Every round counts in the Third Generation Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). This is why the hardest-hitting ordnance unleashed during Exercise Forging Sabre were all precision-guided.
Staged in the plains of Oklahoma in the central United States, the combined arms live fire exercise (CALFEX) marked a watershed for the SAF.
From the air, Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) pilots and weapon system officers in F-16 warplanes demolished targets with 2,000-pound smart bombs guided by laser beams.
On the ground, the Singapore Army's new HIMARS rocket artillery batteries doused simulated enemy targets with concentrated artillery fire. Rockets sped down range, guided by GPS satellites.
The 70-plus kilometre range of rockets fired from the truck-mounted HIMARS (its name is an acronym that means HIgh Mobility Artillery Rocket System) allows Singapore Army commanders to reach out and touch enemy forces with unprecedented accuracy, speed and lethality. But the hitting power of HIMARS counts for nought if one cannot find enemy units worth destroying.
During its war against military units of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime, the United States Army's 155mm heavy artillery batteries were outranged by Iraqi artillery guns and Astros rocket artillery fire units. American forces prevailed. They punished Iraqi forces heavily, exacting a terrible body count with their near-total command of the air and valuable combat intelligence soaked up by flying radar stations and camera-equipped drones. Operation Iraqi Freedom rewrote the playbook by which generals fight and win hot war scenarios against a conventional enemy. Defence planners all over the world took notice.
Enter the 3rd Gen SAF.
The CALFEX phase of Forging Sabre has allowed SAF warfighters to test, validate and refine fighting methods that make better use of information as a weapon. Their work would not be complete without the contributions of defence scientists and engineers - many of whom toil quietly behind the scenes devising battle-winning technologies - from the Defence Science & Technology Agency, DSO National Laboratories and defence company, Singapore Technologies Engineering.
When the SAF conducted its first Forging Sabre in the Californian desert four years ago, the emphasis was on the speed at which SAF warfighters could find, fix and destroy an enemy armoured column. The aggressive-sounding term, kill box, was introduced in Singapore Ministry of Defence literature that described the exercise. The emphasis back then was on the ability of army and RSAF units to come together at the right place and time to deliver the proverbial knockout punch.
This year's Forging Sabre CALFEX demonstrates how the 3rd Gen SAF has advanced. Improvements include the digitised camouflage Number 4 uniforms worn by Singapore Army warfighters and the acronyms added to MINDEF literature, terms such as ALTaCC, DSC and STORM teams - unheard of in open literature four years ago.
Weapon systems such as HIMARS are perhaps the most prominent aspect of the 3rd Gen transformation. Firing the weapon makes for great TV and an exciting photo opportunity with the terrific noise and banner of smoke and fire trailing behind each rocket.
But look beyond the obvious and one will find interesting paradoxes from the war games.
* The more intense the conflict, the greater the need to "deconflict" the battlespace:
In the 3rd Gen SAF, attack helicopters, warplanes, eye-in-the-sky drones will occupy the same battespace as artillery rounds, rockets and missiles fired by friendly and enemy forces. It is the job of responsible commanders to "deconflict" the battlespace so friendly forces stay out of harm's way. This includes blue on blue situations when one's forces are hit by friendly fire.
The need to deconflict airspace becomes clear when you consider that tank-hunting AH-64D Longbow Apaches from 120 Squadron will occupy roughly the same airspace as Skyblade II unmanned aerial vehicles used by Army commanders to peer behind the next hill. Artillery rounds fired by 155mm Primus and Pegasus self-propelled howtizers can soar 10,000 feet or more en route to their target, making these artillery shells a hazard to RSAF warplanes unless one marks out the fire lanes and arcs of fire used by friendly forces.
At the same time, tactical intelligence picked up by various sensors can be used to plot out range rings of enemy weapon systems, say for example a Rapier low level air defence fire unit, thus red-flagging potential hazards to low-flying RSAF helicopters.
* The most powerful weapon fired by the Commandos at Forging Sabre was also the most silent.
Crack Commando teams used laser beams to guide 2,000-lbs laser-guided bombs with deadly accuracy. A sensor on the bombs homed in on the laser spot while fins on the bombs adjusted the bombs flight right to the end zone.
This marks a radical departure from the 1st Gen SAF Commando teams, whose combat power was largely determined by the size of their rifle and number of bullets each trooper could carry.
Today's Commando teams have the firepower of the entire SAF literally at their fingertips. The keyboard for the battlefield computer a Commando wears on his wrist can be used to call for fire support as quickly as one sends an SMS text message.
* The remarkable thing about Forging Sabre is the fact that the exercise unfolded at the time it did.
As SAF war games took place in the plains of the Central United States, Singaporean warfighters were conducting land warfare manoeuvres thousands of kilometres away in the summer heat in Queensland, Australia.
The SAF's ability to conduct two large-scale, live-firing exercises at the same time, on two continents - plus military training in Singapore, plus the ongoing Operation Bacinet security watches, says alot about the operational tempo the SAF can sustain.
The sun never sets on SAF training.
SAF units train somewhere on the globe when the sun shines, be it in Oklahoma, Queensland State, Singapore, or moving west to the RSAF detachment in Cazaux (France) or Republic of Singapore Navy Archer-class submarine training in Sweden.
Few people may realise the effort and planning needed to raise, train and sustain military units in far-flung locations during a live-firing exercise with a manoevre component. One forgotten mission critical spare part or widget, left behind in a storehouse back home in Singapore, is all it takes to cripple a weapon platform or system.
The language used during the CALFEX, with time over target, holding areas for tactical air support and split second coordination between kinetic operations may sound like a replay of how the SAF orchestrates the annual National Day Parade (NDP) in Singapore.
Which brings me to the last paradox of the 3rd Gen SAF: such capabilities can be tested away from war games, during peacetime engagements like NDP practices. The split second timing for various moving parts of the NDP, such as the fly past, 21-gun Presidential Salute or song and dance contingents, requires essentially the same mindset and mental dexterity needed to orchestrate the Forging Sabre CALFEX.
The Forging Sabre 2009 Exercise Director, Brigadier-General Tan Chuan-Jin, would probably know best, having led and delivered a hitch-free NDP at Singapore's 44th Birthday.