Wednesday, December 31, 2014

10th anniversary of the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF) Operation Flying Eagle Boxing Day tsunami relief mission

Ten years ago today, I sent sail from the Republic of Singapore Navy's Tuas Naval Base aboard RSS Endurance with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) tsunami relief mission to the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

At the time, our destination was unknown as was the duration of the then-unnamed operation. In time to come, Singaporeans came to know about the assignment as Operation Flying Eagle (OFE).

Am sharing some OFE pictures here for the first time. What's remarkable about the pictures is the fact that they were taken at all. I had stepped aboard Endurance without a camera because the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) said so and I had no intention of flouting their security protocols. I complied (with 20:20 hindsight, this was stupid) and was assured by MINDEF and my newsroom that a photographer would soon join me en route.

As things turned out, the assignments editor couldn't tell the difference between Aceh (the Indonesian province) and Banda Aceh (the capital city of the aforementioned province) and happily despatched a photographer to BA where we would link up.

Alas, Endurance steamed past BA en route to Meulaboh as the Indonesians had said her help was more sorely needed at that part of the Sumatra coastline.

And so, off I went embedded with the SAF for the largest humanitarian without any camera to capture life on the sidelines. 

As luck would have it, several kind-hearted servicemen soon got wind of my predicament. A camera magically appeared on my bunk with instructions that I was not to tell the OFE management where it came from as the device was contraband. So that secret has stayed safe with me for the past 10 years.

Even so, opsec rules were strictly observed. Not a single picture was taken in the ship's Ops Room or Radio Room, or in the then hush-hush bunks located below the tank deck even after I was more or less allowed to roam Endurance without a press escort. 

OFE was the fourth and last SAF operation I was assigned to cover as a journalist. The 26 days outfield also marked the longest stint with an SAF operation.

This small photo essay is a tribute to the TNI and SAF operation which helped stabilise Meulaboh during those dark days. I treasure my time with the OFE team, the opportunity to work with the TNI up close and remember those who did not live to see 2005's sunrise. Ten years on, we honour their memory.

Aboard RSS Endurance with the chock and chain crew. Am fourth from left in this picture. Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) and Singapore Army personnel volunteered to assist loading and unloading RSAF helicopters as the tempo of air operations, which saw frequent arrivals from thirsty cargo-laden helos, made such work energy sapping. During one of my first embeds with the Navy, an RSN officer taught me that the greatest threat aboard ship is fire. He narrated what synthetic fibres would do to a wound during a flash over and the precautions one should take. Since then, I have resolved that I would not be the weak link in the host ship during an operation and my shipboard gear includes the whole anti-flash ensemble comprising hood and elbow-length gloves, flame-resistant coveralls, safety boots and other stuff. 

The seaside scene at Meulaboh coastline, close to our landing beach. A surau was the only structure that remained standing on the narrow sliver of land that jutted out to sea from Meulaboh town. This area took the full force of the advancing tsunami. Within days of the tsunami, the area was infested with houseflies which even reached the tank landing ships (LSTs) anchored offshore.

En route to Meulaboh, the crew aboard Endurance moved cargo and vehicles to clear a helo landing spot. This allowed the tank landing ship to serve as a lily pad for thirsty Super Pumas flying in from Medan. At this point in time, landing spots had yet to be cleared on the Indonesian mainland. During this phase of the operation, the tank landing ships were referred to as Helicopter Landing Ships. It was a baffling acronym for purists who consider such vessels landing platform docks (LPDs).

Maids of all work, RSN fast landing craft shuttled to and fro between shore and mothership from dawn to dusk. Some operations often stretched into the night. The Fast Craft Utility and smaller Fast Craft Equipment Personnel were vital for the logistics over the shore effort as the gradient of the beach at Meulaboh made direct beaching impractical. The TNI's Frosch-class LSTs, designed for landing in the Baltic, had to rely on RSN FCUs and FCEPs to land their cargo and personnel. Cooperation and coordination between TNI and SAF forces in Meulaboh was exemplary.

A Combat Engineer Tractor from the Singapore Army goes to work ashore. Such vehicles swam ashore from the LSTs. They were complemented by LARC V amphibious lighters. Sadly, I was unable to photograph a LARC V while in Meulaboh. :-(

A Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Chinook moments before touching down on an improvised landing zone built by the TNI and SAF. Aboard the heavy-lift helicopter, aircrew specialists were kept busy constantly scanned blind spots for obstructions, people or animals (like water buffaloes) who might get in the way. Unloading cargo-laden helos at such sites was labour intensive (see below) as this was conducted without the benefit of fork lifts. Soon after this picture was taken, your's truly joined the unloading team.

An RSAF Super Puma gingerly approaches an improvised landing pad made of earthworks compacted by shovel, boots and an overworked bulldozer from the Singapore Combat Engineers. The comparison with helicopter operations from Vietnam to Borneo springs readily to mind. Super Pumas were thirsty birds after making the overland flight from Medan across the mountain range to Meulahoh. Before such strips were carved out of the debris-strewn landscape, these helos conducted hot refuelling aboard the LSTs. This explains the urgency in clearing at least one landing spot for a Super Puma. To my eternal regret, I failed to cash in a standing offer from the HASG info ops team to see the devastation from the air. *sigh*

RSS Endurance is framed from the forward ramp of a fast landing craft. This was my home for 26 days from 31 December 2004 to 25 January 2005. In December 2003, I reported on the first SAF deployment to the Persian Gulf - codenamed Operation Blue Orchid - from the same ship. Familiarity with the ship's routine helped immensely during the adjustment process as one got used to the naval discipline aboard the 141-metre ship.

As with most ship Commanding Officers, the one for Endurance had his quirks. Her CO, Colonel Li Lit Siew, hated dust and made every effort to keep Endurance spick and span. Bunk inspections, led by her indefatigable Coxswain and an unsmiling Guards RSM, were a sight to behold. Yes, things flew in the bunks to the accompaniement of parade square drill instructions and notes scribbled on the confounded clipboard. The initial shakeup was unleashed on the houseguests aboard the LST as the Navy sought to bring the Singapore Army soldiers in line with RSN regimentation and discipline. They succeeded, eminently.

A TNI soldier stands guard at the beachhead with two Republic of Singapore Navy LSTs offshore. The rapport and friendship established between Indonesian and Singaporean military forces during OFE enabled the two forces to quickly bring a semblance of normalcy to the coastal town. Meulaboh had been hit by a double whammy of a powerful earthquake and devastating tsunami.

Senior officers on the starboard bridge wing of RSS Endurance pay homage to the Indonesian victims of the Boxing Day tragedy, and salute their counterparts from the TNI as the warship left Meulaboh for her voyage home. Pictured below are the wreaths jointly laid by the TNI and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) in Meulaboh during a remembrance ceremony.

Throughout OFE, we drank from Cactus brand bottled water whose tagline was "Life Goes On". It was indeed a poignant reminder for all those in Meulaboh on how they should deal with the post-tsunami catastrophe.

No distance too far: The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) search operation for AirAsia Flight QZ8501

As Singaporeans settled down to enjoy the last Sunday of 2014, Lieutenant Teenesh Chandra, 26, rushed to Lebar Air Base from his family home. Duty called. There was a urgent mission to fly. Air Asia Flight QZ8501, en route from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore with 162 souls on board, was reported missing early that morning.

Singapore's offer to assist Indonesia in its search for the missing airline turned a quiet Sunday into buzz of activity for the dozens of Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) personnel who were mobilised for the search operation.

Maps and weather charts for the Java Sea were consulted. Aircraft were fuelled and made ready for flight. RSAF aircrew and groundcrew stood at instant readiness to fly. 

After that burst of activity, then came the wait.

The order to launch came some four hours later after Indonesian authorities accepted Singapore's Sunday morning offer to join search parties.

Destination: Java Sea 
Mobilised in the morning to standby to fly, C-130B 724, an upgraded Hercules tactical airlifter from the RSAF's 122 Squadron, was wheels up by around 5pm from Paya Lebar Air Base. The Hercules took off from Runway 02, banked left towards Pandan Reservoir, then turned southbound over the Singapore Strait. Dark clouds, heavy with rain, screened 724's departure from Singapore as she dashed for the Java Sea on her mercy mission.

Mercy mission: This graphic, published by The Straits Times on Tuesday 30 December 2014, shows search boxes assigned to Singapore on Day 1 of the search. Indonesian authorities have since redrawn the search areas into some 13 boxes. The distance the RSAF has to fly to reach the assigned search area is clear. 

Since Day 1 of the search for AirAsia QZ8501, Singapore has been assigned the southernmost search boxes, some 700km away from Singapore, by Indonesian authorities. The search area is about 50 times the size of Singapore. To search effectively means scouring the sea at low level. This meant that each aircraft can cover only about 15% of the search box during the nine hours of flying because the search has to be meticulous.

To put it another way, the search box for the RSAF is closer to Surabaya than it is to Singapore.

As a contributor to what would evolve as a multi-nation Search and Locate operation, our Air Force carried out its mission with quiet determination. RSAF personnel were united by a common resolve to find the missing AirAsia airliner, her passengers and crew, and to do so as quickly and expeditiously as possible.

Military Expert 1 (ME1) Vernon Goh, an RSAF Engineer from 817 Squadron, was among those who stepped forward to volunteer for the search mission. He was one of the 12 "scanners" who flew onboard an RSAF C-130 Hercules during the Search and Locate operation. In an RSAF Facebook post, ME1 Vernon said:"We took turns at the windows for about one hour each time, because the windows were high and we had to stand to look through it. We did this for about six hours, hoping that we could find something to help the families of those on board AirAsia QZ8501. It was tough as we were just looking at the endless waters, but we endured because it was important to us."

No distance too far
Assigning the RSAF search boxes farthest from Singapore meant that our C130 had to fly a longer distance to reach the area of operations. As more fuel is used, this means ithe search aircraft's time on station is shorter - even with long-range fuel tanks under each wing. 

Althought a Hercules can stay aloft for more than half a day, something has got to give when the aircraft has to fly farther to reach its area of operations. In this case, it was time spent performing the actual search. 

But Indonesian authorities must have had good reason how foreign search assets such as ships and planes are assigned. This is because when lives are at stake during a mercy mission, politiking and bureaucratic roadblocks must give way to good sense, expediency and a sense of urgency. Indonesian assets could also have been at work in search boxes closer to Singapore and changing gears midway during the operation may be more complicated than it appears.

Missions such as this are done under intense public and media scrutiny. As a consequence, once the dust has settled, people are likely to scrutinise what was done and assess how things could have been done better.

As search boxes are combed by air and sea assets, the reports sent by such assets aid authorities in compiling a picture of the area they are searching. Even reports of zero sightings are valuable. Such nil returns help authorities verify the areas where nothing was found. Without such nil returns, authorities would have to keep guessing which grid squares may hold clues to the location of the missing airliner.

So every contribution counts. 

And when lives are at stake, every additional moment that an aircraft can use to scan its patch of sea contributes to the overall mission success.

And when help is needed, it is indeed heartwarming to know the professionals in our Air Force are dependable, capable and willing to get on with their assigned mission, even when the distance seems far and mission challenges complex.

Our hearts go out to the next of kin of the people onboard AirAsia Flight QZ8501.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Singapore Defence Budget 2015: Investing in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as our defensive shield for peace

Stung by two destructive world wars last century, Western nations now keep a wary eye on any war machines that can reach out to wreck their capital cities.

Strategic weapons such as cruise missiles and long-range nuclear bombers are monitored and curtailed by international treaty, though no defence planner has any illusions their world will ever be rid of such threats.

Tactical weapons, strategic effect
For a tiny city state like Singapore, just about 40km long and 20km wide at its widest point, the deployment of tactical weapons can exert the same frightful strategic effect once our tiny island comes within the range ring of such war machines.

Examples of tactical weapons that can unleash destructive firepower to pulverise Singapore city include long-range heavy artillery (52km when firing extended range full-bore base bleed rounds), rocket artillery, tactical fighters loaded wall-to-wall bombs (these go a long way with aerial refuelling) or a man-of-war primed for shore bombardment.

Arms treaties alone offer no security. Tactical weapons are treaty-compliant as their modest range, when measured against the standards of European battlefields or trans-continent warfare envisaged by the United States, make them immune to non-proliferation talks scribed for western nations.

For us, our insurance against such destructive firepower comes from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

The SAF's firepower alone counts for nothing if not for drawer plans that prescribe the swift and decisive application of force. We must know the strategic centres of gravity that can destabilise, degrade or de-fang the enemy's war fighting potential. We must have a menu of options for our smart munitions; a list of objectives and enemy units for manoeuvre forces to gun for, encircle and destroy.

Above all, we must be able to tell false starts from the real thing, and have the collective will to do the necessary if and when the balloon goes up.

Beyond national hubris and jingoistic statements, strategic thinkers abroad must have no doubt as to the SAF's capacity to execute its mission resolutely, if our national survival is ever at stake.

Strategic conundrum
Herein lies the strategic conundrum facing the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF defence planners: How to build a credible military deterrent without alarming the neighbours. This is especially so during halcyon times (like now) when diplomats are all smiles and courtesy.

For MINDEF/SAF, the approach to long-term defence planning should continue to be grounded on a capability-based and not a threat-based approach. This approach isn't mere word play.

A capability-based approach focuses our strategic narrative on the wherewithal that the SAF should acquire so that it can deal with a host of situations, present-day and emerging, within the means provided by a Defence Budget capped at six per cent of our Gross Domestic Product.

Spread across a growing MINDEF/SAF wish-list that is multi-spectrum, the sum allocated to our Services will never be enough to cover all our bases.

So we have to prioritise and allocate resources on a best-effort basis, reduce wastage through better productivity and find smarter ways of doing things.

Even so, as regional economies thrive, we can expect them to increase their defence spending. Concomitant with the rise in defence dollars is the enlargement of their respective arsenals. And the bigger stable of war machines means more things MINDEF/SAF needs to ponder over.

