Saturday, July 27, 2013

Ready? Steady? No! - Survey results indicate 80% of respondents ill-prepared for June 2013 haze

Despite repeated occurrences of the haze, eight out of 10 respondents to the Haze Survey indicated that their homes were ill-prepared to weather poor air quality by being stocked with masks and/or air purifiers.

The Haze Survey also revealed strong demand for better air quality readings from Singapore's National Environment Agency (NEA). Nine out of 10 respondents said the NEA should provide spot/realtime Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) readings that indicate air quality.

A related question on the credibility of PSI readouts showed that 45% of respondents strongly agreed that they felt their health was at risk when the 3-hour PSI readings did not correspond with the situation they observed outside their window. When tallied with those who said they agree they felt their health at risk, the combined figure shot up to 72% of respondents.

About half the survey participants said they wore an N95 respirator in public during the haze while a noticeably higher percentage (65%) said they carried an N95 respirator while outdoors at some point during the haze crisis. This reveals the level of preparedness among respondents as they took proactive steps to protect their health by having N95 respirators while outdoors.

The statistic makes an interesting contrast to the 81% of respondents who said their homes were not haze ready when smoke from forest and plantation fires in Sumatra engulfed Singapore this June.

In all, 134 netizens from unique IP addresses responded to the poll.

The survey results show the urgency of a rethink of how NEA presents its PSI figures. Slavish adherence to current business practice would likely result in another erosion of public confidence if when air pollution measurements shoot to Hazardous PSI levels like those registered in June 2013.

Many thanks to everyone who took part. Your feedback matters. Full results are presented below.

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

Friday, July 19, 2013

All-out effort to protect Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) warfighters in Afghanistan result in never-before-seen electronics suite on Singapore Army vehicles

Hostilities only: A Singapore Army Protected Light Utility Vehicle (PLUV, essentially an armoured Ford Everest ops utility vehicle) seen during an Afghan winter during Operation Blue Ridge - the SAF deployment to Afghanistan. The vehicle carries a new number plate, used only in Afghanistan, and has an antenna farm on its roof. The electronic devices are believed to be used for navigation, comms as well as vehicle self-protection to detect and defeat electronically-initiated Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Such IED countermeasures special equipment only appears on SAF combat vehicles during real missions. They are never (legally) seen while in Singapore during peacetime. [Picture: Ministry of Defence, Singapore] 

Coming soon to the heartlands: An exhibition that showcases the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) six-year operational deployment in Afghanistan that also reveals special vehicle electronics for the first time.

When the SAF first deployed its own vehicles to Afghanistan as part of Operation Blue Ridge, it was generally understood that maximum efforts would be made to protect Singaporeans travelling in danger zones from threats from land mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as well as infantry weapons of various calibers and projectiles.

Images of OBR vehicles shown during a preview of the Ops Blue Ridge travelling exhibition indicate the extent to which the SAF has gone to protect its warfighters. The operation stretched over 2,263 days from 2007 to 2013. The last three SAF serviceman landed in Singapore this afternoon at 15:00 hours Hotel.

Pictures of Singapore Army combat vehicles sent for the mission show that the Army's warhorses sprouted assorted antennae and unknown add-ons never seen in Singapore before.

These include IED jammers special mission equipment added to armoured PLUVs as well as the MaxxPro Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) four-wheeled armoured vehicles, which made their public debut during the 2010 National Day Parade.

It has taken three years for the SAF to declassify equipment that Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) defence engineers and SAF ops planners devised for combat vehicles destined for OBR.

Some of the add-ons are believed to be GPS navigation aids - essential for long-range route navigation in Afghanistan where directional signs are non-existent or suspect.

Other antennae are for communications while some are believed to be defensive aids to jam counter IEDs. If confirmed, these would be the first known counter-IED electronics suite carried by SAF vehicles during an operation.

Interestingly, vehicles fielded for OBR left their MID number plates at home. While in-theatre, each OBR vehicle was known simply as "SAF *Insert numeral*". For example, the vehicle numbering convention for MaxxPro MRAPs seen in Afghanistan saw such vehicles plated as SAF 5, SAF 8 and so on. In Singapore, such vehicles were noted with number plates in the MID 602xx-series.

The Singapore Army's MaxxPro MRAPs have all been flown back to Singapore via chartered Antonov AN-124s and are believed to be stabled in Nee Soon Camp.

