Sunday, June 30, 2019

On track for a good show: The Singapore Armed Forces trains for the National Day Parade 2019 Mobile Column

Leopard 2SG: The crew of Leopard Three (81178 MID) at the National Day Parade 2019 Mobile Column Combined Rehearsal 3 (CR3) on 29 June 2019. From left, Second Lieutenant Darius Tan (platoon commander), Corporal First Class Chua Yu Hao (driver) and Corporal Sherman Tan (gunner). Absent: CPL Michael Raj (loader). 

After working hard with the rest of the National Day Parade 2019 Mobile Column participants at a dozen combined rehearsals, Leopard tank commander Second Lieutenant Darius Tan will complete two years of full-time National Service with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) about a week before the actual parade.

But the 22-year-old Leopard 2SG main battle tank (MBT) platoon commander from the 48th Battalion, Singapore Armoured Regiment (48 SAR), is not going to let his operationally-ready date become a show stopper.

Darius will extend his NS to lead his tank platoon - technically as an operationally-ready NSman - on 9 August as the Mobile Column salutes the nation at City Hall and on the following day when the 171-vehicle convoy splits up and moves out from the city to the heartlands.

The commitment and team spirit demonstrated by Darius is not unique among Mobile Column participants. Talk to the people from the SAF, Singapore Civil Defence Force and Singapore Police Force whose vehicles form the moving display. Listen to their stories and you will find many more instances of men and women determined to give their best so that the NDP 2019 Mobile Column retains its reputation as a crowd pleaser.

Saturday activities with family and friends are put on hold from now till National Day as the full dress rehearsal season moves into full swing. With 646 people on the vehicles and another 415 supporting the Mobile Column segment, the tally of family gatherings missed, absent parents at birthdays, skipped outings with friends, postponed dates and cancelled movie appointments is not small.

They are there rain or shine for the rehearsals. They put in hours of work maintaining the vehicles, perfecting vehicle movement timetables and practising contingency plans so that the 14 minute 30 second drive past in front of City Hall is executed to perfection, with panache and pinpoint precision.

The Mobile Column team does not want to disappoint because they know Singaporeans love their NDP.

Though National Day celebrations unfold every year, the Mobile Column does not. It usually makes an appearance every five years when the parade is held at the Padang, the open field in front of City Hall that serves as show centre. Celebrations at the Padang to mark Singapore's bicentennial year and 54th birthday this year explain the off-cycle Mobile Column, which was last seen at NDP 2015. The rarity of the display, which people have to wait up to five years to see, tells you why expectations run high for every Mobile Column rehearsal.

Weeks before the actual parade and with vehicle formations still a little loose, the combined rehearsals in the city have nonetheless begun attracting spectators.

At Combined Rehearsal 3 (CR3) last Saturday, people lined the form-up point (FUP) at Suntec City, filled the streets outside the cordoned area and loitered at overhead bridges to see SAF and Home Team assets. The NDP Mobile Column has suddenly emerged as a sought-after backdrop for social media.

And the crowds will only get bigger the closer one gets to the actual parade.

Senang Diri joined 48 SAR at CR3 to experience a Mobile Column rehearsal firsthand.

Our tank is one of 12 Leopards from 48 SAR that will lead the 1.3km long convoy. On the radio, our tank identified itself as Leopard Three. The crew is a young team with Darius as tank commander. Driver Corporal First Class Chua Yu Hao and gunner Corporal Sherman Tan are both 20. Loader Corporal Michael Raj is 22, like his PC.

The 30-something MBT is older than its all-NSF crew but has been modernised to keep it fighting fit. The tank came from the German army and was refurbished in Singapore to bring the Leopard 2A4 to Leopard 2SG standard. The "SG" is a special Leopard variant with modifications unique to Singapore. The tank's protection and mobility was improved and a locally developed battlefield management system (BMS) installed. The BMS consists of a compact flat screen and ruggedised computer that displays tactical information to the tank commander. Singaporean defence engineers enhanced the computing power of the L2SG for the tank commander to maximise the many functions on the BMS.

