SINGAPORE: In addition to the Committee of Inquiry (COI), the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Special Investigation Branch (SIB) will also investigate the death of national serviceman (NSman) Aloysius Pang, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told Parliament on Monday (Feb 11).
In a ministerial statement addressing the death, Dr Ng said while the police and State Coroner do not have the jurisdiction to investigate the death as it took place abroad in New Zealand, the SIB can as it has jurisdiction under military law.
“Based on SIB’s investigations, the Chief Military Prosecutor will decide if any servicemen are to be prosecuted for criminal or military offences in a military court,” Dr Ng said.
The military court is presided over by serving State Court judges, he added.
Corporal First Class (National Service) Pang died on Jan 23 at Waikato Hospital in Hamilton, New Zealand, after sustaining injuries while carrying out repair work on a Singapore Self-Propelled Howitzer (SSPH) as part of his reservist duties.
The 28-year-old actor was in New Zealand for Exercise Thunder Warrior, a live firing exercise involving the howitzer.
He suffered compression injuries when the howitzer’s gun barrel was lowered. Pang underwent a number of surgeries to treat his injuries but died four days after the accident.
EVENTS LEADING TO INCIDENT
Revealing details leading up to the accident on Jan 19, Dr Ng said Pang and two other personnel were in the SSPH cabin to carry out repair works on the gun’s calibration system for accurate firing.
The other two were a Regular Armament Technician holding the rank of Military Expert (ME) 2 with more than 16 years in service, and an NSman Gun Detachment Commander holding the rank of Third Sergeant.
Dr Ng said Pang was part of the NSman forward maintenance platoon, which provides basic maintenance support.
If the repair works exceed the scope of the forward maintenance platoon, Dr Ng said more complex maintenance is performed by technicians from the second level of maintenance support, called the forward support group, made up of Regulars.
“In this particular incident, CFC (NS) Pang was first activated,” Dr Ng added. “But as he was unable to resolve the fault, CFC (NS) Pang requested and received the help of Regular technicians from the forward support group.”
The SSPH cabin, measuring 2.3m in height, 2.44m from front to rear, and 2.64m from side to side, is divided through the middle by the gun barrel, Dr Ng said. To carry out maintenance work, this barrel needs to be lowered.
In this position, “there is space” for those in the cabin to be in three “safe positions” on either side of the barrel, Dr Ng stated, referring to a diagram showing the positions of the gun commander, charge loader and ammo loader.
According to Dr Ng, there is space on the left of the barrel for the gun commander and charge loader measuring about 1.55m in width, while a space about 0.9m in width is available for the ammo loader on the right of the barrel.
“When the gun is lowered, the flick rammer at the rear end of the barrel goes up and ends about 10cm below the top rim of the cabin. Because of this, no one should be behind the barrel when gun is being lowered,” Dr Ng said.
“Unfortunately, CFC (NS) Pang was caught between the gun barrel and the interior of the SSPH as the gun barrel was lowered and sustained compression injuries to his chest and abdomen.”
Pang was treated on-site by an SAF medical officer before taken by helicopter to Waikato Hospital, a regional trauma centre. Surgeons there decided that he needed an operation to treat his injuries, Dr Ng said, adding that Pang was still conscious and speaking prior to the surgery.
“At the first operation, the surgical team found that a number of organs were damaged and treated them accordingly,” Dr Ng stated.
“After the first surgery, CFC (NS) Pang did not require any ventilation and his vital signs were stable. In fact, after the first surgery, he spoke with his mother who had been flown over to New Zealand.”
Dr Ng said surgeons then scheduled a “second-look” surgery for Pang on Jan 21 to ensure no further injury had developed, as compression injuries might only show up later after the initial injury.
“No further damage was discovered at the second look surgery, but despite this, CFC (NS) Pang’s condition subsequently deteriorated,” Dr Ng stated. “Despite being placed on artificial life support and further treatment, CFC (NS) Pang passed away.”
