Ministry of Defence, Singapore Singapore Government
Contact Info | Feedback | Sitemap 
Reflections on Operation Blue Orchid (Sea)
  Email Article     Print Article  

by LTC Frederick Chew

Explosives-laden merchant vessel currently in the Arabian Gulf is making its way towards Iraq. Its mission is to blow itself up to destroy key infrastructure and further destabilise the fledging democracy in Iraq. This Critical Contact of Interest will pass through TF 999's Area of Operations. TG 999.1 is to... 1


The above scenario, while partially fictitious, does provide some insights into the security environment as well as the challenge of the mission and tasks that various RSN Task Groups (TGs) have been involved in, while in the Northern Arabian Gulf (NAG) conducting Operation Blue Orchid - Sea (OBO). From 2003-2007, the RSN dispatched a total of four TGs to that area of operations (AO).

Throughout the three to four months of deployments by the various RSN TGs in the Gulf, RSN personnel conducted a range of activities from oil platform (OPLAT) protection at the sharp end, to training the Iraqi Navy (IQN) and rendering medical aid to local communities. A summary of non-sensitive activities carried out by the RSN TGs is shown in the table below.2

Illustrative Internal RSN C2 Structure

RSN TG's Activities
The operational experience gained by RSN TGs in the NAG is directly relevant to some of the RSN's key peacetime and period of tension (POT) missions. The aim of this essay therefore is to share the TGs' experiences with the rest of the RSN and the SAF; and in so doing, contribute to the post-operation knowledge management (KM) effort, as well as enrich the growing body of Operations Other Than War (OOTW) knowledge in the SAF.3


The essay's central thesis is that while OOTW and conventional war do share many similarities, there are nonetheless tangible differences that warrant a deliberate approach to mounting OOTW, specifically in the areas of concepts, equipment and training. Using the RSN TGs' OBO experiences as the backdrop, my approach will be first to describe the battle space and threat environment in the NAG. Second, to describe the RSN TGs' Concept of Operations (CONOPS). Third, to discuss the CONOPS' implications on the RSN's Equipping and Training.

In the course of the analysis, some comparisons will be made against equivalent hot war scenarios in order to bring into sharper focus the unique requirements of OOTW. Given that OOTW is a broad collective term, this essay will focus on two key facets of OOTW - maritime security (MARSEC) and anti-low intensity conflict (LIC) operations. Both featured significantly in the Security, Stabilisation, Transition and Reconstruction Operations (SSTRO) conducted by Coalition forces in the NAG.4

Background And Mission

The RSN units were typically OPCON-ed to the Coalition CTF, whose mission was broadly to set conditions for security in the NAG that would facilitate Iraqi economic development and transition to independent protection of Iraqi territorial waters (TW) and critical energy infrastructure. The Coalition's primary line of operation was OPLAT and pipeline defence. KAAOT and ABOT account for some 90% of Iraq's oil exports and some 80% of its GDP. The RSN TGs' mission in turn was to conduct Peace Support Operations (PSO) in order to contribute to the Coalition's efforts in setting conditions for security in the NAG that facilitate Iraqi economic development and transition to independent protection of Iraqi TWs and critical energy infrastructure.
Relating Higher-Objectives to Actions on the Ground

Battlespace And Threats

The NAG presents a complex battle space. It is not far removed from the insurgency ashore in Iraq. Coalition ships operate in the AO cognisant of the stated (and demonstrated) intent of terrorist organisations, such as Al Qaida (AQ), to attack Coalition forces and Iraqi oil infrastructure. A multi-axis attack by 3 fast crafts was executed in Sep 04, penetrating Coalition defences and resulting in significant damage to ABOT. NAG operations are further complicated by navigational challenges (shallow patches and sunken obstructions) as well as the high density of maritime traffic (particularly local fishing boats known as "dhows"). Furthermore, maritime crime in the AO is endemic. Last but not least, the Coalition AO lies in the middle of a politically charged Middle East. The above factors combined to pose significant operational challenges for the RSN TGs in theatre.
The Way We Fight

John Boyd's OODA cycle will be employed to frame the analysis in this section. This section gives examples of tactical actions conducted by RSN units in the NAG and sets the stage for deriving implications on equipping and training (discussed further later in this essay).

