Saturday, December 10, 2011
RSAF datalinks put through stress test at Exercise Forging Sabre
The job of defending Singapore's skies in wartime is a complex one.
Doing the same in peacetime is complex too.
At the Exercise Forging Sabre war games now taking place in the American state of Arizona, Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) warfighters practice drawer plans for complex air operations against simulated air and ground threats over a battlespace many times the size of Singapore island.
Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) war machines now gathered at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona tell only part of the story.
Also serving a pivotal role is a datalink that will be tested during the intense air activities on and above the expansive Barry M. Goldwater Range. This piece of defence electronics is arguably less photogenic than a F-15SG Strike Eagle with wall-to-wall bombs or an AH-64D Apache gunship loaded to the hilt with rocket pods and anti-armour missiles.
But the datalink is an advantage RSAF aircrew want to fight with, as Forging Sabre has apparently demonstrated.
The exercise enables the RSAF Air Combat Command (ACC) to test, validate and refine its concept of operations for wielding airpower in the defence of Singapore by fighting for and securing air superiority in the SAF's projected area of operations.
When deployed against a threat(s) armed with high performance warplanes and over a battlespace infested with anti-aircraft teams, ACC battle managers know that such air superiority cannot be assumed nor guaranteed.
During Exercise Forging Sabre, Team RSAF and their friends from the Singapore Army's Special Forces are being put through intensive hard fighting in contested airspace, day and night.
Commander ACC and XFS Exercise Director, Brigadier-General Lim Yeong Kiat, told The Straits Times that the war games are "as real as it gets".
BG Lim said:"Previously, we focused separately on the tactical development of troops, setting up and fine-tuning the command headquarters and testing new weapons.
"We're now ready to bring everything together in more realistic missions... We want to train the way we fight."
The air combat manoeuvres are more than shadow boxing. About 40 precision-guided munitions such as Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs and Hellfire missiles will be lobbed, dropped or fired during simulated combat missions that RSAF defenders will unleash day and night to crunch down enemy forces.
This includes Laser JDAMs that Singapore bought to meet and greet moving targets such as enemy tanks.
Away from the fireworks, datalinks have been working tirelessly to keep their masters informed and aware of the situation in the air. It is a stress test like no other because of the number of warplanes up in the air, the distances at which they fly, live ordnance carried and the duration of some sorties during Forging Sabre.
Such prescience gives RSAF defenders a crucial advantage in understanding what is going on around their aircraft and decide how best to fly and fight the enemy.
Describing the exercise scenario, BG Lim told cyberPioneer:"We will simulate a war game scenario where we have a "red" team acting as the opposition, as well as a "blue" team which will have to develop an operational plan against them. The "blue" force will have to contest for the airspace, and fight and win air superiority. They will also have to conduct dynamic targeting to destroy military targets such as enemy capabilities as well as dent their will to continue to fight with us."
Somewhere out there over the Barry M. Goldwater Range are aggressor warplanes looking for trouble. The RSAF aircrew could not see them as the enemy lurked far beyond visual range. Thanks to the datalinks, the aircrew knew where hostile threats were and could decide and act accordingly.
Air threats were not the only items displayed on the cockpit multifunction displays - flat screens on the instrument panel that show icons of friendly, hostile and unknown elements in the battlespace.
The locations of enemy air defence sites allowed aircrew to weave their way into contested airspace while avoiding the range rings of anti-aircraft gun and missile units.
At the same time, these anti-aircraft units and other hostile ground forces could be assigned as targets and demolished with concentrated firepower till the threats were neutralised, to use the clinical lingo of RSAF mission planners.
After viewing the integrated live-firing, RSAF Chief of Air Force Major-General Ng Chee Meng (above) said that Exercise Forging Sabre 2011 provided an excellent opportunity for the SAF to validate its integrated strike capabilities in a realistic and challenging environment.
CAF said: "I am very impressed by our people's combat proficiency, professionalism and dedication. I saw for myself today how our airmen and soldiers worked to bring together a sophisticated suite of both sensors and shooters, like our F-15SGs, F-16C/Ds and Apaches, to effect an integrated strike against a variety of targets, including mobile targets. This in itself is a very complex operation and I think they have done very well."
The irony is that the number of targets assigned to the shooters will grow as the SAF's sense-making improves.
Adding datalinks tightens the sensor-to-shooter process. To understand what this means, imagine the steps taken from the time something (eg a tank, ship or plane) in the battlespace is detected, identified and assigned as a hostile entity to the moment when the SAF assigns a shooter (eg a tank, warship, warplane or weapons team) to engage that threat.
When everything has to be done manually and verbally, the process naturally takes a longer time. The longer this takes, the more the data "ages" because a moving target may no longer be where it was when first detected. And we haven't even addressed the impact of the stress of battle, human error or mechanical failure.
Before datalinks, the process of coordinating an air battle was no different from Second World War days when voice communications were used to marshal and deploy RSAF fighter aircraft.
The noise of shrieking jet engines, the stress of keeping a vigilant watch against aerial threats and garbled voice comms diluted the pilot's ability to process the tracks shared by a ground controller vectoring a GCI or even a E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft.
Pilots had to pay close attention to what was said and mentally calculate the location, height, heading and speed of the tracks rattled off by the controller to figure out who was flying where. All this while flying the aircraft and trying not to get shot out of the sky.
Even for high performance aircraft such as F-15SG Strike Eagles, misunderstanding ground cues could result in wrong actions. This was seen during a National Day Parade Combined Rehearsal this year when a flight of F-15SGs had to abort their flypast when a cue to "hold" was misinterpreted and the flight missed its ingress datum.
Datalinks cut the chatter, presenting the data visually, securely and in real-time.
Studies by the United States Air Force (USAF) have proven that in two-sided air-to-air tactical engagements, the side that wielded information as a weapon racked up lopsided kill ratios against the one that did not fight with datalinks.
Exercise Forging Sabre is likely to demonstrate similar results to RSAF umpires charged with scrutinising how the air battles are fought, won or lost.
And these results are likely to be cascaded to RSAF squadrons on home turf, half a world from the largest and most complex air defence exercise intended to keep ACC poised and ready.
Past postings on Forging Sabre:
Reflections on Exercise Forging Sabre 2009: Every round counts. Click here
Practising the art of war at Forging Sabre. Click here
Forging sabres, forging knights: Making the most of battlefield experiments. Click here
This piece is dedicated to the people who will never win a Best Unit trophy, not because these warfighters are no good but because they do not officially exist. I have the highest admiration and respect for you.
All images are from the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).
Posted by David Boey at 2:00 PM