Money can solve most woes as there are counter measures and counter-counter measures you can buy to deal with conventional arms.

Negating the threat(s)
With foresight, one could conceivably introduce a network of capabilities that negate the destructiveness of hostile firepower.

With the right technology, you could look above and beyond your border for a better sense of over-the-horizon threats. A more frequent update rate from indigenous overhead assets would be a game changer for defence planners. In time to come, they can scrutinise overhead imagery within hours, rather than wait for two days for another satellite pass. This means we can decide and act more decisively and prudently, filtering signals from the noise, discerning false alarms from emerging danger.

This can be complemented with active defence systems which can knock down artillery projectiles, thereby providing a measure of active defences to protect the island during the vulnerable phase when the full force potential of the SAF is mobilised for action.

This active defence shield, a sort of iron dome if you will *wink*, can be integrated with the sharp end of the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and the Singapore Army's counter-battery radars to find, fix and finish off any tube or rocket artillery fired towards the island. Installed at strategic approaches to Singapore, the active defence can provide 160 360 coverage against all comers.

Present-day active defences are never 100 per cent full-proof. This is why continuing efforts at hardening our island nation through the home shelter programme adds more resilience to our ability to soak up attacks, then strike back decisively.

As surveillance technology matures, the addition of gap-filler radars, aerostats and better algorithms that guide active defence batteries should further negate the ability of enemy commanders to simply target the little red dot and get away with it.

Defence diplomacy
The Lion City's firepower must be matched by defence diplomacy that helps regional players understand our strategy of deterrence better.

We also need to spend more time pondering the impact on deterrence should neighbouring countries attempt to densensitise us with regular yet benign deployments of their new toys.

In doing so, regional planners tasked with drafting their own drawer plans must realise how far we will allow military posturing to unfold before decisive action is taken.

At the same time, the authors of the doomsday scenarios need to understand one another better for a better sense of what qualifies as theatrics and a clear, no-BS understanding of what constitutes a threat. These points of view are two sides of the same coin.

In the coming year, as new capabilities are unveiled, we should hopefully see more brisk activity in this continuing education process at understanding the SAF's value as our defensive shield for peace.

You may also like:
Crisp and clear: Overhead imagery to boost defence awareness. Click here
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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Shot heard around the world: Daesh (Islamic State) downs first coalition warplane, pilot captured

It was a shot heard around the world.

Hours after Daeseh militants claimed they had shot down a Royal Jordanian Air Force warplane over the Syrian city of Raqqa, internet search engines were kept humming with fresh updates on the identity and life history of the captured pilot.

As the rest of the world waits to usher in Christmas, the captured Jordanian pilot, said to be First Lieutenant Moaz Youssef al-Kasabeh, faces a fate worse than death.

He has become the centrepiece of Daesh's info ops campaign, which is apparently maximising the propaganda value of his capture. Going by how Daesh has treated its prisoners, the end game for the first pilot in IS hands isn't likely to be pretty.

For newsrooms around the world, starved of diary events as the corporate world winds down for Christmas and the New Year, this development is likely to become a fixture on their bulletins tonight and in tomorrow's newspapers.

It has already gained traction in cyberspace, just hours after Daesh militants claimed they shot down the warplane - the canopy of the downed plane (above) indicates it is an F-16 -  with a MANPADS. Whether the single-engine jet fighter was brought down by enemy action, mechanical failure or pilot error, this event marked the first time a coalition warplane went down in Daesh territory.

So on the basis of news value alone, the "first" flagged for this event has caught the attention of newsrooms worldwide. And rightly so.

Add to this the dramatic pictures pumped into cyberspace from Raqqa, which apparently show al-Kasabeh soon after his capture and the riveting, made-for-TV story literally writes itself. It's just the thing that newsrooms need on a slow news day. This has helped Daesh corner world attention.

From what we can tell, Raqqa hasn't been bombed back into the Stone Age. And comms links with the outside world seem to work well enough for those images to be piped to the internet and thence to smart devices for a worldwide audience. Commonsense tells you that if those updates can get out from Raqqa, so can all sorts of other bulletins and instructions to sympathisers plugged into cyberspace.

If the account painted by Daesh can be verified, the downing of the jet after weeks after coalition airstrikes sends a clear and unmistakeable signal that IS has yet to be de-fanged. Indeed, the militants in the pictures hardly look on the brink of surrender nor malnourished due to the siege around their base.

Daesh has shown it can absorb intense punishment from the combined air armada put together by the Arab armies and western forces - including nuclear-armed states. The concentrated air power unleashed by coalition forces would have put some armed forces in our neighbourhood out of business. And yet Daesh continues to fight on with a tenacity that is noteworthy.

Armed forces who rely principally on air power as the linchpin of their deterrence strategy should take note of the speed and the effectiveness with which the opposing force's propaganda machinery cranks into action to exploit the PR value of captured airmen. Mind you, that value gains a multiplier in the event of captured airwomen.

Happy time: The Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot (first from left) said to have been shot down by Daesh waits in line to meet his King, and is seen on parade (below).

The importance of sanitising one's profile in cyberspace cannot be overemphasised. This episode once again highlights how social media accounts such as facebook will be mined for images and nuggets of information, to be tweeted and rebroadcast as fast as one can type.

Armed forces professionals may think nothing of such images during peacetime, but such images can easily be exploited to hurt one's loved ones or test the mettle of one's comrades when individuals are catapulted to media attention during a crisis. The question that begs asking is how one's armed forces can stand up to such theatrics when that moment comes unexpectedly.

In addition, the shoot down shows the disproportionate effect that setbacks - real or perceived - in an air campaign can have on the public psyche and world opinion.

The mental image of warplanes hitting hard with relative impunity, day and night with shock and awe, comes crashing down the moment the first pictures of a downed warplane start circulating in cyberspace. When captured pilots are paraded as war trophies, the limitations of air power as an instrument of war become stark, even unnerving. We saw this as long ago as Gulf War 1, when Royal Air Force Tornado pilots who were in the vanguard of coalition air strikes against Iraq were shown on Iraqi TV news, apparently battered and cowed into submission.

Now, we have a non-state actor whose playbook does not include long-term rehabilitation of POWs.

If past is prologue, we may have just seen a dead man walking.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

New acronym for Islamic State may soon take root in Singapore

A new acronym, Daesh, looks poised to soon become part of defence conversations in Singapore. 

It's an Anglicised shorthand for an Arabic phrase that stands for the "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria", better known as ISIS, ISIL or simply IS.

The acronym has been embraced by Western nations now ranged against the Daesh, as well as Arab nations whose cultural sensitivities have made them attuned to how the IS public relations machinery loathes that term because it sounds like an Arabic word for stomping out something underfoot.

For those not already acquainted with Daesh, the term represents an armed entity whose structure and ethos must be understood yet not feared, tracked but not antagonised because drawer plans for defeating this entity will prove elusive. This is especially so because our notion of deterrence and how Daesh sees deterrence from its worldview are divergent. What we think would deter under a rational actor model of strategy may not apply in the case of Daesh strategists because their militants are undeterred by a "swift and decisive response" and may, indeed, seek it in their quest to become Shahids.

