Small groups behind enemy lines: How training during COVID-19 actually helps SAF Commandos
But the elite battalion is concerned the ongoing suspension of Basic Military Training could hurt its ability to maintain sufficient numbers.
SINGAPORE: Like many elite forces, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Commandos are trained to operate in small groups behind enemy lines.
In hostile territory, they specialise in raids and reconnaissance, and can advance via the air, land or sea.
So when the COVID-19 "circuit breaker" measures infiltrated everyday life in Singapore, including training in military camps, the Commandos saw the challenge as an opportunity.
The red berets, used to training at a mass company level, now have to perform in smaller functional groups at the detachment level. Exact group sizes are not disclosed to protect operational security.
This is similar to the now-standard practice of "cohorting" in many organisations, where employees are split into smaller groups that cannot mix to minimise the risk of widespread infection.
"Ideally, we want to train at the company and battalion level," 1st Commando Battalion commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel (LTC) Fabian Pwi, 37, told reporters via a video conference on Wednesday (May 6).
"But part of the commandos' mission is to operate behind enemy lines in a very decentralised fashion. This means that a lot of training must go into small-unit leadership, small-unit independence and being able to survive as a small unit.
"The smallest unit we fight in is at a detachment level, so we see it as an opportunity to build stronger detachments."
This comes at an especially crucial time, as the battalion is manning the Army Standby Force. This force, rotated among different Army units in the SAF, is on standby 24/7 to respond to internal and external threats, including civil unrest or a flat-out attack.
The Commandos can conduct search and cordon to support homeland security, and "defend Singapore's peace and security" against external aggressors, LTC Pwi said.
One benefit of training during COVID-19, LTC Pwi said, is that it has instilled more responsibility and discipline among commanders and their men.
Detachment commanders are enforcing basic measures like safe distancing and the washing of hands, encouraging charges to take these things seriously.
"It allows detachment commanders to have a lot more voice in how they govern their detachments," LTC Pwi said.
Since briefings cannot be done at the battalion or company level, LTC Pwi said commanders must improve their communication down the chain of command so the message doesn't get diluted.
"Our key emphasis at this time is focusing on the quality of transmission when it comes to cascading our messages down to the last man," he said.
These measures also push the Commandos, so used to the concept of teamwork and tight bonds, out of their comfort zone.
"Being in 1st Commando Battalion, where it’s a lot emphasis on camaraderie, helping out one another and buddy safety, to ask us to maintain a social distance from our fellow soldiers is something very awkward," LTC Pwi added.
"I've seen soldiers demonstrating some degree of maturity to not just demand this kind of awkward and uncomfortable actions from themselves, but also pick up the leadership role of highlighting if their peers are forgetful."
Detachment commander Third Sergeant (3SG) Carvalho Antonio Pottier Mohammad Fakhri, 21, said spending more time confined to the same small group has given more meaning to training.
"Training is a little bit more fulfilling because you’re with this group of people for a prolonged time, so you understand them better," he said. "When you go through hardship with them, you really feel like a true band of brothers."
A STICKING POINT
But it is not all rosy for the Commandos.
LTC Pwi said the battalion, largely staffed by full-time national servicemen (NSF), is concerned the ongoing suspension of Basic Military Training (BMT) could deplete its manpower as more batches hit their operationally ready date (ORD).
The SAF announced on Apr 6 that it would suspend BMT in line with the circuit breaker, concluding "there would be little impact on operations as active units would be able to provide cover".
Recruits would continue BMT at home and be given home-based instructional material on basic skills and fitness development. The circuit breaker has since been extended to Jun 1.
LTC Pwi said the battalion, whose next BMT intake is in June or July, has not gone into home-based learning as it conducts physical training that focuses on building team coordination at detachment and company level.
While LTC Pwi said the staffing is fine for now – a new batch that turned operational three weeks ago has replaced the outgoing batch that ORD-ed on Tuesday – there remains uncertainty around when the circuit breaker could be lifted.
"With the suspension of BMT, in the long-term approach it does affect our generation," he said.
"While there’s COVID-19, some services can come to a standstill. But my main concern is when it comes to defence, the clock doesn’t stop.
"So in terms of generation, we will need to maintain a coherent-sized force to be able to achieve the mission that is passed on to us by the Army."
Nevertheless, LTC Pwi said the battalion will wait to see how the pandemic unfolds and take a cue from higher up the command structure.
"We have highlighted our concerns for force generation and the need to replace forces that will ORD," he added.
"Largely we are still waiting for the higher command to balance the trade-off – whether we need to compromise a little bit about how we train BMT back at home, or go ahead with a full intake."
On the ground, COVID-19 measures also mean training sessions are taking longer than usual. Briefings are done multiple times in smaller groups. Equipment needs to be cleaned before being passed on.
"After one detachment has used the obstacle course, it has to sanitise each obstacle before the next detachment can use it," detachment commander 3SG Varatharajan Ramkumar Rohan, 22, said.
But the soldiers are taking it in stride. 3SG Carvalho said birthdays are now celebrated by shouting birthday songs from one bunk to another.
"Times have changed," he said. "Simple things like celebrating birthdays, we usually gathered in common areas. We can’t gather in such big groups now."
When the ORD parade was cancelled, LTC Pwi said "there was very little lamenting" even though it is a proud moment when NSFs wear their smart Number 1 uniforms in front of watching parents.
In fact, the batch that was going to ORD even volunteered to stand in for the incoming batch during the initial weeks of standby duty as the latter completed its training.
This happened two weeks before their ORD date, when servicemen would usually be clearing leave or having downtime.
3SG Varatharajan said his parents understood the need for him to continue training during the pandemic after he explained all the safety measures in place.
"Training has to go on because it contributes to Singapore's safety," he added. "That's what makes my parents proud of what I'm doing."