The conduct of conventional war at the tactical level and MARSEC/LIC (during OBO) share the same four basic elements: observe, orient, decide and act. Both allied and adversary forces are typically engaged in an intense competition to complete their respective OODA cycles ahead of the other side. The side that reaches "Act" first usually stands a higher chance of winning.

At this juncture, it will be useful to briefly outline how forces can be deployed for operations such as OPLAT defence. The most straightforward approach is to divide the surrounding AO into concentric zones, a method typically employed by armed forces worldwide for missions such as layered convoy defence or zone air defence. Certain pre-planned responses are laid down in case any particular zone is breached. In the case of OPLAT defence, Coalition units act in concert to collectively form a "ring of steel".


Localised vs Wide-Area

In this first stage of the OODA cycle, both allied and enemy forces are essentially competing to build superior awareness. Even at this early stage, we begin to see some divergence between how this process was carried out in OBO, vis-a-vis how it would be carried out in conventional war. Given the heavy traffic criss-crossing the AO, coupled with the fact that any of these contacts could have been a threat; there was a need for localised and persistent surveillance around the OPLATs from the outset. In contrast, wide-area surveillance seemed less efficacious, given that one would only be able to discern a real adversary at the very last moment. It was what the adversary did "up close and personal" that mattered.

There are implications for equipping here. The situation in the NAG naturally placed a premium on high resolution short-range navigational radars to pick out small contacts encroaching into the OPLATs' perimeters. Longer-range surface/air surveillance radars, which would prove indispensable in conventional war, were found to be not particularly useful against small boat threats. There was also an obvious benefit for the Coalition to possess units that were able to remain on-station for prolonged periods to provide persistent surveillance, as was the case with the LST.


Intentions vs Identity

In OBO, there was a need to observe each and every attribute and action made by a COI, down to the minutest detail, in order to make sense of the developing situation. The key to MARSEC/LIC lies in discerning hostile intent. In conventional war, classification based on an adversary's physical attributes (missile canisters, unique hull forms) alone is usually sufficient to progress to the next OODA stage. Simply put, in conventional war, we look at "what the COI is". In MARSEC/LIC, we go beyond that to see "what the COI is doing, or is likely to do". The million-dollar question then becomes: how do we discern hostile intent?

Drawing Red Lines

The RSN TGs achieved this by drawing many virtual red lines for the enemy to cross in order to get close to the OPLATs. In crossing one red line after another, the adversary would reveal more and more of his hostile intent to the OPLAT's defenders. It is this cumulative intent, after an appropriate number of red lines have been crossed, that would trigger a move to the next OODA stage. Such an approach would not be necessary in conventional war.

If audio and visual warnings broadcasted through various means failed, small crafts and USVs could be deployed for interception. The purpose of interception was primarily to solicit intent, and not so much to "ride off". The idea is that if an encroaching COI continued to press towards the OPLAT regardless of obstacles in its path, that would likely demonstrate hostile intent. In this regard, the LST had weapons and sensors well calibrated for identification and warnings. In particular, the RSN USVs generated widespread interest among Coalition partners, due to their usefulness in conducting perimeter patrols and interception operations (without having to put humans in harm's way).


Rules of Engagement (ROEs)

ROEs govern how war-fighters operate across the peace-troubled peace-war operational continuum. For most armed forces in conventional war, there is obviously a concern to preserve the moral high ground. However, once the gloves come off, threats that match one's identification criteria can be swiftly neutralised. Hostile intent is assumed. Of course, utmost consideration will be given to legal regimes such as the Geneva Convention and the Laws of Armed Conflict. In limited conflict such as MARSEC/LIC, similar considerations apply, albeit with some subtle but significant differences. Firstly, COIs that match one's identification criteria sometimes cannot be immediately neutralised, as they may not be displaying sufficient hostile intent up till then. Secondly, it is incumbent on the defender to continually (and not just at the outset) determine hostile intent. This means that even after a shot has been fired, the defender may have to pause and reassess before continuing his engagement. All these point to the need to train our war-fighters to imbue not only different skills but also different instincts for MARSEC/LIC, as compared to conventional war.

Time Compression in Decision Making

Given the disadvantageous constraints that the defender operates under for OODA stages I and II, the ability to react quickly once a COI evinces hostile intent becomes all the more critical. This is perhaps more so than in conventional war, where one would be able to systematically build up a recognised maritime picture of potentially hostile targets and properly think through one's anticipated actions. In this regard, clearly delegated authority for Commanders on the ground is vital. Commanders on the ground need to be able to exercise mission command to exploit fleeting opportunities or to react to contingencies.5 Chances are that there will not be the luxury of time to consult higher headquarters for the green light.


Quick-draw vs Engaging at distance; Long-drawn at medium/high intensity vs Short bursts at high intensity

In conventional war, one plans to take the enemy out as far away as possible, preferably before entering the latter's weapon range. The need for close observation in MARSEC/LIC means that chances are both sides will be in each other's weapon range by the time the decision is made to engage. This places a heavy demand on the crew manning the ship's weapons; they have to operate from start till finish under threat level RED (imminent) conditions. In conventional war, a more gradual build up from WHITE (threat unlikely) to YELLOW (threat probable) to RED usually takes place. Armed forces plan for a swift and decisive victory over the enemy by default. This implies being able to fight at high intensity for a relatively shorter duration. However, in MARSEC/LIC, the nature of the conflict is such that sporadic events are spread out over a relatively longer duration. The challenge therefore lies in maintaining a medium to high state of readiness for prolonged periods of time. There are training and human factor issues that need to be addressed - for example, avoiding burnout and establishing a sustainable routine for the crew.
In MARSEC/LIC, our war-fighters have to constantly weigh the principles of proportionality, limited collateral damage and minimum force.
Disabling vs Destructive fires

In conventional war, we shoot to kill. In MARSEC/LIC, we shoot so that we do not have to kill (in a sense). In the former, once the go-ahead is given, our war-fighters instinctively carry out a series of reflex actions to prosecute the enemy till destruction. In the latter, OOTW practitioners have to constantly weigh the principles of proportionality, limited collateral damage and minimum force. This implies a measured posture, even in the heat of battle, and a gradation of engagement options - from warning to disabling and finally, to destructive fires. Again, this is something that needs to be specifically trained for, as the instincts required in the above two scenarios are fundamentally different.

Ultra precise vs Simply accurate

In conventional war, we need accurate weapons that deliver destructive payloads onto the enemy. We need those too in MARSEC/LIC operations. However, the requirements are more stringent in the latter. We need weapons that are ultra-precise and can deliver a high rate of fire (ROF) at specific points on the enemy vessel's hull. Large calibre main guns (3-inch, 4-inch, 5-inch) that are useful for naval shore bombardments will not cut it here. Neither will long range surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) designed for longer reach to achieve "one shot one kill" in war. We are looking at weapons that are very precise with a high ROF at short range, for example, smaller-calibre stabilised guns (in the 25-30mm range) with associated fire-control systems. These guns should be able to provide both low (for disabling) and high rates (for destruction) of fire. MARSEC/LIC weapons also need to pack sufficient punch to disable very large vessels such as hijacked supertankers. There are equipping implications here.

The Way We Equip

As highlighted already at various points in the essay, the difference in the "way we fight" for OOTW (MARSEC/LIC) and conventional war impacts the way we equip for OOTW (MARSEC/LIC). From the above OODA analysis, an ideal MARSEC/LIC platform should possess the following characteristics: fast, manoeuvrable, sufficiently big to mount stabilised medium-calibre guns with varying rates of fire that possess high accuracy at relatively short ranges, able to carry sufficient payload, able to withstand rough seas, remain self-sufficient for extended periods (or be able to conduct replenishment with Coalition oilers) and possess the capability to launch unmanned systems as well as auxiliary crafts.

OOTW is currently on an up-trend and it makes eminent sense for armed forces to make sure they are properly equipped for OOTW missions. However, given the simultaneous trend of decreasing defence expenditure worldwide, most armed forces have taken the force development path of equipping for war and adapting for OOTW. From the RSN's vantage point, given that our core business remains conventional war-fighting, that would seem a prudent approach for us too, for now. The implication therefore is that the diversity of mission demands in OOTW points to the need for highly versatile platforms in the RSN's ORBAT, if it is to conduct wide-spectrum OOTW cost-effectively, as well as be able to employ the same assets for war. These platforms should be rapidly configurable for the particular mission at hand.

The Versatility of the LST

In the case of OBO, the LST was easily configured to carry a customised set of weapons, sensors and small crafts for a MARSEC/LIC mission in a distant theatre. For a start, the LST has the real estate to house a robust weapon suite that included a 76mm main gun, two 30mm stabilised remotely-operated guns and various types of small arms. It also possesses a good sensor suite comprising navigational and surveillance radars. Furthermore, it has the lifting equipment and space to house and launch Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and USVs.

Not only is the LST easily configurable, it has good sustainability and sea keeping which facilitate operating in distant theatres under sometimes unfavourable environmental conditions. This applies not only to the LST "mother ship", but also to the small crafts that operate out of her. On many occasions, the RSN TGs were literally flooded with requests from Coalition partners for the use of the LST's Fast Craft (Utilty) [FCU] and Fast Craft (Equipment and Personnel) [FCEP] to carry out duties ranging from stores and VIP transfers to security patrols. That certainly helped to accentuate the value that the RSN TGs were bringing to the Coalition force.

Besides the sturdiness of its small crafts, the LST has the capacity to carry a good mix of them: USVs, various sizes of RHIBs, FCUs and FCEPs. Small-craft capability appears to be a must-have for most maritime OOTW missions to afford multi-purpose utility.

Force Multipliers

As described under the "Observe" and "Orient" stages, UAVs and USVs perform useful surveillance and presence roles. They have the distinct advantage of being able to operate without incurring risks to human life. They can also operate under harsh environmental conditions. For example, temperatures often soared above 40 degrees Celsius during some of the deployments in the NAG. Such temperatures could extract their toll on Coalition sailors conducting small boat patrols under the hot Arabian sun. In previous OBO deployments, the opposite - extreme cold - was encountered.

Looking ahead to future OBO-type deployments, the RSN could configure more of our platforms to be able to launch UAVs. This will significantly increase the situational awareness of RSN ships in any Coalition and also our value as a useful partner. USVs should continue to feature in our future deployments. We should build on our accumulated experience to systematically expand the USV's operational envelope - from perimeter patrols around the mother ship to autonomous patrols at distance.

Future Procurements

While the LST scores well on many counts, it does have certain shortcomings - speed and manoeuvrability. These are both important attributes for MARSEC/LIC as well. While Coalition Patrol Crafts (PCs) faced sustainability and sea keeping issues in the NAG, the importance of their role as pickets around the OPLATs cannot be overemphasised. Their ability to respond quickly to rapidly closing threats was a vital asset. Given their slower speeds and longer pick-up time, the LST and larger Coalition cruisers would have been hard-pressed to intercept fast approaching skiffs (which can travel at up to 40-50kts).6 Even if the LST happened to be in the right position to block an encroaching skiff's initial line of approach, it would have faced considerable difficulty manoeuvring to fend off the more nimble skiff.

This leads us to consider whether there are other more suitable platforms that can potentially be contributed for future OBO-type operations. Looking at the RSN's ORBAT7, its new Formidable-class frigate appears to fare better than the LST in areas such as speed and manoeuvrability. However, the frigate does not provide as much utility as the LST in terms of its space and lift, and hence the flexibility, sustainability as well as ability afforded to carry multiple auxiliary crafts. Overall, the LST still appears to be the platform of choice for OBO-type missions in its current form. The frigate could be employed at the sharper end of the OOTW spectrum. This could range from maritime interdiction operations under the ambit of the proliferation security initiative (PSI) to non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO) in hostile environments. A LST-frigate combination would no doubt be a highly versatile and effective pairing. The RSN's missile corvettes and patrol vessels are useful too for MARSEC/LIC operations. However, their main disadvantage remains their lack of sustainability.

The above considerations represent only one line of inquiry - force structuring for a specific type of OOTW. The reality is that optimising one's force structure to cater to both conventional war and OOTW remains a huge challenge. Even as armed forces worldwide gear up to meet rising OOTW demands, we will probably see increasing numbers of multi-role platforms coming to the fore. It remains to be seen how useful newer generations of multi-role and multi-mission crafts will be in the RSN's operational context.
Table 1: Principles of OOTW8
The Way We Train

Earlier in the essay, we noted the differing instincts and reactions required for OOTW and conventional war during the "orient", "decide" and "act" stages. The philosophy underlying the principles of OOTW (shown on the left) is tangibly different from that underlying the principles of war. The war-fighter is used to acting swiftly and decisively upon reaching a conclusion on the identity of the COI. By necessity, he tends to perceive things in black or white. The OOTW practitioner needs to be able to "hold his horses", as he generally encounters scenarios which are more grey, uncertain and complex. That is not to say that the latter does not need the ability to act swiftly once a point of no return is reached. Obviously, some form of OOTW-specific training is needed to prepare our sailors to perform well. The key question then is whether this training should: (a) take the form of ad-hoc packages delivered prior to deployment; or (b) have a number of officers/WOSPECs specialise in OOTW in lieu of conventional war-fighting.
The OOTW practitioner needs to be able to "hold his horses", as he generally encounters scenarios which are more grey, uncertain and complex.
The starting point for our solution must be that the SAF and RSN are likely to face continued resource challenges in the years to come, particularly in the area of manpower. The crux of the matter is not dissimilar to that of equipping, which has been discussed earlier. Can we afford the luxury of two different training tracks? Or should we try to adapt our men and women (who have been drilled in conventional war-fighting) for OOTW? Personally, I feel that conventional war-fighting training should continue to remain the core business of military schoolhouses. In fact, drilled war-fighting instincts and responses serve us well in environments where quick responses are needed. I believe that a war-fighter can be adequately "ramped up" for an upcoming OOTW deployment through a customised and comprehensive pre-deployment training package. That package should include basic language training, ethics training, geopolitical briefs and refresher courses on legal regimes like the Geneva Convention, the Laws of Armed Conflict and the Law of the Sea Convention. Such packages can be provided by training units that specialise in OOTW. At the same time, these units can double up as KM custodians for OOTW.

There are other elements that should be covered by such training packages. OOTW are usually multinational, multi-agency efforts. Working with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is a central feature in OOTW. The uninitiated war-fighter usually ends up applying battle procedures and using military-speak when dealing with civilians. Needless to say, this could backfire. Our men and women must be primed to understand how NGOs operate and what their vested interests are. As Commanders, we need to exercise our discretion in choosing and developing subordinates with the correct aptitude, skill-sets and exposure to deal with NGO representatives.

Another area that warrants further thought is Multinational Force Management. It is only natural that there will be occasional tensions between what the Multinational Force Commander desires to do on the ground and what the National Commander is actually permitted to commit to. There is a lesson to be learnt here in managing expectations. At times, in order to avoid awkward downstream situations, there is virtue in being up front with one's constraints. The National Commander can "make up" for this by participating more proactively in other areas within his mandate. Fellow Coalition soldiers tend to appreciate transparency up front. Of course, judgement needs to be exercised by the National Commander as to what is appropriate and what best balances the interests of his country and the Multinational Force that he is operating under. For that, a National Commander needs to be given an intimate understanding of his or her national and military strategic interests in the context of the mission.

The RSN TGs have achieved mission success in the various tasks and activities they were engaged in over a number of deployments and have contributed substantively to achieving desired Coalition outcomes. In this concluding section, I'll like to briefly survey our strengths and weaknesses as Singaporeans when it comes to Multinational operations.

One of our strengths is that we are thoughtful in our contributions. A lot of thinking goes into what niche contributions we can bring to the Coalition table. Coupled to that, we focus our energies, not so much on the "song and dance", but on getting the job done efficiently and effectively. I believe this is well appreciated by our Coalition partners. Third, the significant number of bilateral and multilateral exercises that the RSN engages in does prepare our men and women to work well with sailors of other nationalities. Fourth, our small size works to our advantage by allowing us to be nimble. This means that we are able to move from concept to implementation more quickly than most other armed forces. The fact that the RSN has been fielding cutting edge technologies (the USV for example) in the NAG for 3 years running already, ahead of most other navies, is testament to that.

Ironically, a strength can just as easily turn into a weakness. Sometimes, our zeal to get the job done can come across as being too "impatient" or "pushy". As such, we may unnecessarily create friction with our multinational partners. This does not do justice to the good work that has been done. What we need is patience and the calm to take our foot of the accelerator from time to time, and let events unfold naturally to sort themselves out.

In conclusion, this essay has sought to make the point that while OOTW and conventional war do share many similarities, there are nonetheless tangible differences that need thoughtful reckoning. Conceptually, there are subtle yet substantive differences between how war-fighters and OOTW practitioners deal with the threat environment and potential adversaries. As a consequence, a deliberate approach to mounting OOTW, in the area of training and equipping, is necessary. Given that most navies might not be able to afford a force structure optimised for both conventional war and OOTW, it becomes important to think through how to "adapt for OOTW" in terms of customised training packages underpinned by a robust OOTW KM system and imbuing modularity into force structuring for increased ORBAT versatility.

Finally, penning this essay has brought home to the writers the richness of the OBO experience. We hope that the information and insights that have been shared in this essay will be useful for war-fighters and OOTW practitioners in the SAF and contribute to the growing the body of knowledge on this subject. It is also hoped that through this essay, readers (from the SAF) will be much enthused to sign up for the next RSN or SAF operational deployment and experience things firsthand!


The author would like to acknowledge and express his gratitude to RADM Joseph Leong (Head, Joint Plans and Transformation Department), COL Bernard Miranda (Commander 3rd Flotilla) and LTC G. Alagirisamy (Project Officer 185 SQN) for their invaluable support and guidance given during the course of writing this article.


1 The signal extract as shown is based on an imagined scenario and has been edited for illustration purposes. The Coalition Task Force number 999 is also fictitious.
2 SAC refers to Scene of Action Commander. IQN refers to the Iraqi Navy.
3 Unfortunately, certain information that would have afforded the reader a better appreciation of the OOTW battle space and Coalition CONOPS has been omitted in order to preserve Coalition OPSEC.
4 "SSTRO" is the acronym used to describe the set of activities previously classified under counter-insurgency (COIN), security and support operations (SASO), and stabilisation operations.
5 Mission Command refers to a decentralised C2 philosophy that devolves decision making to well-trained, capable and empowered subordinates.
6 A "skiff" refers to a common working boat, usually river craft. Skiffs usually possess outboard motors and have a central-console hull design, with a blunt bow, flat bottom and square stern. They are typically used by fishermen or as leisure speedboats.
7 ORBAT refers to SAF Order of Battle.
8 Extract from Trainee Guide J-NE-002 for MOOTW Course conducted at Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Atlantic - Naval Amphibious Base, Virginia, USA in 2002 for US and International Naval Officers.
LTC Frederick Chew is currently Head Naval Intelligence. A Naval Officer by training, he was formerly Commanding Officer of RSS Formidable and previously a Branch Head in Defence Policy Office. LTC Chew is a SAF Overseas Scholar and he holds a Masters of Engineering (First Class Honours) in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from Imperial College, U.K.
Last updated on 24 Apr 2010
 Privacy Statement | Terms of Use© 2013 Government of Singapore