A Coxswain's journey through the Navy's submarines

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15 Dec 2022 | PEOPLE

A Coxswain's journey through the Navy's submarines

ME3 Chua joined the Dolphin family 20 years ago and has seen it through three generations of submarines.

// Story by Thrina Tham

// Photos by Chua Soon Lye & Courtesy of ME3 Chua

The Invincible-class submarine would be the third class of submarine that ME3 Chua has sailed on.
The Invincible-class submarine would be the third class of submarine that ME3 Chua has sailed on.

If operating the Challenger- or Archer-class submarines was like driving a vintage car, then the Navy's Invincible-class submarine is like the latest sports car, with its futuristic tech.

This was the analogy given by Military Expert (ME) 3 Marcus Chua, who has 20 years of submarining experience under his belt.

ME3 Chua started training on the Challenger-class submarine in Sweden in 2002 – where his first child was also born.

Now the Coxswain (Designate) of the Invincible-class Impeccable, he trains up his competencies for the new platform while helping his junior crew. He also assists his Commanding Officer in ensuring the crew remain safe while training amid COVID-19.

"We started off from not knowing how to operate the submarine – which were second-hand boats – till now, where we know our requirements and can build a submarine customised to our own needs," said the 45-year-old.

"That is something significant and I'm proud to be a part of this journey."

ME3 Chua with his wife and daughter, when he trained on the Ex- Sjöormen-class submarine in Karlskrona, Sweden, which became the Challenger class.

ME3 Chua joined the Navy in 1998 and served onboard the patrol vessels before joining the Dolphin family in 2002. He worked his way up from Junior Sonar Operator to Cluster Chief, and then Coxswain.

During his time, he was also deployed to the Gulf of Aden for two months in 2014 as part of counter-piracy efforts.

PIONEER catches up with him ahead of the launch of Impeccable. The Navy's second and third Invincible-class submarines, Impeccable and Illustrious, were launched in a ceremony officiated by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on 13 Dec.

Having operated on the Challenger- and Archer-class submarines, how is the Invincible-class different?

Back then, everything was very manual. To operate a system, you'd need to go to that location, start it up and operate it. But with the Invincible-class submarines, there's a lot more automation and you can operate the systems remotely from a central location.

One of the experiences I had as a Sonar Operator in the past, was that I needed to plot contacts around the vessel manually on paper. Now, these are done automatically and it saves a lot of the time and bandwidth for the operator and we can fight more efficiently.

Impeccable (background) and Illustrious, were launched in a ceremony at the thyssenkrupp Marine Systems shipyard in Kiel, Germany. on 13 Dec.

How about differences in living quarters, since you might have to be in the boat over extended periods of time?

We do not need to do "hot bunking" anymore. In the past, we always needed to share the beds with another crew member – half the crew is on watch (or on duty) while half is asleep. So we would need to spend time changing the bedsheets before getting ready for the next watch.

Now, we have personal bunking and more personal space for each individual.

You had your family with you in Sweden. How was it like to come to Kiel, Germany without them?

Twice I went to Sweden, my wife quit her job to accompany me and when we returned to Singapore, she would find a new job. It was tough; so we didn't do it this time.

It was tough the day I had to leave my family for Kiel. I video call them every week, and with my wife, almost every day. I wake up about 5:30 a.m. (German time), which is about noon in Singapore and we chat for about 10 to 15min before I go to work.

ME3 Chua with his wife and two kids at the launch of Archer-class submarine RSS Swordsman in 2010. Both his kids studied in Sweden during his deployment there.

The crew has been training in Kiel for 18 months. How has everyone kept their morale up?

We have a lot of gatherings and meals to ensure we remain tight-knit and cohesive. Here, because we become close to everyone's family members as well, it becomes like we are part of the family. Even from the past (Challenger- and Archer-class) projects, we still remain close and meet up when we are back in Singapore.

What does it mean to don the Dolphins?

It means that I've joined a special group of people where we know how to operate this sophisticated platform. Only those who don the Dolphins know how tough it is to operate the submarine under water.

The crew of Impeccable held a virtual send-off gathering with their families before they flew off to Kiel last June.

As Coxswain, you're one of the most senior submariners on board. What is something you always tell your junior operators?

I always tell them 'Knowledge is power.' We need to train hard and learn as much as we can to really operate the platform safely.

When we are out there at sea, our lives are dependent on one another. A single mistake could bring catastrophe to the submarine.


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