Thursday, August 31, 2017

Malaysia wields social media with aplomb after USS John S. McCain incident

The collision between the United States Navy warship, USS John S. McCain, and the tanker, Alnic MC, early on 21 August 2017 saw Malaysia’s information management apparatus kick into high gear.

Malaysia's approach to disseminating information on the tragedy makes an interesting case study, principally because of its heavy use of non-traditional channels such as Twitter.

Updates were noticeably brisk on the Twitter account belonging to the Malaysian Chief of Navy, Admiral Dato' Seri Panglima Ahmad Kamarulzaman bin Haji Ahmad Badaruddin (@mykamarul). 

Ditto for the Director-General of the Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), Datuk Zulkifili Abu Bakar (@KPMaritimMsia).

More than that, tactical units such as the frigate, KD Lekiu, contributed to the info push. Tweets from Lekiu brought Twitterati to the heart of the SAR operation while an RMN Super Lynx naval helicopter also described its role in the operation. When a body had been found by the Malaysian navy, the first pictures of the handover of the body to the US Navy came from a Lekiu tweet. 

On the home front, Singapore government agencies such as the Maritime & Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) relied on the tried-and-tested. News releases were uploaded on their respective websites. A media embed aboard a C-130 Hercules tasked with SAR mirrored the media embed in March 2014 during the early phase of the search done across the South China Sea for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. As with the MH370 tragedy, facebook updates by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, lent a touch of warmth to official collaterals.

Malaysia’s active use of social media during the SAR op is indicative of the breadth and depth of updates, and ops tempo it can sustain during future operations.

It’s more than hip and trendy. Malaysian updates were picked up by foreign media outlets when journalists, hungry for information, zoomed in on twitter feeds from the federation. The picture tweeted by @mykamarul of the USS John S McCain was used by several foreign media sites, such as The Guardian (below).

Anyone can set up a social media account as fast as you can type. But to establish street cred and a following in cyberspace takes time.

Decentralising the info push to regional commands such as Markas Wilayah Laut 1 (HQ Naval Region 1) and tactical units such as individual warships and helicopters points to two things:

First, it demonstrates a level of trust for on-scene commanders to furnish updates where and when appropriate. Trust that leads to empowerment expands the info comms toolbox, giving the Malaysians more credible voices to tell their story.

Second, it suggests a level of coordination and speed of response that cuts through layers of bureaucracy. When one considers the level and intensity of global interest in the USS John S. McCain collision, prudence would call for proper SOPs to assess and clear all information and images before these are released to the public.

For a tragedy with an international dimension and one that unfolded in disputed waters, one doubts that Malaysian leaders would countenance a free wheeling style where tactical units can post updates on social media, willy-nilly, without clearance from higher command.

This indicates that the Malaysians have established tight coordination across agencies, as well as close command and control between top management, operational commands and tactical units. The key messages that underpin the info push should have been made clear to all parties involved so that such messages are complementary and mutually reinforcing. The absence of such coordination could risk messages that are contradictory or inaccurate, especially in the “fog of war” situations when the ground situation is difficult to verify.

For those of us familiar with the OODA loop, the fast pace of updates from many facets of the Malaysian SAR operation says a lot about their capability and capacity to orchestrate complex, multi-agency info campaigns in realtime, over several days.

Bear in mind, dear readers, that the US warship tragedy unfolded during a packed season for the Malaysian PR calendar. Malaysian info ops managers had to contend with the 29th Southeast Asian Games (19 to 30 August), launch of KD Maharaja Lela, the RMN’s first Littoral Combat Ship (24 August) and the run-up to the massive parade commemorating 60 years of independence on Merdeka Day today.

Transpose the scale of such events to a Singaporean context and overlay it with a “live” SAR op executed in disputed waters, with a false alarm situation involving the recovery of a body at sea, with no media gaffes by Malaysia, and one comes to respect the level of competence demonstrated by Malaysian information managers.

Just think about how the pace of such an info push could influence sentiment during a short duration, high intensity operation. Think about how Malaysia could further leverage on its superior number of Kuala Lumpur-based defence publications (yes, they publish more defence magazines than Singapore) and one comes to realise the versatility of the toolbox at the command of Malaysian defence information managers.