In time to come, it is likely that Daesh will be used interchangeably with "IS" by the defence leadership in Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

Once the ball starts rolling, the mainstream media too will adopt the term in its reports of MINDEF/SAF affairs and so the term will take root in the local defence eco-system.

Or so we think.

As we do so, we must recognise that injecting a new term will prove difficult, especially when numerous local media reports have already referred to Daesh as IS. It will be difficult to undo mindsets now that the Islamic State has developed what marketing gurus call brand equity. What's more, the term Islamic State rolls off the tongue more effortlessly and far more evocatively than Daesh - which could prove a tongue twister especially for folks confused as to whether the "e" should remain silent or not.

Remember that two decades after MINDEF/SAF tried to junk the term "reservist" with the clunky moniker, Operationally-Ready National Serviceman (NSman), the term "reservist" still refuses to die.

And even among better informed defence journals, the acronym RSAF conjures visions of a "Royal Singapore Air Force" flying top cover over Her Majesty's Realm in the Far East.

With Committee of Supply speech writers due to swing into action after the year-end holiday season to prepare drafts for next year's Committee of Supply debate over the (expanded) Defence Budget, it will be interesting to see how fast, how deeply and how readily the term Daesh takes hold in Singapore.

With the SAF contributing military forces for the international effort against Daesh, MINDEF/SAF must soon fall in line with the shop talk adopted by Arab and Western forces fighting the same armed entity. If we don't do so, quotes from defence watchers may confuse people as to whether we are fighting one and the same armed entity in the same military operation.

And so, Daesh is IS. Or IS it not? 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Crisp and clear: Overhead imagery to boost defence awareness

When you can look around the neighbourhood once every 90 minutes instead of once every two days, such awareness represents a game-changer in the way the defence eco-system does its stuff.

Defence planners would be wise to up their game before the assets are shot in orbit over the Equatorial belt because forewarned does not instantly translate to being forearmed.

Lines of reporting and scenario templates must be refreshed in order to maximise the early warning afforded by overhead imagery.

Early awareness counts for nothing if sentinels are asleep at the switch or signs of danger are misread, mistimed or misunderstood.

The radar station guarding Pearl Harbor did its job as advertised. But the radar operators misread the blips that appeared on their screen that fateful Sunday on 7 December 1941 as approaching B-17 bombers on a ferry flight from CONUS. They turned out to be the first strike from Japanese naval aviation.

The Royal Navy warships that sailed into action from Singapore on 8 December 1941 knew full well they were under scrutiny by the picket line of search aircraft that tracked Force Z as it sailed north in the South China Sea. But those at the helm pressed on regardless. They were perhaps emboldened by the fact that no RN capital ships had been sunk by the combined might of two European air  forces in the past two years of war in the Mediterranean theatre where warships were hounded and pounded on the passage to and from Malta and Egypt. So what harm could a supposedly inferior Asian air force inflict in the warships, particularly in an area of operations with friendly shores on British Malaya and Borneo?

The 90-minute refresh rate for overhead imagery is a window of opportunity which shrewd opponent(s) could exploit ruthlessly. Camouflage could conceal. Decoys could deceive. Deception ops could befuddle or desensitise. Every effort would be invested to rob one of such prescience. Overhead assets are virtually untouchable. Base station receivers are not (ditto radars) and could be molested in ways limited only by the creativity of the human mind.

At the heart of the matter are questions that hang over what one should do should danger be detected and you move quickly from Five to One. 

Launch on warning? Do so and one risks reshaping the geo-political landscape with conflict resolution elusive and long standing enmity all but guaranteed in the event of a false positive.  

Launch on impact?  Better cross one's fingers that active and passive defences can withstand the initial onslaught. 

And if a go-order is approved, will this be a full scale all-out effort or some half-hearted light and sound show that does nothing more than rankle the neighbourhood? 

Awareness of potential pitfalls are a first step in scaling up scenario templates and theoretical models to factor in that 90-minute window of opportunity.

That first step has already begun.

You may also like:
Time to evaluate need for RSAF Space Command. Click here

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mercy flight

There was a casevac flight this afternoon around 1400 Hotel involving a Super Puma.

Good to know that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has elements on standby for such contigencies 24/7 and men and women with the professionalism, dedication, training and support to do the needful.

Visited the camp in question yesterday for a firsthand look at their set up and safety protocols. Am satisfied that decisive action backs up what was shared during the briefing and camp walkabout.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Guide to Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) anti-vehicle barriers on the South Korea side of the DMZ

Gate guards: Like silent sentinels, a daunting array of anti-vehicle barriers guard a bridge near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on South Korea's side of the border. Vehicles moving along the bridge have to negotiate portable barriers in a slalom-like course while under constant observation from sentries at either end of the bridge. When on high-alert, gates on either side of the bridge are pulled to seal off the bridge completely.

For a country that makes most of the war machines in its arsenal, South Korea has opted for simple yet apparently effective measures to safeguard key avenues of approach in one of the world's most heavily-fortified borders.

Unlike Singapore's border checkpoints and entrances to key installations here which have mechanical cat claws installed as anti-vehicle barriers, roads and bridges near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on South Korea's side of the border are protected by portable barriers designed to stop, slow down or obstruct speeding vehicles. The image above shows the range of barricades typically seen at checkpoints around the DMZ.

These include road blocks festooned with metal spikes, miniaturised versions of the Czech hedgehog (usually fielded as anti-tank barriers) and barricades on wheels that allows Republic of Korea (ROK) troops to quickly reposition such barriers. These passive defences are complemented by fortified positions whose arcs of fire cover the barricaded areas as well as avenues of approach leading to the checkpoints.

No frills anti-vehicle devices
Simple, low maintenance and effective against soft-skin vehicles, the South Korean security barricades do away with the possibility that mechanical barriers may fail when they are needed most - which was the case in March 2014 when a Mercedes-Benz speed past a cat claw barrier that failed to deploy properly at Singapore's Woodlands Checkpoint.

Few speeding vehicles are likely to get past their spike road blocks and nasty looking rollers with spikes with their tyres intact. It's a disarmingly low-tech approach to anti-intrusion devices in an age where defence contractors will try to hawk all manner of fancy (read: expensive and maintenance intensive) mechanical barriers for your front gate.

But the devices fielded by the ROK forces work.

Do not confuse the no frills approach to anti-vehicle barriers with lack of know-how in defence engineering on the part of the South Koreans. Their defence industrial base is years ahead of what we have in Singapore.

If you know what to look for, you may notice that ample examples of top notch defence engineering abound in the DMZ from fortified construction to long-range observation devices and assorted electronic devices that provide earning warning of signs of attack.

Where it matters, the South Koreans seem to spare no effort at keeping their borders safe.

ROK sentries stop and check all vehicles moving towards the fortified border area with North Korea.

Close view of the miniaturised Czech hedgehogs (left), spike road block, sentry post and the retractable gate that moves on rails set into the road. The barricades are light enough to be repositioned rapidly during a high alert.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Brisk RSAF air activity noted over Singapore

Am in Seoul, South Korea, this week.

Have been following developments from Singapore with keen interest, particularly reports of brisk air activity around Tengah Air Base this evening (3 Nov'14) and reports that an "RSAF" Gulfstream IV had been intercepted by Indonesian warplanes en route from SIN to DRW - the RSAF standing for Royal Saudi Air Force. :-)

Last Thursday, people around the Central Business District may have seen or heard RSAF F-15SGs flying race track patterns over the city skyline - an unusual sight to say the least. Look south, think about what's roosting there and you will have ample food for thought for what's happening in our immediate neighbourhood.

Spent several hours the other day getting up to speed with the history of the Korean War and the situation today on the Korean peninsula. When all is said and done, the central message is best summarised by an inscription (above) at a memorial to the fallen. The South Koreans are determined not to take their defence and security for granted. A succinct message that many of us should take heed of.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

When the balloon goes up: Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) aerostat to perform sentry duty

Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) radar-equipped aerostat by numbers 

Sometime next year, the Republic of Singapore Air Force will begin deploying a radar-equipped aerostat for aerial and maritime surveillance. Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, announced this today at the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) PRIDE Day 2014 awards presentation ceremony held at Nanyang Polytechnic.

PRIDE, which means PRoductivity and Innovation in Daily Efforts, is a productivity initiative that also encourages Singapore's defence eco-system to think out of the box and be bold and creative in solving everyday challenges.

Out of the box solutions seldom come bigger than the 55-metre long American-made TCOM aerostats, which are estimated to result in savings of some $29.2 million a year providing long-range radar surveillance compared to conventional airborne radar coverage once fully operational.

An exhibit that explains the aerostat's role in Singapore's national defence can be found at the MINDEF PRIDE Day 2014 Exhibition, held at the Nanyang Polytechnic from 28 October till 30 October from 10am to 4pm. 

8: Ground crew are required to operate the sensor

24/7: Duty hours and days on watch for the aerostat

29.2: The cost savings, in Singapore dollars, per year from operating the aerostat versus AEW

55: Length in metres of this tethered balloon made by TCOM 

200: Range, in kilometres, that the aerostat's radar can detect objects

2015: Initial operational capability for the aerostats

2,000: The operating ceiling, in feet, that the aerostat can reach 

The phrase "when the balloon goes up" takes on a whole new meaning when radar-equipped balloons belonging to the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) are installed at a certain place to detect, identify and track air and maritime contacts.

The tethered balloons or aerostats will help with sense-making of the air situation picture by extending the radar horizon some 2,000 feet above ground and up to 200 km away, which is about double the range of terrestrial radar emitters. This task is already a complex one in peacetime owing to the large number of flying objects around this place.

The aerostats will complement the suite of ground and building-based sensors fielded by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). These include ground-based radars and truck-mounted gap-filler radars such as the Giraffe AMB, airborne radar watch provided by Gulfstream G550 CAEW aircraft, Fokker 50 Utility aircraft modified for surface search and ACSR radars mounted on HDB flats and buildings thought to be linked to the Republic of Singapore Navy's coastal surveillance network. 

The overlapping coverage of these emitters, when collated and analysed at the SAF's Armed Forces Command Post together with intelligence gathered by overhead imagery and other assets, present SAF defence planners with info-fusion and sense-making capabilities that were unheard of just a decade ago.

Once the aerostats go into service, they will add a new and unmistakeable feature to the landscape when hauled to ground level for maintenance. At 55 m in length - slightly longer than an Olymic-size pool - and 8,554 cubic metres in volume, the aerostat's sheer size makes it difficult to hide from nosey people outside the fenceline, which means that sooner or later, someone will notice. :-)

At their operational ceiling thousands of feet above ground level, the aerostat will be hardly visible to ground observers. However, that vantage point gives the aerostat's sensors better visibility. Being higher allows the emitter to see far and see more.

The job of keeping the aerostat flying is complex too.

Among the issues that have to be sorted out before the aerostat goes aloft is that of deconflicting airspace. A cylinder of airspace several kilometres in diameter around the aerostat probably needs to be sanitised to keep a safe distance between aircraft, the aerostat itself and, more importantly, the cable that anchors the aerostat to the ground on the mainland. The last item will be near invisible to pilots flying about in high performance aircraft.

Lightning protection will be another point to consider. With millions of dollars worth of sensitive electronics in the air of one of the most lightning prone areas of the globe, defence engineers have to ensure the investment does not fry the moment a lightning bolt zaps the machine.

If it works as planned, the aerostat will herald exciting times for airspace watchers in that place.

You may also like:
When the balloon goes up: Radar-equipped aerostats to perform sentry duty. Click here

Guide to radars and defence equipment installed on HDB blocks and commercial buildings in Singapore. Click here 

Evaluate need for RSAF Space Command. Click here

When the RSAF gives ground. Another RSAF base may make way for urban renewal. Click here

Sunday, October 26, 2014

When the Republic of Singapore Air Force gives ground: Impact on SG's land bank from the closure of PLAB

In the 1978 movie, Superman, Lex Luthor intends to detonate a nuclear device along the San Andreas Fault so that California would slide into the Pacific Ocean, making him immensely richer because hundreds of miles of worthless desert land he had bought would be the new (read: valuable) seafront property.

The cunning plan by Superman's nemesis was engineered to profit from an instant change in geography. Alas, the hero saves the day and the land grab never achieves its intended effect.

In Singapore, the announcement that the Republic of Singapore Air Force would bid goodbye to Paya Lebar Air Base (PLAB) after 2030 has stoked the interest of real estate speculators who sense a good buy. They reason that property limited by height restrictions around PLAB would shoot up in value (if you excuse the pun) once height restrictions are removed and the plot ratio of real estate around what is now the RSAF's largest airbase can be maximised.

There's money to be made from the change in landscape, some property players reason, though on a time scale far longer than the instant success that Lex Luthor has plotted.

While theoretically plausible, property speculators may want to ensure their homework is thorough and money-making instincts are sound before taking the plunge.

The 16-year window (or more) from now till the day PLAB closes shop is likely to be signposted with economic peaks and troughs, looking at how economic cycles have contracted in the past decade or so.

When the RSAF gives ground
In addition, one must pencil in the impact on property prices from the release of prime land after container terminals around the city fringe move to Tuas. And how about the possibility that even more RSAF assets will be released after 2030?

Looking at projections for Singapore's resident population and future demands for living space, it is the opinion of this blog that another RSAF base will eventually make way for urban renewal. When that day comes, the announcement would likely throw a spanner in the works of property players who had banked their hopes on profiting from PLAB's eventual departure. The sudden realisation that tiny Singapore has a bigger land bank for urban redevelopment than estimated by property analysts/experts is likely to dash many hopes and may sink many speculative ventures.

That said, some will profit - and handsomely so.

If one does a scenario play, one can quite clearly see that the release of a substantial tract of land would invigorate the property scene. The dots are already there for you to join in order to hazard a guess how the landscape is likely to change.

Investors with deep, deep pockets and a long-term investment horizon that stretches decades from today are likely to be the ones who can ride out any speculative fever and be left standing solidly to bank in their profits.

Caveat emptor.

