They had aspired to be fighter pilots, but medical conditions prevented them from making the cut. Disappointed, Ms Sheena Ng and Mr Keith Lin settled for what they initially thought was second-best: Working with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Three years on, the pair are part of the 70-strong team behind the Heron 1 UAV making its debut in Exercise Forging Sabre, Singapore’s largest and most complex war games played out in the Arizona desert. And they have come to appreciate that remotely piloting drones over a battlefield is no child’s play.
As an air imagery intelligence expert, Mr Lin, 24, who holds the rank of Military Expert 1 (ME1), analyses images collected by the drone and shares the findings with the Command Post. “We need to work under great time pressure … it is visually and mentally very intense,” he said.
Part of the drone’s task is to spot potential targets, and some tell-tale signs include exhaust fumes or heat emitting from metallic objects. The task is often complicated by targets being camouflaged and when weather conditions render infrared signatures of two different objects indistinguishable. Inaugurated into the Republic of Singapore Air Force in 2012, the Heron 1 can stay in the air for more than 24 hours — three times longer than its predecessor, the Searcher UAV. It can also fly at twice the altitude and range, at about 6.1km and 200km, respectively.
Ms Ng, 25, who holds the rank of Lieutenant (LTA), serves as a co-pilot who flies the Heron 1 from a ground control station housed in a sand-coloured trailer. While her pilot-in-command coordinates proceedings with other parties in the mission, such as the Command Post, LTA Ng controls the aircraft using a remote console and monitors it via digital screens. The pilots are also trained to look out for and troubleshoot possible mishaps.
Besides surveillance, the Heron 1 is also used - for the first time in the biennial Exercise Forging Sabre - to track targets using laser beams, so that fighter jets and attack helicopters can take out multiple opponents at one go.
This multiplies the firepower of a conventional attack where each fighter aircraft can only track and launch one attack at a time, despite its ability to carry multiple munitions.
Said Captain Sivaraj Arumugam, 29, who flies an F-15SG fighter jet: “(If) you have an additional two UAVs, there are another two bombs that can be assigned to the target to destroy (it). So now, we have enhanced (the attack) and made it more efficient in a single pass.”
With the Heron 1 tracking the targets, aircraft such as the Apache helicopters can fly at lower altitudes and launch missiles while under cover, without having to elevate themselves and potentially exposing themselves to the enemy.
After each attack, the Heron 1 also assesses the damage caused to each target. The analyses are conveyed to the Command Post, which then decides if another attack is required.
Heron 1 flight commander Major (MAJ) Collin Tan, who participated in the second Exercise Forging Sabre in 2009 as a pilot for the Searcher UAV, said this instalment has been made more complex with the introduction of multiple moving targets. One of the Heron 1’s greatest challenges is to provide a continuous flow of information in real time. “We need to constantly update where the target is moving so that the fighters are able to drop their weapons accurately to destroy the target,” he said.
The SAF’s use of UAVs is growing at an “unprecedented rate” and the number of pilots required has increased, said MAJ Tan, adding that the Heron 1 is on track to attaining Full Operational Capability status “early next year”. The RSAF presently has three UAV squadrons and runs a UAV Training School.