Malaysia demonstrated how it wielded social media with aplomb, with tact and sensitivity in view of the lives lost and the international dimension involving a superpower.

We give credit where it's due. Bravo Zulu!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Republic of Singapore Air Force RSAF releases image of "new" F-15SG Strike Eagle tail numbers

Fin flash: This is believed to be the first official image of F-15SG Strike Eagle tail numbers that suggest that the RSAF's F-15 fighter force is bigger than initial orders suggest. Source: RSAF Facebook

In case you missed it, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Facebook page has kindly compiled an album 35 images from this August's Exercise Red Flag - Nellis 17-4. It was uploaded yesterday (28 August'17).

Among the images is one the RSAF FB previously posted on 26 August of F-15SG Strike Eagle tail fins. It's unremarkable as a picture, apart from the special fin flash with the flags of the United States and Singapore that add a dash of colour to an otherwise grey warpaint. The earlier post hardly generated any excitement among RSAF watchers, who regularly conduct bird population census. So the Red Flag album provided another chance to present the image to netizens.

It's the numbers that matter: The image is believed to be the first officially released by the RSAF with tail numbers that suggest an upsized F-15SG fighter force.

These are numbers 05-8371, 05-8373 and 05-8378, with the Mike Oscar code assigned for birds that roost at the United States Air Force Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. The base is home to the RSAF's Peace Carvin V detachment, which flies F-15SGs under the banner of the 428th Fighter Squadron "Buccaneers".

Long story short: Singapore started off buying 12 F-15SG in September 2005 to "replace" ageing A-4 Super Skyhawks, which interestingly enough had already been retired from frontline service on 1 April 2005. This was followed by a second batch of 12 F-15SGs in 2007, bringing the official tally to 24 birds.

In yet another example of defence creep, two batches of eight F-15SGs further enlarged the fleet to 40 F-15SG tail numbers that have been tagged by defence watchers.

Some speculation abounds on whether this fleet will grow again, as the much-anticipated order for the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter has yet to be inked.

Who knows?

In the meantime, it may be worth your while reading up about swarm UAVs UCAVs. #justsaying.

You may also like:
Why the sale of JSF continues to elude Lockheed Martin. Click here
Singapore's "stealth fighters". Click here
Guide to SAF MID numberplates. Click here

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Exercise Pacific Griffin XPG enters live-fire phase off Guam

Missile Away! The United States Navy Littoral Combat Ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) fires a Harpoon Block 1C missile at a target lurking over the horizon at extreme range. Photo: US Navy

[Edit: The US Navy has revised the caption above with the one below, which omits mention of XPG. However, the Facebook album for USS Coronado chronicles the HarpoonEx with the original syntax.]

War games conducted by naval forces from the United States and Singapore, codenamed Exercise Pacific Griffin (XPG), entered the live-fire phase off Guam this week.

The war games, described by the US Navy as "the most complex and comprehensive exercise between the U.S. and the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) to date", represents "the enhanced capabilities of both navies to operate and work together to ensure maritime security and stability".

One highlight of the combined live-fire exercise was a HarpoonEx which involved the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) USS Coronado, which is forward deployed at the Republic of Singapore Navy's RSS Singapura (Changi Naval Base).

The missile shot that took place on Tuesday 22 August saw Coronado fire a Harpoon RGM-84 Block 1C anti-ship missile at a surface target lurking over-the-horizon.

The LCS used her embarked air detachment to provide mid-course correction during the HarpoonEx. Air assets deployed were a MQ-8B Fire Scout Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) paired with an MH-60S Seahawk from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 23 (HCS-23).

Eyes in the sky: The air detachment embarked aboard USS Coronado furnished mid-course guidance during the HarpoonEx. Picture here is a MQ-8B Fire Scout drone, which worked with a MH-60S Seahawk from HCS-23 to expand the Coronado's ability to reach out and touch faraway contacts. Photo: US Navy

“LCS will play an important role in protecting shipping and vital U.S. interests in the maritime crossroads,” Rear Admiral Don Gabrielson, Commander of Task Force 73, said in a US Navy news release cited by USNI News.

