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


Anonymous said...

It has been 16 years since the 1997 haze and nothing has been done by the Indonesians. They just don't care. Maybe it is too expensive to extend their reach into the deep jungles of Sumatra. Maybe the local politicians are in the pockets of the corporations doing the burning. For whatever reason, they simply have no will to deal with the issue.

We already give them the imagery -- you can even get it on the net, for goodness sake. They do nothing. We cannot send our C-130s into their airspace without their permission, which they won't give because it would be a huge loss of face. Measuring PSI is not easy, since it varies so much in time and space, which is why only 3h readings are given by NEA and only 24h readings are official - any early warning drone would generate too many false alarms and miss too many genuine ones.

Your post is full of nice ideas. But they won't work unless the Indonesians play ball. Ultimately, the problem cannot be solved by technology but only by politics, because that is where the problem actually lies.

Anonymous said...

And you nicely ignore the first half of the post, that doesn't rely on Indon co-operation.

Anonymous said...

Well sending UAVs to monitor the situation might be seen as an offensive move.
I mean come on, if for example we let our neighbors send their UAVs ( assuming that they have ) to monitor our country for whatever legitimate reasons, would we accept it?
The UAVs could be used to pick up military intelligence instead That could compromise the safety of our country.
Or lets say the government decides to put cameras everywhere even in your house to 'prevent crime' would you like it?
So if Singapore were to send UAVs over to indonesia, they might not view it as just a simple surveillance.
No matter what we would still need the cooperation of the Indonesians

Anonymous said...

Oh stop talking cock to use the poor NS boys as cheap labor. Idiots only think SAF is almighty

Anonymous said...

The National Leedership has decided that sounding the Public Warning System would too accurately acknowledge the high severity of the haze problem. Therefore it is not worth the cost in people's health.

Anonymous said...

You are just talking cock and full of mastubatory fantasies like many commanders in a TTX. You think the Indons will allow the SAF to fly freely over their airspace especially the UAVs?

I have a better fantasy, if the SAF is really that good, why not we send in our esteemed 21st Div and 48 SAR to secure the affected land mass supported by our expensive toys such as our Longbow Apaches, F-15SGs and our La Fayette frigates before sending in our SCDF rhinos on the ground. And throw in C-130s and Chinooks to do waterbombing runs?

David Boey said...

Dear Anon (above) and Anon 6:07PM,
There is an Air-Sea gap between Indonesia and Singapore.

There's no need for the air sampling UAVs to enter their airspace. Ample room for the flying PSI sensors to do their job.

Anyway, swarm UAVs is a subject matter of interest for a particular SE Asian nation.

re: C130 water bomber. Goes without saying this has to be with their concurrence.

Skies seem clear this Saturday evening!

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

Anon 8:39

Will you volunteer to invade that hellish landscape, instead of ordering forced conscripts to die doing it so you can sit in comfort?

Anonymous said...

Come on guys. Comments from an Arm Chair General...

Don't take it too seriously.

Anonymous said...

Our far-sighted government has no drawer plans for a high PSI scenario despite haze being yearly occurrence for 20 years.

This is quite an oversight by our capable and expensive civil service. It shows that these great minds are merely instruments of the top leedership who makes all the decisions. They are incentivised to perform to measures and not to results. In cases where the top leedership is sleeping, all the wondrous talent of our civil service is wasted.

Gaps in drawer plans happen where decision-making is highly centralized. I hope our PM all-controlling has not done this with the SAF, otherwise all our wondrous weapons in the SAF will be wasted.

Anonymous said...

All this is fine and dandy but immediate action needs to be taken.

Instead the government seems to be clumsily waiting for Indonesia to carry the ball and run with it.

100 firefighters and 2 helicopters for a scale this massive is a joke.

As is cloud seeding when there are no clouds.

Singapore has no capability to operate the Modular firefighting systems on the Charlies nor do they have the require experience.

the short term fix would be to throw money at the problem and lease the expertise be it from California, Russia or wherever.

There are plenty of firefighting assets which can be hired in for the job and which will not risk embaressment to our giant neighbour.

Our politicians are not adept at diplomatic side stepping these days as evident in Goh Chok Tong's childish retort recently on his facebook.

This is a health threatening situation to the nation and requires more proactive and robust action then hourly PSI readings.

No need to co-organize some sort of ASEAN medic's meet recently if we don't even have contingency in place for a situation that has been with us for almost two decades.


WontonMan said...

Singapore Garhment good at hire foreign talent but when got this kind of problem, why no spend money to fix?

Now I go buy fishball also got problem.

How say?

Anonymous said...

If they stock piled gas mask appropriately, our friend WontonMan won't have such a problem getting his fishballs.

Seems to me 'Total Defense' concept needs a bit of attention.

Anonymous said...

and according to genting group (malaysia) company website, genting plantations currently has about 228,000 hectares of plantation land in malaysia and indonesia.

so, is getting plantation one of the companies from malaysia which is responsible for the current massive forest/peatland burning in sumatra, indonesia ?

