Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Largest Singapore Armed Forces SAF mobilisation may have practised wider dimension of Singapore's defence readiness drawer plans

Soaring above and beyond the morning mist that shrouded Paya Lebar Air Base, Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) C-130 Hercules 732 had a pre-dawn flight to nowhere last Friday.

Personnel from the RSAF's 122 Squadron had a particularly early start that day, with the C-130H rotating a few hours before sunrise. A take-off at that unearthly hour means that the groundcrew had to be up and about even earlier, which translates to an overnighter for some of the squadron's personnel.

Once aloft, Hercules 732 traced seemingly aimless orbits over the sleeping island.

Nothing out of the ordinary with this flight or her underwing stores of a pair of external fuel tanks (inboard) and what appeared to be air-to-air refuelling pods (outboard).

But wait: The hose-and-drogue method for topping up thirsty RSAF warplanes is no longer used. The last RSAF warplanes plumbed for this AAR method were the F-5S/T Tiger IIs, which have since been retired.

And 732 was pictured at Rockhampton in September 2015 sans AAR pods. See below.

Photo: Courtesy of Central Queensland Planespotting

With gas prices the way they are, why bother flying with added deadweight? Who's probe-equipped jets are they meant to refuel? The Malaysians?

It would be interesting to ponder what prompted that early morning sortie on Friday, which was repeated on Saturday morning.

Perhaps by sheer coincidence, these were the days on which the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) conducted its largest mobilisation exercise since 1985. Some 8,000 soldiers and 700 vehicles were involved in the exercise, with publicity accorded to the mobilisation phase that took place under the command of the 9th Singapore Division/Headquarters Infantry at the historic Selarang Camp.

The SAF does not need to activate warm bodies to test its drawer plans. It is thought that various scenarios can be played out during computerised war games, with advanced algorithms working out how various courses of action from Blue and OPFOR could be played out during complex scenarios involving land, sea and air assets.

An FTX like the one we witnessed this past weekend, however, injects much more realism to game theory. This is because the interplay of many factors ranging from weather, traffic, unit esprit and the attitudes of individual National Servicemen could ultimately impact the Mobex response rate for units assessed.

One surmises that another dimension of the exercise could have involved the C-130 flights. Such RSAF aircraft are thought to be able to fly missions other than those that involve transporting troops or cargo.

It would be interesting indeed to find out what's in those AAR pods and why Hercules 732 was configured as such, orbiting the island in elliptical tracks with all that deadweight when most of Singapore was sleeping.

Is there more than meets the eye? Yes/No/Maybe.


Sunday, January 28, 2018

Singapore Armed Forces SAF enhanced Mobilisation and Equipping Centre showcased during largest mobilisation since 1985

Photo: MINDEF

Stripped of military shortforms such as MEC (Mobilisation and Equipping Centre) and CHE (Controlled Humidity Environment), the centre of the action for the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF) largest mobilisation since 1985 can be described simply as a multi-storey carpark.

Even so, a lot of thought evidently went into customising the facility to enable it to move a citizen's army from peace to war in as short a time as possible.

Yesterday afternoon at Selarang Camp, the home of the 9th Singapore Division/Headquarters Infantry, MINDEF's Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD) was briefed on the enhanced MEC and its role in the mobilisation exercise that involved the 23rd Singapore Infantry Brigade and other divisional assets. Some 8,000 personnel and 700 vehicles were mobilised.

War machines are parked, fully-serviceable and fueled, ready-to-go with OVM lockers placed conveniently right behind their host vehicles.

The MID-plate vehicles are purposefully and systematically arranged according to units, so that each battalion need only report to a designated part of the MEC to prepare their vehicles for deployment. This mirrors the NATO concept called POMCUS, which means Prepositioning of Materiel Configured in Unit Sets. Designed to facilitate the rapid equipping and arming of NATO forces during the Reforger (Return of Forces to Germany) contingency plan, POMCUS saved time and added to the safe, effective and efficient matching of warfighters and war machines.

The SAF thought of that too. And the result is impressive.

