To observers able to join the dots, the SAF capability demo in the Arizona desert during Exercise Forging Sabre 2015 (XFS 15) revealed far more about Singapore's ability to take apart an opponent than its press statements were prepared to say:
- The distance covered in the area demarcated for the combined live-fire exercise (CALFEX) was about 20 times the size of Singapore or more than 100km at its longest stretch.
- The duration of the most complex CALFEX battle cycle tested the SAF's ability to sustain a high tempo of operations over several days.
- The battlespace in the XFS 15 exercise arena included targets such as a battery's worth of simulated transporter-erector-launchers (TELs), opposing forces (OPFOR) of high-performance warplanes and enemy SAMs.
- When one looks at the XFS 15 war game scenario, the ingress and egress routes on the simulated battlespace, number and arrangement of kill boxes, coordination of "last mile" guidance using Heron 1 unmanned aerial vehicles and Singapore Army Commando long-range recce patrol (LRRP) teams for target designation, and applies the exercise template to the geography around Singapore island, the results are indeed revealing.
XFS allows MINDEF/SAF to show-and-tell
To be sure, war games previously hosted elsewhere such as High Noon and Ulysses have demonstrated the SAF's ability to marshal and deploy land and air units in large numbers across sizeable distances in two-sided encounters.
Live-fire exercises under the Firelight series allowed air defence units to practice the sensor-to-shooter kill chain, giving the air defence teams confidence in operating their weapon systems under simulated battle conditions. But the exercise venue made it awkward for MINDEF/SAF to say much, if anything, about what was done there and why. Furthermore, the scale of these war games and level of integration during the CALFEX phase pale in comparison with what the United States has allowed Singapore to execute in CONUS during XFS.
The XFS series draws upon lessons learned from military exercises that take place in selected ASEAN nations, Australia, France, India, New Zealand and Sweden as well as training arrangements that have led to interactions with countries in the Asia-Pacific Rim and beyond. Each defence partner's contribution has proven invaluable and (hopefully) beneficial to both sides.
And so, the spotlight is turned on the XFS war games every two years or so. This is done to show observers how far the SAF has progressed in integrating land and air units and in sustaining the battle cycle during complex manoeuvres.
Singapore's ability to drop bombs from warplanes is not new. Back in the 1970s, Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Hawker Hunter fighter ground-attack aircraft could create a big bang with their British-made 1,000-pound general purpose bombs. In the 1980s, the RSAF added Paveway laser guided bombs to its arsenal and Maverick missiles that were guided either by a television camera in the missile's nose or an infrared seeker that homed in on a target's heat signature.
What's different at XFS is the ability to bring it all together.
At XFS 15, the validation of battle concepts for finding and finishing off a battery of six rocket launchers will set the stage when the kill chain needs to be scaled up. Simply put, if you know how many assets it takes to knock out six moving targets, you would be in a better position to work out how many assets are needed to engage multiples of six.
The light and sound show from a live-fire exercise is always a Kodak moment. The smoke, flame, sound, fury and shock effect that come from war machines and ordnance discharged is always a sight to behold. But there is a key difference between simply discharging warshot and maximising the combat potential and destructive power of the war machines in one's arsenal.
The unsexy parts would draw a yawn from most people: Defence scientists creating software that plots flight paths of outgoing artillery shells and missiles so battle planners can deconflict the space used by air units with the firing lanes of artillery units. Decision-making software that prioritises and allocates battlefield targets. The painstaking process of scanning satellite imagery to pluck out targets. All these contribute to the success of XFS but are difficult to showcase to the general public.
Indeed, there are few armed forces in the region that dedicate as much attention to the art and science of integrated warfare as the SAF.
Proof of concept
No plan survives first contact with the Enemy (or plural). War games like XFS allow proof of concept for doctrine at various levels of execution, principally the level of operational art and tactical engagements where individual platforms duel with enemy assets, under time pressure and under enemy fire to complete the kill chain.
The SAF's capability demo and desire to make its muscle-flexing widely publicised - as seen by the coterie of local and foreign press courted by the XFS media plan - could be both reassuring and alarming.
The knock-out punch delivered against the OPFOR and simulated battle targets, by day and night, by many striking as one, is compelling evidence that tiny Singapore's deterrence strategy is underpinned by a playbook that is workable, rehearsed and devastatingly effective.
Related posts to help you join the dots:
This post explains why we should guard against third parties who may exploit the drawer plan to their own advantage. Click here
This post explains the need for deft diplomacy for a small country like Singapore. Click here
This post explains why armed forces need to be given free play should deterrence fail. Click here
This post outlines Dynamic Targeting demonstrated during XFS 13. Click here
XFS 13 battle management command post. Click here