Anonymous said...

Talk about using the SAF now, it should have been done on Thursday when the PSI and PM 2.5 levels reached dangerous levels. The govt is either in a state of denial or its response has cocked up to the state of FUBAR. What should have been done is to activate the SAF and SCDF to distribute free N95 masks and to set up mobile hospitals in anticipation of the surge of patients due to haze, dengue and possibly MERS in the next few weeks. When we start to hear the pseudobabble and gobbledygook to justify why it is better to refer to 24 hr PSI rather than 3hr or hourly PSI, trying to justify non-closure of schools by equating indoor home conditions as the same as indoor school conditions and why there was no stop work order for construction workers by relying on a continuum of variables rather than a threshold figure for PSI demonstrated the lack of decisiveness or being clueless or have lost the plot in managing this crisis.

David Boey said...

Dear Anon 4:49 PM,
re: Schools. The issue isn't whether indoor air quality in schools and homes is the same.

Students can't teleport themselves to school. Some students travel substantial distances to and from home and school. Some walk, some cycle. Not everyone gets chauffered there in an aircon car.

When ground visibility dips, road safety should be a primary concern too. Even in clear wx, we get school kids run over by errant drivers.

We also need to ask if it is necessary to have young lungs exposed to what the NEA itself declares as Hazardous air conditions.

The same logic applies to office workers.

There are many corporate functions that can run close to normal as many office workers can log on to their office systems from home.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore should jointly lease a fleet of Be-200 fire-bombers, crew them with Russians, and dispatch them to Sumatra to put out the fires. No point giving our cash to those extortionists. Or even the fire-fighting aircraft.

Anonymous said...

addendum to above post. Better use seawater, so the land cannot be used productively for plantations!

Anonymous said...

Precisely that was what i was hinting. Students have to commute to schools and are not teleported instantly. Moreover there are no N95 masks customised for children. In other words erring on the side of caution, its better that schools are closed for at least another week if by 29 June situation does not improve. People can still work from home. Those in the ivory towers still dont get it.

Anonymous said...

Hapuskan PAP!

Anonymous said...

...people can still work from home ...accept foreign construction workers...they are what do they call it? Expendable.

Anonymous said...

reading through some of the comments.

I mean some serious questions have to be asked :

1) Why after over a decade of haze has nothing been done legally or inter-government?

2) Why is there no foresight that we will likely face this sort of health crisis given predictable weather conditions?

3) Why is there no contingency plan in place by SAF or the government?

4) Why have we not been able to lease/hire firefighting assets from secondary countries to "help" the Indonesians along with their meagre complement of 100 men and 2 helicopters?

5)Why have we sat on our hands and waited for 'cloud seeding' or rain?

6) Why have we not developed and purchase the MAFF equipment/capability?

7) Why do we not have sufficient gas mask or facilities to guard against this sort of danger given history?

8) Why are we not able to exercise better soft persuasion on Indonesia without the sort of tactless gaffs on certain minister's social media sites?

Not trying to point the finger at anyone of course but some hard lessons have either not been learnt over many years or are simply ignored. Instead public is fed useless PSI readings and kept home in the (vain) hope that air conditioning will filter out the nasty particles.

Anonymous said...

As others have already pointed out, as long as the ID govt do no cooperate all these ideas are good only for reading pleasure.

The ID govt have no respect for others even after we bend over for them. I think they are just playing us to the edge and forcing us to use extreme measures. Think about it. They are basically not caring about choking to death first our economy then our health.

Using the SAF against them is too harsh how about something more low level and targeted. Go after the business people. Kill some to frighten the rest which I believe the Indonesians people would even applaud. At least that's what my Indonesian friends suggest. Stop those giving corrupt money to politicians. Time to serve these tycoons what they sometimes serve to inconvenient rank and file Indonesians. Save the Indonesian people even as we protect ourselves.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking, perhaps our high-handedness and arrogance over some issues have irked the Indonesians in the past, so we are receiving in-kind treatment from them this time. There is the outstanding issue of control over the Riau air traffic information zone, which we have steadfastly refused to transfer to the Indonesians. Another sore point is the extradition treaty and return of ill-gotten assets to Indonesia.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anon June24 @9:50PM,
I think even if these outstanding issues have been resolved, the Indonesians will make up some reason to chastise us for demanding that they take action now.
Indonesia is just too big in land area and population islands to govern effectively (as in up to standards of SG or even M'sia) and the fact that Sumatra is possibly the poorest and least developed of the major islands doesn't help.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anon June 25, 2013 at 12:32 AM,
You are right, of course. Even if the outstanding issues have been resolved, the Indonesians will cook up some reason to chastise us for demanding that they take action now Over the haze issue, we are right to offer help, and not talk down to them. I think Malaysia is also doing the same.

Anonymous said...

Offer help.

Offer what?

Seeds for clouds? They already have.

Planes they have.

Can offer clouds because they don't have.

Anonymous said...

Before the SAF uses satellites to map hot spots, let us first see if anyone at the top has links to the guilty companies.