ROCKHAMPTON, Australia: “Brace, brace, brace!” The muffled chants rose from two lines of soldiers on benches in the middle of a dusty clearing. All of them had their heads bent over their knees, their rifles between their legs.
Seconds earlier, the troops’ commander had declared an emergency on board the “helicopter” they were in, forcing the soldiers to assume the safety position.
The soldiers at Shoalwater Bay’s Camp Growl were rehearsing a simulated drill for boarding and disembarking from aircraft for live heli-troop lifts, but these safety drills had not been on the agenda for Tuesday morning (Nov 6).
The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) soldiers were supposed to have been involved in urban operations with the Australian Defence Force (ADF) as part of Exercise Trident, a joint bilateral exercise.
However, due to the army-wide safety timeout that was put in place after the death of full-time national serviceman (NSF) Liu Kai in Singapore, all training has been halted, including bilateral exercises overseas.
Corporal First Class (CFC) Liu Kai died on Saturday after a Bionix armoured vehicle reversed into his Land Rover during a field exercise at the Jalan Murai training area.
In Rockhampton, more than 5,000km away, the troops’ focus during this period has shifted to bolstering safety measures.
For example, the troops involved in Exercise Trident have been rehearsing how to get on and off helicopters safely, and the actions to take before and after embarking.
Commanders and soldiers in Shoalwater Bay have also been re-examining and rehearsing the safety precautions of high-risk training activities such as ship-to-shore operations, driving long distances on dusty roads as well as heat injuries.
Col Xu You Feng, Commander of the 7th Singapore Infantry Brigade (SIB) said that once the timeout was called, they regrouped and brainstormed how to further enhance training safety.
“I think some of the ideas that have actually surfaced from the ground … we have simple innovation from the soldiers to mitigate training risks that they face,” he told reporters at Camp Growl on Tuesday (Nov 6).
“For example, we have certain combat driving drills for combat vehicles. For this exercise, there are no combat vehicles involved, but we thought that those drills are good and we even applied that to our administrative vehicles as well. So the administrative transport operators would also execute the same drills as what we do ordinarily for only combat drivers,” Col Xu said.
Agreeing that it was a good suggestion that would be implemented after the safety review, the commander also cited feedback on the ground about preventing dust clouds while driving.
“Dust clouds are a very unique challenge in operating in Shoalwater Bay, so some of the transport operators have suggested some improvised mud guards, for example, to be attached to the vehicles to reduce or minimise the dust clouds. This is something we are trying out, that was surfaced to us,” he added.
The commander emphasised that safety “has always been a key focus” for Exercise Trident, even before the timeout was imposed, due to its inherently complex exercises and setting in an unfamiliar terrain and climate.
“The safety timeout to us this year is a sobering reminder of the importance of our safety training framework,” he said.
He added that, ultimately, the safety timeout has given them the chance to be more deliberate in their rehearsals and that they have been engaged in an expanded suite of drills.
“Usually we would have just taught them the drills but since we have time, we took this time also to teach and explain to them the rationale behind some of the drills. This is something that we ordinarily would not have done.”
He added: “One of the important points I want to raise is that we remain confident of our training safety and we will not let incidents like this hold us back from conducting tough and realistic training albeit in a safe way.
“So when (Exercise) Trident resumes - we know that Exercise Trident is a very important training opportunity - you won’t find us walking on eggshells.
"We will be cautious, we will be careful, but we will still try to maximise the training opportunities – not just for the army, but for the Air Force and the Navy as well.”
The troops will resume training on Thursday after the safety timeout is lifted.