At a Singapore Armed Forces Mobilisation & Equipping Centre, 14 September 2013: Just hours after an Open Mobilisation Exercise (Mobex) was activated and with 3,000 citizen soldiers responding to their call to arms, the In-processing counters tasked to receive the mobilised brigade have no customers.
It is Alert Amber for the Singapore Army's 76th Singapore Infantry Brigade (76 SIB), activated using code words Moon Light, Hard Work, Bronze Medal and Pop Corn. So where is everybody?
The counters where Operationally-Ready National Servicemen (NSmen) register their presence electronically resemble the line of check-in counters at Changi Airport's departure terminal - wired up for business-like speed and efficiency to issue NSmen their Mobilisation Card in a minute or less. Queue poles slice the waiting area in front of the In-processing counters into neat lanes where NSmen wait their turn.
But rush hour is evidently over and there's not a soul waiting to be served.
Amid the lull, in comes Second Minister for Defence (2M), Chan Chun Sing, for a look-see with parliamentarians and Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) Permanent Secretary, Chan Yeng Kit, accompanied by a comet trail of senior officers led by Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant-General Ng Chee Meng, Chief of Army, Major-General Ravinder Singh and almost every Key Appointment Holder you can think of in the Singapore Army's top echelon. So counter staff try to look busy as they explain the role of the In-processing counters to 2M and his entourage.
Around us, there's a hum of activity as NSmen grouped into their respective battalions raise the readiness level of their units from a peacetime to a ready-to-deploy posture.
This involves a whole spectrum of Force Preparation activities such as retrieving war materiel like guns and ammo from storage, and getting over a hundred vehicles mission-ready by fitting these with communications gear and heavy weapons.
One does not have to see Headquarters 76 SIB's bar chart of manpower statistics to realise that a good number of NSmen are present and accounted for.
It was encouraging to see the turnout and sense of duty demonstrated by the NSmen as the Mobex unfolded. For those interested, activities 76 SIB NSmen performed are listed in the February 2013 edition of Army News and the March 2013 issue of Pioneer magazine.
What impressed during the trip behind the fenceline of a mobilisation centre were inferences, drawn from random observations, that signaled the SAF can mobilise, arm and deploy NS units more rapidly than before.
Compared to mobilisations of yesteryear which I had seen and used a baseline reference point, Singapore's practice of getting its citizen soldiers armed and mission-ready at a designated Mobilisation & Equipping Centre (MEC) speeds up the tempo of mobilisation activities.
The net result, as revealed by 2M yesterday, is a reduction in time taken to mobilise and deploy NS units for operations. The actual time needed is a closely-guarded trade secret. But the SAF has said it has shaved hours off the 10 to 12 hours that NS units once needed to move from a peacetime to mission-ready profile under Alert Amber.
The things that caught one's attention during the 76 SIB Mobex include:
* The instruction for visitors to leave all mobile comms behind before we toured the ammo distribution point. Mentioned during the pre-departure brief, this made it abundantly clear that live ammo - including electronically fused munitions - had been drawn from the ammo stockpile for the exercise. The processes, clearances, escort and effort needed to move a brigade's worth of live ammunition in Singapore in peacetime are likely to be immense.
Yesterday's exercise allowed SAF Ammunition Command (SAFAC) to put its drawer plans into action, allowing those in charge of the SAF's ammo to experience firsthand the large-scale distribution of war munitions to frontline units. SAFAC would then have to safely restock everything again, deep where the sun don't shine, while accounting for every single bullet, mortar bomb and guided munition.
Furthermore, the shop window of all types of ammunition used by infantry small arms and heavy weapons was intended to give NSmen confidence in the warfighting potential of their brigade.
The footprint of 76 SIB's war load, by the way, is surprisingly small yet deadly for the envisaged contact rate. While soaking in the sights, I found myself casting my mind back to an old assignment in the UAF and mentally calculating how many stacks could be packed per cavern (because of the high ceiling and almost unlimited floor loading). Standing under the blazing sun in the MEC, I felt soundly reassured while day dreaming. Our defence planners are indeed creative and have thoroughly transformed SAFAC's business model.
* By observing the throughput of various stations NSmen had to undergo during the Mobex, one could better understand the logic that underpins the MINDEF/SAF decision to introduce MECs. Simply put, MECs allow NS units to make better use of their time while sharpening their defence readiness.
Also invaluable was the chance to see the level of support provided by civilian entities in moving NSmen from one station to another. The seating capacity and number of buses employed was noteworthy, as was the lack of indications of bunching of NSmen at the stations we toured. The last point could have indicated some glitch in the manner in which 76 SIB NSmen were mustered for Soldiering Fundamentals activities (SAR-21 training, Combat Casualty Aid Refresher and Chemical Defence Refresher Training).
Indeed, one thought that sprang to mind watching the bus ferry services in action at the rifle range was NDP (National Day Parade) practices, which the SAF is intimately familiar with. Incidentally, a fair number of SAF personnel at yesterday's show-and-tell were from the NDP alumuni, including this year's NDP EXCO chairman.
The success/failure of the MEC concept is grounded on sound application military logistics principles. Those familiar with the complexity of NDP would realise the discipline needed to keep the show running according to the time sheet can also apply to the way MEC activities unfold. Click here for a related post on how the Republic of Singapore Air Force studied how a logistics company does its thing.
* Just as one had to observe the SAF to draw inferences, the same could be said of NSmen observing 2M's entourage. What looked like a mass of gawking civilians to casual observers actually comprised representatives from every MINDEF/SAF platform tasked with engaging Singaporeans on defence and security matters.
This included the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) on Defence & Foreign Affairs, Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD) and Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS). Observers familiar with the mandate of these respective bodies would realise they complement and support one another while reaching out to Singaporeans to listen to and act upon their feedback.
The look behind the fenceline of an MEC provided telling and reassuring indications of how our Mobex system has improved.
When I informed the 90 cents newspaper that I was impressed, I was well aware this is a word I use sparingly and only in justifiable circumstances.
The opinion and views in this blog post are mine alone and do not reflect the official view of the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD).