Channel NewsAsia: At Exercise Wallaby, Singapore’s land and air forces work hand in hand
ROCKHAMPTON, Australia: Against a never-ending canvas of vast plains and blue skies, Singapore’s land and air fighters showed what it takes to operate as a team.
This is Exercise Wallaby, the largest Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) overseas training exercise, conducted in an area four times the size of Singapore.
Since its humble beginnings in 1990, when it lasted for only three weeks, the exercise has grown to involve almost 4,000 SAF personnel participating across three months.
Exercise director Brigadier General (BG) Mark Tan called it a “unique opportunity that we don’t have anywhere else in the world”, as plans are afoot to expand training areas in Shoalwater Bay and accommodate even more troops for a longer duration.
“The space here allows us to train both with helicopters and ships in a very large and complex exercise, which allows us to advance our capabilities and train our soldiers in a realistic and tough environment,” BG Tan said.
“As the SAF has progressed over the years, fighting jointly is something that’s very important to our capabilities.”
Indeed, the army and Republic of Singapore Armed Forces put on a joint show of force on Sunday (Oct 8), as they demonstrated one method of large-scale troop transportation.
The deployment, which involves up to eight helicopters flying in formation, can transport a maximum of 300 troops at one go, exercise air director Senior Lieutenant Colonel (SLTC) Sherman Ong said.
Like a parade of elephants, the helicopters move with the more vulnerable targets protected in the middle. “The AHs (Apache Attack Helicopter) are there to escort the large-force package and ensure that the route is screened and the determinate area is clear,” SLTC Ong added.
While the Apaches provide the firepower, the Chinook and Super Puma helicopters form the bulk of the convoy. They are capable of carrying not only large troops, but also different types of vehicles slung under their bellies.
“We carry vehicles from a pick-up zone to a landing site, and we try to positon them further into enemy terrain,” SLTC Ong said.
This form of transportation also serves to resupply combat troops, one serviceman involved in the underslung operations said, as his voice strained to compete against the whirring rotors. The cargo ranges from oil drums to food and ammunition.
“One of the challenges is the fact we’re going to have many aircraft airborne at the same time, so planning and deciding who goes first and who goes next is important,” said Major Vivek Nair, one of the team leads for the media heli-borne demonstrations.
“The bigger challenge is that all these have to tie in with what the army wants. The mission lead has to (ensure) the number of troops and the loads are delivered in a timely manner for them to carry on with their mission.”
I boarded a Chinook to witness first-hand how the rigging of the cargo is done, but found myself rigged to the ground instead. The giant spinning blades generated a downforce and kicked up mini plumes of sand and dust.
A pair of soldiers, known as the lookout team, are sent to the underbelly to hook the cargo up and conduct the “five-second hover check”. The most dangerous part of the entire operation, this ensures the load is secure as it is lifted off the ground.
Inside the Chinook, I breathed in more sand when a large hatch on the floor was opened to observe the cargo beneath. At the landing site, the load is released after it hits the ground and there is no more tension on the rigging. Then the troops are deployed.
For the soldiers, this is not a joyride. They run out of the Chinook, surround the helicopter and prone in the sand. They only get up once the chopper leaves them.
In this demonstration, the cargo being transported is a Light Strike Vehicle (LSV). First Sergeant Joel Wong, a platoon sergeant in the Light Strike Platoon, said the LSV is used to travel faster and cover longer distances because it is “light and mobile”.
“The terrain here allows us to push our vehicles to the limit, especially because the space back in Singapore doesn’t allow us to execute the whole bigger plan,” he added.
The LSV can go up to speeds of 90kmh off road, though the speed limit in the training area is slower than that.
Still, an LSV driver asked during a familiarisation ride if I wanted to get wet. After politely declining for fear of my equipment, he proceeded to give a thrilling ride anyway.
The LSV made light work of boulders and even small tree logs, and ploughed through water obstacles as though they weren’t there. Steep incline? No problem. I was on a bumpy version of a four-wheeled rollercoaster.
It does not come as a surprise then that some full-time national servicemen (NSF) like 3rd Sergeant Ryan Tan extend their service just to participate in Exercise Wallaby. It is a chance to try new things.
The 24-year-old air force technician, who services the Apache helicopters, missed out on loading the Hellfire missile on the chopper during his first Wallaby stint last year. He extended his service by a month to try it this year.
“Last year, very few NSFs were given the privilege to actually handle it, so it was something special for me this year,” he added.