NSmen fill every post on some warships

NSmen who are former regulars in the Republic of Singapore Navy on board RSS Vigilance during their in-camp training. -- PHOTO: MINDEF
NSmen who are former regulars in the Republic of Singapore Navy on board RSS Vigilance during their in-camp training. -- PHOTO: MINDEF

Ex-regulars keep navy's capabilities sharp as manpower crunch looms

FROM the captain to the gunner, the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) has become one of the few sea forces in the world to deploy reservist servicemen to fill every post on some of its warships.

These operationally ready national servicemen (NSmen) are former regulars who left the navy but are now being called back to the fleet to be retrained to operate missile corvettes.

Previously, the crew of such ships were made up mainly of regulars and a handful of full-time national servicemen (NSF).

The US and Canadian navies are among the few with warships wholly manned by reservists.

The Straits Times learnt that the RSN began training reservists for naval duties in the middle of last year. So far, more than 100 are qualified to fully and independently operate the ships.

Faced with a looming manpower crunch, having NSmen man warships will help the RSN continue to sharpen its defence capabilities. The army is the only other branch of service in the Singapore Armed Forces that has units run fully by NSmen.

The Defence Ministry confirmed the move, saying that NSmen with relevant shipboard experience make up two teams that operate the RSN's missile corvettes "fully and independently".

Rear-Admiral Timothy Lo, who heads the naval operations department, said former regulars have "a great deal of operational and technical knowledge and experience" that can be tapped by the SAF.

He added that this will also allow those who get called up to "contribute at a higher level and find their NS experience and in-camp training more meaningful and interesting".

The NSmen go through a structured training programme to learn to operate the current fleet of missile corvettes that were recently upgraded and fitted with an unmanned aerial vehicle system and enhanced sensors for better surveillance.

They will have to meet the same standards as regular servicemen.

Under the RSN's scheme, NSmen are called up for in-camp training for up to 14 days a year to go through shore-based drills that will familiarise them with manoeuvring the ship.

They will also go out to sea for exercises, including naval drills with other countries, such as the US-hosted Rim of the Pacific Exercise (Rimpac).

Lieutenant-Colonel (NS) Kelvin Lim, commanding officer of RSS Vigilance, left the navy after 15 years to work in the government-linked Agency for Integrated Care.

The reservist told The Straits Times: "Initially, my officers and I did not know for certain whether our crew had retained sufficient skills to be effective.

"We knew we had to put in effort to ensure that we could keep ourselves and our ship crew safe during drills.

"By the end of the in-camp training, the crew that I took out to sea was one that I had full confidence in."

Dr Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (Asia), said: "Having additional manpower will allow the navy to maintain its operational readiness while giving crews proper rest.

"With competing industries in the economy, it will get more difficult to recruit more career sailors. It makes sense to tap the past experience of former regulars and just give them refresher training."

jermync@sph.com.sg