Blast on the high seasPIONEER takes you on board frigate RSS Tenacious as it participates in the world's largest international maritime exercise.
// STORY TEO JING TING
// PHOTOS CHAI SIAN LIANG
Morning rays are trickling through the bridge windows. But the ship crew does not have the time to stop and appreciate its beauty. Tensions are running high - a suspicious vessel has been spotted on the ocean horizon.
To determine its intent, a Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk naval helicopter is activated to take a closer look. Using its radar and sensors, the helicopter crew confirms that the vessel has hostile intentions, and sends its coordinates back to RSS Tenacious.
Deep within the frigate, the naval personnel in the Combat Information Centre (CIC) lock the Harpoon missiles onto the hostile vessel. Once the order is given, two missiles are fired within seconds, one after the other. Both hit the target simultaneously, sending a huge plume of orange smoke into the air.
There is a moment of silence. Only after the helicopter confirms that the vessel is completely destroyed do loud cheers erupt in the CIC.
For the sailors and air crew of RSS Tenacious, this was one of the highlights of the 22-day sea phase in this year's Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise.
Twenty-five countries took part in the world's largest international maritime exercise, which began on 27 Jun at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. The naval base played host to 45 ships, five submarines and about 200 aircraft, manned by 25,000 personnel.
The Republic of Singapore Navy's (RSN's) frigate participated under Combined Task Force (CTF) 176, which oversaw five Task Groups (TGs).
"The sheer scale of RIMPAC gives RSS Tenacious the opportunity to exercise alongside established navies in high-end, complex naval warfare serials," said Fleet Commander Rear-Admiral Edwin Leong, who observed the Harpoon missile live firing on board the warship on 20 Jul.
"Besides training, I look forward to the many opportunities where we can forge closer bonds of friendship, as well as strengthen interoperability with our partner navies."
With participants from many different countries, it was important to understand one another's procedures, iron out differences and enhance trust between the navies. Apart from interacting and planning the exercise, the navies took the opportunity to visit and tour one another's ships.
From her interaction with navies from India, the Philippines and the United States (US), Military Expert (ME) 1 Sandyha Shukla saw how the RSN is a well-respected force beyond Singapore's shores.
"Many asked us how we operated the frigate with such a lean crew and they were very impressed with our capabilities," said the 24-year-old Command and Control Operator.
Commenting on RSS Tenacious' participation in the exercise, Commander of the US Third Fleet Vice-Admiral John Alexander said: "Exercise RIMPAC is an opportunity to build invaluable relationships and partnerships. The relationships we are building here with Singapore, and many others, will enable us to work together to provide disaster relief, combat piracy, or conduct a wide range of maritime contingency operations when the need arises."
"The level of complexity here and opportunity to work with multiple assets are privileges we won't have access to back in Singapore. It's good exposure for developing into more competent warfighters."
Tight air-sea coordination
Participating in such a large-scale exercise meant that the crew, who were deployed from 2 Jun to 30 Aug, began preparation five months before they set sail.
Commanding Officer of RSS Tenacious Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Lee Jan, 33, said: "The crew went through an intensive work-up period, honing their warfare competencies and training for aviation operations (such as) landing and launching the S-70B naval helicopter."
During the live firing, the RSN crew launched the Harpoon missiles at the target using information from the naval helicopter's radars. Minute-tominute coordination between the naval and air crew is crucial, and this is where Captain (CPT) Charisia Ong, 27, comes in.
A Tactical Coordination Officer (TACCO), CPT Ong acts as a bridge between the frigate and helicopter while flying on the aircraft.
After locating the target, she reported its coordinates, course and speed back to RSS Tenacious. "The target is always moving, so I have to update its position constantly for the frigate to fire as accurately as possible."
Her counterpart on ship was ME3 Louies Tan who is seated in the CIC. Besides being Chief Weapon Control Systems, the 36-year-old holds the concurrent role of an aircraft controller.
This involves directing the helicopter towards the target, updating its position based on CPT Ong's reports, and coordinating with the weapon operators before the firing commences.
"Before flying, we've already familiarised ourselves with the battle plan, right down to the minutes and seconds of what would be happening," said ME3 Tan.
AT RIMPAC 2018, RSS TENACIOUS…
• Was one of four task unit commanders
under one of the TGs in CTF 176. It led five ships from Australia, Malaysia, Peru, South Korea and the US in an Expeditionary Strike Group to conduct serialised training and mission-based scenarios in naval warfare.
• Took on the role of Commander TG under CTF 174,
commanding four ships - one each from Chile and Peru, and two from the US - as well as helicopters and aircraft in the conduct of anti-submarine warfare.
• Participated in the escort of large-scale high-value units,
comprising five ships from four countries, to defend against submarine attacks.
Launching a helicopter on choppy waters is never easy, much less in almost absolute darkness.
ME3 Sivashankar s/o Saragabani, 47, volunteered for RIMPAC because of the opportunity to hone his skills at launching and recovering aircraft in a more challenging environment.
The Air Force Engineer from 806 Squadron (SQN), who has participated in Exercise RIMPAC twice, often took the night shift with his team of seven, working from 5pm to 5.30am.
Recalling the time where he and his team had only an hour, at 1am, to recover the helicopter, ME3 Sivashankar said: "We had to restrain the rotor blades, refuel the aircraft and tow her into the hangar.
"All while using only torches, wearing life vests and making sure that we maintain a firm footing on the deck at all times due to the high sea state."
For naval helicopter pilot Major (MAJ) Lou Yang, night flying was a test of her core skills.
"Unlike the South China Sea where we usually train, it's much darker here - there are no merchant vessels around and little ambient light. This allows us to put our night training to good use," said the 29-year-old from the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF's) 123 SQN, who clocked close to 50 flying hours during the sea phase.
Two RSAF pilots, an RSN TACCO and a Sensor Supervisor operated the S-70B naval helicopter, which provided extended reach and sensing capabilities for the frigate.
RIMPAC DEEPENS TIES AMONG NAVIES: DR NG
The biennial Exercise RIMPAC not only presents valuable training opportunities for Singapore, it also reaffirms the strong ties among the participating navies.
Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen said this during his visit to Hawaii on 2 Aug. Citing that seven out of 10 ASEAN navies had participated in the exercise, Dr Ng said that this emphasised the importance of RIMPAC and other US-led regional engagement efforts in building trust and confidence among regional militaries.
"It reflects the strong support that the US enjoys for its military-to-military engagements with ASEAN. And from ASEAN, (it is) a recognition of the important and vital role that the US continues to play in our region."
It may have been a long three months away from home, but the ever-changing tempo of the ship's missions kept everyone on their toes and made missing their loved ones a little more bearable.
Full-Time National Serviceman 3rd Sergeant (3SG) Tan Bin Qian, 20, chose to join the exercise though he had just returned from another month-long deployment.
Said the Weapons Systems Operator: "I get to do things that I've never done before, like participating in the ship and helicopter refuelling."
And while working six-hour shifts might be mentally and physically draining, ME1 Sandyha had no complaints.
Her role in the CIC involved compiling surface warfare pictures, assessing the intent of nearby ships, and recommending a course of action to the Principal Warfare Officer.
This was on top of working on a much wider area of operations - 80 nautical miles (about 148km) in the Pacific Ocean compared to 10 nautical miles (about 18.5km) in Singapore's waters.
"I also need to communicate with personnel from different countries and make sure we understand one another so that we can succeed in the mission. I'm learning something new every day," said ME1 Sandyha.