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)

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.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Response to queries on DSTA message on island-wide Short Range Anti-Munition Capability

While CE DSTA Tan Peng Yam's message requires you to join the dots, the implied key messages of capabilities built up in C-RAM, networked air defence coverage and the in-country defence science and engineering know-how to raise, train and sustain advanced weapon systems is nonetheless reassuring.

The message also acknowledges the tireless efforts of RSAF and defence engineers, who have worked quietly behind the scenes, 24 by 365 in recent years, to operationalise the weapon system referred to. The RSAF air defence squadron may not have been openly lauded in the SAF Best Unit Competition, but it probably does not matter to those of you who know of the contributions, commitment and sacrifices of the men and women in this squadron who have worked hard to do their part to keep Singapore's air defence shield alert and ready.

This capability is not new. Recent CAFs all had a hand leading the effort to field this capability. It is therefore encouraging to finally see official, albeit oblique reference of its existence.

In view of recent developments in North Asia in ballistic missile technology, this foothold is an important one should the RSAF be required to one day step up the tech ladder in anti-missile systems.


Friday, December 1, 2017

Singapore's Defence Science & Technology Agency DSTA intriguing phrase hints of Iron Dome C-RAM

Check out this intriguing sentence:
"The island-wide Short-Range Anti-Munition Capability was operationalised within a networked system to enhance overall Island Air Defence capability." Extracted from the Message from Chief Executive DSTA, Mr Tan Peng Yam, DSTA FY 2016 Annual Report.

For the full DSTA report, click here. 😍

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Malaysian Armed Forces ATM new two-star female officer Fadzlette Othman Merican

Tahniah! The ATM's newest two-star female general is conferred her rank insignia by Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid and Chief of Army General Zulkiple. Photo: Bernama

[Correction: Mej Jen Datuk (Dr) Hajjah Roshidah binti Ishak was the first female to rise to the rank of Major General. The report below has been revised accordingly. Many thanks to those across the Causeway for pointing this out.]

Malaysia has a new two-star female general.

Datuk Fadzlette Othman Merican Idris Merican, the Press Secretary to Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, was promoted to Major General yesterday.

DPM Zahid joined General Tan Sri Zulkiple Kassim, Chief of Army, in placing the two-star epaulettes onto the uniform of Malaysia's newest general. The ceremony took place at the DPM's office.

The Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (Malaysian Armed Forces) has shown itself to be more progressive than most ASEAN armed forces when it comes to nurturing career pathways for females in the military. It is estimated that female soldiers make up about 30% of ATM personnel.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Worth reading about: Scaled Composites Model 401 experimental aircraft

On Jurong Island yesterday, Autonomous Tractor-Trailers (ATTs) were showcased to the media. The driverless prime movers are used to haul cargo around the island on flatbed trailers. 

You can't tell the ATT is a smart truck as the driverless vehicles look just like any other prime mover.

The driver’s cabin on the optionally-manned ATTs grants the operator the flexibility to adapt deployment patterns to changing traffic conditions. This feature also adds to the resilience of the unmanned system. For example, a driver can take over if the unmanned system is hit by a fault or should demanding traffic conditions arise that fall outside the ATT's design parameters or fuzzy logic algorithm, thus ensuring continuity of service.

For places like Singapore that have strict rules governing what moves on the roads and how these vehicles are controlled, the optionally-manned feature may be the only way for unmanned systems to get the clearance required for real-world deployments.

If land transport regulations are strict, imagine the tangle of do’s and don’ts for air navigation.

For Singapore, the optionally-manned feature may have to be a design requirement for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) with an expanded performance envelope and mission capability.

In time to come, we can expect such drones to complement piloted aircraft flown by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). Advanced drones can be assigned for those dull, dirty or dangerous missions for which unmanned systems excel at performing as the loss of a drone can be mitigated by fielding a replacement. You can’t say the same for the limited number of manned air platforms, or aircrew.

Earlier this month, Scaled Composites unveiled an intriguing experimental aircraft, the Model 401, that could conceivably morph into a UAS... someday. 

Scaled Composites is an American company not unknown to Singapore’s defence community. 

We first reached out to Burt Rutan’s talented and passionate design team more than a decade ago when Singapore defence engineers needed a partner to design and build an optionally-manned airborne surveillance aircraft known as the LALEE. The platform was projected as a possible replacment for the E-2C Hawkeye.

The name Low-Altitude, Long Enduring Endurance referred to the platform’s operational height which was lower than that of surveillance satellites – the word “low” being relative to the operational height of satellites. Alas, the project did not take off due to export restrictions from the United States. 

But times and attitudes may have changed since then. 

Scaled Composites’ Model 401, unveiled early in October'17, is worth reading about. 

Future system: The Scaled Composites Model 401 is being developed for an unnamed "proprietary customer". While the prototype does not have an optionally-manned feature, a drone version could (in future) complement manned aircraft assigned for demanding missions. Photo: Scaled Composites.

Here is Scaled Composite's news release on the M401 prototype:

Mojave, California – October 11, 2017 Scaled Composites is proud to announce the rollout and first flight of its most recent project, experimental aircraft Model 401. Scaled worked with a proprietary customer to build two vehicles to demonstrate advanced, low-cost manufacturing techniques and to provide aircraft for research flight services to industry partners and the United States government. 

The two vehicles were designed to be identical in outer mold line and performance, with each aircraft powered by a single Pratt & Whitney JTD-15D-5D engine with 3,045 pounds of thrust.

The vehicles are capable of flying Mach 0.6 with a service ceiling of 30,000 feet and have a wingspan of 38 feet and are 38 feet long. They have an empty weight of 4,000 pounds and a maximum take-off weight of 8,000 pounds with an endurance of up to three hours. 

