Monday, July 22, 2013

A national necessity: The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) longest and most diverse overseas mission; Operation Blue Ridge

Now that the last Singaporean soldier has returned home from Afghanistan, questions may be rightly posed whether Singapore's longest and most diverse military mission overseas was necessary, worthwhile and appreciated.

On all three counts, the answer should be resoundingly affirmative.

That six-year mission, codenamed Operation Blue Ridge (OBR), was born of necessity.

Singapore has deployed the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) on overseas operations across the globe on many occasions in previous years. What changed the tenor of OBR from just another international obligation to a mission of national necessity was the awareness among all who planned, executed or supported the mission that projecting carefully calibrated military capabilities to that war-torn land made a telling contribution to the safety and security of our homeland.

The video of Singapore street scenes that surfaced in Afghanistan was recognised by security and intelligence professionals here that our island nation had popped up in the sphere of consciousness of unknown authors who were compiling a dossier of destruction.

That single video, a reconnaissance run by bumbling amateurs since rounded up in Singapore by relentless counter-intelligence operatives, was recognised as a possible precursor to sinister exports from their Afghanistan safe haven. This was a direct threat against our homeland that was credible. But like a slow growing tumour, did not represent an immediate danger as it was discovered at an early stage.

We had two choices: sit back and let the cancer grow or take decisive and aggressive action at source.

Disruptive influence
Afghanistan's safe haven status was built upon chaos, thrived on fear and was sustained by robbing native Afghans of their dignity and right to lifestyle needs many people take for granted such as access to fresh water, basic education for all children and healthcare.

Any disruptive influence Singapore could exert on that safe haven would put a dampener on the time, energy and resources the syndicate of destruction could spend on hatching their dark deeds in our Lion City. With the proverbial knife to their throat from an intentional assembly of warfighters called into action post 9/11, these unfriendly elements had to fight for their survival in their erstwhile safe haven - thereby buying Singapore precious time needed to strengthen homeland security and build up security awareness among citizens ushered into the new normal.

Each of the 2,263 days that the SAF spent in-theatre in Afghanistan made a convincing demonstration that as far as the peace and security of Singapore is concerned, there is no distance too far, no operation too long that the SAF cannot or is not prepared to undertake to defend the Lion City.

Singapore's national flag, proudly flown on flag staffs in all areas in which our warfighters were deployed - Camp Kiwi in Bamiyan, Camp Holland in Oruzgan, Camp Alamo in Kabul, Camp Baker in Kandahar - during those six long years made a telling statement of our resolve that we would settle the account with anyone, anywhere who hatched plots against Singapore's citizens.

Time and distance was no barrier; an alien area of operations a poor deterrent.

As OBR has shown, the SAF will come and find you and deal with you on your doorstep, in your own backyard however far you may be and for however long it may take.

Every hand of help provided by the SAF to Afghans represented a disruptive influence to the safe haven status that devious minds once enjoyed. Individual efforts contributed to the sum total of goodwill built up over six years - almost as long as the Second World War - and helped countless Afghans regain their honour and dignity in their daily lives.

Indeed, OBR stretched over so many Afghan winters that MINDEF's senior management who were there to send off the first contingent were all replaced by the time the last three SAF personnel arrived home from OBR at 3pm last Friday (19 July). That the size, scope and complexity of the SAF's involvement grew during the leadership transitions (DM and Service chiefs) says a lot about the resilience of the system in sustaining the effort, over long range (5,221 km SIN to A-stan), over the long run (2,263 days) and under hostile fire (just ask 24 SA).

Mission accomplishments
According to post-mission analysis furnished by the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF, the 492 warfighters accomplished much while facing many security challenges and had zero casualties while shouldering the mission in a harsh and hitherto unknown AO.

Our military medicine expertise introduced Afghans to advanced clinical and dental treatments - indeed many Afghan patients had never sat in a dental chair before the SAF came a-calling.

Our combat engineers reoriented military construction expertise to improve communications by rebuilding land links like bridges and culverts, thereby improving Mobility for the locals. Their advice on battlefield fortifications led to the construction of shell- and rocket-proof shelters that enhanced the Survivability of SAF personnel and equipment deployed for OBR.

