The Defence Science Maverick

Professor Lui Pao Chuen, Singapore’s ex-chief defence scientist, took one for the team, literally—he once got hit in the arm with shrapnel from an exploding bullet while testing equipment for the military.

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AsianScientist (Mar. 23, 2016) – When armies store explosives, it is in heavily-secured ammunition dumps equipped with blast barriers, vast buffer zones and other safety measures. In 2000, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was so impressed by Singapore’s R&D in ammunition storage that NATO incorporated the findings, sparking a revision of international safety standards.

Singapore’s efforts effectively made ammunition dumps around the world more compact and space-saving than ever before. But how is it that a tiny country in South-east Asia, which has never expended a single round on a battlefield, could become a guide for a war-seasoned region 10,000 km away?

All this is the result of a calculated risk by one man: Lui Pao Chuen, adjunct professor of industrial and systems engineering at the National University of Singapore, and Singapore’s chief defence scientist from 1986 to 2008.

Going under

In an effort to free up land for residential and industrial use, in 1994 Singapore’s urban planners asked the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) to move its ammunition storage site, a British colonial vestige, out of Seletar East. The 100-hectare site crippled land usage far beyond its own boundary—nothing could be built for 300 hectares around it, while buildings for 800 hectares around could not have large glazed windows in case of an explosion.

MINDEF tasked Professor Lui with finding an alternative site. He thought of moving the dump underground at a disused granite quarry. One at Mandai appeared the most feasible. The quarry had already been dug out, providing easy access; it was not being used for anything else, and any potential blasts would be shielded by solid rock.

There was just one problem: the existing safety codes, which had been developed for rural mining in an earlier era, did not adequately address ground shock—specifically, the impact of an accidental blast on surrounding high-rise concrete buildings. Singapore thus had to begin developing its own safety models.

“That motivated me to go back to the fundamentals,” says Professor Lui, who studied physics as an undergraduate at the University of Singapore.

He soon discovered a simplification in the formula used to determine safety distance in the current ammunition storage standards. When 20 ammunition pallets are placed together, for instance, conventional explosion models regarded them as a single large mass.

“But in a realistic storage configuration, they behave more like 20 smaller masses,” explains Professor Lui. “The peak pressure from an explosion would be much lower than if they were a single mass.”

To develop and test the models, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) gathered local and international experts from as far as Norway and the US. The team tested explosions of up to ten metric tonnes of ammunition in varying terrains, including the harsh deserts of New Mexico and the snowy landscapes of Sweden.

Work at the Mandai quarry began in 1999, and the underground ammunition facility was officially commissioned in 2008. It is recognised as the world’s most urban and compact ammunition dump for its large capacity.

Building the underground facility, a world first for such an urbanised area, “created a different mindset—that we dare, that we believe in our physics,” Professor Lui says. Moving the ammunition facility from Seletar to Mandai has freed up about 300 hectares of land, or an area half the size of Pasir Ris New Town.

Moreover, as with water purification, a resource shortage—land, in this case—had spurred
Singapore to innovate, in the process setting new global standards.

“The top expert from Norway sponsored Singapore to become a member of the NATO underground storage working group,” says Professor Lui. “The international experts participated in our tests and were satisfied with the scientific evidence that we had used to determine our safety codes and gladly accepted them. That’s how Singapore’s safety codes became international codes.”

Hairy escapes

Professor Lui’s journey from young physics graduate to chief defence scientist was, in his opinion, fortuitous. In 1966, the 22-year-old was working for a British science research body—part of the country’s lingering presence in Singapore in the immediate post-independence period—capturing radio signals from a satellite that orbited Earth.

A former classmate who was helping develop Singapore’s nascent defence industry informed Professor Lui that the military needed technical personnel.

“I went to see the director of logistics at the MINDEF headquarters on Pearl’s Hill. In the organisation chart of the logistics division there was a section called Test, Evaluation and Acceptance and I would be the officer-in-charge. I asked: ‘What do I do?’ ‘Everything we buy, you test,’ he said.”

Professor Lui soon had a personal hand in almost all new military supply. Consider uniforms.

“We couldn’t use the Western sizes, so the tailor measured me and we decided I was a medium. So whenever I went to the store and drew a uniform, it was a perfect fit,” he says. (Sizing charts have since been reassessed for today’s better-nourished soldiers.)

He grew similarly acquainted with bullets for the AR15 assault rifle.

“When the first batch was ready, I tested it and bang! A bullet exploded. They had put too much charge in the casing… bits of brass embedded in my arm were quickly removed.”

Later that year, the British shocked many when they announced that they would withdraw their military presence from Singapore by the middle of 1968. As the SAF rushed to mechanise with tanks, artillery, new aircraft and ships, Professor Lui was caught up in the resulting scramble.

“The jump from infantry force to armoured force was actually a consequence of… the withdrawal of the British,” he says.

As project director for the SAF’s first armoured vehicle, Professor Lui was placed in some precarious positions. One narrow escape was while he was testing an armoured vehicle for amphibious use in the Jurong River. The driver had his hatch open, as per testing procedure, but Professor Lui, up in the turret, saw the vehicle tilting nose-down when it entered the river.

“I went down to tap the driver on the shoulder to close the hatch and bring the vehicle up, and at that moment, I saw a wall of water,” says Professor Lui. “It struck me, and I didn’t have a helmet on so my head hit the turret basket, which knocked me out. I was unconscious for two minutes.”

Although the driver floated up, Professor Lui was trapped inside the vehicle, which had gone down sideways in the water.

“When I came to, my first thought was: ‘If I don’t find my way out, my son will have no father’,” he says.

Fortunately he managed to escape through one of the vehicle’s side doors. From that point on, he conducted all water training with a scuba diver in attendance.

In 1973, he returned from a two-year stint at the US Naval Postgraduate School with a master’s degree in operations research and systems analysis. At the time, the amount of engineering work at MINDEF had dipped, and the engineers there were farmed out to the rapidly expanding commercial defence industry, and to places like the Public Works Department. That era marked the growth of the Chartered Industries of Singapore, which was producing weapons, ammunition and other equipment, and of defence firms like Unicorn International.

But by 1980, Professor Lui says, “it was very clear that we were spending a lot on defence, but the engineering capacity was inadequate to support that level of capital expenditure.” Compared to Israel or Sweden, Singapore had a sixth of the engineers per dollar of military spending.

“Either we were six times as smart, or we were doing only a sixth of what they were doing.”

He presented the finding to Goh Chok Tong, then the defence minister, to lobby for more engineers, to maintain equipment, test it, and write the software for it.

Three decades on, the military employs some 5,000 engineers, up from 250 at the time.

“Without that jump, we could not have gotten the maximum benefit from all the investments we had made,” Professor Lui says.

Singapore’s modern-day military and defence industry is a well-oiled machine, a far cry from those gung-ho days when young graduates like Professor Lui were entrusted with large responsibilities.

“We must make full use of the knowledge that has been created over some 50 years, and not have to make the same mistakes again,” he says.

But for all the military’s technological might, to Professor Lui, it is still people who are the source of its strength.

“When I look back, armoured vehicles, aircraft missiles—all these are objects,” he says. “It’s people and organisations that live and grow and appreciate over time, while equipment depreciates. It’s the people that make the difference, not the hardware.”

A culture of secrecy

Professor Lui’s own career path, from young graduate experimenting with standards to chief defence scientist, has mirrored the evolution of Singapore’s military, from a young nation just finding its way to a technologically advanced force to be reckoned with.

Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that he believes that the next stage of the military’s maturity will depend on greater openness.

“While some things must be kept secret, you must also allow information to flow so that knowledge can be accumulated,” he says. “Knowledge, if not shared, is lost.”

For instance, researchers often buy satellite images of Singapore from commercial firms. But there are local agencies and institutes taking images of Singapore that are newer and of higher-resolution. If scientists are barred from using these for security reasons, Professor Lui argues, science loses out.

“If you don’t know what you don’t know, then you are making decisions based on only a subset of available knowledge,” he says. “That’s a very serious loss. So I’m an advocate of openness and shared data.”

For that spirit of generosity and universality it is not just all Singaporeans, but ammunition-storing countries across the world as well, who owe Professor Lui a debt of gratitude.

This feature is part of a series of 25 profiles, first published as Singapore’s Scientific Pioneers. Click here to read the rest of the articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Cyril Ng.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Grace Chua is an award-winning journalist who covers science and the environment, from national climate change policy to community anti-littering projects.

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