Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Leverage Total Defence to bolster SGSecure

Share some views on the SGSecure movement in The Straits Times today.

If you have yet to hear of SGSecure, you soon will. The Ministry of Home Affairs-led movement has pledged to galvanise the whole of Singapore society - about one million households - in a door-to-door effort to spread security awareness messages and teach people first-aid skills like treating burns and bandaging wounds.

Launched last Saturday by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, SGSecure was established to get people in Singapore to stay alert, stay united and stay strong in the face of terror threats.

Singaporeans have survived the Japanese Occupation during World War II, the urban terror campaign waged during Indonesia's Confrontation with Malaysia in the 1960s (of which Singapore was then part) and the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2003, but the terror threat our country now faces seeks to fracture and destabilise Singapore along racial and religious fault lines. 
The massive push to get SGSecure moving shows that this threat is like no other in Singapore's history.
In the current security climate, attacks by terrorist groups or individuals acting as lone wolves, having been swayed by radical ideals, are a clear and present danger. Attacks will be sudden, brutal and indiscriminate. The purveyors of violent ideology do not fear death. Indeed, in many terror attacks, there is no exit plan as death is sought after.
Terrorists cannot be deterred in the traditional sense with promises of a swift and decisive response by military firepower. In fact, the harder the target, the more attractive it becomes. In the wake of a successful strike, the propaganda value from having beaten security forces is magnified.
The city-state of Singapore, which stands alone as an oasis of calm in a restive region, is such a trophy target. And the old chestnut that terrorists need to be lucky only once, while counter-terrorist forces need to be on their guard all the time, explains why security messages of late have gravitated to the "not a question of if but when" narrative when discussing the likelihood that blood will be shed in the Lion City.
The tally of terror attacks worldwide shows how lives have been torn asunder and changed irredeemably after peaceful, everyday situations were defiled by terrorism. The record of violence includes random knife attacks in the street, shootings in cafes and theatres, bombings at airports and train stations, and people mown down by a truck after watching a fireworks display.
Short of living life as a hermit behind locked doors, we have to understand and accept that the current security climate is a new normal that societies worldwide have to contend with.
SGSecure's terrorism-centric focus is therefore aimed at reinforcing Singapore's ability to weather the aftermath of an attack through strengthened community vigilance, cohesion and resilience. There is no model answer for SGSecure's strategists to follow as the challenges for this city-state's densely populated, multiracial society and lack of exposure to national security threats are quite possibly unique.
In Singapore, one can expect security levels to be raised even more once measures that are already the norm in some Asian cities are implemented here. These include security checks at shopping centres and cinemas, with bag searches and metal detectors. These are tasks which will no doubt raise the cost of doing business. But they are, nonetheless, necessary and timely as the price of complacency or lack of vigilance could be a successful attack that exacts a far greater price by destabilising Singapore.
The bright spot amid the gloom is that, as a country, we have had decades to prepare for the worst. The defence and security community here has invested years in thinking through how to safeguard Singapore from a full spectrum of threats.
If SGSecure's message that there is a part for everyone sounds familiar, it is thanks to the groundwork laid by years of Total Defence campaigns.
Launched in 1984 and led by the Ministry of Defence, Total Defence aims to harness military, civil, economic, psychological and social elements to combat threats to Singapore's well-being.
Mindef has done a commendable job keeping Total Defence relevant in the past 32 years. Initiatives such as the N.E.mation! digital animation competition for students to express their thoughts on national resilience through creative videos seed Total Defence messages among the young, ensuring successive generations carry security awareness into adulthood.
Making provisions for primary school pupils to watch the National Day Parade has allowed thousands of children to see the Total Defence element in the show, with fire engines, police cars and Singapore Armed Forces war machines driving home the military and civil defence elements that pupils remember for years.
Interestingly, Total Defence was absent from PM Lee's speech at the launch of SGSecure.
Mentioning one should not come at the expense of the other. And the ability of the Ministry of Home Affairs and Mindef to work in a tightly coordinated fashion when propagating security themes is crucial in keeping key messages aligned and to avoid confusing the public. After all, the decades worth of positive Total Defence mileage is a valuable lever which SGSecure strategists should consider using to move SGSecure from a cold start into high gear quickly and with a credible voice.
PM Lee recognises the challenges and this explains why we have a Coordinating Minister for National Security overseeing the national counter-terrorism effort who can ensure ministries work towards a common agenda.
There is a part for one and all, to keep the peace we want - be it for Total Defence or SGSecure. When will you step forward?

