Saturday, April 30, 2016

Show-and-tell by the RSN Naval Logistics Command (NALCOM) telegraphs deep expertise in naval logistics

With a radiant flash, the Oto Melara 76mm gun burst into life, firing shells at a rate of two per second at its target.

At the maximum range of 10km for surface targets, even slight deviations in the barrel elevation and azimuth, combined with the forward movement, pitch and roll of its parent warship could send shells off target.

The result: mission fail.

This is why the gun mount and the naval gunfire fire control system for weapons like the 76mm gun must be integrated properly and maintained in tip top condition to keep the Navy's warships fighting fit.

During a visit to the Naval Logistics Command (NALCOM) at Changi Naval Base yesterday morning, the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) showcased how NALCOM logisticians and engineers keep its surface warships, unmanned assets and submarines prepared and ready for naval operations on and from the sea.

NALCOM weapon engineers also explained the intricacies of naval gunnery, with a naked Oto Melara 76mm Super Rapid gun used for a demo of the ammunition feed cycle.

The visit for members of the Advisory Council for Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD) was hosted by Senior Minister of State (SMS) for Defence and Foreign Affairs and Chairman ACCORD, Dr Maliki Osman.

Not shown nor explained but implied by the presence of civilian defence contractors tasked with electronic warfare (EW) portfolios, embedded with NALCOM squadrons as part of its "integrated workforce", is the fact that the sharp end of the Navy's warfighting potential is made up of a lethal combo of hard and soft-kill options.

The depth of NALCOM's expertise in underwater naval technology was also implied when Dr Maliki led ACCORD members to view a diesel-electric submarine (SSK) undergoing an overhaul in a covered workshop along the South Wharf.

From the outside, Block 322 at CNB's shiplift compound is plain and functional, its box-shape and covered roof unlikely to win it any architectural prizes.

This sheltered facility - protected from the elements, lightning and prying eyes -  is where NALCOM takes apart, services and reassembles every major SSK component. The 7.5 tonne overhead crane which runs on rails spanning almost the length of Blk 322 allows NALCOM naval engineers to lift out every major item within the SSK's hull, including the propulsion plant and sensors like the bow sonar.

The overhaul involves more than an oil change for the boat's engines and a new paint job. Indeed, the work that goes on inside Blk 322 reflects how far and how fast the RSN has progressed since the decision was made in the 1990s to acquire several Sjöormen-class submarines from Sweden for the RSN to evaluate the need for a submarine capability.

For Singapore's defence engineers to master complex engineering projects like the overhaul of submarines shows that RSN and defence industry engineers have long passed the beginner's stage in submarine maintenance work.

The purchase of two Type 218SG submarines from Germany is likely to lead to the construction of a second specialised workshop in due course.

Alongside the shiplift compound, one sees naval craft maintained by NALCOM for live-fire practices. The modified Fast Craft Equipment Personnel (FCEP) waterjet-propelled landing craft and the target barge provide telling hints of the level of realism injected into Fleet RSN war games that are supported by NALCOM.

The FCEP suggests the size of targets that naval gunners are trained to target and sink, with the large orange net indicating that the small landing craft could simulate larger targets with sensors used to track near misses.

Berthed alongside Mike 2 at the South Wharf is another naval oddity. The features on the Jolly Roger target barge, which makes it resemble the silhouette of fast attack craft typically found in this region, give you an idea of the size of surface targets that sensors on RSN and RSAF guided munitions have to find, fix and finish. If the Jolly Roger could talk, this target barge would tell you that she has survived more live-fire munitions than any other RSN asset, as evidenced by the patched up hull and shrapnel scars.

Beyond the hardware, NALCOM's ability to surge to a war readiness footing from peacetime manning was evident during the briefing by Commander NALCOM, ME7 Andy Tay. About 49% of NALCOM is made up of Operationally-Ready National Servicemen (NSmen).

The implication is that a fully mobilised, war-ready NALCOM will be larger than what you see now.

Some of these personnel could be deployed to serve aboard requisitioned merchant ships - ships taken up from trade, to borrow Royal Navy terminology - to bolster the RSN's ability to embark troops and equipment, as well as munitions or POL to resupply the fleet during operations.

Indeed, past civil resource requisition exercises have seen vessels such as hovercraft enlisted into NALCOM service and commercial vessels fitted out as hospital ships.

During a POT, the Civil Resource Generation Centre under NALCOM's Force Generation SQN can "plan, track, requisite, retrofit and generate" CR vessels for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). In other words, civilian craft could be given some teeth.

This role takes a leaf from naval operations where the value of a standing force of men-of-war is strengthened immeasurably when augmented by civilian vessels.

During WW2, a shortage of anti-submarine vessels resulted in the arming of fishing trawlers for ASW duty by the Royal Navy.

Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the trapped British Expeditionary Force from Europe, owes its success to scores of  civilian vessels which answered the British Admiralty's call for everything that floats to assist with the sealift of BEF troops from Dunkirk.

The rapid repair of the American aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, damaged by Japanese bombs during the Battle of the Coral Sea in WW2, is another noteworthy example of the value of naval logisticians. Repairs that were estimated to take 90 days were done in just three. In the race against the clock at Pearl Harbor, naval engineers and civilian dockyard hands worked flat out to get the crippled carrier mission ready as US Navy codebreakers had estimated that the Japanese were preparing for a large-scale operation around Midway island.

The Yorktown's subsequent appearance during the clash around Midway island surprised the Japanese as their analysts had not reckoned on her being ready for combat so soon after Coral Sea. The Japanese thought the US Navy was coming to battle one carrier short.  

Back home, NALCOM has thankfully been spared the horrors of war.

However, NALCOM's operational record supporting operations other than war reflects the command's mission readiness, breadth of capabilities and depth of expertise when men and women of our Navy are tasked to deploy for long and distant service.

Without its war machines, the RSN would not have key enablers for safeguarding Singapore's access to the sea lanes.

And without NALCOM, the RSN would not have its war machines.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Want to be a MINDEF/SAF scholar? Get set for the tough selection process.

If there was one thing you could say to the Prime Minister (PM), what would it be?*

To you and I, this topic may (or may not?) kick start an interesting conversation.

To several of Singapore's top A Level students, their essay on this topic could make or break their scholarship prospects.

The process of weeding out the wheat from the chaff is, to many Singaporean teens, a daunting and highly competitive one. At stake is a career with a top Singaporean ministry and a well-chartered career pathway that could lead to a lifetime opportunity to serve Singaporeans through public service.

To get there, however, involves fending off competition in a selection process the likes of which Singapore's school system doesn't prepare students for.

Writing test
There is the mandatory writing test - which many dread.  The essay topic is merely a device to see how candidates perform when they put pen to paper.

To many applicants, words and ideas flow effortlessly. Those who have made it to the scholarship interview stage are likely A-listers for the General Paper who can mount persuasive and beautifully crafted arguments where their words sing.

Then there is the face-to-face interview.

Donning his or her best business wear, the youngsters stride into the interview room knowing it is make or break time.

Interview process
For a youngster barely out of his or her teens, the experience facing a panel comprising about 10 senior civil servants can prove unnerving. There have been cases where candidates mentally expect perhaps three interviewers to quiz them, only to be floored when they crack open the door to the interview room and come eyeball to eyeball with an upsized interview panel just short of a soccer team.

The look of shock and awe is priceless.

Some millennials wilt.

And so the imposing panel serves a role in sieving out the high potentials from the wannabees even before the chit chat commences.

Those of you who have sat as part of a scholarship or job selection panel would know the challenges involved in coaxing candidates to say something coherent and intelligent that brings their (limited) resume to life.

Many candidates are book smart but cannot sustain a conversation to save their life.

Those who succumb to stage fright fritter away that one chance to impress and land that coveted scholarship.

And then there are the chatterboxes fresh from charm school. These you can spot with their textbook placement of hands and feet, that fleeting eye contact with all panel members that doesn't morph into a staring match, the witty comebacks that buy time for the candidate to process his/her thoughts, the gestures, the knowing nod of the head, the winsome smile - right out of the etiquette school playbook.

Get the formula too perfect and one can come across as being stiff, plastic and robot-like - yes, many of your interviewers are aware of the charm school playbook too.

So one has to be yourself and yet exude promise and future potential that suggest a high CEP.

For defence-related scholarships, conversation topics du jour run the gamut from how much Singapore should spend on its defence to current affairs. The South China Sea? You better know where it is, not just geographically but also be au fait with the political dimension with the many issues and flashpoints centered around this patch of water.

Current affairs is a conversation killer.

For MINDEF/SAF scholarship applicants, this phase of the selection has tripped up many an aspiring applicant who pays the price for too much time on witless social media pursuits and a distinct lack of interest in things going on around the world that could affect their lives. You're not looking for a walking Wikipedia but a candidate who shows promise in understanding and appreciating tiny Singapore's place in the world, its immediate neighbourhood and the special circumstances that underpin its future when many small states have failed. No easy answers here.

The young candidate will  have to fend off competition from like-minded teens, all gunning determinedly for a handful of prestigious scholarships that would lead to the world's top universities.

The hand-picked scholars will have much to prove during their career serving Singapore as many eyes - from subordinates to peers and superiors - will be upon them once they start earning their pay.

* Inspired by the essay topic from this year's Defence Merit Scholarship (DMS) selection.

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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Singapore needs to beef up nuclear knowledge

Published in The Straits Times, 1 April 2016. Not an April Fools joke though.

World leaders are gathered in Washington D.C. this week for talks at the Nuclear Security Summit. Taking part in the conversation will be the Singapore delegation led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

It may not be obvious at first glance just what Singapore’s interest might be in a nuclear summit - there are no nuclear plants here - but a closer look at the issue reminds us of the importance of the Republic, a major seaport, developing its  own expertise in this area.

Beyond the hush-hush discussions and networking among the 51 nations represented, the real work to safeguard Singapore from the threat of nuclear-armed terrorists extends beyond the ambit of the summit. Indeed, it is a 24/365 effort that demands deep expertise in the specialised domains of nuclear safety, science, engineering and policy matters.

Singapore’s capabilities in these fields are now embroynic. With so much at stake if radioactive material falls into the wrong hands, it is vital that Singapore build up its capabilities in nuclear matters - and do so quickly. 

Even with no nuclear powerplants in Singapore, our scientific community needs to study radioactive material to understand the nature of the beast. If forewarned is forearmed, our defence planners must be kept informed and updated of developments in nuclear matters so that they know what to look for and how to deal with crisis situations involving radioactive material.

Counter-terrorist units the world over keep their trade secrets to themselves to preserve the element of surprise. The more so for tactics and special expertise needed to deal with nuclear incidents whose effects are potentially far deadlier than conventional attacks. 

As foreign defence forces will not teach you everything, Singapore needs its own experts in nuclear matters who can advise and implement plans, programmes and operational procedures to meet, defeat or mitigate the threat from nuclear-armed terrorists.

Singapore’s Nuclear Safety Research and Education Programme (NSREP), launched in April 2014, is a step in the right direction. This programme faces a steep learning curve in building, retaining and growing a team of Singaporeans with the know-how in this specialised field.
Its endeavours involve juggling between building capabilities to protect Singaporeans from nuclear incidents and finding the time to join like-minded professionals at regional and international safety fora to exchange ideas and learn best practices.

Nuclear matters evoke strong emotions because nuclear accidents from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl to Fukushima all resulted in health risks to people. These incidents underscore why the NSREP’s job is even more pressing.

News out in the United States this past week on water pollution in the city of Flint in Michigan illustrates how poor expertise in understanding one’s environment can harm people’s lives. Water authorities supplied contaminated drinking water drawn from the Flint river to cityfolk, who then fell ill after the polluted water caused lead from old water pipes to leach into the water system. Several people died and thousands more suffered from ill health as a result of the water crisis.

The official enquiry released last week noted:”The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality failed in its fundamental responsibility to effectively enforce drinking water regulations.”

The same could be said if Singapore’s lack of expertise in nuclear science and engineering results in planners caught blindsided, unable to recognise emerging challenges or threats in the nuclear arena from lack of knowledge, experience or organisational structure to deal with such matters. You don’t know what you don’t know.

The danger is more real than you think.

We may not have nuclear powerplants here that can be compromised, but the threat could emerge in other ways. 

Nuclear-powered warships and submarines make port visits to Singapore or sail through the Singapore Strait several times a year. Such vessels, which are floating nuclear powerplants, require additional armed protection when in Singapore and detection/crisis management capabilities in the event of a nuclear incident.

As a major seaport, Singapore’s security watchers are on the alert for dirty bombs (explosives packed with radioactive material to enhance the deadliness of the bomb) that may be smuggled into Singapore hidden among the thousands of shipping containers that come into port daily.

A large and more organised network of Singaporean nuclear experts is needed for Singapore to better understand the implications of nuclear developments in our waters and around the region. 

At the same time, the security scare in Belgium last week where a nuclear scientists was targeted for video surveillance by suspected terrorists means that we must be clear how to protect our network of experts from similar threats – a difficult task considering such individuals will need to present a public face at scientific conferences and academic literature.

Bear in mind that fallout from a nuclear disaster has a long reach. The no-go zone around the Chernobyl nuclear powerplant that exploded in 1986 is several times bigger than Singapore. Fallout from that disaster was detected in European countries thousands of miles away.

Objecting to a nuclear plant next to one’s home isn’t the same as raising a hue and cry when a columbarium may be built in one’s housing estate. 

Just as the haze from Sumatra resulted in health woes for many Singaporeans, radioactive clouds that emerge from nuclear disasters in our region could adversely affect life in Singapore.

Singapore’s focus on developing its capabilities in nuclear matters will put the Lion City on a stronger footing when it needs the expertise to study the implications of nuclear powerplants that are being considered by our neighbours. A nuclear forensics capability would also improve our security capabilities against threats from radioactive material.

One cannot un-invent nuclear science and technology. So even if Singapore does not choose to use nuclear technology as a form of clean, renewable energy, there is nothing to stop its neighbours from doing so.

The indigenous community of professionals in nuclear issues that Singapore aims to nurture will therefore serve an essential role in national security and in horizon scanning for emerging challenges.

David Boey, a former  defence correspondent of The Straits Times, is a member of the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD).