SHOALWATER BAY, Australia – The rhythmic sound of helicopter blades and heavy downwash rolled across an open field as wave after wave of soldiers emerged from Chinooks and headed towards nearby shrubbery.
This was the scene early on Saturday morning as the elite guards executed a cooperative mission between the Singapore army and air force during Exercise Wallaby at Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Queensland, Australia.
Among the troops was Captain Zara Nicole Toh who led her company out of the Chinooks and into the safety of the trees, as part of a series of missions they will be executing during the exercise, many of which are not possible in Singapore.
Speaking to reporters after landing, the 27-year-old commander of Charlie Company in the 3rd Battalion Singapore Guards, said: “Back home, you almost never get to see three Chinooks flying together like this.”
Exercise Wallaby is the Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) largest overseas exercise. Involving over 4,040 soldiers, the exercise has made a full-scale return since its cancellation in 2020 and a reduced run in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Captain Toh and roughly 120 of her men were airlifted by the new CH47-F Chinooks, a version of the chopper that was put into service in 2021.
The Chinooks, operating in waves of three, also dropped off vehicles slung under their bellies. In one wave, they were also supported by Apaches – the assault helicopters – flying by their side.
Captain Toh said: “The large training area here has allowed us to conduct more complex operations which need a higher level of coordination and cooperation.
“The heli-borne operation we just did really demonstrates that inter-service integration.”
One of the Apaches supporting the operation was flown by Captain Joash Heng, 33, who is also known by his call sign Kevlar.
Flying together in large “packages” of multiple aircraft is usually not possible in Singapore’s limited airspace, so training time during Exercise Wallaby is precious, he said.
The exercise’s air director, Colonel Teo Soo Yeow, said the airspace available in the Shoalwater Bay area is four times the size of Singapore, allowing the air force the opportunity to stretch the legs of its troops and capabilities.
The exercise is also precious as it allows the Apaches to do live firing, which is not possible in Singapore. Captain Heng said: “You can smell the gunpowder… the real conditions give you the adrenaline to get everything down on target.”
All this training was made possible only by a team of about 120 running the logistics behind the scenes, which include managing the food, transportation, hygiene and medical supplies for the over 4,000 troops. They are led by Major Benedict Cai.
Many of them arrived early and some will be leaving only after everyone else has finished their training, with some staying for up to 58 days in total, said Major Cai.
One of his troops is transport operator Lance Corporal Eli Hanif, 33, a national serviceman who is at Wallaby for the third time and serving his sixth cycle of national service.
Lance Cpl Hanif, a civil servant, said: “Sometimes transport can be seen as a bit of an underdog – but we move the army.”