Thursday, August 13, 2009

3G SAF (4) Ops-tech: A tightly knit couple

Aug 6, 2009
Ops-tech: A tightly knit couple
By Leslie Koh

IT IS perhaps a truth widely acknowledged that engineers and product users rarely get along.

Users usually want everything plus the kitchen sink; engineers forgo such dreams for the practical. More often than not, there is little love lost when the two get together to build something.

It promised to be a clash of wills when the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) decided to eschew ready-made packages and assemble its own ship, combining off-the-shelf technology with local know-how to give the vessel a sharper edge.

While many militaries take the wellworn route of giving specifications and getting the best supplier through a tender, the SAF wanted to do better. That was the challenge it took on in 2000 in putting together the Singapore Navy's stealth frigate; one of the biggest projects it has undertaken.

It threw into the project hundreds of battle-focused sailors from the Navy and science-focused engineers from the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), expecting them to work together to buy parts of the ship as well as weapons from numerous foreign suppliers, and upgrade them locally.

The DSTA is a statutory board that handles the Defence Ministry's (Mindef) technology plans, R&D and acquisitions.

Colonel Giam Hock Koon, the commanding officer of the Navy's fleet of stealth frigates, hints at the clashes that occurred when the sailors and engineers were thrown together

'It's a positive tension that throws up new ideas,' he says diplomatically. 'I won't say operators are always right. (But) the operators are always demanding. We have to be, because these are capabilities that would stand us in good stead.'

But, he hastens to add, the DSTA's counter-proposals sometimes went beyond what the Navy wanted. He also reveals that the engineers' cellphone numbers were on his speed-dial.

'It used to be because I wasn't happy. Now it's because I'm happy but I want more. They've probably banned my number, some of them,' he adds with a laugh - right in front of DSTA project manager Ivan Ng, who flashes a cheeky grin in return.

The good-natured ribbing - fittingly, on board the RSS Formidable, the first of Singapore's six stealth frigates - hints at a successful partnership that has lasted for 10 years now. This partnership between combat operators and technologists - what Mindef calls 'ops-tech integration' - is still active. It is what gives Singapore's so-called defence ecosystem the third-generation edge.

'Ecosystem' is the term Mindef uses to describe the various entities that contribute to the country's defence - from the SAF itself to R&D agencies and the arms industry. It includes elements like the DSTA, the Defence Science Organisation National Laboratories and Singapore Technologies Engineering.

Over the years, Singapore's defence ecosystem has grown. It has evolved from churning out local versions of foreign-designed weapons to designing and building its own weapons.

This was where ops-tech integration came into play. It aimed to incorporate the operational element into the technical side and vice-versa at the earliest stage of design or purchase. Operators got the ball rolling, detailing their overall aim and proposing specifications. But nothing was cast in stone until they sat down with the technologists and worked out what was really needed, what was better and what was actually possible.

The discussion resulted in some useful tweaks and changes. The engineers pointed out unrealistic demands, helping the warfighters moderate their expectations or source for better buys.

Ops-tech integration also enables operators to get the best bang for the buck when they buy from foreign suppliers.

When the Air Force sought to buy flight simulators for its pilots, for instance, DSTA engineers helped it source for the best fit. Without the engineers, says Air Force pilot Teo Soo Yeow, operators would have had to contend with suppliers on their own.

'People in the operational role may not talk the engineering language. So when we talk about a contract with vendors, it's very hard (for us) to write out specifications that they can understand,' he says. 'The DSTA are the translators between the operators and the vendors; they make sure our interests are protected.'

In concept, at least, ops-tech integration is simple. In a traditional arms procurement process, an army that wants a new tank, for instance, lays out detailed specifications, holds a tender and chooses the best bidder.

Both parties will often end up on opposite sides: The army may not realise what's actually do-able or not, while researchers and engineers may not understand what operators need. The resulting product might meet the specifications, yet still fall short in terms of user-friendliness and practicality.

Ops-tech integration aims to avoid such eventualities by getting the engineers and the fighters to talk to each other at the earliest possible stage.

'Even at the conceptualising stage, we tap their brains,' notes Col Giam. 'If they think it's feasible, we go on to the next step. Otherwise we'd be going on a wild goose chase and learning lessons too late.'

In some cases, the operators may get even more than they had thought possible. Because technologists are in closer touch with technological developments - and yet remain cognisant of what operators need - they can propose improvements and additions of their own.

Case in point: DSTA engineers tasked to design the Army's Battlefield Management System - which gives a real-time graphical picture of friendly and enemy forces on the ground - saw that sending chunky data of entire maps every time a new enemy popped up would bog down the communication system.

They came up with a nifty alternative: Pre-load the maps, and just send the map references of new enemy locations. It worked just as well, was faster and took up less bandwidth.

'It's an iterative process,' notes senior engineer Douglas Chew, who handles land platform projects in DSTA. 'As the technologists and the operators talk, they realise certain things about what can and cannot be done.

'Sometimes the operator thinks, 'Okay, I want a specific thing.' But after speaking with the technologist, he may realise, 'Oh, actually we can do these other things which I never thought of before'.'

While ops-tech integration is simple in concept, what really makes it work is the willingness of both the ops people and the tech people to meet in the middle.

At the combat end, the SAF has tried to build up engineering and technical expertise among its ranks. Today, two-thirds of the 5,000 engineers and technicians in the defence ecosystem reside within the SAF.

At the tech end, engineers often join soldiers in the field to see exactly what operators face. Mr Chew, for example, sweated it out with tank drivers in the Leopard, and Mr Ng sailed 'countless times' on the frigates.

Technologists in Singapore - at least the men among them - have a unique advantage: 'We are also NSmen,' as Mr Chew points out. 'We did our national service, we also know that we wouldn't want a very heavy weapon because we don't exactly like walking 20km with a really huge weight.'

Such exchanges, says Mindef's Deputy Secretary (Technology) Ravinder Singh, have sometimes resulted in a reversal of roles between the operators and the technologists.

'Sometimes, when the operators brief me, they sound like the technologists, telling me, 'You know why the system is like that? Because of all these technical limitations',' he says approvingly.

Major Ooi Tjin Kai, the operations officer on the RSS Formidable, and his DSTA counterpart Mr Ng, liken the ops-tech relationship to that of a husband-wife team building a house together.

'The Navy is the husband, the architect is the wife,' he says. 'We may fight and not agree on certain things, but in the end, when we want to build a house, we have a common direction to go towards. This is our house, so we both have the same interests vested in trying to make the house a success.'

Mr Ng nods, laughing. 'We are a tightly knit couple.'

'Couple,' echoes Major Ooi. 'That's a good word.'

This is the fourth article in a series of six on the 3G SAF. Part five will be published on Aug 13.

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