This year's National Day Parade (NDP) will mark 10 years since the traditional 21-gun salute to the President was first fired from water. We joined men and women from the 24th Battalion Singapore Artillery (24 SA) and 35th Battalion Singapore Combat Engineers (35 SCE) at last Saturday's NDP Preview 2 to see what goes on behind-the-scenes as they practised the Presidential Gun Salute.
It was a special moment at NDP 2009 when Singapore army self-propelled M3G rafts sailed into Marina Bay with 25-pounder guns aboard. NDP spectators had never seen anything like it.
At the time, Marina Bay Sands was a big construction site filled with cranes, scaffolding and building equipment. There was no Gardens by the Bay. The Marina Bay Financial Centre (see below) was still being built. Looking at the bare and incomplete work sites at a time when Singapore was just recovering from its worst recession in 2008, it took a leap of faith to imagine what the future would look like when the work was finally done.
The waterborne gun detachments created some NDP magic for Singaporeans in a tough year. With its new approach for executing the gun salute, the Singapore army showed that it was not afraid to break away from the tried-and-tested template to try something that was bold, novel and exciting to watch.
It would have been so easy to fire the 21-gun salute the way it had always been done. It was much simpler to deploy a battery of six 25-pounders on land with the British-made guns lined up neatly in a row to fire in sequence at the battery commander's order.
What started as an innovative idea for using German-made M3G amphibious bridging vehicles to carry the guns that fire the 21-gun salute has turned into a hit with NDP spectators.
With many spectators literally counting off every round that is discharged, the gunners tasked to fire the 21-gun salute at NDP 2019 know their fire has to be swift and precise. And while the show looks pretty much the same as the one 10 years ago, many ideas have improved the way the gun salute is carried out, enhanced system redundancy and safety. The time spent launching the rigs is also treated as an informal exercise to refresh raft building skills.
The M3Gs deploy hours before showtime because the combat engineers need time to join individual vehicles (which are called rigs) into rafts by coupling the rigs side by side. Time is also needed for a practice run to rehearse the close coordination that is needed between M3G crew, the gun detachments and the cue master at the parade venue (which the M3G raft cannot see). Once assembled, the M3Gs wait for the signal to swing into action and appear where they are needed at precisely the right time.
The PGS team leaves camp before dawn and will not return till early the next morning. Once out of the gate, the team will spend more than 20 hours outfield.
In a separate convoy movement, Land Rovers tow 25-pounders (four to be deployed on the M3Gs plus one spare) from camp for a date with the M3Gs at Kallang. So while the NDP 2019 Mobile Column saves time by storing most of its vehicles in a car park near the F1 Pit Building, the 25-pounders must be moved for every rehearsal as these guns need to be serviced by armament technicians during the week to keep their firing mechanism, breech block and barrel in top form.
Every transition from land to water by the amphibious rigs is an opportunity for the crews to hone their rafting building skills. Last Saturday, each M3G crew member wore a load bearing vest and helmet along with a life jacket to launch and couple the rigs as they would during a river crossing exercise. With ATEC on the horizon, the M3G crews take every opportunity to practice and fine tune their raft building skills as the unit wants to score well in the evaluation.
Captain Chew Hong Rui, a company commander with 35 SCE, said the process of launching and coupling the rigs during the NDP rehearsals demands the same skills and attention to safety as during an army exercise. The M3G crew members comprise the rig commander, a pilot (who steers the raft on water), one deckhand (who assists with the stowage of deck cargo) and a bridging operator (who drives the M3G). The crew look out for one another's safety and that of their passengers/cargo.
Out on the water, the M3G crew watch out for navigation hazards like narrow lanes under the bridges and shallow water, remain vigilant for fire risks from the blanks and the diesel generator that powers the lights, ensure that the guns are strapped down tightly, stay alert for river craft especially tour boats that tend to stray close to the rafts for tourists to take pictures, watch out for lightning risks, man overboard risks, heat stroke hazards, the effects of river current and wind on the M3G... in other words the combat engineers are kept very busy.
Gunners from the battalion, which operates Safari and Arthur battlefield radars used to direct artillery fire and hunt for enemy guns, go through intensive training from a core of Singapore Artillery gunners who are the subject matter experts on these old guns. Among the 24 SA gunners involved with this year's PGS are signallers and radar operators. Despite the long hours of training and burnt weekends, a number of these gunners volunteered to extend their full-time national service to be with the PGS team on National Day.
A 25-pounder gun detachment is made up of a crew of six: a gun commander, a gun layer who sits to the left of the barrel, a loader to the left of the breech, two ammo handlers and a detachment second in-charge (2IC) who operates the breech. The blanks are brass shell casings with powder bags inside. To avoid misfire, each shell must be placed carefully into the breech before the breech block is closed using a lever. Even with careful loading, blanks sometimes fail to fire and the PGS battery must be ready to keep up the rate of fire. If a gun has an IA during the 21-gun salute, the next gun will be ordered to fire immediately so that the 21-gun salute tempo sticks to the timetable.
Apart from the gun layer who is seated, all gun crew members maintain a high kneeling stance with their right knee (left knee for 2ICs) on the deck. The gunners have to remain motionless for several minutes in this position as they await the gun firing commands - not easy with their body weight placed on one knee on a hot and vibrating steel deck with the M3G engine purring beneath it.
The raft moves off from Kallang riverside at 12 noon sharp. Having sailed with big ships like aircraft carriers and small craft from missile gun boats down to FCEPs, I can say that the M3G is by far the strangest watercraft I have been on. Imagine standing on a floating platform that is so close to the water the waves wash up against the deck. Many parts of the deck have no railings so you keep some distance from the side of the moving craft and stay away from the foaming wake churned up by the Schottel Pump Jets (i.e. waterjets). Thanks to waterjets that swivel beneath each end of the M3G's boat-like hull, each craft can pivot on the spot. Even when five M3Gs are coupled to one another, the entire floating structure can move at a respectable speed of 2.5m/s.
The raft you will see at NDP 2019 is one rig shorter and has one gun less than the one seen in NDP 2009. That's because the army shortened the waterborne PGS configuration from NDP 2014 to give the craft better manoeuvrability. Before recommending the shorter PGS raft configuration, staff officers considered the increased boat traffic on Marina Bay reservoir and the bigger footprint for the floating fireworks battery. Artillery staff officers calculated that four guns gave more than enough buffer to sustain the rate of fire even if a fault occurred and showed that a four gun detachment still projected the right presence to spectators. It's moments like this that show the army's desire for continuous improvements, with its people constantly looking for ways to do things better.
We follow the same route as the Duck Tours boats. It's standing room only on the M3G raft and with nothing above our heads, we have a splendid view of the city skyline as the raft cruises into the bay. Unlike a proper boat, the raft has no bridge. There's no nav radar, just the Mark 1 eyeball on a watercraft that can hit nearly 5 knots. Since the raft moves on its long axis, one isn't sure if the long side of the raft is the "bow" or should it be the narrow end like a normal boat? Two combat engineers standing on the extended ramps guide the pilots by radio and hand signals. Measuring 65m from end to end and 13m in width, the pilots must swing the raft to pass between the narrow bridge spans. The pilots observe the hand signals, glance around to clear the blind spot and ease off or advance the throttle accordingly to turn the raft so that its narrow end enters the bridge span first. The M3G is amazingly agile and can move on its long axis or on its narrow end with no loss of speed.
The western end of the Benjamin Sheares Bridge near MBS is the form-up point for the gun detachments and the pilots are ordered to hold the raft in position. The 24 SA gunners take up position around their guns and stand at ease from this point till until the return journey. Everyone in position and all set? The voyage resumes. Diesel engines rumble, decks vibrate in response as exhaust from air vents hiss furiously. Waterjets whip the water into a mass of foam and the raft enters the bay majestically with gunners standing by their gleaming 25-pounders.
It takes 18 minutes from the time we cast off till we reach the firing point 50m off the Merlion. Upon reaching the Merlion, the raft throws up rooster tail wakes on either side to turn a full 180 degrees. This manoeuvre points the gun barrels away from the crowd. The next move comes from the Padang, which no one on the raft can see. It is up to the command group to coordinate the firing precisely.
The command group with CPT Willie (arty), 30, and CPT Chew (combat engineers), 27, stand next to the pilot on the centre rig. A 24 SA gunner with a handheld laser range finder takes periodic measurements so that the 50m safety buffer is maintained.
Depending on how you see it, CPT Willie looks like he's running an active stock market or a bookie in a betting ring. He's got a signal handset in one hand, a walkie talkie in the other and has a mobile device placed on a special mount on the pilot's console. It's part of the fail safes that will keep the PGS battery in touch with the unseen cue master at the Padang at all times.
As an artillery officer in charge of a STrike ObserveRs Mission or STORM battery, CPT Willie knows full well the value of precision fires. With the PGS timed to the second, it's up to the STORM battery commander to issue orders so that the guns speak at the precise moment. Nothing shoots unless he issues the order and thousands of spectators around the bay and the whole of Singapore will be watching. No pressure.
Teamwork between the gunners and combat engineers is crucial for a successful shoot and the officers carry out their tasks wordlessly, almost by telepathy and an innate ability to sense what is required.
It is only a practice shoot but you can sense the tension onboard. No one speaks unnecessarily. There's no idle chatter except for precise updates that are required for safe navigation or fire control orders. The Schottel Pump Jets no longer thrash the water into hissing foam and the raft is kept in position by gentle spurts that ruffle the water's surface. If you listen hard enough, you might even hear excited chatter from the onlookers that crowd the Merlion - at which point you adjust the foam ear plugs again to save you eardrums. Firing is about to commence!
In front of us, the four gun detachments continue baking under the sunshine. Now come the firing orders that CPT Willie shouts into the handset.
Battery Take Post!
The 24th Battalion Singapore Artillery will fire a 21-gun salute.
The ammo handlers gently pass a single blank round from the rear to the loader while in high kneeling position.
The round is inserted into the polished breech and the detachment 2IC snaps it shut.
At my command!
Battery Stand By... Down 1, Down 2, Down 3, Down 4.
Gun 1 Standby. Gun 2 Standby. Gun 3 Standby. Gun 4 Standby.
Gun 1.... Fire!
The gloved hand of the gun layer depresses the firing lever and the first round is discharged successfully with a thunderous roar that echoes around the bay. At the command group, a gunner presses a clicker to count off the rounds fired. Their job isn't done till the final round is fired.
Though these are just blanks, the combat engineers stay alert as the repeated blast from the muzzles has been known to cause the raft to drift out of position. Swirling eddies in the water show that the Schottels have been at work.
Last shot out, the PGS battery prepares to stand down.
Battery make safe!
Battery cartridge only, unload!
Battery Senang Diri!
The deck rumbles again as diesels roar to life. The raft cruises steadily towards the Benjamin Sheares Bridge again where the gunners stand down. Freed of her ceremonial duties, the raft merrily picks up speed and heads for the home bank trailing five white wakes.
On National Day itself, the combat engineers will embark the Land Rovers to tow the guns off, then decouple the rigs. All this will take place in the dark, out of sight from the public and the cheering NDP spectators.
Grateful for the time and hospitality from the NDP 2019 Presidential Gun Salute team and MINDEF MCO for making the embed happen.