Monday, September 12, 2016

Defending the SAF brand

Spend time watching people on a leisurely run and you may realise a good number are togged out in Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) PT kit: If not the shorts, then running vests from assorted units or running shoes.

Older Singaporeans would recall this wasn't the case decades ago when PT kit was worn because it was mandatory, not because it was comfortable.

The pivot towards items you can buy at an SAF eMart reflects improvements the armed forces has made in the quality and fit of such apparel, tailored for local physiques and kept largely affordable.

When you think about the many options available in the so-called athleisure market, it is a big deal that SAF apparel has gained ground among runners here.

Anecdotal evidence of the popularity of SAF apparel on running tracks shows the value people place in the "SAF brand". It's a point of pride when people choose to wear running vests from formations known for being tough (Commandos, Guards) and units whose reputations resonate positively with young adults (the maroon OCS running vest, for instance).

Make no mistake: People would not wear such outfits if they felt ridiculous being seen in them.

With a captive market that is enlarged with every new batch of enlistees (some 20,000+ annually), a MINDEF/SAF-linked enterprise can exert some serious leverage against established athleisure players if it wanted to.

The data amassed by the Central Manpower Base (CMPB), which is used to size National Service enlistees correctly, is just the thing that industry hankers for to right-size items for commercial applications. These run the gamut from seat pitches in cinemas and airliner cabins, to furniture to the size of clothing as children in the same age bracket get bigger over time (a result of better nutrition). PDPA issues aside, such data represents invaluable insights into shifting demographic trends that would give any MINDEF/SAF venture an advantage, simply because there are few entities who have been tracking the Asian physique across many races as closely as CMPB has done so.

Granted, this area is non-core. And here's where it may be awkward making the distinction between clothing citizen soldiers reasonably well (which is what MINDEF/SAF is expected to do) and expanding the scope of work into the commercial sector.

Mind you, the PT kit analogy should not be taken as a clarion call for CMPB to start non-core activities. It merely goes to show how efforts to make a well-made product can command a customer base far beyond what the original product was made for.

There have been precedents. Victorinox of Swiss Army Knife fame being one example. The product range has surpassed the manufacture of knives for the Swiss Army during the company's early years and grown into a multi-million dollar global enterprise. Today, the Swiss Army Knife is the gold standard that multi-tool pocket knives are measured against. The product has been copied by many imitators but few have matched the prestige that the Victorinox label has earned. In a nutshell, the army knife made for the Swiss Army has attained a world-class label.

On the apparel front, we have the American label, Under Armour. Its corporate history had a humble beginning in the 1990s and stemmed from a football player who simply wanted a better undershirt but couldn't find one off-the-rack. So he attempted to make his own. Under Armour's growth is a re-telling of the American story of risk-taking and innovation, and the ability to create one's own market niche before bigger players realise you're onto them.

In typical Singaporean fashion, we tend to recognise success only when the examples cited can trot out sales figures worth millions of dollars. Victorinox and Under Armour sit comfortably in that category.

If we are not careful, we may realise belatedly that the vendor(s) who makes SAF apparel has captured a wider market by riding on its track record serving Singapore's soldiers (excluded would be the boots maker whose shoddy QC has seen many pairs of combat boots returned for kit exchange after the soles delaminated, but we digress).

The United States land forces' Army Marketing and Research Group, which serves as custodian for the US Army's brand, watches over branding, marketing, licensing and trademark control. There is no equivalent in the SAF, despite the growing range of items that have found their way to civvie street.

If we were to ascribe a value to the SAF brand, where would we even begin?

Certainly not from the sticker price of eMart items in their current shape and form. Indeed, the value the brand represents goes beyond apparel and embraces many (lucrative) commercial spheres. These include advisory roles in defence and security (which people would acknowledge as the SAF's core business) and, to a lesser extent, the customised solutions devised for a citizens army from clothing to personal-issue equipment.

