SINGAPORE: All was quiet at 10am on Wednesday (Jul 17) at the Murai Urban Training Facility, with its low-rise homes and shops that mirror the old neighbourhoods of Singapore.

But from a small corner of this urban military complex, bordered by tall trees and thick bushes, troops from Singapore and US slowly moved in.

This combined task force had a clear mission: Seize control of key buildings by neutralising the enemies that were hiding within.

Ex Tiger Balm commanders

Singapore’s Brigadier-General Lee Yi-Jin (left) and the US’ Colonel Stephen Logan speaking to each other on the sidelines of the exercise. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

This was part of the 39th Exercise Tiger Balm, involving about 766 soldiers from the 76th Singapore Infantry Brigade and 5th Battalion Singapore Infantry Regiment (5 SIR), and the US Army’s 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 2-130th Infantry Battalion and 1-23 Stryker platoon. The US soldiers made up about 40 per cent of the participants.

The annual exercise, first conducted in 1981, is the longest-running bilateral exercise between the Singapore and US armies. This year’s edition started on Jul 8 and runs until Jul 19.

Singapore’s Defence Ministry said in a media release on Wednesday that the exercise allows both armies to share tactics, techniques and procedures, and is proof of long-standing ties between the two armed forces.

“This is a very advanced urban training centre and we were fortunate to participate in exercises years past out here,” said Colonel (COL) Stephen Logan, chief of staff of the Hawaii Army National Guard, which deployed a platoon for the exercise.

“In the US, or at least in Hawaii where I’m from, we don’t have something as advanced as this. However, we do have something that’s pretty close at the National Training Centre (in California), but we don’t get to go there as often.”

As the combined task force first stormed a machinery shop and fired blank rounds, battlefield instruments tracked every movement and shot, giving commanders in an off-site command centre a bird’s eye view of troop locations and hits.

Ex Tiger Balm enemies

One of the enemies in the hotel was using a Matador, an anti-tank weapon. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

The enemies, soldiers from 5 SIR wearing red bands around their arms, responded by firing through tiny windows in occupied buildings across the road. From another enemy stronghold, rapid machine gun rounds provided more firepower.

Some of the fiercest fighting took place near a three-storey hotel, where at least five enemy soldiers camped out with only their rifle barrels poking through the windows.

Ex Tiger Balm Singapore Army

Friendly forces from the Singapore Army preparing to clear a room. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

“Enemy where?” one soldier in the hotel shouted to his comrade a floor below. Another soldier pointed to the left, where friendly forces were advancing across a grassy knoll under the cover of a smoke grenade. The enemies unleashed another barrage of rounds that thundered across the sprawling complex.

Ex Tiger Balm smoke grenade

US soldiers hidden by a smoke grenade. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Third Sergeant Harith Azman, 23, was one full-time national serviceman (NSF) who worked with the US troops to clear rooms across numerous buildings.

“They are really experienced; their clearing and drills were very smooth,” he said. “We did our part too. We secured some buildings and made suppressive fire.”

Ex Tiger Balm US Army soldier

A US soldier inside one of the rooms. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

This back-and-forth lasted past midday until the combined task force received reinforcements in the form of Singapore’s Terrex and US’ Stryker infantry vehicles.

Ex Tiger Balm Singapore and US Army

US soldiers dismounting a Stryker vehicle to provide support. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

US Army Sergeant (SGT) David Mayle, 24, was part of the Stryker platoon that was sent in to clear the hotel from the lowest floor upwards.

“They’re pretty good; pretty quick,” he said of his Singaporean counterparts, adding that the NSFs looked like they cared about their work and enjoyed it.

Once the fighting stopped, attention turned towards a simulated improvised explosive device found in one of the buildings.

Ex Tiger Balm Singapore US soldiers EOD

Singapore and US soldiers preparing to respond to an improvised explosive device. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

For the first time, an integrated explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team from the Singapore Army’s 36th Battalion Singapore Combat Engineers and the US Army’s 303rd EOD Battalion planned and coordinated a response as part of this exercise.

Ex Tiger Balm ordnance disposal

Explosive ordnance disposal personnel from both armed forces helping a team member put on protective gear. (Photo: Jeremy Long) 

Both sets of troops worked together to prepare a protective suit and helmet, while a US soldier piloted a robotic detonator into the building.

EXCHANGING JUNGLE AND WARTIME EXPERIENCES

But it was not all urban fighting. The US soldiers had also attended a jungle survival course, where they learnt from Singapore soldiers about plants and how to skin animals for food. 

Ex Tiger Balm enemy troops

Enemy troops moving across grassy terrain. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

“Any time that we can train in a new environment that adds a unique experience, whether that be mountains or in a jungle, such as here in Singapore, it’s just more tools that our guys can put in a toolbox and be more capable moving forward,” said US Army Captain (CPT) Edward Worman, 32, from the 2-130th Infantry Battalion.

This exchange of skills goes both ways with the US soldiers bringing their experience of being deployed in real-life conflict scenarios.

Ex Tiger Balm Singapore troops

Singapore soldiers said they welcomed training with their US counterparts who brought with them valuable wartime experience. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

CPT Scott Ang, officer commanding of Bravo Company at 5 SIR, recalled a Stryker platoon leader saying they have at least 100 years of wartime experience among them.

“They not only share what they know, in terms of the things that the US Army has developed, but they share a lot of their personal experiences, their own war stories,” the 26-year-old said. 

“That has been an incredibly enriching experience for me, especially as a regular in the Singapore Armed Forces.”

OF HUMIDITY AND DURIANS

Still, both armies said they face some challenges working together, not least the slightly different terms and tactics they use during urban operations.

Some US soldiers also said they faced difficulties with the stifling humidity, but overcame that by conducting acclimatisation exercises and wearing cooler combat uniforms.

Ex Tiger Balm US Army soldiers advancing

US soldiers advancing to another building. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Nevertheless, Brigadier-General Lee Yi-Jin, commander 6 Division, which covers 5 SIR, said both armies never fail to turn up for this exercise each year.

“We have an excellent relationship, very warm,” he said. 

“It’s built on professionalism, mutual trust and shared perspectives on many issues. We don’t take it for granted. I think both sides have shown that they’re very committed to this relationship.”

Ex Tiger Balm US and Singapore friendship

Singapore and US soldiers discussing their response to an improvised explosive device scenario. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

So committed that a number of US soldiers even tried some things Singapore. Over the past few days, SGT Mayle said he has visited a beach in Singapore – which he described as “nice” – and tasted fruits like the durian – which he called “gross”.

“We have built some lifelong friendships here,” COL Logan added. “I think the hardest part for the US forces will be when they have to board the plane.”