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Singapore Puts USV Through Its Paces In Exercise

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In High Gear

(Source: Singapore Ministry of Defence; issued Dec 02, 2015)

The Venus 16 USV was put through its paces during Exercise Highcrest for the first time; (Singapore MoD photo)

It looks like any normal day off Singapore's coast. Merchant ships, military warships and coast guard vessels ply the straits in a mishmash of routes and destinations.

From behind that veil of normalcy, a speedboat emerges. It is heading to a key installation located along Singapore's coast. Some distance away, a suspicious merchant vessel also heads towards Singapore.

From a bystander's point of view, nothing is wrong. But the Singapore Maritime Crisis Centre (SMCC) knows better. The speedboat is in protected waters, and the merchant vessel is not following its proper course. After running checks, it is confirmed that the merchant vessel has been hijacked.

Something has to be done.

Rapid response

An Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV) is despatched to intercept the speedboat. The Police Coast Guard (PCG) is also tasked to take the speedboat down with its interceptor craft. The speedboat is stopped dead in its tracks before it can even get close to the key installation.

A small armada is also sent to swiftly deal with the hijacked merchant vessel.

A Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) patrol vessel and the PCG intercept the merchant ship. The Special Operations Task Force, elite soldiers from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), arrive via helicopter and fast craft to storm the ship and wrest control from the hijackers.

During the capture of the hijackers, a fire breaks out. The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) moves in to douse the flames, while the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) contains the resulting oil spillage.

With the hijackers subdued and fire put out, the merchant vessel is taken into port where the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and Singapore Customs board the ship to investigate its crew and cargo.

In less than an hour, the seas are back to normal again. Beyond the drama, there is a highly coordinated team from the SMCC orchestrating the takedown.

Staying one step ahead

Since the SMCC was set up in 2011, it has been driving efforts to integrate the various maritime security agencies in Singapore.

From its base located in Changi, the SMCC makes sense of the complicated sea traffic by cross-referencing information sourced from various maritime security agencies across Singapore.

Once the information systems crunch through the raw data, suspicious vessels and movement patterns are flagged out to personnel at the SMCC. These facts are then scrutinised and corroborated to build a picture of where the vessel has been and who the crew are.

Once an anomaly is detected, the SMCC can trigger an appropriate response. For example, there was an incident where the name of a crew member appeared on two separate craft due to enter Singapore at about the same time. This prompted the SMCC to cue an investigation by ICA. While it turned out to be an error by the shipping agent, the outcome could easily have been much grimmer.

"In the light of the uncertain global security situation, it is vital for Singapore to have a robust whole-of-Government approach towards maritime security," said Rear-Admiral (RADM) Frederick Chew, Commander Maritime Security Task Force.

"(For this year's exercise), we are stress-testing the SMCC's ability to handle multi-pronged and simultaneous maritime attacks against Singapore."

Held from 2 to 6 Nov, Exercise Highcrest 2015 involved 900 personnel from 15 agencies. In 2013, the exercise focused on making sure that the SMCC was able to orchestrate an integrated response to simultaneous sea and landward threats.

The way ahead for the SMCC is clear, said RADM Chew. It will continue to improve its ability to make sense of data by increasing the number of partners that it works with. "We will also develop more sophisticated sense-making engines to make sure we pick up anomalies in the maritime environment more sharply," he added.

The SMCC will expand its role from coordinating across the various agencies to developing broad plans to deal with maritime threats. It will also explore new technologies to make sure that the entire Government is well-equipped to deal with maritime incidents.

One of the improvements that the SMCC has put into place is the ability for all agencies to communicate directly with each other during coordinated operations.

"All of us are now in the same talk-group. Instead of going through a comms-centre, we communicate directly with each other. That has greatly improved coordination," said Assistant Superintendent Desmond Ong, Commanding Officer Special Task Squadron, PCG.
On the tight coordination among agencies, Deputy Port Master MPA, Captain Kevin Wong said: "On a day-to-day basis, our systems are integrated and our duty officers work closely. We are actively communicating with each other.

"Our vessel controllers are the maritime equivalent of air traffic controllers. There is a lot of information being pushed to us, and we share the information with the RSN and PCG (through the SMCC) who view the data from a security perspective."

Growing confidence

Besides strengthening inter-agency linkages, these exercises also help ground operators to hone their skills and work through operational kinks.

For Military Expert (ME) 1 Eswaran s/o Kaliapermal, the exercise gave him a chance to practise communications protocols with the other agencies.

"These exercises help to boost our confidence and make us more capable to deal with incidents if they should arise. It's good exposure for us."