SINGAPORE: A new Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) soldier performance centre has shown tangible results in reducing injury rates, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) said on Tuesday (Jun 19).
The Centre of Excellence for Soldier Performance (CESP), launched last December, uses science to boost soldiers’ performance and help them realise their full combat potential.
“In the seven units where pre-habilitation in the form of Vocation Fitness Training (VFT) and Rehabilitation at Unit (Rehab@Unit) were implemented, preliminary data show an approximate reduction of 30 per cent in soldier musculoskeletal injury rates,” MINDEF said.
The seven units refer to the five infantry and two Guards units, while the VFT and Rehab@Unit are two components of the CESP.
Chief of Defence Force Major-General (MG) Melvyn Ong said the CESP is in line with his vision of a “dynamic” SAF. MG Ong, who took the helm barely three months ago, was speaking in one of his first media interviews ahead of SAF Day on Jul 1.
“In terms of dynamic, because of the technologies that are coming online, we need to always be able to adapt,” he said. “CESP is meant to allow us to put the science into training, so that when we actually put you out there, we don’t just throw you in the deep end, but we prepare you for what you need to do for your task.”
VOCATION FITNESS TRAINING
One way the CESP prepares soldiers for specific tasks is through VFT, a new four-week training phase introduced after Basic Military Training to strengthen soldiers in vocation-specific combat fitness.
The VFT comprises four aspects: physical training like weightlifting, functional training like high-intensity intervals, combat training like casualty drags, and active recovery like aquatics.
For infantry soldiers who are required to walk long distances, their VFT involves drills that strengthen the lower back. For artillery soldiers that need to load heavy rounds, their VFT focuses on the upper body.
The CESP has implemented VFT for all Army combat units, and will complete implementation in combat support units, like the combat engineer and artillery units, by the end of this year.
All said, the VFT has shown results. According to qualitative data, soldiers who have taken part are showing 30 per cent more muscles in the right places, while deadlift capacity has also increased by 20 per cent.
Full-time national serviceman Private (PTE) Kugan Senivasan, a trooper with the 4th Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment, said the VFT helps “a lot in our infantry life”.
“VFT makes sure we actually use what we will be using for outfield,” the 18-year-old said after completing his virgin VFT circuit, which involved the lifting of field packs. “A lot of the exercises are catered to it.”
While PTE Kugan admitted he found the VFT challenging as it was the “most rigorous” form of training he’s had so far, he said its progressive and repetitive nature means it will eventually have “no kick”.
The VFT is also combined with dedicated recovery periods for soldiers so they perform their best during peak phases of unit training.
“The Vocation Fitness Training aims to better prepare our soldiers for subsequent combat training,” CESP head Senior Lieutenant Colonel (SLTC) Yee Kok Meng said. “Knowing the statistics, which is mostly back, knee and ankle injuries, we want to prepare them to minimise injury further on in their training system.”
According to MINDEF, studies show the three injuries form approximately 70 per cent of all musculoskeletal injuries sustained in SAF soldiers.
REHABILITATION AT UNIT
Rehab@Unit has also changed how soldiers recover from musculoskeletal injuries.
Unit commanders are taught how to recognise early signs of an injury, while the unit medical officer has “better access” to an SAF physiotherapist who can quickly assess the severity of an injury and initiate treatment.
“In addition, the SAF physiotherapist makes a monthly routine visit to the units,” MINDEF said. “This reduces waiting time for clinic referrals and injury diagnosis.”
The CESP has also provided rehab skills training for unit commanders, who can now support injured soldiers during rehabilitation.
“The current soldier-centric approach ensures the most efficient recovery for soldiers and is better able to prevent injury escalation and allow soldiers to return to training with reduced downtime, as compared to our past model of de-centralised care at diverse hospital rehabilitation clinics,” MINDEF explained.
Using real-life case studies to highlight the impact of Rehab@Unit, SLTC Yee said an infantry soldier who sustained a nerve injury that affected his shoulder muscles had his rehab time halved to three months.
This is because the soldier regularly participated in rehab sessions and learnt injury prevention techniques to avoid recurrence, SLTC Yee added. Previously, he could have been temporarily downgraded for six to 12 months.
Beyond managing injuries better, the CESP is also trying to improve soldier performance through the use of wearable technology.
The technology can monitor parameters like pulse rates, skin temperatures and sleep activity, information which could be harnessed to develop progressive training programmes for individual soldiers.
To that end, the CESP will monitor and consolidate individual parameters over time to provide a better indication of the physiological strain a soldier undergoes during training. With this information, the CESP can track training intensities and volume to reduce the risk of injury from over-training.
As for training safety, the information can also provide lead indicators for health hazards like fatigue and elevated body temperatures, allowing the SAF to intervene early and manage injury risks proactively.
“CESP is also exploring the feasibility of developing real-time monitoring systems, which applies data analytics to provide real-time alerts that will help commanders detect soldiers in distress and initiate an appropriate response,” MINDEF said.
While SLTC Yee acknowledged that real-time monitoring is not possible yet, he said it will become a reality as more data is gathered to determine safety benchmarks.
“When soldiers get injured, we can look back at the data and figure out where the training wasn't so good,” he added. “So with all this data, we can better fine-tune our training systems in a customised and safe manner.”
Starting about two months from now, 150 cadets from the Officer Cadet School will be the first to embark on a six-month trial of a wearable technology prototype, which is likely to be worn on the arm.
“SAF will then evaluate the extent and modality of implementation in its subsequent phase,” MINDEF said.
Still on the theme of improving soldier performance, the SAF also unveiled a new hybrid uniform that offers better comfort and heat dissipation. It is made up of the usual Number 4 uniform pixelated fabric and a high-performance fabric, which comprises a combination of flame resistant synthetic materials and aramid.
The uniform was conceptualised in 2011 for the Army and has undergone "extensive" trials, with input from agencies like the Defence Science Technology Agency and ST Logistics.
The high-performance fabric has a porous construction that allows for better air circulation, meaning it is 1.4 times as permeable as the Number 4 uniform. It also absorbs perspiration quickly and is 1.6 times as effective in drying.
The hybrid uniform is designed to be worn under the integrated load bearing vest during combat exercises and outfield activities. Soldiers will still be required to wear the Number 4 uniform for other routine activities.
The new uniform began rolling out in January to soldiers from the Army combat units, chosen for their physically-demanding missions, with equipping to be completed by the end of this year. Each soldier will receive two pieces of the uniform.
PTE Kugan said he feels a “genuine difference” wearing the hybrid uniform during strenuous training. “When you’re doing exercises, the Number 4 uniform drags on your body a lot, whereas this is rather smooth and comfortable.”