The ARTillery HUnting Radars from the 24th Battalion Singapore Artillery (24 SA) that rolled into action lived up to their name by providing precious additional seconds' worth of early warning 27 times against incoming tube/rocket artillery fire. Our gunners achieved a 100% success rate and overcame technical challenges in keeping the radar system cool in Afghanistan's sweltering summers that the Arthur's Swedish designers had not designed the system to cope with.

Sensor fusion and network-enabled concepts so fancily depicted during SAF Work Plan seminars were thrown into a combat zone where SAF intelligence planners, imagery analysis teams and UAV teams had no illusions about the price of mission failure.

Quiet professionals, Learning Organisation
That OBR had an almost storybook ending, a made-for-movie conclusion belies intense yet low-key efforts made by MINDEF/SAF and our security and intelligence community to come to grips with an AO that our staff colleges did not train SAF warfighters for.

Pictures that chronicle OBR from its earliest deployments speak volumes of the SAF as a learning organisation.

Soldiers sent for OBR in 2007 wore the SAF Number 4 uniform whose tropical camouflage pattern made them stand out rather than blend in while in Afghanistan's arid landscape. Commercial sports jackets were worn during cold weather, making the SAF contingent look like a motley crew in various stages of fancy dress hastily assembled for a war zone deployment.

The desert Tiger stripe camouflage uniform soon replaced the Number 4 which we are all familiar with. Later deployments saw SAF warfighters dressed in pixellated camouflage fatigues that helped our Army blend in with their new operating environment. It was plainly evident that ops-tech integration, the conversation between Army analysts who scrutinised post-deployment AAR notes from early OBR alumni and our defence science community had taken place and borne results.

Our defence science community lent a low-profile yet reassuring hand to projects that added mission essential equipment to SAF war machines. Pictures of Singapore Army combat vehicles and air force transports deployed in-theatre provide telling hints of new SAF capabilities in mitigating threats posed by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and MANPADS. The contributions from these quiet professionals is indeed reassuring.

Air bridge
As all this was going on, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) was acutely aware it had to sustain the logistics trail - the air bridge - that stretched from the Army Logistics Base in Lim Chu Kang, Murai Camp, Nee Soon Camp and Dieppe Barracks and other areas all the way to Afghanistan.

RSAF C-130 Hercules tactical airlifters from 122 Squadron were employed on strategic airlift missions from Paya Lebar Air Base all the way to dusty runways in Afghanistan, with the final approach made on an unusually steep glide slope with defensive aids on full alert for threat of attack by MANPADs and with aircrew in body armour and personal side arms within reach.

If one ever needed to see the contrast between peace and war, the flight from Singapore to an Afghan airport provided a striking dissimilarity that few who experienced it will easily forget. Each round trip to Afghanistan and back saw 122 SQN aircrew travel more than 10,000 km. Our RSAF airmen maintained the air bridge successfully, routinely all these years despite the perils that awaited them at journey's end.

On home ground, every SAF serviceman, every family member of OBR personnel made a telling contribution to the sustainment effort too. Our Physical Training Instructors, typically hated by BMT recruits, were instrumental in getting OBR candidates in fine fettle before their war zone deployment.

Our Medical Corps turned every OBR candidate into a first-responder, a quasi medic who helped backstop the professional expertise that real SAF medics brought to the AO.

Logisticians who were the start point on the long supply chain kept the business end of OBR as a going concern. Without them packing the right thing and sending it at the right time to the right AFPN number, OBR would not have lasted as long as it did.

It suffices to say that when you take on a Singaporean soldier, you take on the entire defence eco-system that stands solidly behind our fighting men and women, giving them a capability over match, moral, psychological, logistical and familial support so necessary in winning the fight decisively.

And when all else fails, in comes our defence science expertise which throws in all the bells and whistles that underline what our defence budget investments have been spent on these past decades. OBR has shown that when it comes to real ops, the SAF warfighter will appear on scene with a capability over match that gives each soldier the best chance at mission success, a fighting chance at taking it as well as dishing it out.

