Thursday, January 19, 2017

Takeaways from the visit to the RSAF Flaming Arrow Challenge 2017


Some observations from yesterday's interaction at the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF's) Flaming Arrow Challenge, an annual inter-unit competition for RSAF air defence units.

Same but different
Missiles used by the RBS-70 very short range air defence system have a better performance compared to the variant fielded in the 1980s by the Singapore Air Defence Artillery (SADA, the forerunner to today's Air Defence & Operations Command Group).

Able to reach out and touch enemy fliers with more deadly effect, the one enduring constraint is the skill of the operator in slewing the missile to the threat axis and controlling the missile in flight with a thumb joy stick. This is done from launch till warhead detonation.

At maximum effective range, it is not possible to see the insignia on the aircraft even with optical aids such as binoculars. During operations, the RBS-70 fire unit's mission in defending Singapore is made more challenging by the fact that war machines flown by the RSAF such as the Apache, Chinook and Super Puma family are not unique to this island.

How best to deploy the improved RBS-70 missile when it is difficult to establish whether a contact seen at a distance is friend or foe? Instantaneous and error-free IFF is vital.

Better technology, tigher coordination between sensors and shooters and superior tactical planning by Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) manoeuvre units to create firing lanes are essential for maximising the reach of the RBS-70.

Such factors, especially better defence technology, need funding from somewhere.


Ground visits help one develop a deeper understanding of the value of defence technology in keeping our combat forces ahead of the threats.

In addition, seeing how RBS-70 units have sharpened their combat edge allows one to appreciate the results of investments by MINDEF/SAF to increase the survivability of our fighting forces.

Above all, it is the professionalism of the men and women assigned such weaponry that will ultimately decide if the missile finds its mark.

So while in-camp training continues to be vital in keeping the RBS-70 operator's skill sharp, one must always remember the burdens borne not just by NSmen but also their families and employers during their absence from civvie street. Such observations are best discerned firsthand.


Sensors and shooters
No emitters were seen during the ground visit to the RSAF Flaming Arrow Challenge 2017 deployment site.

And yet, the RBS-70 VSHORAD, I-HAWK and Spyder SAMs were fully capable of detecting, identifying, tracking and engaging aerial threats within their respective range rings. The radars associated with these SAMs are located elsewhere to reduce the vulnerability of the RSAF multi-ring integrated air defence network to adversary tactics.

Spyder is relatively new. The RBS-70 and I-HAWK have been listed as part of the RSAF's orbat for decades. The discerning observer will, however, realise a world of difference in hitting power before and after the RBS-70 and I-HAWK SAMs were upgraded.

For example, there was a paradigm shift made when I-HAWK fire units shifted from the American or Swedish IAFU configuration to a uniquely Singaporean model that dispersed sensors and shooters and used infrastructure like fibre optic cables to reduce the electromagnetic signature of SAM batteries.

Ground visits are useful as one cannot pick up such nuggets from books or internet sites.

Should the need arise, one would be better placed to inform and update stakeholders on the need for steady yet properly paced investments in defence.

From time to time, warfighters from all SAF Services too may need convincing of continued efforts to give every serviceman and servicewoman that special edge in combat.

Once again, the value that Singapore's defence eco-system brings to the SAF can be inferred from what one sees during ground visits. This underlines the value of such engagements.


Closed units
It was noted that not every air defence squadron in the RSAF is represented in the Flaming Arrow Challenge 2017. That much was clear from the powerpoint slide that listed this year's participants.

While we trumpet the camaraderie fostered by the annual RSAF Command Challenges, there is a certain unit who will sit this out. The men and women who serve this unit are more than bench warmers. Their squadron's capabilities and their professional competencies represent the secret edge needed for the SAF to prevail in battle.

Briefings during ground visits allow one to join the dots and infer from what's not mentioned. You won't learn this from reading cyberPioneer or AF News. Oftentimes, what's not said can be quite telling.

Such inferences, in turn, serve as timely reminders that the well-being of units kept below the radar should never be neglected nor taken for granted. Their efforts must be appreciated too, albeit in non-public and suitably low-key engagements that will not make the news.


Maximising training time
Defence buffs would probably know what a tactical flight profile entails.

With Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs, Dr Maliki Osman, aboard the Super Puma VIP flight, one did not think the RSAF would carry out helicopter evasive manoeuvres at high speed and at low level.


But the trio of Super Pumas tasked to ferry ACCORD members from Sembawang Air Base (SBAB) to the SAFTI Live Firing Area did just that, skimming the hills and reservoirs at the Western Catchment Area in an attempt to use terrain masking to deny simulated adversary VSHORAD teams their "kill".

The experience drove home the point that with activity-based budgeting where every minute of flight time must be properly justified, the flight maximised the training value of that sortie by allowing helicopter crews to practice evasive manoeuvres. At the same time, National Servicemen practised engaging fleeting targets and had the session recorded to hone their combat proficiency in using the RBS-70 missile system.

The realisation that RSAF helicopter pilots and aircrew specialists train periodically to execute evasive manoeuvres at night drove home the point of the rigors of such training and the risks taken by our regulars and National Servicemen during peacetime training.

It also highlighted the extensive efforts the RSAF has made in tightening safety at all levels.

I was a full-time National Serviceman in PAFF when a Super P lost a tail rotor and crashed in SBAB, killing all aboard. I hand delivered the missive to The New Paper editor that indicated the newspaper had breached the OSA. Some 26 years later, I recall that trip from Gombak to Kim Seng Road like it took place yesterday. I mourned their loss decades ago eventhough I did not know them personally.

Before the overwater flight aboard Super Puma 268, the two ACS who escorted us aboard 268 were observed with HEED bottles. I was still in PAFF serving my NS when we lost a Super P in Poyan reservoir after it was thought to have made a controlled flight into terrain.

I typed the news release on the deaths of the two pilots and read the incident report that recounted how the ACS was found on the belly of the upturned chopper. It was the second Super P lost in that same year.

Over the years, I have followed RSAF helicopter training as an interested observer. Am acutely aware of improvements in chopper training, which has included a HUET segment for many years.

Strangely, the incidents sprang to mind yesterday during the preflight brief at SBAB. I did not realise till yesterday how much the memory of those incidents had been etched in my mind.

These episodes were uppermost in my mind when I boarded Super Puma 268 yesterday morning for my first flight in such a helicopter (have flown on a US Navy Seahawk, Sea Knight and Sea King, a Russian Hip in East Timor and RSAF Chinooks but never in a Super P).

When I flew aboard 268, I did so with confidence, reassured that the RSAF has done much over the past decades to keep its men and women safe.

Alas, such confidence is best engendered firsthand.


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