You may also like:
When the balloon goes up. Radar-equipped aerostats to perform sentry duty. Click here

RSAF takes creative approach in studying airpower. Click here

The Best Units 2014. Click here 

Safe haven, safe house. Click here

Friday, October 24, 2014

Goody two shoes: Lessons in volunteer management for the SAF Volunteer Corps pioneer team

The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) fast landing craft approached the Indonesian shore, fully loaded with passengers all keyed up and eager for action. Ramp down. Boots on Indonesian soil and the first "shots" recorded were a mix of selfies and images of the battered landscape.

Those who watched the antics by disaster tourists embedded among genuine volunteers frowned at the spectacle. This scene was played out during the closing chapter of Singapore's contribution to the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief work, codenamed Operation Flying Eagle, in earthquake and tsunami hit Meulaboh.

The motley crew of civilian volunteers had been shipped to Meulaboh aboard an RSN tank landing ship, their two-day journey there drawing upon that mental quality that lived up to the name ship of that class of LST.

The RSN's experience shows that despite the best of intentions from civilian volunteers and their military host, mixing people plucked from civvie street into a military environment is fraught with perils in expectation management. The is also the human dynamic, principally the interplay of group dynamics among volunteers and between the host as opinions are shaped and in group/out group cliques forged in a hierarchical military environment.

Not all civilians adapt well to military life. This lifestyle change doesn't come more stark than life aboard a Singapore navy man-of-war, haze gray and underway, far from the comfort zone of landlubbers unused to shipboard life.

Speak to the RSN's OFE alumni and you may hear about the challenges in hosting volunteers as not all responded well to authority or to their peers or were polite in voicing their grouses. And these were civilians who had stepped forward on their own free will to do good.

Lessons gleaned from OFE 10 years ago point to the path the Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps (SAFVC) can avoid relearning with astute management of volunteer applicants at all touch points leading to their first taste of military life.

But even with the best effort at mapping touch points so that proactive action can be taken in assessing, selecting and inducting the best candidates, some people may, alas, chose to drop out.

Again, our Navy holds lessons to how candidates can be galvanised to press on. Visit the Naval Diving Unit and one may hear how tadpoles can voluntarily drop out by simply ringing a bell. It is as simple as that. A few clangs of that blooming bell and you can drop out of Hell Week.

Despite this easy way out, tadpoles rarely do so. Why?

Perhaps the Navy's commitment to the quality of a candidate over sheer recruitment numbers presents the NDU training cadre with candidates imbued with the right motivation and personal resolve to adapt and get on with the job.

Numbers aside, it is good to know the SAFVC is likewise committed to handpicking quality candidates over filling vacancies. Their's is no numbers game.

Turning concept into reality is never easy, particularly for the pioneer batch tasked with shaping the SAFVC from a paper plan into a credible source of human capital to augment the SAF.

Yet, those at the helm must believe innately that the cause is worthwhile, the objectives attainable and remain steadfast and vigilant as they focus on the tasks at hand, even as naysayers nip at their heels.

Results will show.

If you think you have what it takes to join the SAF Volunteer Corps, click here

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Six unique spots in Singapore lost after the 9/11 security lockdown

Singaporeans in their teens would probably have fuzzy recollections of how parts of this island looked like before the security clampdown that came about after the terror attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001.

As with many things in life, you don't realise what you've missed until it's gone. Here are our top six picks, in no particular order.

1. Changi Village Road
A magnet for plane spotters by day and *ahem* "courting couples" by night, the slight elevation of Changi Village Road gave one an unblocked view of the airport runway and taxiways. It was a real treat watching planes come and go at one of Asia's busiest airports. The place now sits within the fence line of the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) Changi Air Base (West).

2. Sembawang Wharves
There was a time when the name of a visiting warship was all that was needed for a visitor's pass to the quayside where foreign warships came alongside for port calls. No one bothered if you walked in with a camera and you could gawk at the open yard full of brand new cars waiting for their date with a Ro-Ro. All that changed after 9/11 with heightened security in the area, complete with security troopers from the Singapore Armed Forces Island Defence Group. 

3. Gombak Drive
One could walk all the way up Gombak Drive to the hallowed gates of the Singapore Ministry of Defence, no questions asked. Just make sure you do an abut turn before the MPs at the gate. There was this particular tree in front of a security signboard near the main gate guard post that generated chuckles from visitors: stand at one particular spot and the tree trunk blocked out the letter "P" in the written warning that said: 
Show Your 
Pass Without Demand 
Today, the road leading to Block M, Gombak Drive resembles the CIQ at the Causeway. Ahhh... life was indeed simpler then.

4. Central Manpower Base, Depot Road
Cheap curry puffs colour marked for potatoes and sardines were one hot staple at CMPB. The various canteen dishes were kept affordable too and welcomed all. Visitors could walk right in as there was hardly a sentry in sight pre-9/11. Today: Don't venture there unless on an official visit.

5. SAFTI Military Institute, Upper Jurong Road
The sprawling camp, home to the SAF Officer Corps, was designed from a blank sheet of paper as an open concept camp ala West Point in the US. No need to change pass. No perimeter fence. Visitors were allowed to roam the grounds to see the citizens' army up close and many did indeed do so. The grounds were a favourite with wedding couples, who used the cropped lawns and well manicured terrain as the backdrop for their wedding photo shoot.

6. Jurong Island
When the island was first opened as Singapore's petrochemical hub, you could drive in whenever you fancied for a look at the newest refineries on the island. Go at night and be dazzled by the Christmas tree-like effect from the fairyland of lights that typifies a modern petrochem hub. The empty, desert-like, yet-to-be-occupied plots of industrial land and roads leading to empty seafronts were also a favourite with courting couples looking for some private space *grin* or shutter bugs who wanted to snap pictures of the refineries at night. Missed that sight? Too bad. It's gone. Forever! 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Islamic State versus SAF Volunteer Corps: Five reasons why IS has a more effective volunteer programme

Two armed organisations, same challenge: How to uproot civilians from their daily routine to support a military cause.

In one corner: The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) with nearly 50 years of brand equity, full support from the apparatus of state, an alumni of 900,000 Singaporean men who have served full-time National Service, a credible (albeit unproven) arsenal of some of the deadliest war machines you will find in Southeast Asia, a mobilisation process (proven) that gives Singapore one of the fastest transitions from peace to war. The target of the newly-announced SAF Volunteer Corps: 100 to 150 volunteers to be recruited over a year.

Then look at the Islamic State (IS): Volunteers who step forward are branded as terrorists and emerge on the watch list of assorted intelligence agencies. Deployed in-theatre, they face attacks by the combined might of some of the world's most powerfully-armed countries. Homecoming will probably earn them a chat with their local police.

And yet, to the consternation of IS detractors, tens of thousands are said to have stepped forward from all over the world, with a level of motivation that has seen some willingly take on offensive ops that leads to their certain death. The growing IS footprint on maps of the Middle East would not have been possible without the support of their volunteers. If there was a prize for a successful volunteer programme, this organisation - whatever you think of their end-state or motivation - will probably be hard to beat.