Some 15 years ago, few outside the security sector had heard of, or were keen to invest in, InVision Technologies. Frequent fliers to the United States may recognise the name on luggage scanning machines. The value of InVision Technologies shot up in tandem with rising demand for luggage scanners and the company has never looked back ever since. We must recognise that the tragedy of 9/11, which put years of pin-prick terror attacks suddenly into sharp relief because of the sheer number of people killed on that fateful day, has reshaped our lives forever. And there's no turning back to the pre-9/11 security era.

InVision Technologies is but one instance of an overlooked enterprise that suddenly found itself in demand in the current security climate.

With the experience and expertise the SAF has forged across the spectrum of the defence and security capabilities, it is perhaps timely to rethink how such know-how can be tapped to create value for Singapore. This goes beyond job creation but in creating an enterprise which leverages upon the value people see in the SAF brand in ways that are hitherto untapped.

The SAF has, over time, relied on advisory support for a multitude of roles. That was during our formative years when we lacked the skill sets and professional expertise for various spheres of defence science and engineering. We note that even the construction labour for one particular command node is said to have come wholly from a foreign source to protect opsec. So the foreigners consulted provided full-service support for that project.

But MINDEF/SAF has come a long way since then.

In hotspots around the globe, there is growing demand for advisors who can lend their expertise in taming a war-torn land. Providing armed muscle ala Academi is high profile albeit low on the value chain.

Nations on the mend need and want to know how to transition from conflict to troubled peace to peacetime by restoring infrastructure like roads, bridges and basic housing, executing de-mining ops, urban planning, upscaling medical and psychological support to provide a semblance of order and the basic services needed to sustain a populace bled white by years of strife.

Defence personnel overseas have already recognised the niche market that such services command. Indeed, many start-ups have been formed with the company's resume mirroring missions SAF personnel have carried out in PSO and HADR.

MINDEF/SAF can expect to lose personnel with rich PSO and HADR experience once foreign enterprises recognise that the skill sets needed for business expansion reside right here in Singapore.

As security issues that command the attention of the world's leading cities are not going away anytime soon, we should think through the operational implications if our better-trained and most experienced operatives leave the service as commercial enterprises value their experience even more than we're prepared to pay.

A rethink of what constitutes the SAF brand - if you can call it that - is therefore timely because you only own what you can defend. And this includes this amorphous concept called the SAF brand.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Choosing your full-time National Service NSF vocation: Seven things to note

Sharing the moment: Reviewing officer at Wednesday's Basic Military Training graduation parade, Mr Amrin Amin, Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs, in a candid moment with the SAF's newest soldiers.

In a first for the National Service (NS) system in Singapore, pre-enlistees will be able to indicate their preferred vocation ahead of enlistment day. Life-changing choices will be made by pre-enlistees from this November when they undergo their pre-enlistment medical check-up at the Central Manpower Base (CMPB).

To avoid being flummoxed by the options, here are eight things to know about choosing your NS vocation:

1. Know your vocations: Pre-enlistees will see a list of 33 NSF vocations from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and Singapore Police Force (SPF), grouped into seven categories - three for the SAF and two categories for SCDF and two for SPF. 

2. How to choose: Pre-enlistees must pick at least two from each of the seven categories. That means picking six preferred vocations from SAF, four for the civil defence and four from police. 

3. Get a headstart, download your NS Vocation handbook here. This will help you shortlist your preferred vocations before the medical check-up.

4. You can choose NOT to take part and let the system assign you an NS vocation, the way it's been done for the past 49 years for nearly a million full-time National Servicemen (NSFs).

5. For those with wanderlust, do note that some SAF vocations include overseas training. Places include Australia (Armour, Artillery, Guards), Germany (Armour), New Zealand (Artillery), South Africa (Air Defence) and the United States (Artillery). Vocations under Air Defence, Armour, Artillery, Infantry, Intelligence, Logistics, Signals and Transport all indicate the possibility of overseas training.

6. The list of 33 vocations does not encompass the full spectrum of NSF vocations. So be prepared to serve in a vocation that isn't in the NS Vocation handbook.

7. Choosing doesn't mean getting. Operational requirements dictate who goes where. One can appeal, but CMPB has said these will be addressed on a "case-by-case basis" and reassignment is unlikely. So we all know where that will get you....

