Saturday, July 25, 2009

3G SAF (3) Three forces, one big punch

July 23, 2009
Three forces, one big punch
By Leslie Koh

SHOALWATER Bay, Australia: The scene was impressive.

For the first time, elements from the Republic of Singapore Air Force and the Army were engaging the enemy in concert at an unprecedented speed. Whenever reconnaissance soldiers spotted enemy elements, helicopters would swoop down from the sky, sometimes within minutes, to take them out.

Not long ago, it would have taken much longer, with instructions being relayed verbally up and down the hierarchy and across the two services. Confusion was inevitable.

What was also different about last year's Exercise Wallaby - an annual large-scale Singapore Armed Forces exercise - was the wealth of weapons that the Army division commander had at his disposal. In addition to armour and artillery assets, he could call on attack helicopters, fighter aircraft and other weapons.

This is the holy grail of the SAF's transformation into a 3rd Generation (3G) force: Dominating the three-dimensional battle space - on land, in the air and at sea - simultaneously.

Modern battles call for tight linkages between infantry, armour, fighter aircraft, helicopters, ships and submarines. The skilful coordination of such a slew of firing platforms is a force multiplier. They can give an army divisional commander, for instance, far more combat punch than he would have had before.

The key to this combination of army, air force and navy expertise and firepower is 'integration' - getting the three services to operate and fight as a united force. Such integration is part of the transformation of militaries worldwide - called the Revolution in Military Affairs. The SAF has had a greater incentive to achieve this transformation than most: Its size.

'The US Navy has its own Marines, own special forces, own air force and its own ships. It's a complete service on its own,' notes the SAF's Head of Joint Plans and Transformation Department, Brigadier-General (BG) Joseph Leong. 'For us, the Navy is the Navy, the Air Force is the Air Force, and that's it. So the Navy has to rely on the Air Force and the Army for its capabilities.'

Military forces, of course, have been trying to get their separate services to work together for a long time. Joint operations have been taking place since World War II.

More often than not, however, the army, air force and navy tend to work separately, using their own manpower, equipment and tactics to carry out separate tasks within a larger mission.

In 1944, during the D-Day landings of Allied forces on French beaches, for instance, ships and bombers took turns to pummel the beaches before the infantrymen landed. The attacks were carried out sequentially, with each service reporting to its own command.

The SAF's idea of integration, though, goes well beyond joint operations. Integration might sound like a buzzword, but SAF officers insist that it has become a reality in the SAF. The Army, Navy and Air Force share information in real time, communicate constantly and work together as a single unit.

An Army commander attacking up the shoreline, for instance, can now tap on the long-range radars of Navy ships off the coast and extract video feeds from the Air Force's surveillance planes circling above, fuse this data with reports from ground reconnaissance troops, and launch artillery and/or attack helicopters before sending his tanks and troops in.

One of the key elements underpinning integration is what the SAF calls a 'common operating picture'. As explained earlier in this series on the 3G SAF, the Google-lisation of critical information - where one is, where one's buddies are, and where the enemy is - allows commanders to make decisions in extra-quick time.

When an infantryman spots an enemy formation and tags it with a laser rangefinder, for instance, he can send the data back to the headquarters immediately. Within seconds, a new icon denoting the enemy's location will appear on the pilot's display in an F-16 fighter jet circling overhead, and within minutes, the F-16 can swoop down in a bombing run. Talk about calling down fire from on high.

No longer need valuable time be wasted with soldiers reporting back to HQ verbally and enemy locations being plotted manually.

'I can pinpoint the target in the aircraft, and within seconds data-link to the ground units, and straightaway, the target information and location will be appearing on screens,' says Major Cheong Kok Seen, an Apache attack helicopter pilot. 'So we are eliminating all the time needed for somebody to copy it down and transfer it to a map.'

Consider what SAF units guarding Jurong Island do: They are plugged into a network of partners, including the Land Transport Authority and Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore. By tapping on video feeds of nearby highways and sea lanes, they can keep a closer eye on approaching vehicles and vessels.

In the Combat Information Centre (CIC) of the Navy's stealth frigates, all the operators, from the sonar operator to the ship's commanding officer, see the same operating picture. A gunner tasked to hit a target, for instance, now knows exactly which of the 100 targets his commander wants him to take out.

'Previously, an operator would just see what his sensor tells him. If you are operating an optical sight for a gun, you're basically staring out of a toilet roll,' says commanding officer of the Navy's stealth frigate squadron, Colonel Giam Hock Koon. 'But now, any operator sees the fused and processed picture amalgamated from all the sensors on the ship presented in a simple, common tactical picture.'