Here's why:

1. The volunteer programme is sexy. 
Move from civvie street to join their ranks and one instantly becomes a "fighter". The world's media trips over itself trying to guesstimate the size of their volunteer corps (30,000+ fighters?) and brands all who join it fighters, regardless of the level and quality of military training (if any) these new recruits possess. The word "IS fighter", when blended with the fear-mongering that assorted bespoke videos are engineered to provoke, creates an armed organisation whose shock effect is probably all out of proportion to the actual military capability of their military hardware and small arms.

2. Their ground-up movement or GUMS is phenomenal. 
No Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). No public relations campaign to generate and sustain media interest. No fancy literature to explain their volunteer corps equivalent. Unlimited call up period with the prospect of an anonymous death. Even so, many individuals have made their personal life changing decision to leave their loved ones to join a condemned cause with little or no prospect of home leave. Active in cyberspace, this has led to the recruitment message spreading to all corners of the planet, in various tongues and calibrated in a tone that resonates with their target audience. Can you beat that?

3. Their source of funding is mysterious. 
If press reports are to be believed, the allowance that an IS "fighter" receives is higher than that of an average full-time National Servicemen. Enough said.

4. Their common purpose has been elevated as a noble cause. 
Generations ago, there was an army whose soldiers defied world opinion, marched on wars of conquest and fought to the bitter end even as their dying nation was bombed to smithereens. Their belt buckles carried the slogan: Gott Mit Uns. And they believed it resolutely. In 2014, we again see a common purpose framed around servitude to God. In IS battle cries and on their black flags, service for a higher purpose is proclaimed. Tens of thousands believe this and have made the great trek to join their warring brethren. The optics of this volunteer effort is hard to beat.

5. The world is their audience. 
With the world as their catchment area, the size of their recruitment area for potential recruits is vast. But potentially high returns (in volunteers) comes with high risk as world governments close ranks to crimp this effort. And yet they thrive and one must ask why?

At another time in another place, the Spanish Civil War also saw legions of recruits, fired up by propaganda and personal conviction, flock to Spain to fight for their cause. Both sides, operating in a pre-Internet age, used their recruitment processes to good effect during the Spanish Civil War. So one must think through if IS' volunteer campaign is successful because of social media, or whether it thrives regardless of the tools at its disposal. And if the present-day IS and Spanish militias of yesteryear are guide posts to how hearts and minds campaigns should be won, then the SAFVC's stated aim of 100 to 150 volunteers is perhaps way below par and one wonders why the bar has been set so low? This brings us to the next point.

Even before the SAFVC recruitment effort opened shop on Monday (13 October'14) to Singaporeans and Singapore Permanent Residents (SPRs) aged between 18 to 45 years old who want to serve the SAF in uniform, three volunteers were presented to journalists at a media conference at Maju Camp - the SAFVC headquarters.

The fact that MINDEF/SAF had these individuals to parade in front of the media suggests that the SAFVC has an inkling how many Singaporeans/SPRs will respond to their call to action, since three individuals (2% of the SAFVC recruitment target) had evidently stepped forward as volunteers before the recruitment drive went "live". So while it's anyone's guess how many more will apply, it's a pretty safe bet that the figure of 100 to 150 volunteers is not a stretch target but one which can be (somewhat) comfortably achieved. Indeed, one could surmise that the recruitment target will be breached (which is a good thing) and the ground swell of support maximised for PR value in due course as SAFVC can cherry pick the best individuals to fill those 100 to 150 roles.

What's next for the SAFVC is to think through how a GUM can generate and sustain awareness of, and interest in, their cause in a way that eventually ingrains the SAFVC effort as part of the Singapore landscape.

The SAFVC is more than just pulling in warm bodies, numbering 100 to 150 plus souls, which is just about enough to fill the ranks of a slim fit infantry Company.

It is about offering an avenue for Singaporeans/SPRs who need not serve National Service opportunities to contribute to our national defence.

This cause too is a noble and essential duty. SAFVC fighters, please step forward.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Innovations in defence: Malaysia Boleh

When the Royal Malaysian Navy was tasked to conduct anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, it cranked into action plans to convert civilian-flagged vessels into naval auxiliaries.

The two ships, Bunga Mas Lima and Bunga Mas Enam, exemplify the British concept of Ships Taken Up From Trade or STUFT, a concept for harnessing civil resources as military assets that was demonstrated with decisive effect by the British Royal Navy during the Falklands/Malvinas War in 1982.

This gem of an idea by the Malaysians is but one of many examples of the innovative spirit in defence science and engineering north of the Causeway. The speed with which the MISC ships were role-changed for a naval role, given a fresh coat of haze gray warpaint and teeth in the form of naval helicopters tells us something about the level of the ops-tech integration in Malaysia's defence eco-system.

More recently, Malaysian Minister of Defence, Hishammuddin Hussein has said abandoned Petronas oil rigs off Sabah are to be given a new lease of life as forward operating bases. The converted rigs will be gifted to the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) as floating lily pads that can be used to generate and sustain the Malaysian military's presence and authority in the seas south of the Philippines that have been used by lawless elements to test Malaysian resolve.

Malaysia's plans for Petronas oil rigs hark back to the British idea of building platforms to defend the mouth of the River Thames against German air and seaborne intruders during World War Two. They also mirror the Iranian practice of using oil rigs to exert a military presence at sea.

When ESSCOM's assets are in place, Malaysian authorities are likely to welcome opportunities to square off the challenge. Knowing the level of training and motivation of Malaysian forces, such engagements are likely to be embarrassingly one-sided.

Closer to home, the raising of two battalions of Keris (Brazilian ASTROS II) multiple rocket launchers by the Malaysian Army shows that its defence strategists understand and appreciate the decisive impact that MRLs have in the confined battespace of peninsular Malaysia.

So while an MRL - a tactical level artillery asset - would hardly caused ripples when fielded by a European army (so vast are distances there), the weapon system is a tactical asset with strategic effect in the Malaysian Army's theatre of operations. In Europe, strategic weapon systems are subject to close monitoring and arms control protocols. But not so in Southeast Asia.

Clearly, someone in the Malaysian defence ecosystem must  have recognised the advantage that a mobile weapon system with a long reach can have during an Auto Strike situation when drawer plans must kick into action quickly to beat the reaction time of a hostile force as it mobilises from peace to war.

The addition of Metis M anti-tank missiles to Malaysia's war chest some years ago is noteworthy on two counts. Firstly, from an operational standpoint, the Metis missiles pack a punch as they have been designed to destroy modern main battle tanks like the Merkava. Secondly, from a force development standpoint, the in-service date for these hard-hitting missiles is indeed interesting to ponder over. Isn't it?

Alas, the Malaysians may not be masters of maximising public relations value from their defence innovations. They lack an annual Defence Technology Prize ceremony which lauds innovation, creativity and best practices in military technology. And while in Singapore, the Singapore Combat Engineers' idea for building a Floating Platform as an interim venue for our National Day Parades has been widely publicised, we have yet to see the Petronas oil rigs enjoy similar PR traction.