At the Nicoll Highway FUP,  the L2SGs were arranged as six closely-spaced pairs. In parade formation, two Leopards travel one behind the other, to be followed by five pairs of MBTs. Leopard Three is the tank on the right of the first pair of MBTs. Our assigned duty station is the loader's position, which is the left position on the turret with two hatches. For the embed, loader CPL Michael vacated the position for this civilian.

We're at the junction outside Suntec City where Bras Basah Road meets Raffles Boulevard. It's a busy crossing that's not quite Shibuya but there's a steady stream of pedestrians who stop to photograph the sight of tanks in the city. Traffic lights continue to flash their commands but with Nicoll Highway closed to city-bound traffic, nobody pays heed.

Open hatch: The view from the Leopard 2SG loader's hatch.

Looking out from the open loader's hatch, one has an elevated all-round view. A Leopard tank is not small. With the add-on armour that extended the turret protection some distance from the original welded steel turret, the turret roof and extended turret bustle is all one sees of the 55,000kg steel beast. The Rheinmetall 120mm gun protrudes front and centre. Because the additional armour modules have concealed the length of the barrel, the gun looks unusually stubby from this perspective with the bulge of the fume extractor obscuring what remains of the barrel when the gun is at rest. Looks are deceiving because a well-trained gunner can place a shell right on target from several kilometres away.

The author was introduced to Leopard Three and its crew at the Mobile Column FUP outside Suntec City. As it's the start of the Great Singapore Sale and the last weekend of the June school holidays, the place is teeming with shoppers who brave the blazing sunshine and humidity to snap pictures with the Singapore Army's war machines. The junction in the heart of the city is unusually quiet for a Saturday as roads have been closed to civilian traffic and the conversation with the crew takes place like a normal meet-and-greet at an Army Open House.

With the SAF running the NDP Executive Committee, it should come as no surprise that the Mobile Column is run like a military operation. There are SOPs and rigid safety instructions to follow. Terrain matrices of the area. Radio nets. Satellite photos. Hotwash and AARs to debug issues.

As was the case with Mobile Column rehearsals of yesteryear, the assembly of the Mobile Column during CR3 as the force was amassed could not be hidden from the public. Many civilians came, took pictures and posted them on social media long before the vehicles went into action. People who loitered on the other side of the fence could take all the pictures they liked unimpeded. The force build up was done in full view of everyone.

The order to start engines resulted in the sound of tooting horns that rippled down the convoy as drivers tapped their horns twice before starting their engines. The powerful MTU diesel on Leopard Three rumbled to life. Soon, a heat haze and streams of bluish diesel exhaust smoke veiled the engine decks of the column of waiting tanks. For the crew who stood in open hatches, it was always good to be upwind of the neighbour's exhaust.

Our move-out time was 12:50pm but engines were started much earlier to warm up the vehicles and to allow the crew to check for last minute glitches. There is air conditioning inside the tank but with sunshine pouring in through two open roof hatches, one barely felt it. Yu Hao (driver) and Sherman (gunner. Think of the WW2 tank) are already at their post and will stay there for the next hour, out of sight to the public.

The 48 SAR team took its safety brief seriously. All aboard, including this civilian who was linked via CVC helmet intercom with the Leopard Three crew, had to go through the comms check, practise vehicle overturn drills, know what to do if the e-horn sounded. There was also a reminder to drink plenty of water - a tricky instruction considering that there's no opportunity for a pee break once aboard - so just enough was consumed to avoid passing out from the heat.

As showtime approached, cue masters displayed the notice to move using handheld signs for the convoy leader to see. The same message was sent by radio. In the lead is an NSman, Lieutenant Colonel Chin Chee Whye, who serves as Mobile Column Commander. In civilian life, he teaches mathematics at the university.

After baking in the open hatch for more than half an hour, the sight of the cue master who held up white signs with big black lettering that said "3 Minutes to Go" and then "One Minute to Go" brought a sense of relief and a flutter of excitement.

Darius had some advice for Yu Hao (driver) and Sherman (gunner) on the tank's alignment during the drive past and the gun salute. One could sense that the tank crew was likewise excited before going into action.

"Driver release parking brake."

When ground marshals stopped pedestrians from crossing Nicoll Highway and the sound of the rough road surface sandpapering plastic showed that marshals had started shoving the orange and white traffic barriers out of the way, we knew it was time to go.

The way forward was clear and the morning calm at the traffic-free road was long gone. The sound of purring diesels, the whir of fans from the air-cooled tank engines and the whistling note from the MTU exhaust made radio comms and hand signals the preferred mode of communication with the tank crews.

A ground marshal raised hands for the countdown. Three. Two. One. Go! LTC Chin's lead Leopard lurched forward with a grunt. The lead tank clattered down the road towards the Padang with diesels roaring, followed closely by the second tank.

It was our turn. The terse command "Driver move forward" saw Leopard Three move off. Rubber pads on the tracks contributed to a smooth ride, creating a sound like the one you hear when driving on a concrete car park ramp with parallel grooves. Leopard Three rumbled down the road as grilles from the anti-shaped charge cage around the tank hull and turret rattled briskly.

Driving instructions were short and sharp - "Driver slow down." "Driver right." - and to have the wind in the face even at 15km/h was invigorating. If Yu Hao floored it, the Leopard could easily hit 70km/h but for now, slow and steady was the way to go as we approached the call forward area.

Moving in daylight with no civilian traffic and with ground marshals as guides and armour all around, one felt immensely safe. That said, the tank crew had to stay sharp - NDP 2010 Mobile Column rehearsals accounted for three road kerbs that had to be rebuilt after they were kissed by the army's A-vehicles.

The approach to St Andrew's Road, the road that runs past City Hall, brought us to the next waiting area. Here the convoy reassembled in parade formation before being called forward by cue masters. This call forward area was Release Point 2, the last chance for glitches to be identified and remedied, or for contingency plans to kick in.

Some tanks gave feedback that the plastic barriers were placed too close to the lanes and restricted their mobility. The single row of barriers at CR2 was doubled at CR3. Ground marshals fixed it.

According to the plan, the air force would go in first. After low flying aircraft and helicopters did their stuff, the heavy ground assets formed by the Mobile Column would move in next with armour as the vanguard. The air segment was practised on paper by the Exco and there was no actual flying for the early afternoon dry run.

Release Point 2 outside St Andrew's cathedral is the same stretch of road where 12 AMX-13 light tanks waited for their go-signal at the 1969 National Day Parade. This marked the public debut for Singapore's first tanks.

Leopard Three was about to retrace that historic journey. Like the AMX-13s, our Leopard 2SGs would travel against the normal flow of traffic to salute the President on the steps of City Hall. Incidentally, the only tanks that rolled past City Hall in the same direction as the traffic flow were Imperial Japanese Army tanks (see below) soon after the Fall of Singapore in 1942. But we digress.

Darius had last minute instructions for the driver and gunner.

Many things must have kept the tank commander busy at this critical juncture.

In command of Leopard Three, he had to ensure it was all systems go. The driver Yu Hao had to keep the tank aligned when he could hardly see the road's lane markings. He had to watch engine RPM to stay at the recommended speed. At the same time, he had to keep in formation with the tanks in front and the one to the left - all this while peering through the periscopes and driving closed hatch. The driver's station on a Leopard tank is a tight fit. He lay almost flat from a harness that was suspended from the hull roof (to reduce landmine and IED injuries) and there was no room to move around. Lights from the control panel and daylight from the periscopes provided scant illumination for the driver in his lonely position. For those with anxiety issues locked in an enclosed space, the job of a Leopard tank driver is not for you. 