Bells and whistles: Singapore Army MaxxPro MRAP deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Blue Ridge sports an assortment of antennae on the roof which have never been seen while in Singapore. The addition of IED jammers such equipment underscores intense yet low-profile efforts applied by the MINDEF/SAF defence science community to protect Singaporean warfighters deployed for real ops.[Photo: Ministry of Defence Singapore] 

Maximum readiness: Close up of a Singapore Army MaxxPro MRAP with a foldable antenna, which was not seen when the MRAPs were displayed in public for the first time during the 2010 National Day Parade Mobile Column. Similar equipment seen on combat vehicles from Western armies in war zones is said to be used to detect/jam signals that could be used to trigger IEDs.[Photo: Ministry of Defence, Singapore] 

Am grateful to the Singapore Army's Army Information Centre (AIC) for the sneak preview of the Operation Blue Ridge exhibition at the SAFTI Military Institute this evening. Look out for more teasers on the exhibition in coming days.

You may also like:
MRAP unwrapped. Click here

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Exercise Tsunami on the way as Singapore Armed Forces enters war games season

If Singapore's defence information management calendar of yesteryear is used as a guide, the coming months post-NDP should see the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) flex its muscle in high-profile war games overseas.

The light and sound show as live munitions are unleashed at Exercise Forging Saber in the United States and Exercise Wallaby in Australia should provide ample media opportunities to dazzle, wow and, yes, to deter.

The exercise tsunami on home ground and overseas - typically seen during towards the year-end period after the National Day Parade (NDP) - marks the high water mark of the SAF's war games calendar before it winds up the calendar year.

For SAF watchers, publicity for successive runs of Ex Forging Saber has furnished telling indications on the pace, extent and professional competence within the maturing Third Generation SAF, particularly in the area of UAV-enabled combat missions. In recent times, the Republic of Singapore Air Force Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Command appears to have moved its skill sets into a higher orbit (figuratively speaking) as its drone force is used not just to observe, but to direct air and ground attacks in support of manoeuvre forces, in realtime and by day and night.

Lessons picked up from overseas missions in places such as Afghanistan and the Gulf of Aden are likely to be dissected, studied and applied to suit the SAF's specific operational requirements when operations are staged and sustained from one degree north of the equator, with the little red dot as MSA.

Likewise, the battle scenarios that unfold across the Australian outback in Queensland's Shoalwater Bay Training Area during Ex Wallaby reflect the 3G SAF's efforts to raise, train and sustain network-enabled combat and combat service support forces that can project substantial combat forces in its area of operations (AO) within a tight mission timeline and while fending off external interference in contested areas.

Wielding Singapore Army ABGs and airmobile Guards battalions as a block force against enemy movements are exercise scenarios that have been stepped up in size, scope and complexity in previous years under separate war games conducted under the umbrella of Ex Wallaby.

The exercise Frames drawn up under Wallaby have also practised closer coordination and cooperation between SAF land and air assets, particularly in tightening the sensor-to-shooter loop in designated kill boxes.

The action is likely to stay dynamic during the SAF's war games season in 2014.

For military enthusiasts, the action starts long before the first round is out.

Exercise preparations, which include shipping of SAF assets across the water by Ro-Ro vessel and in the air via heavy-lift transports to faraway locations, are interesting to track.

For Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) publicists, the challenge lies with rolling out something familiar (getting the media to write about the war games) while attempting to give it a fresh spin and making the media event newsworthy.

MINDEF publicity plans tend to be somewhat predictable, patterned after the same old template, set piece. It's almost like you can sketch out the media plan and draft the talking points for the media tipsheet by studying how it was done in past installments.(See: More creativity needed in MINDEF/SAF defence media relations. Click here.)

This phase of MINDEF/SAF's WY 2013/14 work plan - the defence information cycle - is also worth scrutinising closely because there are valuable takeaways here in the way MINDEF/SAF handles defence information as a strategic lever for building mindshare among the populace, in reassuring friends of the SAF's capabilities and in reinforcing the message of deterrence.