That takedown isn't impossible - assuming you fight according to the rules of civilised warfare. But the price the SAF will make you pay for each hit it takes will likely be high, if not prohibitively so. The war material the SAF brought to OBR to help the contingent fight and survive in a war zone underlines this point.

Despite the facts and figures MINDEF trots out to show what OBR has achieved, the threat from hostile elements whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere has not receded.

The cancers to national security still exist. Continued vigilance is the new normal that every Singaporean has to adjust to.

Standing guard, ever watchful 24/365 even as you read this is the Singapore Armed Forces. Unflagging in its resolve, unfailing in its loyalty, untiring in its mission wherever the threat(s) may stem from.

You may also like:
All-out effort to protect SAF warfighters in Afghanistan. Click here


Anonymous said...

Deploying to Afghanistan did not make Afghanistan any less of a failed state. No country in the world can do that except Afghanistan itself on its own time. Even the USA cuts its losses and goes home.

There are better ways to ensure the national security of Singapore.

In terms of securing Singapore, this way must rank at the very bottom in cost effectiveness.

Anonymous said...

On the contrary, the contributions made by Singapore to the Afghan National Army are actually useful. We improved the effectiveness of the Afghan Army's usage of their artilleries which would aid in their fight against extremist fighters.

I agree with the poster that doing so would buy us time to strengthen our national security because if we are able to help the Afghan people delay or possibly stop the threat of the Taliban then it in a way is buying us time and also weed out a potential threat to national security.

Anonymous said...

Do you think the Afghan Army can survive after the Americans leave next year? Karzai himself is corrupt and his government is illegitimate. There will always be a resistance, Taliban or not. It is NATO and not his army that prevents the reemergence of Afghanistan as terrorist safe haven.

This end result is the same regardless of our contributions to artillery training, road building and civic action.

If we had helped to train the Iraqi Army, it might have been more useful because Iraq is less of a failed state and a lost investment than Afghanistan.

Anonymous said...

"Karzai himself is corrupt and his government is illegitimate."
In the name of democracy I think everyone should agree with this.

To take note that "the extremist" doesn't fight by numbers nor strength of the fighters, but fight with belief/faith. Remember Vietnam.

In Hollywood, Afghanistan was the land of Rambo III. John Rambo and his mujaheddin friends don't exist in reality. In fact the US president that time was very like it.

So next few years would be time to decide, see whether everything goes well or flip up side down. Might have impact to our nation.

Anonymous said...

If put to a national referendum, I doubt we will ever deploy troops there, and Muslim bro and sis stand only 30% of the population. but that only meant that the general pop can blame the gahman if there are repercussions.

Anonymous said...

This post seems to have a rather polarized and pro-SAF perspective, as opposed to the more neutral perspective of the previous postings.

I hope that this trend does not continue.


Anonymous said...

On the other hand, I've heard that other nations' soldiers are commenting that during patrol, the SG soldiers are always at the rear of the formation. Wonder what this will say about the bravery of our troops...

David Boey said...

Dear All,
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the matter.

With 492 SAF personnel deployed over six years in a country with an estimated population numbering 13+ million people, I believe we were quite clear about the limits of OBR as a change agent.

But we did punch above our weight and this was recognised by named (repeat: named) international participants of noteworthy rank on several occasions. They would not prejudice their reputations just to blow smoke up your arse: They call it like they see it.

re: Anon 23 July 5:50 PM. There are certain issues where commentators cannot be fence-sitters. This is one of them. Our commitments in manpower and defence material to make OBR work were hefty for a small nation with a citizens' army and with pressing homeland security obligations post 9/11.

This is why one has to hold an opinion on the matter and argue the case accordingly.

Opinions in this post were framed on the long MRT ride from Boon Lay to Eunos on Friday night after the Overseas Medal (OSM) presentation ceremony and OBR exhibition preview. I held it over the weekend, in case there was a change of heart, and tweaked it slightly before posting.