There are, of course, limits to sharing such data, and how much they can achieve. Forming a common operating picture, sharing it among numerous platforms wirelessly and updating it in real time all involve the transfer of massive amounts of data. Technological developments allow this - but there's always a limit.

Engineers in the Defence Ministry have had to find ways of updating the locations of enemy forces on electronic maps without overloading the system. Such problems are likely to increase as commanders seek more and more information. Also, sensors are rarely able to locate every single enemy unit in the fog of battle, so common operating pictures will never be 100 per cent accurate.

During the second Gulf War, United States forces were able to locate up to 70 per cent of Saddam Hussein's tanks and weapons. This meant vanguard troops still needed to get out there to find the other 30 per cent. Worse, the elite Marine First Recon had to depend not on America's immense network of satellites for battlefield intelligence - but the BBC.

There is another obstacle to integration that is even more difficult to surmount: Humans.

Differences in the organisational culture of the three legs of many militaries - air force, navy and army - can contribute to and exacerbate mutual distrust. This can be compounded by so-called blue-on-blue incidents, when soldiers are hit by friendly forces.

'Historically, inter-service history hasn't seen many sterling examples of cooperation,' notes Col Giam. During the battle for Guadalcanal in World War II, the Navy left the Marines on the beach, he noted. There were blue-on-blue incidents in Desert Storm.

At the ground level, the difference could boil down to different terms being used by infantrymen, sailors and pilots. Take the word 'Leopard', for instance.

'To a non-military person, the leopard is an animal. To a tankee, it could be a tank. To the pilot, it could be my call sign,' says the SAF's Director of Joint Operations, BG Ng Chee Meng.

Soldiers on the ground focus on different aspects of combat from airmen in the air, and sailors at sea also focus on different aspects of combat. In describing enemy targets, for instance, an infantryman might describe what is important to him - how many enemy soldiers there are inside a building, say. But a pilot may be more concerned about how many anti-air missiles defences are around the building.

Chief Armour Officer, BG Philip Lim, recalls the challenges of 'sensing' an enemy target when Army and Air Force units were doing it simultaneously during Exercise Lightning Warrior.

'The unmanned aerial vehicle sees the target one way, the Apache comes out from a mountain and sees it in another, the Special Operations Forces on the ground see it in yet another way,' he says. 'Their descriptions were very different...they were seeing from different perspectives.'

The various services also differ on conventions when describing locations. The Army uses map grid reference numbers, while the Navy and Air Force use latitude and longitude.

What has helped the SAF in its efforts to overcome such problems is its relative youth and small size. Smaller forces with less historical baggage among the different services are easier to reconfigure. Their operating procedures and tactics can be more readily aligned.

Solutions have been found in some areas: Incompatible radios, for instance, have been reworked or new ones bought; and guidelines have been enforced to ensure that all new equipment bought are compatible across the three services.

SAF commanders have also sat down to work out dictionaries of common codes and terms, while courses at military schools and colleges have been refined to groom a new generation of integration-ready soldiers.

'We have many common touch points in our careers as SAF officers,' says Lieutenant-Colonel Thiruthakka Devan, commanding officer of the Air-Land Tactical Control Centre, which coordinates Air Force elements for land commanders. 'Our understanding and the commonality of terms that we use are actually widening; the differences are narrower.'

Such efforts have certainly helped the SAF overcome the problems of integration that many armed forces struggle with. But while recent exercises like Lightning Warrior and Wallaby have demonstrated that integrated SAF operations can indeed work, there still remain some questions that may not be answered until the systems are tested under fire:

How would soldiers fare if communications systems were to go down? Would soldiers suffer from information overload? Would commanders be tempted to rely on technology too much and forget that enemy forces can also deceive high-tech sensors?

Such questions have been asked by analysts of the US military in efforts to transform itself.

In a report to the US Congress on network-centric warfare, the Congressional Research Services' Mr Clay Wilson notes that many people may not make full use of the new systems, as they have yet to come to grips with the necessary changes in behaviour the systems require.

He also asks if strategies for implementing such warfare are 'joint' enough: 'Do the current service network architecture allow systems to work together...or do they enforce parochialism along service boundaries that is inconsistent with the joint cyber environment?'

Certainly, the traditional distrust between the different services is hard to put aside overnight. Despite advanced technology that was deployed in the second Gulf War, there were still cases of planes shooting at friendly tanks.

For the moment, the SAF will rely on what it has been able to do, what it has tested, and continue to exploit whatever new technological solutions come on line. And, as one senior commander quips - only half jokingly: 'When all else fails, there's always Hokkien.'

This is the third part of the 3G SAF series.

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