SINGAPORE: A plethora of gauges, indicators and buttons loomed menacingly on the panels in front of me.
With Military Expert (ME) 2 Ho Kwan Wei looking over my shoulder, I gripped the helm - or steering wheel - to my untrained eye with one sweaty palm, and eased the hydroplane control lever with another.
Get this right, and I could already visualise a 60.5m-long vessel smoothly descending the tropical waters of the Singapore Strait. Get it wrong and I could ground a 1,500 tonne behemoth.
The vessel began a gentle lurch downward as I attempted to reach the target depth. ME2 Ho rattled off a series of instructions - I'd have to keep my eye on the gauges and indicators, as well as manage both the helm and the hydroplane control lever, to ensure that the submarine would reach the right course and depth.
30, 50 and eventually 60 - the yellow digits which flashed the submarine's actual depth reminded me of just how out of my own depth I was.
"I think we need to increase the depth for him," ME2 Ho eventually said, as I cracked an embarrassed smile. A few more seconds and I probably would have hit the seabed.
It's just as well that I am not on an actual submarine, but starting off slow with the Submarine Steering and Diving Trainer (SSDT) at the Republic of Singapore Navy's (RSN) submarine training centre at Changi Naval Base.
One of the two SSDTs at the training centre, the simulator provides the crew with training in steering and controlling a submarine, emergency drills as well as co-ordination between crew members in the steering and diving section.
This particular SSDT replicates the steering control console one of the RSN’s Archer class submarines, while the other is used to mimic the console of one of the RSN’s Challenger class submarines.
While reporters gave the SSDT a go - to varying degrees of success - a three-man crew of ME2 Ho, ME4 Kelvin Kwok and Captain (CPT) Gabriel Tang executed a series of drills flawlessly.
Before sending the simulator into a dive, ME4 Kwok, responsible for the diving console located behind steering controls, opened up the ballast tank to take in water, ensuring the submarine could submerge.
Working in tandem with him, ME2 Ho then steered the submarine to the required course and depth. Unlike me, he kept to the set depth - not a metre more or less.
Ordered to perform a course change by CPT Tang, the officer of the watch, ME2 Ho, turned the submarine at speed, maintaining its required depth with meticulous precision.
As fire breaks out in the control room - another scenario this three-man crew have to battle through - movements remained clockwork.
Darkened masks which simulate the poor visibility due to smoke are donned and ME4 Kwok finds his buttons on the console with nimble fingers, following the proper sequence to react in this emergency situation.
The submarine submerges, crisis averted.
Named after one of the navy's Challenger-class submarines, the RSS Challenger submarine training centre was launched in 2015. It is a one-stop facility to conduct training for submariners and also features simulators like the SSDT.
In another room, submariners are being put through their paces on the Submarine Combat Tactical Trainer. This simulator consists of analysis, surveillance, command and control as well as weapon control consoles.
Submariners train here at an individual, cluster and team levels, and learn how to track the movements of vessels above the surface, determine the characteristics of these vessels as well as come up with possible solutions.
WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A SUBMARINER
Not everybody can be part of this elite group – would-be submariners are put through a stringent selection process where they are subjected to cognitive and psychological type tests.
"Navigating on the surface is a lot different from navigating underwater," said Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Fong Chi Onn, commanding officer of the RSS Swordsman. "Learning to drive a ship - you only have two dimensions of travel. Driving a submarine, you have an additional third dimension, which is the underwater dimension."
On top of having possessing the requisite cognitive abilities, would-be submariners cannot be claustrophobic. They also have to pass physical tests - for one, would-be submariners also cannot be asthmatic.
"Submarines are a very complex and psychologically demanding environment to work in. We work and we live in very tight, confined spaces on board," said LTC Fong. "In totality of the living space on board is less than that of a three-room HDB (Housing Development Board) flat and you've got 28 people who move in day in day out, working and living in the same space. So personal space is at a premium.
"When we deployed for days and even weeks on end, sometimes we can lose track of day and we can lose track of night …. we rely on equipment to tell us what time it is."
Those who pass the selection process will then be put through nine months of training. There are various checkpoints interspersed throughout, and individuals who are unable to perform up to standard are cut.
The training ends with a "Deep Dive" test, where would-be submariners are subjected to intense mental and physical stresses under controlled conditions.
For example, trainees are put through a series of physical tests on board, such as the "Blind Man's Walk", where they have to move along the submarine blindfolded, locating key equipment along the way.
"Teamwork is important, we go through a very stringent series of assessments and tests to qualify to become a submariner but we don't just need capable and intelligent people. We need strong, capable people who can form then strong teams and work together as one," said LTC Fong.
Becoming a submariner also means time spent away from loved ones.
"We don't have the luxury of picking up a mobile phone and calling back home to see how things are. We don't have the luxury of going on the internet and sending an email back to see how things are happening back home as well," LTC Fong said. "It's quite challenging to keep in touch with family back at home.
"Our families have to be strong with the knowledge that we are out there doing what we need to do."
While interpersonal relationships can be often strained, the time spent together often helps submariners build strong friendships, said LTC Fong.
"It's definitely testing on interpersonal relationships, but on the boat as well we also build and forge very strong friendships - with me and my crew … we have grown such a strong understanding that sometimes when I give an order I don't even have verbally have to say it - I just look in the direction, give him nod and he understands what I need and I understand what he wants."
"So the strength and bond that we have as submariners, the camaraderie, is extremely strong."
NEW YEAR, NEW SUB
The RSN's submarine fleet has grown from strength to strength. It acquired its first vessel, a Sjoormen-class submarine from the Royal Swedish Navy in 1995. This was quickly followed by three more of such submarines two years later.
After undergoing tropicalisation, these vessels, which were built in the 1960s, were launched as the RSN's Challenger class submarines.
Two Vastergotland class submarines were the next to be acquired in 2005 and were launched as the RSN's Archer class.
The new kid on the block will be the Type 218SG submarine, a submarine made for Singapore from scratch. The RSN has purchased four of the German manufactured Type 218SGs - the first of which will be launched in Germany on Monday (Feb 18).
The Type 218SGs boast a modern combat system with an improved sonar which listens to sounds like propeller noises and water flow, locates enemies faster and identifies them more accurately. Another improvement is the Type 218SG’s air-independent propulsion (AIP) system, which allows it to last underwater two times longer than RSN’s current submarines.
The Type 218SGs, which are slated for delivery from 2021 after going through intensive testing, and will eventually replace the Challenger and Archer class submarines.
As the RSN gradually transitions to the new platform, new challenges will await the submariners of the RSN’s 171 Squadron. But they remain confident in charting the new course.
"It is definitely a challenging job and it is not easy by far,” said LTC Fong, who along with his crew participated in the Singapore-India Maritime Bilateral Exercise in November last year. “But it is also fulfilling and it's also one of the rare things that not many people get to do.”