The Controlled Humidity Environment is what it stands for: a sealed, air-conditioned space where temperature, humidity and ambient light is regulated for the long-term preservation of war machines and sensitive electronic equipment such as communications gear and fire control systems on remote weapon systems. Inside the POMCUS-enabled parking area, ACCORD was shown Terrex infantry combat vehicles for one motorised infantry battalion. The Terrex ICVs were parked, three between reinforced columns, with paper stickers on their bow indicating their MID-plate in numerals and their role using SAF acronyms. We saw Terrex vehicles configured for the Strike Observer Mission (STORM) and Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Acquisition (RSTA), among others.

Height clearance is 4.5 metres - same as for overhead bridges on public roads - and concrete ramps are broader than in civilian carparks to cater for the turning radius of larger military vehicles, such as 155mm guns and their towing vehicles. One can imagine the value of such wide ramps, designed with as few turns and spirals as possible, being just the thing that drivers need for speedy and safe exits out of the MEC.

The MEC is a far cry from the Dri-clad system used by the Second Generation SAF in the 1980s, which saw vehicles parked in the open, zippered in weather-proof coverings that protected war machines from the rain but not the heat from the blazing sun. Signal sets and batteries were kept elsewhere and, as controlled items, had to be drawn from the signal store, each representative for each vehicle standing in line patiently, adding minutes to the total time required.

The MEC is a game-changer.

Photo: MINDEF

With the enhanced MEC, the time required to deploy a war machine from (literally) cold storage to the field has fallen from double-digit hours to a low single-digit. The actual figure is classified, but not difficult to work out if you factor in the touch points from in-processing onwards and punch out force readiness estimates from educated guesses.

The enhanced MEC emphasizes close and constant collaboration between the SAF and defence eco-system, in this case the Defence Science & Technology Agency (DSTA), whose defence engineers and architects well-versed in protective technology were instrumental in customising the MEC to serve the Singapore Army's specific operational requirements.

Whether by coincidence or design, siting the Selarang Camp MEC close to the Republic of Singapore Air Force Changi Air Base places it within the protective cover of RSAF air defence assets.

Apart from the facility that serves 9 Div, MECs are located elsewhere on the island to facilitate force preparation while dispersing assets to reduce vulnerability during the mobilisation window. Older generation MECs are due to be upgraded to the enhanced MEC standard in due course.

The enhanced MEC is just one part of the wider effort geared at enhancing the SAF's operational readiness by reducing the time taken for citizen soldiers to prepare for operations.

In this endeavour, every second counts.

What took about a minute for registration during In-pro can now be done within 20 seconds with the aid of bar-code scanners and a touch screen self-service kiosk, not unlike the automated check-in kiosks you see at some airports.

And while the DSTA representatives did not step forward during yesterday's briefing, their presence here and there was a telling and reassuring indication that the enhanced MEC did not magically appear without their input.

One can imagine that apart from the enhanced MEC, a host of other efforts have/are being made so that a mobilised SAF unit can deploy for action quickly, over water and over there, should the unthinkable happen.

Clearly, SAF staff planners have given much thought into updating drawer plans to sharpen the defence readiness of the SAF.

As my university mentor, Dr Tim Huxley, taught me on many occasions, equipment is not capability.

At 9 Div/HQ Infantry, ACCORD witnessed how capability was spring-loaded for action, should the need arise.

The enhanced MEC's contribution to deterrence is substantial, reassuring and practised during large force mobilisation war games.

We thank the generations of SAF planners, defence engineers and NSmen, from whose suggestions and feedback during numerous post-Mobex surveys (and you wondered what the SAF did with all your feedback), have contributed to sharpening the SAF's cutting edge.


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On Alert Amber with 76 SIB. A visit to the MEC in 2013. Click here

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Serving Singapore with the Singapore Armed Forces SAF alumni in SMRT

Desmond Kuek, then a two-star Chief of Army, seen with Brigadier-General Wong Ann Chai, then Chief Armour Officer, in November 2005 at Exercise Wallaby. The war games were held at the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Queensland, Australia. Desmond Kuek retired from the Singapore Armed Forces in 2010 as Chief of Defence Force with the rank of Lieutenant-General - the highest SAF rank attainable. (Photo: David Boey)

Note: 
The commentary below draws on my experience writing about the Singapore Armed Forces in the past 25-plus years as well as observations in my current role in SMRT, which I joined on 1 April 2014. 
My interactions with SMRT management began years earlier though. From January 2012, I had the opportunity to see how former SMRT CEO, Ms Saw Phaik Hwa, shaped the narrative for her blog postings. This interaction provided valuable insights into the North-South Line MRT disruptions of December 2011 and how the situation unfolded. The need to give commuters accurate, relevant and timely updates whenever their journey is affected cannot be overemphasized.
The views expressed here are my own.