“Its ability to pair unmanned vehicles like Fire Scout with Harpoon missiles to strike from the littoral shadows matters – there are over 50,000 islands in the arc from the Philippines to India; those shallow crossroads are vital world interests. Harpoon and Fire Scout showcase one of the growing tool combinations in our modular LCS capability set and this complex shot demonstrates why LCS has Combat as its middle name.”

US Navy Commander Douglas Meagher, Coronado’s Commanding Officer, said in the same news release cited by USNI News:“Our crew and air detachment really came together as a team to accomplish this live-fire event. Our sailors worked hard to prepare for this exercise and I’m extremely proud of the way they performed.”

Captain Lex Walker, Commodore of US Navy's Destroyer Squadron 7, said: “USS Coronado’s success in a real-world deployment of the harpoon missile system is a result of how we are changing the way we operate and think about LCS.”

“By focusing on how a deployed LCS fits in the larger maritime domain with regional partners, we are ensuring a secure and cooperative regional environment while increasing the ship’s capabilities.”

USS Coronado arrived in Singapore in October 2016. The warship is the first trimaran Independence-class LCS and the third US Navy LCS stationed in Singapore after USS Fort Freedom and USS Fort Worth.

Senang Diri understands that Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) stealth frigates, Stalwart and Supreme, led by the command ship/tank landing ship, Endurance, are now off Guam for XPG. Embarked with the RSN ships is a single S-70B Seahawk naval helicopter. This is believed to be the RSN's biggest deployment for a naval exercise held this far from Singapore.

See also:
RSS warships depart for Exercise Pacific Griffin. Click here

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Exercise Pacific Griffin: Republic of Singapore Navy RSN stealth frigates, Stalwart and Supreme, depart Changi Naval Base with LST/command ship, Endurance

File picture of USS Kitty Hawk at Naval Base Guam some years ago.

You can tell which warships are heading out to sea from the activity pierside.

Signal cables and transit lines linking ship to shore are disconnected. Cranes standby to lift the gangways aside and the shimmering heat haze and wisps of diesel smoke from the funnels show that engines are fired up and ready to go.

At Changi Naval Base this morning (10 August 2017), three Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) warships prepared to cast off. 

Their destination could be Guam, where they are likely to be involved in the inaugural Exercise Pacific Griffin (XPG), a naval warfare exercise involving the RSN and United States Navy (USN) said to be taking place this month.

Seen leaving CNB is the tank landing ship (LST), RSS Endurance (207). The 141-metre long warship – the largest in the navy - is joined by two 114-metre long stealth frigates, RSS Stalwart (72) and RSS Supreme (73). 

The warships are spotted eastbound in the Singapore Strait. Apra Harbor in Guam, a United States island territory, is some 2,500 nautical miles away in the Pacific Ocean. XPG could mark the first time three RSN warships are involved in naval war games held so far from Singapore.

Endurance-class LST mid-life upgrade
Though classed as an LST, Endurance is more than a floating transport vessel for vehicles and cargo. 

A mid-life upgrade performed some years ago by defence engineers from the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), Defence Science & Technology Agency (DSTA) and Singapore Technologies Engineering (ST Engg) allows the LST to serve as a command ship during complex naval operations. Such cooperative engagements could involve RSN and friendly surface ships, warplanes and sub-surface assets like submarines and unmanned vessels. The warship’s ability to make sense of the electronic battlespace has likewise been enhanced.

What was once an empty conference room - which I first saw in December 2003 during the first Operation Blue Orchid (OBO1) when I sailed with Endurance in the Persian Gulf - has been fitted with computer workstations and plasma screens that connect the warship with other Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) sensors. 

A ship at sea can only see as far as the horizon as the curvature of the earth will mask contacts below the radar horizon. Following the upgrade, Endurance can exchange data with friendly assets, including those far beyond her immediate visual and radar horizon.

Warfighters aboard Endurance can therefore see first and see more, thanks to information transmitted to the warship securely and in realtime, improving her situational awareness.

Naval engagements with guided munitions mean that target vessels can be engaged within minutes by gunfire or missiles - much faster in the case of supersonic anti-ship missiles. Every moment of early warning is a precious advantage.

At XPG, the RSN’s cooperative engagement capability is expected to be put through realistic and rigorous scenarios that will practice how our warships will control a patch of sea and air space. together.

We wish the crew aboard Endurance, Stalwart and Supreme fair winds and following seas.... and good hunting.