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Bigger, badder SAF war games: An inside look

The best view of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Forging Sabre war games, currently in full swing in the Arizona desert in the United States, comes from a windowless room about the size of a large lecture hall whose front stage has been turned into a vast video wall.

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The best view of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Forging Sabre war games, currently in full swing in the Arizona desert in the United States, comes from a windowless room about the size of a large lecture hall whose front stage has been turned into a vast video wall.

This is the Command Post for the SAF’s largest and most complex live-fire war games, and we have been invited to watch battle managers at work.

The scene reminds one of the local pub on soccer night during a tense moment in the match with everyone’s gaze locked onto the action; a stock market gallery where punters hedge their bets; a supersized LAN gaming room where the ultimate, multiplayer, real-time online combat game is being played.


Nine outsized plasma screens are placed across the width of the room in two rows, commanding the attention from the audience of dozens of SAF personnel from the Singapore Army, Republic of Singapore Navy and Republic of Singapore Air Force.

Each warfighter stares at the screens in rapt attention and issues/acknowledges orders in respectful silence. One shout from Tiger Hong, the legendary sergeant major from the First Generation SAF, would probably have blown everyone from their seats.

But this is the Third Generation SAF, decision cycles are faster, the results on the battlefield executed with more devastating effect and our battle managers in the Command Centre are hard at work without the torrent of shouts common to battles past.

Here, professionals are at work.

The ultra modern is complemented by the quirky: Push button telephones in glossy black plastic and 1970s-era handsets with a loud Old Phone ringtone to match. These warn SAF battle managers of impending action (air strikes or rocket artillery barrages) far away; their ring a cue that inevitably triggers the flurry of rapid-fire typing on keyboards across the room as battle managers relay commands across the ether.

There is also the mind boggling jargon as everyone talks in military-speak: ‘Sweepers’ refer to warplanes sent ahead of RSAF air strikes to sweep away aerial opposition with a cloud of air-to-air missiles. ‘Hammertime’ is called when our air force pilots are about to knock the daylights out of an enemy target using one of the 60 precision-guided munitions that will be launched, fired or dropped during the war games.

Each of the 18 giant plasma screens provide an update of the unfolding battle; SAF ground and air combat forces duke it out with a “red team” several kilometres away in the vast expanse of the Barry M. Goldwater Range - this is a US military training area about 19 times bigger than Singapore.

Every giant screen up front is completed by a terrace of seats, placed in rows like a school lecture theatre where neat lines of even more flat screen computer terminals teach dozens of SAF warfighters the art, science and emotions of war fought/lost in front of colleagues and under the watchful gaze of longer serving SAF officers and advisors.

That this war games means something to the SAF comes from the list of superlatives Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the SAF share when talking about the exercise: Most number of precision guided munitions of all types will be fired, first time a satellite-guided rocket will be launched, most complex integration of how the SAF finds, fixes and finishes the enemy.


Exercise Forging Sabre first made the news in 2005 as the SAF’s proof of concept for integrated strike.

In 2009, the command post for integrated strike warfare was tested and operationalized, along with the addition of a new heavy hitter, the Himars rocket artillery system.

And the last exercise in 2011 saw F-15SG Strike Eagles, the RSAF’s most advanced warplanes, obliterate targets in the Arizona desert alongside the long-serving yet agile F-16C/D fighter jets.

At Forging Sabre 2013, the good guys are in for a surprise: The most telling statistic that emphasizes the growth of the war games in realism and complexity comes from the decision by SAF defence planners to upsize the number and sophistication of the simulated enemy.

So while in 2011, the “red” or enemy forces comprised RSAF warplanes sent up to provide token resistance, the enemy has evolved brains and brawn.


RSAF Senior Lieutenant Colonel Ho Yong Peng - whose initials “HYP” christened him with the callsign Hyper - plays the fictional “enemy” as Red Air Commander. He explained:”We want to ensure the SAF gets realistic training and want to make sure we train as well shall fight. As you know, in war, you will have a thinking, adapting enemy, never staying still and who still wants to strike.”

SAF battle managers have to contend with a hostile air force armed with beyond visual range air-to-air missiles and an air defence system that forces RSAF warfighters to fight their way through contested airspace en route to their targets.

SLTC Ho added:”You don’t expect the enemy to play fair. We make sure we have plans and tactics to punish them and make sure SAF forces never have an easy day in the field.”

His Red Land Commander counterpart, Colonel Andrew Lim, is equally fired up to remind SAF warfighters in Arizona their trip here is no holiday.

To maximise realism, COL Lim said the SAF Wargame Centre uses battle simulations to create enemy land forces on plasma screens that test how SAF battle managers cope with challenging scenarios such as having more targets than assets to strike, which forces commanders to prioritise targets.

“This exercise puts a Division Strike Centre through its paces,” said COL Lim, referring to the heart of the Army division’s command structure where battle orders are planned and initiated.

The simulations SAF friendly forces see on their screens can also simulate events such as the firing of rockets by the enemy or impediments to movement that could arise from having to minimise collateral damage to civilians in urban areas.

To fight back, the vast expanse of the US military’s Barry M. Goldwater Range allows friendly forces to take out the targets simulated on computer screens with fire missions against simulated targets in the real world. These include command posts, moving targets such as columns of enemy armour and high value targets such as aircraft shelters.

Amid the ferocity of battle - no SAF battle manager red or blue worth his salt lets the enemy walk over him/her - there is much learning after each bruising encounter.

The same Command Post hosts joint debriefings where all SAF forces who took part in a particular battle encounter get together to exchange viewpoints, make new acquaintances and forge new ones as they ensure the sharp end of the SAF remains credible, powerful and ready.



David Boey blogs about defence issues and is a member of the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD).

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