If the tank stalled, Yu Hao would have to quickly decide if it could get moving and report the situation to Darius. The tank commander would then have to make the split second decision to press on (if it could restart) or call for support - a recovery effort using the single Leopard ARV that trailed the 12 L2SGs would take about seven minutes and throw the NDP show timetable out of sync. And if that ARV stalled...

Huddled at his gunner's station in the turret basket, Sherman had to listen carefully for the cue to start the gun salute. This manoeuvre depended on every gunner performing the sequence at exactly the same timing.

For a national event telecast "live" to Singaporean households and webcast worldwide, every decision was a time critical one. Darius and his team had to show that Armour, which was trained to think and decide on the move, would not hold everyone back because a single glitch in the Mobile Column would have a knock-on effect on the entire show sequence. It was a heavy responsibility that many NSFs - not just from the SAF but also the civil defence and police - took on enthusiastically.

Darius did his best to reassure the crew with last minute advice.

The cue master along St Andrew's Road communicated with tank commanders using extreme means. Either very loudly with a loud hailer or silently with hand signals as tank commanders often had trouble hearing conversations with the noise from the tank engines and the CVC helmet blocking out ambient noise.

Ahead of us, the parade contingents marched on the Padang one after another.

Once the Mobile Column was released, there was no calling it back.

That point of no return was fast approaching. Again, the cue master raised his arms. In the turrets, tank commanders and loaders stiffened as they prepared to go on show.

The cue master raised both arms. One could see his extended fingers go down one after another. We were seconds away from release. Last digit gone. It was time to go.

Leopard Three had the chance to show what it learned from hours of training in camp, at Tuas and the previous two Saturday CRs.

The strategic intent of showing the army's capabilities boiled down to individual crews doing as they were trained. Tactical control was left to tank commanders like Darius once the column got moving. Even so, the final outcome was in the hands of NSFs, many fresh out of their teens, whose training and dedication would help decide on mission success or otherwise. This is why training has been intense, over and above operational commitments.

Station keeping was good. The drive past was smooth at 15km/h. The formation looked nice and tight.

Listen for the signal. "Up!". Twelve tank gunners counted out "One thousand, two thousand, three thousand..." and the gun salute sequence began.

Gunners raised the 120mm gun barrel to full elevation, then traversed the turret right 30 degrees. They made a mark on the turret ring to show exactly where the gun should stop. Guns were dipped to full depression and kept there as the armoured column rolled past the saluting dais. Recovery after the salute was the reverse. Gun up. Swing left to face the front and recover to zero elevation.

In the turret, Darius and the other tank commanders snapped a salute.

Behind the tanks came streams of armoured infantry mounted on Bionix IFVs and the whole host of army assets that a combined arms force would use in combat. Assembled differently with Intel and Commandos up front, with Combat Engineer bridging support close behind and then the tanks, the Mobile Column assets would tell you a different story.

But this is a peacetime show, though with some imagination you could join the dots and figure things out.

After all that waiting, the actual drive past by Leopard Three at City Hall was over in moments. Once past City Hall, Darius guided Leopard Three as the tank formation split up to return to the FUP.

The CR3 dry run was over. But the Mobile Column would reassemble and go through the whole sequence all over again for the evening show. And then next Saturday and the one after that, all the way to August 9.

For now, however, Leopard Three could shut down and rest.

Many thanks to MINDEF MCO, the Singapore Army and 48 SAR CO LTC Wu Jianmin for hosting. LTC Wu is concurrently Chairman, Mobile Column Committee on the NDP 2019 EXCO.

48 SAR is the Singapore Army's only NSF MBT battalion but it has an interesting record. The pioneer batch distinguished themselves 10 years ago at a friendly shooting match with US Marine tankees (see below). NSmen are transferred to NS SARs where they remain active for 10 years. This explains the growing stable of Leopard 2 tanks required by the army.
Singapore Army News, September 2010


thomasOng said...

Leopard Three?? not two?

David Boey said...

Hi Thomas,
This was how the Leopard 2SGs identified themselves on radio. The first tank in the column was Leopard One, the second Leopard Two and so on.