Aaron Cassebeer, Project Engineer said, “This is such an exciting time for us. Scaled is at the forefront of experimental aircraft development and I am fortunate enough to have a front row seat.” He went on to say this about the mission, “Today was a great day for our test team. We had a great flight and we are looking forward to the future test program.”

This successful first flight is the beginning of the flight test phase for vehicle number 1. The Scaled team plans to continue envelope expansion on the first aircraft as they move toward first flight of the second Model 401 vehicle.

Model 401 test flight video courtesy of Scaled Composites

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Two Republic of Singapore Air Force RSAF Sikorsky Seahawk naval helos due to return home by end 2017

Please note: Updated for accuracy on 21 Oct'17 after feedback. Edits in italics and strikethrough.

Republic of Singapore Air Force S-70B Seahawk recovers at Sembawang Air Base. Photo: RSAF

Two Sikorsky Seahawk naval helicopters are due to arrive in Singapore by the end of 2017, armed and configured to support a host of maritime security missions, such as anti-submarine warfare (ASW) as well as anti-piracy patrols and maritime counter-terrorism.

The two Seahawks will join six S-70B Seahawk naval helicopters acquired to support six Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) Formidable-class stealth frigates for anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare roles.

The new additions to the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) Seahawk family will be flown as multi-mission naval helicopters and will therefore dispense with be fitted with an improved ASW suite that occupies the bulk of cabin space aboard the S-70 Bravos.

The ASW suite requires space for aboard S-70 Bravos now in service comprises the L3 Helicopter Long-Range Active Sonar (HELRAS) dipping sonar and the operator's console for the AN/APS-143 surveillance radar, Raytheon AN/AAS-44 EO system and tactical data link.

The new Seahawks will increases the Republic of Singapore Navy's anti-submarine capability, and will be fitted for future capability improvements.

The MMNH Seahawk can ferry troops in the cabin, or carry a mix of troops and cargo in the cabin, or cargo packed as an underslung load.

The armament options will allow the pair of MMNH Seahawks to deal with a range of situations involving hostile combatants or surface craft.

Acquired in 2005 as part of Project Peace Triton, Singapore's Seahawks are flown by the RSAF's 123 Squadron but come under the operational control of the RSN. Two more ASW Seahawks were ordered in 2013.

The six Seahawks amassed their initial flying hours from United States Navy's Naval Air Station North Island (below) in San Diego, as part of the Peace Triton detachment. The six Seahawks returned to Singapore in 2010, following a year-long assignment at San Diego.

Come see the RSN's Formidable-class stealth frigate, RSS Intrepid, at the RSN50@Vivo from 9-12 November 2017. For more, click here 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Malaysian Army strengthens "anti invasion" firepower

When the Infantry moves, the Army moves.

So if the Infantry doesn't move, the Army doesn't move either?

The logic is disarmingly simple (excuse the pun). But how does one stop an intruder's infantry or keep it in check?

Look no further than the Malaysian Army should you need an example of how the tempo of an infantry attack could be blunted.

Malaysia is quietly strengthening the sharp end of her infantry units to deal with an intruder's armour and mechanised infantry. This is especially so when one considers the introduction of miniguns to the Malaysian Army's armoury.

Condor APC with Dillon Aero M134D minigun and gunshield.

Lipanbara MRAP with Dillon Aero M134D minigun.

War machines such as the Condor APC and Lipanbara MRAP have been displayed with six-barrel miniguns that fire 50 7.62mm rounds every second, accurate up to 1,200m. That's more than four times the rate of fire compared to a General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG).

And the effective range of minigun fire is more than adequate for the average engagement distance estimated for firefights between land forces on peninsular Malaysia.

The "anti invasion" capability of the Malaysian Army is correspondingly increased because the weight of fire and accuracy of Malaysian infantry is substantially enhanced, thanks to the miniguns. When augmented by 40mm automatic grenade launchers and RPGs fielded as anti-infantry weapons, such firepower is devastating noteworthy.

Whether in an ambush, meeting engagement, deliberate attack or block force operations, the amount of firepower Malaysian infantry can deliver in a shootout could potentially rattle soldiers coming under fire for the first time.

It is important not to overlook the psychological effect of a first clash that provokes a fierce reaction against an intruder's soldiers. The minigun is thus a misnomer as there is certainly nothing "mini" about the deluge of aimed, sustained, automatic fire minigun operators can bring to bear against their target.

Malaysian defence planners probably reasoned that when its infantry is sent into operations against an intruder who controls the skies, and one with an advantage in armoured platforms and guided munitions, Malaysian infantry must have what it takes to deliver the heaviest possible firepower when targets are in sight and within range.

Engagement windows may also be small. This is possibly due to the need for Malaysian assets to redeploy quickly to a new firing position soon after opening fire, or risk being engaged in place by superior firepower. During that small and time-limited engagement window, Malaysian infantry must deliver the deadliest fire possible before the unit disengages to deploy to a new firing position.

Miniguns have helped Malaysia close the firepower deficit. But this is achieved on the assumption that the Malaysian Army's logistics train is able to continually resupply frontline units with ammunition.

Here's the tradeoff: At 3,000 rounds per minute, a minigun must be liberally - or at the very least, regularly - supplied to ensure its fighting effectiveness. This is because on-board ammo is limited, and rationing the amount of fire unleashed would in effect compromise any benefits of a weapon with a high rate of fire. The supply push is therefore critical for maintaining the operational effectiveness of minigun-armed assets.

It is thus up to Kor Ordnans Diraja units to weather the storm and address the demand of units on the frontline.