All things considered, I believe we did well and have given credit where it is due. As I support the strategic basis for OBR, this line of argument is made abundantly clear in the second para.

I take your point. This blog has no ambitions to be another cyberPioneer.

Re: Anon 23 Jul 10:18 PM. Which patrol and comment from which country please? The OBR exhibition chronicles the extent and nature of our commitment in Afghanistan. Do make time to visit to learn more.

In the meantime, please amplify your remark for the benefit of the rest of us who do not have access to your hearsay. Thanks!

Best regards,


P.S. Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen's speech at the OSM ceremony is worth reading:

Anonymous said...

Above, I don't think this is true. Singapore troops do not do patrols at all. Few patrols also involve 2 countries' troops at a time(except NATO mentoring Afghans). It would obviously lead to communications problems.

Singapore troops only drive MRAP with phone and IED jammers in secure areas to the Afghan training sites and wherever they need to go. They take maximum precautions to avoid dying because of the political fallout. This is the reason our detachment is covered by our ARTHUR radar.

I am not saying our troops are not brave. This is the truth about instructions from the top. All troops are volunteers and brave to some degree. The commandos providing force protection are the bravest. The trainers from guards and artillery, perhaps are there for their career motives.

Anonymous said...

I feel we've put in a more than decent shift, helped out in niche areas and probably freed up personnel from lead NATO nations to focus on beyond-the-wire duties during the "surge" to the current drawdown phase. Don't expect us to change the world, but I think we can and have shown that we can make a meaningful specialised contribution which adds to our maturing public image in Coalition settings..

Good job guys, and good to see everyone back safe.

Food for thought, the Chinese are looking at Afghanistan in a deeper way than before.. A good background below.

Anonymous said...

Adding on to the previous post..

Anonymous said...

Apologies in advance for this rather long comment.

I've read all the comments so far and wish to point out a few things:

1. We never did joint patrols, either with other Coalition forces or with the Afghan security forces. So I'm not sure what the "...during patrol, the SG soldiers are always at the rear of the formation..." (Anon @ July 23 10.18pm) comment is all about.

2. The MRAPs were used by our SA guys who served in Kabul as artillery trainers. They had to move from base camp to the training grounds through open and often hostile areas. Hence the jammers. The IED threat was real. Very real.

3. The ARTHUR WLR was deployed in the Multinational Base in Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan (MNB-TK for short, or MBTK). Their role was to provide early warning of incoming artillery fire targeting the base. As the base housed Coalition, Afghan and of course, our own troops. Oh, and Afghan civilians too (interpreters and general workers). So, it's simply not true that ARTHUR WLRs were only for SAF detachments' protection (Anon @ July 23 11.42pm).

4. Anon @ July 23 11.42pm (again) said something about how the commandoes deployed there were "the bravest". Look, please don't compare and contrast :p. Every man and woman who deployed came under threat of hostile fire, regardless of their role. On several occasions that THREAT became FACT. That our guys and gals performed their jobs - and did them well - in spite of the challenging conditions speaks volumes of their calibre. So, no, our people were not cocooned while over there.

By the way, in case you're wondering, I was there for about 4-5 months. So I should know what I'm talking about :p

Anonymous said...

My point is that you nonetheless supported a corrupt and illegitimate government that will fall without direct combat support and even with indirect support from outside.

No one is denying that you exposed yourself to danger or performed well in a military capacity. The point has been missed that the Afghan government's viability and Singapore's national security have not been served by Singapore's deployment. Isn't this a familiar characteristic of our government's statements?

I anticipate that your response would be that Singapore made a difference to the lives of a few Afghans.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:40pm,

Opinions on Karzai's government are very diverse. Even discounting for your perception that it does not have a popular mandate ISAF's presence would probably have pushed the country towards some form of reconciliation as compared to the early 2000s.

In any case, Afghanistan's future rests heavily on its interaction with Pakistan.

Anonymous said...

That is an alteration of the facts to make Singapore's deployment look less futile than it is.

Opinion is less diverse on the survival of Karzai's government.
It is a gross euphemism to say that Karzai "does not have a popular mandate". For a government that stole an election and is so corrupt that ISAF is forced to create numerous Afghan police forces to counterbalance each other.

And how does your statement on the Afghan-Pakistan relationship make Singapore's deployment less futile? That relationship is not Afghanistan's choice, is Singapore doing anything to change things on the Pakistani side?

We should just be thankful that no Singaporean lives were lost. It would be a tragedy, a waste and a national scandal if anyone died for this cause.

Anonymous said...

The stupidity and idiocy of some of the comments here against the SAF are a true reflection of the naivety, immaturity and idealist belief of those who has lived far too long in the safe and clean ivory tower of Singapore. seriously... if you have a better choice, would you settle for less? the REAL world is such that we very often have to choose between two lesser evil or suffer the worst. Karzai is not perfect, he is not GOD, even GOD has his opponents and disbelievers. We can only do what we can with best of intentions, beyond that we must recognize we are human.

Anonymous said...

The last desperate resorts of the anticipated PAP response have finally appeared. Didn't take long.

To your claim that only hindsight is perfect, the world knew way before we deployed in 2007 that Karzai's army was pathetic.

To your claim that Karzai is imperfect, I'll grant you that even if he was as clean as your LKY, it was known from the very beginning his army is shit. Why risk lives and make a token effort knowing you won't prolong his government's survival at all? Was Singapore training his whole army or getting Pakistan to stop undermining him?

You won't get far by altering facts between the lines to disguise the SAF's futility or by scolding people as stupid or ungrateful. This is not LKY's era.

Anonymous said...

Did the SAF pick karzai?
Was SAF the main force behind karzai?

You probable wouldnt care.

As long as you can bash PAP, you blind toads would gladly run over a million Good men with a tank.

Anonymous said...

where got a million,only 492.

Tiew M said...

*Sidetrack* Hi David, I am doing a quiz on the NDP website. Do you have a source that answers when was the first time the feu-de-joie was executed by the parade GOH? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Karzai ain't perfect, but which alternative power structure is palatable at the moment?

Anonymous said...

I salute our troops who were there. I honestly can't say what they did will amount to anything appreciable in 5 years time.
I foresee once US leaves, China will step in - they are already mining minerals there and are good pals of the Paks.

Anonymous said...

Did the SAF pick karzai?
Was SAF the main force behind karzai?
Karzai ain't perfect, but which alternative power structure is palatable at the moment?

You're still avoiding the point. If you're not going all the way for whatever reason, then don't risk lives to make a drop in the ocean.

If all the options are ineffective, doesn't mean you MUST pick the best one. Leave that mess alone. A token effort does not make Singapore safer.

Anonymous said...

Oh..... So if you cannot save everyone, Dont waste time trying to save even one?

Think I will stick with PAP, you can go drown with whichever opp party you like.

Anonymous said...

You are moving to new arguments after they are destroyed in succession.

First it was that deployment enhanced Singapore's national security. Then it was that the SAF performed well in country. Then it was that Karzai is the lesser of two evils (and we must back him). Now you've conceded all these and implied that anyone is saved by our being there- and that your lying all along was justified on this grounds alone.

You are also painting this in PAP vs opposition terms. I have not identified with any party and you already say I am opposition.

I put it to you that even your PAP is not infallible. If mistakes are made in going to Afghanistan, don't paint them as victories and or you are bound to repeat them.

I have never found fault with SAF overseas deployments from Timor to Iraq to Aden- they serve purposes. This one tops the cake in terms of uselessness.

David Boey said...

Hi Tiew M at 6:42 PM 26 July'13,
Could it be NDP 1980 held at the National Stadium?

Am unsure but couldn't find an earlier reference. Do let me know the correct answer after the quiz results are released please.

Best regards,


Tiew M said...

Sure! Thanks, David!

Tiew M said...

Hi David, just a quick update. The answer to my question is out. You were close.. The answer is actually 1976. Thanks for your help once again!

Anonymous said...

Was wondering why are we involved in other's war? Are the leadership afraid US will not come to our aid if conflict broke out?