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Hybrid Warfare spells new paradigm for Singapore

Open fire: The 16-hour blaze at CK Building in Tampines consumed three floors of the building and saw the largest deployment of Singapore Civil Defence Force assets and personnel. Picture by SCDF

Three separate events this past week - the breach of a police road block, a fire and a bank heist update - underline Singapore's fragility in the face of determined adversaries.

By extension, these incidents help explain the need for, and importance of, sustained commitment to building up Home Team assets alongside those that serve the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

First: The road block breach. This took place around 11pm on Tuesday night (16 Aug'16) when a car sped through a police road block in Sembawang. This triggered a 10-minute chase involving a police car and two police motorbikes. It ended after the car collided with a taxi and a van at a red light.

"Following the accident, the male driver put up a violent struggle and assaulted the Traffic Police officers in an attempt to evade arrest," said a police statement. This case was apparently drug-related.

The lesson here: Security cordons like road blocks are not puncture-proof. Current police protocols which call for suspects to be apprehended allow vehicles to bash through police lines. This is quite unlike the situation when stricter protocols are imposed to safeguard events like the Shangri-La Dialogue. In the latter, drivers who ignore police warnings and breach road blocks come under fire immediately.

Second: The fire. The blaze at CK Building in Tampines was billed as the largest fire handled by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) this year. The blaze was put out after a 16-hour effort by fire fighters. Here are the assets involved.

TNP Infographics by Cel Gulapa

The lesson here: If a single building involved that many personnel and assets, imagine the situation if an entire industrial estate was afire. Singapore is often seen as a concrete jungle. But outside the orbit of Home Team and MINDEF/SAF planners whose brief is to prepare for the worst, few Singaporeans may realise how easily our concrete jungle can be put to the torch.

The conflagration could be accidental. The spark could be lit by arsonists. Or real estate could come under fire from air strikes, naval bombardments or artillery barrages. The end result will be the same: Over-taxed civil defence forces that will have to confront multiple situations simultaneously and sustain the pace for hours on end.

Under such circumstances, the question "How much is enough?" becomes moot. Singapore will have to steel itself to situations where large fires are left to burn themselves out during a large-scale arson attack or hot-war scenario because civil defence resources will be stretched thin.

Third: The bank heist update. Remember the robbery at the Standard Chartered bank branch at Holland Village on 7 July'16? The alleged robber was said to have fled to the Thai capital, Bangkok, soon after he was said to have relieved the bank of tens of thousands of dollars with a single threatening note. We learned today that Thai authorities have said the alleged robber cannot be extradited to Singapore.

The lesson here: Despite high alerts and multiple layers of security at Singapore's border checkpoints, our security forces are effective only when they know what or whom to look out for. The alleged robber breezed past security checks with valid travel documents and got away before police investigators put together his identity. In a nutshell, he beat the OODA loop and slipped through the dragnet even as investigators sought to Observe, Orientate, Decide and Act.  

As Singapore's security planners from the Home Team and MINDEF/SAF face up to the threat of Hybrid Warfare, we must be cognisant that assets and well-trained personnel alone will not suffice to keep us safe.

Hybrid Warfare entails aggressors who aim to beat the system by thinking out of the box. This often entails assaults using assets or tactics that flout civilised norms of warfare.

In the case of the road block, it is clear that suspects who want a fast getaway can penetrate security cordons constrained by strict shoot/don't shoot rules of engagement (ROE) during normal situations. Not all roadblocks are guarded as strictly as the Shangri-La Dialogue. But it's a challenge knowing when to go on heightened alert when firearms can be discharged to stop a breacher and when normal, peacetime ROEs should apply to protect the wider public from the prospect of road blocks turning into free fire zones. Assailants hold the Initiative, having the flexibility of choosing the time, place and method of attack. Security forces must therefore be able to adjust their ROE posture rapidly.

Defence-minded observes mulling over the CK Building fire would realise how stretched SCDF assets and personnel will be when pitched against large-scale arson attacks. It goes without saying that a hot-war scenario will also place more demands on SCDF resources than it can realistically meet. The bottomline: A multi-layered approach to fire fighting and damage control in the heartlands and industrial parks anchored on fire wardens and volunteers who can hold the fort amid chaos.