READ: ‘I am deeply sorry’: Ng Eng Hen on recent NS training deaths, vows accountability for every soldier
EXPERIENCE OF MAINTENANCE CREW
Pang, who had been trained to perform maintenance on the SSPH since he was a full-time national serviceman, was at Exercise Thunder Warrior for his seventh In-Camp Training (ICT), Dr Ng said.
Pang arrived in New Zealand on Jan 6 and started maintenance work from Jan 10. During the exercise, he was involved in the preparation of more than 10 SSPHs, which included servicing and maintaining the guns.
During his previous ICT in February 2018, Pang had attended a two-day refresher Maintenance Vocation Training on the basic functional checks and troubleshooting for the SSPH, including safety procedures related to gun movement, Dr Ng said.
Prior to his participation in this year’s Exercise Thunder Warrior, Pang had also undergone refresher training on maintenance tasks in New Zealand, Dr Ng added.
According to Dr Ng, the two other personnel who were in the cabin with Pang were “similarly qualified”.
The gun commander was on his eighth ICT and had undergone refresher training prior to this year’s exercise, while the Regular technician has eight years of working experience on the SSPH, and was on his sixth exercise participating as a technician.
"The ME2 Regular technician is overall in charge," Dr Ng said.
"For the repair work in this case, the maintenance manual indicates that it is the responsibility of the technician in charge to ensure that the gun has been lowered and fixed in place before any maintenance work can begin."
Dr Ng noted that the two other servicemen involved in this incident have been re-deployed from their operational roles.
“All three persons who were in the cabin in this incident had been trained specifically on the SSPH and had conducted similar maintenance on it in the past,” Dr Ng stated. “During the exercise, both CFC (NS) Pang and the Regular technician had conducted maintenance works on the guns daily.”
ADEQUACY OF SAFETY PROTOCOLS
As for the SSPH safety protocols, Dr Ng reiterated the steps personnel in the cabin have to take when moving the gun barrel in any maintenance work on the howitzer.
The Defence Ministry (MINDEF) highlighted these steps on Jan 30, noting that to lower the gun barrel, the gun commander has to visually check that the area surrounding the gun barrel is free from obstacles, and that the crew remain in safe operating positions.
The gun commander will then sound off “clear away” to warn the gun crew of the impending barrel movement, and shout “standby” before moving the barrel.
In an emergency situation requiring the gun barrel or other moving parts to stop immediately, any of the servicemen, except the driver, can activate an emergency stop button.
HOWITZER DESIGN FLAWS?
Following the incident, Dr Ng said the SAF inspected its SSPHs to ensure there was no systemic machine malfunction that would put other maintenance crews at risk.
“Inspections of the SSPH have not detected any machine malfunction of the gun lowering mechanism,” Dr Ng added, noting that it takes about nine seconds for the gun to be lowered to the horizontal position for maintenance.
The SSPH was also designed and developed to international military standards for system safety and human factor engineering, Dr Ng said. Other militaries which operate tracked 155mm guns with a similar gun lowering mechanism include the United States, South Korea and Germany.
Dr Ng added that the SSPH prototype platform had undergone “extensive trials and evaluations” from 2000 to 2002 before its introduction in 2003.
Echoing the MINDEF statement, Dr Ng stated that over the past 15 years, more than 1,000 NSmen and Regulars have been trained to operate the SSPH, with no reported injuries due to gun lowering for maintenance, operating or firing.
“WE OWE IT … TO ALL SINGAPOREANS”
With that, Dr Ng requested that everyone reserves their judgment and respects the ongoing investigation by the independent COI to determine what exactly happened. The findings will be presented in Parliament.
“Everything asked for by the COI will be released to them – I do not foresee needing to withhold any information for security reasons.”
“We owe it to CFC (NS) Pang and his family, indeed to all Singaporeans, to get to the bottom of what happened, and make things right, to ensure the safety of the NS training system as a whole.”