Early on the morning of Saturday 21 October 2017, as Singapore slept, the SMRT Trains team successfully transferred 16 new trains from Tuas West Depot to Bishan Depot.

The C151B trains – the newest in SMRT’s fleet – were moved to add more capacity to the North-South Line (NSL), which runs on the new signalling system. As the “B” trains can only operate on the new signalling system, many stood idle in Tuas, unable to serve NSL commuters frustrated by those times when insufficient rolling stock resulted in a long wait and more crowded trains.

Coordinating the movements was a former Singapore Army colonel who was once Chief Engineer Officer. He reports to a former Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) ME8 – the highest rank attainable under the Military Domain Expert Scheme (MDES) – who leads the SMRT Trains team.

On the network, a former RSAF ME6 was on standby with his signalling team, hours before dawn, to resolve any faults before train services resumed.

Also in the loop was SMRT’s Chief Technology Officer, a veteran from the Defence Science & Technology Agency.

At the top of the hierarchy sits a former Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Chief of Defence Force (CDF), who as President and Group Chief Executive Officer of SMRT Corporation, has led the slew of projects to renew and improve Singapore’s ageing MRT network. The centre of gravity for these efforts is the North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL), whose ups and downs affect the vast majority of MRT commuters because the NSEWL is Singapore’s longest, oldest and most heavily-used MRT line.

Online observations that SMRT has a number of SAF personnel in its senior management are not unwarranted.

I am still learning about the SAF. But I would like to think previous years spent writing about MINDEF/SAF has given me a somewhat unique perspective of our uniformed Services.

Interestingly, such common ground helped foster close and meaningful working relationships with the SAF alumni in SMRT, a fair number of whom had read articles with my byline. Continued engagement with Ms Saw and the legacy team has helped bridge lessons from the past. 

Chief among these is the lack of time to carry out the many renewal projects, as well as the lack of travel alternatives for you whenever the MRT breaks down due to whatever reason.

Yes, five years is a long time.

But factor in the complexity of the MRT network and competing demands for track access during the narrow window of opportunity when trains are not running and tradeoffs have to be made.

For instance, moving the 16 new trains to serve the North-South Line on the morning of 21 October 2017 meant that engineering teams had to give up track access time to renew or maintain the line. So some maintenance work got deferred. It is as simple as that.

In my opinion, their lack of experience running a train system is not why people feel let down. It is the enormity of the tasks that need to be done while the metro system is kept running day after day.

Having seen them in action while in uniform, their change of fortunes is stark.

In the SAF, many made their mark enhancing Singapore’s defence and security, and defence diplomacy.

In SMRT, they are the targets of relentless public criticism - some bordering on ad hominem attacks - as SMRT struggles to get things right and demonstrate signs of a swift and decisive turnaround.

Indeed, Mr Patrick Tan, wrote in his letter to The Straits Times Forum on 10 October 2017: “When the SMRT management team was first appointed, I was full of hope and support for them. 

"Surely, if there was anyone who could do the job, a group of army generals with experience in running a most efficient fighting force should be able to do it. But I have been sorely disappointed and disillusioned.”

In my view, the SAF alumni helped stabilise a management team rocked by the departure of its former CEO and nearly all of the senior management team. The previous management team, led by former SMRT CEO Ms Saw Phaik Hwa, was decimated following the December 2011 MRT disruptions.

Their replacements had to soldier on, regardless.

Over at SMRT Buses, the reconstituted management team led by a former Singapore Army colonel who commanded an armoured brigade, kept buses serving you – even with its workforce recovering from the strike in 2012. The team has successfully steered buses to profitability. All this while, concepts picked up from the SAF – on Transformation and the use of advanced technology for realtime C2 – are visible in the new-generation Bus Operations Control Centre (BOCC) and telematics “black boxes” that track the driving patterns of bus captains to encourage safe driving. The bus simulators introduced by SMRT usher in a CONOPS not alien to simulators used by SAF Armour.

