of the GBU which struck Jolly Roger was the rod-shaped laser seeker head. Half a tonne of bomb propelled at 400-plus knots from 15,000 feet was at that precise moment transferred to the GBU seeker head, whose extreme end had a diameter about the size of a soda can.

The steel plate of Jolly Roger where the seeker head touched surrendered to the sudden, violent clash of metal. The plate deformed even as the crushing impact destroyed the seeker head, compressing the rod-shaped seeker down to the brain of the bomb which had done its job of guiding projectile to target.

Then came the bomb casing. Several inches thick to maximise sharpnel effect and weighing half a tonne, shaped like an ellipse to minimise drag, the head of the bomb which lay behind the flattened seeker head hit the deck like a battering ram. The initial deformation of the steel, the dent in the deck was pushed to the limit as the steel struggled to contain the energy. It was an exercise in futility.

The GBU punched right through the deck plate, rupturing the deck on the inside of the hull with a flower-shaped pattern as the bomb shot right through the hole, gradually enlarging the hole to the bomb casing's maximum diameter. Once that max diameter had been reached, the rest was easy. The tail end of the GBU met no resistance from Jolly Roger's deck plate and the rest of the bomb casing went straight in, her cruxiform tail fins cutting an "X" shape on the deck as if the steel was putty..

Jolly Roger shook with a second impact as the GBU tore through her hull bottom, creating a puncture wound which vented her to the sea. A jet of seawater surged through the bomb hole, tonnes of seawater fast filling the void in the hull of the converted barge. The air within her hull, compressed by the inexorable inrush of seawater, fought for release. Weak spots in the hull like access hatches that had lost their watertight integrity after years of wear and tear were blasted open by the force of the desperate air bubble struggling to escape.

What was achieved by Bomb 1 was repeated by Bomb 2 as the Super Skyhawk's laser designator worked as advertised. With her hull open to the sea through two bomb holes, Jolly Roger was doomed.

All this took place in milliseconds, too swift for the human eye to catch. That's why highspeed cameras installed by MINDEF defence engineers were there to film the show.[It is rumoured that bomb damage assessment of the sunken vessel revealed bomb entry wounds about the same distance apart as the bombs were carried on the F-5.]

Aboard Endurance, the audience caught the silent movie (cameras were fitted but not microphones) on screens which showed the action unfolding aboard Jolly Roger from several angles.

The takeway from the audience was different, depending on their professional interest in the weapons trial, experience in the weapons business and their calling card.

A Navy Colonel who once commanded an MCV and Missile Gunboat mentally walked through how he would position his ship and the orders he would give to swat that F-5 out of the sky. At around 10km range, his Barak missiles would fly (his PWO would be ordered to launch a pair to ensure a kill). The MCV would show her broadside to the Enemy as that would maximise the arcs of fire for forward and aft Barak missile directors.

If the aerial threat continued its flight, he would turn headon towards the enemy to present the minimum profile. Even as the MCV was repositioned vis-a-vis the threat axis, he would order the 76mm Super Rapid to open fire at around 5km range at max rate of fire of 2 rounds per second. The Oto Melara weapons salesmen claimed the Super Rapid could be used as a CIWS due to its high rate of fire and the FCR's ability to bracket fast moving targets. If it was for real, firing would continue until the threat(s) were destroyed or the magazine depleted.

MINDEF's defence engineers had other thoughts on their minds. They wondered how the slight haze and humidity would affect the laser beam by contributing to atmospheric scatter. Possible lock-on challenges due to divergence of the laser beam or spillover reflection on the sea surface, which could affect weapon accuracy, also occupied their thoughts.

For now, all eyes were fixated on the silent movie as the Ops and Tech reps scrutinised the target for the imminent arrival of the GBUs.

There were the twin bomb impacts - both swift and violent - which rocked the Jolly Roger amid a cloud of rust dust. But hardly any debris flew into the air.

As Jolly Roger settled on an even keel, you could tell things were not right as hatches popped open and the view of the visual horizon from the target vessel's deck changed ever so slightly. If microphones had been fitted, one would have heard the banshee screech of air hissing out from hull fractures and weak weld seems as tonnes of seawater forced its way through the hull ruptures.

Her deck was awash within minutes. Jolly Roger would be a write-off as there was no way the standby tug would be able to tow her back to Brani Naval Base (Changi Naval Base was still a paper plan at the time).

Weighted down by tonnes of seawater, she sank on even keel and disappeared beneath the waves, falling to the seabed with the elegance of a brick dropped into a tub of water.

She was gone even before the RSAF warplanes turned south and set their WDNS for pigeons to home base. For them, their job today was done (for now, more debriefings would follow in coming days).

For MINDEF defence engineers, the job of analysing test results would begin as soon as all telemetry data was compiled for their scrutiny.

Jolly Roger was gone. But a new target ship would eventually take her place: the Jolly Roger II.

Unclassified open source information presented here outlines weapon capabilities of F-5s in general and are not specific to the RSAF. Astute readers should be able to figure things out.