ROCKHAMPTON, Australia: An elephantine structure looms on a horizon of aquamarine waters off Freshwater Bay in the Shoalwater Bay Training Area of Queensland, Australia.
From a distance, it appears to birth tiny, fast-moving specks.
In a matter of minutes, the specks grow into nimble boats making a beeline for the sandy shores. One of them has a 5-tonner vehicle on board. Another is packed with troops.
The fast crafts have just forged a path from the RSS Resolution – the Republic of Singapore Navy’s (RSN) landing ship tank – across the choppy waters of Freshwater Bay and to the shore, where the first troops pour onto the sand.
In 10 minutes, the troops commandeer a 300m stretch of the beach, setting up five lanes for the next wave of vessels to land.
Out at sea, 10 Fast Craft Utility (FCU) and Fast Craft Equipment and Personnel (FCEP) vessels zip across the bay, delivering a battalion of troops and about 15 vehicles methodically, arriving at designated lanes with the help of marshals on the beach.
The troops are rehearsing for the finale of Exercise Trident on Saturday (Nov 10), a gripping show of helicopter and ship-to-shore operations involving Singapore’s air force, navy and army, and the Australian Defence Force (ADF).
Participants have spent more than a week acclimatising to fickle weather and unpredictable waves to pull this off.
A bout of wildfire-induced haze had marred visibility just days earlier, scuppering a planned media flight to the RSS Resolution.
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Head of RSN's Command Task Group Lieutenant-Colonel (LTC) Kenny Chen – who conceptualised the inaugural Exercise Trident in 2013 – believes the buffeting elements that troops had to contend with has made for good training.
“Sea conditions can be very challenging. It can be very choppy," said LTC Chen, speaking to reporters on board the RSS Resolution.
"The winds can pick up a fair bit. Even for the helicopters sometimes, when they plan to fly, it might not happen. Almost every day, we have to change our plans on the fly."
He added: "But we have very good communications with all three services and we are able to change plans and execute it the next day to make it happen."
For fast craft coxswain Corporal First-Class (CFC) Kirk D’Souza, dealing with the volatile elements while ensuring the safety of everyone on board is all part of the job.
“The conditions here are different from Singapore and the past few days of training has introduced us to that," said the 25-year-old.
"So before mission day, we had a couple of training days out to acclimatise to sea conditions and the rain."
Other than carrying out commands conveyed by the RSS Resolution, CFC D’Souza, who is on his first overseas deployment, also has to dock in the designated lanes.
“There are no physical markings to the lanes, so we just have to follow the map that we have," he said.
"It takes time, it takes skill and you have to sort of gauge through practice and training in relation to other crafts and in relation to the beach as well."
The shore exercise requires a 300m beach profile for troops and vehicles to disembark comfortably and despite the ever-changing conditions, LTC Chen relishes the chance to train here.
“We do most of our ship-to-shore training in Singapore, in local waters, he said. "But it is not ideal because we don’t have a beachfront available for amphibious ship-to-shore operations."
He added: “Waters in Singapore are also very congested with many ships around, so to deploy craft in water to run the profile we want, is very challenging in Singapore.
"But over here … it’s a huge sea space and beachfront and we can really do what we need to do for our training.”
The Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Queensland is about four times the size of Singapore and allows the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) plenty of space to do drills for various scenarios.
For instance, the shore party – which is made up of army personnel – has been getting accustomed to training on water.
Said 28-year-old Captain (CPT) Kieran Yeo, Shore Party Officer Commanding: “The weather here is very different from Singapore – sometimes it can be quite cold. Usually in Singapore, we are used to training on land. Sometimes the sea state can cause sea sickness too.”
Beachmaster CPT Brandon Chee, 38, works with CPT Yeo to oversee movement of troops and vehicles onto the beach from the ship to shore.
A beachmaster is an officer in charge of the disembarkation phase during an amphibious assault.
“The most challenging aspect of the role I play is that the movement of vehicles and troops have to be moved orderly and safely,” he said.
Exercise Trident, which is part of SAF's annual Exercise Wallaby, has been in full swing since an army-wide safety timeout – called following the death of a full-time national serviceman in a vehicular accident - was lifted on Thursday.
In the finale of the exercise, the ship-to-shore operation will be jointly executed by hundreds of SAF and ADF troops on Saturday and will enlist the help of the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s CH-47D Chinook and AS332 Super Puma helicopters.