But just because you don't hear about their innovations, doesn't mean they have none to celebrate. Give credit where it is due. Well done Malaysia.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Unfinished business? Should the Singapore Armed Forces deploy to fight IS?

As the Americans scour the globe for an international coalition to fight the Islamic State (IS), it is only a matter of time before Gombak Drive receives a call to arms.

Singapore should be wary of any request(s) to commit the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) against IS forces, until and unless the United States demonstrates it is aware of the nature and complexity of the threat it faces in the theatre of operations.

At present, the rise of IS in Iraq and Syria has defied the slew of life-changing, post-9/11 counter terrorism measures devised to deter, detect and defeat the sort of nemesis that IS has come to represent.

The fact that IS has grown in stature and battlefield effectiveness to a sort of Foreign Legion for like-minded individuals indicates this is no self-radicalised group that somehow attained strength in numbers.

As yet, we do not know who their backers are. And these entities must have deep pockets, perhaps sustained by protection money from oil-rich Arab states in exchange for (temporary) immunity from the problems that have wracked some of their neighbours.

From a logistics standpoint, IS strategists must have mulled over and implemented plans, processes and procedures to rearm, refuel and resupply an estimated 31,000 combatants in a battlespace that spans the now none existent border between Iraq and Syria. In any language, this is a sizeable army, not some rag tag militia with no form or structure. They represent a credible army in the field with an unknown order of battle, funded in the face of heightened financial stringency that monitors everything from the Hawala system to the global financial system.

Until we unmask the threat, the strategy to exploit air supremacy over Syria and Iraq to hit IS positions doesn't have legs to stand on. If it succeeds, it will be one of the few case studies in the profession of arms where air power alone wins the fight.

No country seems willing to put skin in the game with boots on the ground.

Ground forces have taken the form of advisors tasked to train, organise and equip anti-IS forces. This game plan is fraught with folly principally because known one can tell for sure who will ultimately benefit from the training and arms infusion.

This is why Singapore should sit things out before joining the posse.

This is no Operation Blue Ridge redux. The downside risk of having SAF train and arm combatants who are not what they seem is uncomfortably high. We should not place our people in this ambiguous situation which, truth be told, can be traced  back to the US decision to invade Iraq years ago on unsubstantiated claims the then regime was dabbling in weapons of massed destruction.

If anything, the deployment could take the form of a single KC-135R aerial refuelling tanker or C-130 airlifter sent to help the anti-IS coalition sustain the aerial bombardment of hostile positions. But until we know who the warplanes are being deployed against, and that airpower isn't being used by an astute enemy (which has no air force) to bomb their rivals into oblivion, should we even do so blindly?

Singapore's contributions to past international peace support missions indicate we will not shy from adversity, from combat situations or from doing the "right thing" when it matters.

There's a time, place and purpose to everything. And the time is not right for Singapore to join the anti-IS coalition with the deployment of SAF ground forces.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Prospects for non grads in S'pore: Societal shift needed to accept unconventional pathways

When I left the Singapore school system more than 25 years ago with qualifications that earned me a rejection letter from a local university, that development was the best jump start to self-development and lifelong learning I could ask for.

Thanks to a Singaporean who made his own way up the career ladder without a degree, my unconventional academic journey was eventually recognised when he gave me a chance to prove myself in corporate life.

That individual, Mr S.R. Nathan, embodies the societal shift needed as we ponder the value and potential of non graduates versus graduates.

The year was 1996. The place: An office at Raffles City which Mr Nathan used as ambassador-at-large.

He looked through my job application for his then-new strategic studies institute without a word before raising his head and asking a single question: You have A Levels and then you went on to Masters. So you don't have a first degree?

Mr Nathan's perceptiveness saw the past five years of my life compressed into mere minutes, with the expectation that as far as job prospects were concerned, I would soon be shown the door. 

Had it been any other public servant, the show would probably be over. But Mr Nathan bade me to continue.

He listened intently as I described how A level results failed to book me a place at a local university.

He seemed intrigued with the decision to head to work after my full-time National Service, starting at the age of 22 as the Singapore correspondent for a UK-based defence weekly. I was then the youngest freelancer engaged by the magazine and learned what I could from seasoned defence journalists.

The years of freelance work for defence publications, an invitation to present a paper at a defence forum at the age of 23 eventually led to a British academic sketching out options for furthering one's studies overseas. Back in the United Kingdom, that academic shared my dream with colleagues who taught defence/strategic studies. Three were approached. Three wrote back. They hailed from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, King's College in London and the University of Hull. All were prepared to assess the application for a Masters programme.

And so, the paper chase moved into high gear.

The British publisher of the defence magazine -  then and now an influential voice in the British defence scene - supported the application. As did the Naval Attache from an embassy in Singapore. Their endorsements underscored the value not just of networking (which anyone can do), but of proving oneself to an international audience who can be discerning.  

And so, off I went to the UK for a course of study that leverage on what I assessed to be two strengths: in language and in military history/defence matters. In the early 1990s, Singapore's education system did not offer any courses in strategic studies to students outside the Singapore Armed Forces. This meant that the net had to be cast wide to countries that did offer such courses to civilians. Help came from unexpected quarters. At the time, when the National Defense University in the United States was downsizing its National Security Management courses due to budget cuts, a contact there mailed the entire series of Blue Book textbooks to me. This series of about a dozen books proved of immense value in laying the academic foundation so necessary for the Masters in Strategic Studies that I embarked on from September 1995.

Thanks to that piece of paper and with Mr Nathan's advice, I eventually joined Singapore Press Holdings as a daily-rated temp, converting to full-time employment six months later. I have not looked back since.

It wasn't all smooth sailing. The five years in the academic wilderness as a non graduate taught me who my real friends were. Some made scornful remarks about freelance work (try telling people you work from home), others were dismissive about strategic studies/war studies as they'd never heard of it (honestly, their views didn't matter and I gave up explaining what it was all about), others made disparaging remarks about non grads in the guise of offering unsolicited "advice" about university courses (have access to better qualified advisors, thank you). It was great to purge one's life of such characters.

Mr Nathan's willingness to look beyond conventional notions of academic pathways is precisely the societal mindset change needed as Singapore examines career opportunities for people without degrees. Beyond the recent burst of media stories of non graduates made good, Singapore Inc needs to walk the talk.

Our education system needs to reorientate itself quickly because the openness the British university admission system displayed 20 years ago when they were willing to consider work experience as a criteria for a Masters course is, alas, relatively unheard of in Singapore even today. British varsities are apparently not unique in their approach to assessing candidates. The US system is similarly inclined.

One can only wonder at the untold number of Singaporeans who have had their educational aspirations dashed by a system that needs to check the boxes so rigidly that individuals who do not conform to current concepts of talent management fall through the cracks.

The good news is this: Success stories of individuals who made it invariably have some common themes woven into their narrative. These include an innate stubborn belief in their ability to succeed no matter what, passion/drive in pursuing their course of action and a sense of realism in what can be done.

While some elements are within an individual's control, there is an added element of luck and in meeting the right people at the right time.

For me, the turning point emerged during that interview by Mr Nathan. And for that, I remain forever grateful.