You may also like:
Decisive victors: A primer on the 3G SAF. Click here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

National resilience during haze crisis: MEWR Minister Vivian Balakrishnan's comments on haze crisis confusing

Please spread the word about our Haze Survey:

Am posting this one day late lest Singapore's Minister for Environment and Water Resources Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's comments in Parliament were misquoted. There was no correction in today's 90 cents newspaper, so here goes.

First, the minister's comment on using unspecified "new satellites" with finer resolution to monitor the region for areas which are aflame (i.e. hot spots) is puzzling.

"We need resolution down to about one- to two-kilometre range, to be able to identify a hot spot. The new satellites will also have greater spectral sensitivity, which means you can also see fires at an early stage, maybe even at the underground level," said Dr Balakrishnan (More resources for early warning system, The Straits Times, 9 July 2013, Home page B6)

As satellites used for remote sensing now offer resolution in the single- and double-digit range in metres, it is puzzling why the range bracket measured in kilometres was cited by the minister.

If there was good reason for this poor resolution, it may have been advisable for the minister to explain why as laypersons may feel Singapore's approach to using geospatial information as a tripwire for detecting hot spots could employ better eyes (pun intended).

Second, the minister's explanation on why he did not authorise the release of spot readings for the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) are noteworthy.

In her commentary "Trust needed for govt role as info provider and regulator" (ST 9 July 2013, Home page B7), ST deputy political editor Lydia Lim noted:"He (the minister) said Singapore was in the midst of updating the way it measures air pollutants and that he thought hard before deciding to turn down public requests for real-time data during the recent haze crisis.

" 'Why? I decided not to do so because the risk of confusion or worse, publishing unverified or inaccurate data, was too high. I could not take that risk in the middle of a crisis,' he said."

It is interesting that the minister described the haze situation as a "crisis".

His comments on PSI data are interesting to mull over because if one-hour PSI data can be inaccurate, then what about the three-hour PSI which is based on the average PSI over a three-hour time span?

What more can be done to reduce the likelihood of data collection and analysis errors?

Through this haze crisis, our emergency planners have an excellent opportunity to push budgets for sought-after items on their wish lists and strengthen national preparedness not if, but when the haze crisis returns.

We can only do so if the proper learning points distilled from this crisis.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Online survey on Singapore's responses to the June 2013 haze

It's a nice coincidence that Singaporean Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen's assessment that our city-state "has learnt five key lessons from haze crisis" appears in today's Sunday Times (7 July 2013, pp 2-3).

The article helps frame the Senang Diri Haze Survey, which was uploaded yesterday.

If you have already shared your feedback: Thank you! Please help share the Haze Survey link:

Survey results will be published after the close of the poll in a week or so.

For the benefit of our overseas readers, including Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel attached to overseas detachments, the five lessons are:

1. The haze is a long-term issue that goes back as far as the 1970s. The difference now is the scale of the slash-and-burn practice when fires are lit by vast plantations.

2. Better early warning is needed to help Singov respond to future haze situations.

3. Information management can be improved upon.

4. The "Singapore System" is robust.

5. Singaporeans are resilient.

Extracts from the Suntimes story:

Singapore's Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen on health risks posed by the haze:
"We would like to tell Singaporeans: 'You know what your health risks are when you are exposed to so many hours (of haze)'... But the data, unfortunately, is not that precise... Experts tell us that when conditions worsen, please stay indoors... that is the best they can do.
"I think what people are doing - staying indoors, closing the doors, (using) fans, some using air purifiers - is the best that we can do on current evidence. Until somebody comes up with better studies to show that the risks actually are much more or much less, then we can calibrate it."

Why it took a while for the Government to announce its haze contingency plans:
"The plans were in place but we have to customise them to a specific threat. The fact that the haze went into unhealthy levels and we were able to activate masks, within a day or two, was a fairly quick response... This is in no way saying that we are satisfied with the response, we can always sharpen it... The fact that well over 80 per cent of Singaporeans polled said that Singapore would get through the haze, I think it's a measure of confidence in our system."

Whether Singapore can withstand a bigger crisis:
"I, personally, am gratified by the way Singaporeans have responded. There was a certain robustness in the systems, and more important than that, the way Singaporeans reached out to help one another... it tells us the level of trust and care that we have for one another, which is essential in any crisis.

"You can have the best-laid plans but if you don't have trust and care for one another, then you know it's each man for himself. So as long as we have that, I am confident that we can keep updating, keep strengthening..."