Over at SMRT Trains, management concepts adopted by the team mirror catch phrases jotted down when I covered MINDEF/SAF: People, Process and Technology. Transformation. Raise, Train and Sustain etc etc. Army lingo like Hotwash and AAR are not uncommon.

And yet, trains run by SMRT fail you from time to time. Thankfully, not every day, but often enough to exasperate people and make you wonder: Why not sack the lot?

If a management purge would solve SMRT’s woes, I believe this option would have been initiated by the powers-that-be. But what would that achieve?

Apart from political mileage that this act of appeasement would generate, the successors to the current management would still face:
a) An ageing MRT network
b) A 30-year-old system whose design specifications and resilience deserve a relook as more than 40% of the network is close to end-of-life and must be renewed, and
c) A workforce populated by some individuals whose integrity when signing off for work done is suspect.

Through ruthless culling, underperformers could dealt with as quickly as the termination letters are printed.

But what of an ageing system and design issues? And limited track access? And a smallish engineering cadre whose numbers were boosted 150% after the former CDF realised the importance of raising, training and sustaining a credible engineering bench strength?

Anyone with ambitions for an SMRT turnaround cannot skirt these issues.

Rail engineering expertise is important. But no less important is the logistics "battle" that demands close and constant attention to issues like critical path items, time management of large-scale projects and spares and consumables - all behind-the-scenes yet important work that needs time to demonstrate a turnaround. Indeed, one common question people have asked is why the renewal work wasn't started years earlier, which calls into question logistics issues such as life cycle management, systems engineering and so on.

Having put my life in the hands of the SAF Logistics system during the 25-day assignment covering Operation Flying Eagle in Sumatra after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, I am quietly confident that given time, space and trust, the former SAF loggies who now serve Singapore's transport eco-system will know what to do. Already, parts of the MRT network that have been renewed show far better reliability. Trains fail you because the >40% of ageing infrastructure continues to falter. 

Management change is easy. What happens the day after? Train services must continue to run as Singaporeans will not accept the notion of giving up MRT services temporarily to expedite track work – which is a common practice on overseas metros.

Still, is the situation hopeless?

A South China Morning Post (SCMP) article, "Rolling Stock to Laughing Stock: Why is Singapore’s Metro Struggling, when Hong Kong’s a hit?", cited comments from Dr Lee Der-Horng, a transport researcher at the National University of Singapore. Dr Lee said that while public frustration was understandable, the improvements SMRT had made since 2011 should be acknowledged.[Strangely, the SCMP omits mention of the 10-hour MTR Kwun Tong Line delay on 5 August 2017 which stranded hundreds of thousands of commuters…]

“Overall ... the efforts by the operators to improve reliability is quite evident,” Lee said. “The operators have responded to the wake-up call of 2011, when they realised they were not up to the standards of Hong Kong and Taipei,” he added.

In the same story, Walter Theseira, a Singapore-based transport economist, said the “statistics speak for themselves” in showing a “clear improvement in reliability as measured by mean kilometres between incidents.”

All the above achieved as the SMRT continues to age since 2012, and with ever more people stepping aboard MRT trains for their daily commute.

Tsoi Mun Heng, Vice President of Planning at the Singapore Institute of Technology, wrote in his blog post: “Put the right people in place, and then they can work on those engineering problems and put them right. But it takes time. The people who left the system won’t come back. The new ones have little knowledge and experience. It will take time to rebuild the engineering and maintenance expertise they had 30 years ago. It takes time to change a culture which has been lost. I think it will take at least 10 years.”

The second consecutive month of limited MRT station closures this month is part of a broader plan by SMRT's new active chairman - with management, staff and union working in concert with the transport eco-system - to fast track the NSEWL renewal to the year 2020 instead of 2024. [Alas, additional track access time comes at the expense of temporary sacrifices on the part of commuters.]

Whether Singapore will give Team SMRT the time to do what’s necessary or whether they will be sacrificed to appease angry voices, remains to be seen.