Several decades of efforts under the Total Defence banner have given rise to a large cadre of volunteers all across Singapore. In coming months, as the SG Secure movement gains traction, growing numbers of volunteers trained, organised, equipped and briefed on how to deal with civil defence scenarios will contribute to mitigating Singapore's inherent vulnerability as a densely populated city-state.

The StanChart robbery emphasised how well-planned situations can evade even the best border security. We have to be prepared for unknown subjects (unsubs) involved in acts of aggression against Singapore residents to hatch a getaway plan that will beat the OODA loop.

Alas, dealing with unsubs with a getaway plan is a preferable option to handling individuals or groups with no getaway plan. In the latter, they will hold their  ground to the last bullet or the last blast and the end results could be far worst.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Hardening of Malaysia's TUDM Gong Kedak air base the shape of things to come

Under cover: Hardened aircraft shelters at the western end of Runway 08/26 at Gong Kedak airbase house Malaysia's most advanced warplanes, the Sukhoi Su-30MKM.

At the air base where some of Southeast Asia's deadliest warplanes roost, there's not a wing in sight.

The warplanes are safe in hardened aircraft shelters (HAS), under cover where the sun doesn't shine.

Tengah Air Base? Perhaps Paya Lebar Air Base?

No. It's TUDM Gong Kedak, home to the Royal Malaysian Air Force's 11 Skuadron. This is the RMAF squadron assigned to fly Malaysia's most advanced fighter jets, the Sukhoi Su-30MKM.

The World War 2 era air base which 11 SKN calls home sits in the northern neck of peninsular Malaysia. The base underwent a massive transformation years ago to improve the resilience of key infrastructure. Tonnes of concrete, rebar and extensive earthworks were added to protect vital facilities such as aircraft hardstandings, command facilities, POL storage and ammunition dumps.

Blue print: Artist's impression of a Spantech HAS. Australian architects and engineers have made invaluable contributions to Malaysia with defence assets like fighter planes, rocket artillery launchers and ammunition depots housed in hardened facilities designed by Australians. Credit: Spantech Pty Ltd.

In the process, the landscape at the western end of Gong Kedak's single runway 08/26 was looped with aircraft taxiways that lead to triangular mounds of earth that covered reinforced concrete hardened aircraft shelters (HAS). Once sealed in its individual HAS, each Su-30MKM is immune to all but the heaviest ordnance and the most precise of attacks - or a lucky strike.

Hardened facilities at TUDM Gong Kedak are believed to be the most extensive and sophisticated at any RMAF air base. They were made possible by Spantech Pty Ltd, an Australian company that specialises in defence construction.

It's the shape of things to come in the Federation as Malaysian defence planners recognise the value and importance of protecting defence infrastructure that can generate and sustain Malaysian air power.

Spantech's growing list of projects in Malaysia includes ammunition storage and hardened vehicle shelters at the Malaysian Army's Kem Syed Sirajuddin in Gemas (above), where Astros II Keris MRLs are based. The ammunition depots protect the Astros II warshot, while some hardened vehicle shelters are thought to provide protected space in which Malaysian gunners can load and prepare their MRLs for operations and have these vehicles on standby for immediate deployment.

The extensive protection accorded to RMAF assets at Gong Kedak is not invulnerable to determined attacks.

We witnessed this during the first Gulf War when HAS in occupied Kuwait and at Iraqi airbases were routinely holed by precision-guided munitions designed to punch through hardened structures before detonating within.

However, such protection raises the stakes by forcing the aggressor to increase the quality and quantity of assets in the strike package and consider carefully the timing and direction of air or artillery strikes.

Blast resistant: Australian designed ammunition storehouses bear the brunt of a full-scale trial at Woomera testing range in South Australia in the early 1990s. Note the shock wave at the crown of the explosive plume. Singapore's defence engineers and scientists have carried out similar tests in places like Sweden to test and validate the design of blast doors for facilities like the UAF. Credit: Spantech Pty Ltd.

With HAS immune to strafing attack, bomblets from cluster bombs and blast effects from near misses, it would take the proverbial surgical strike to knock out each HAS or command node. Not easy even during peacetime conditions at a bombing range. Certainly more risky when the airspace around TUDM Gong Kedak will be defended by BVR-capable Su-30MKMs and ground-based air defence assets.

In addition, the ability to park one's warplanes under shelter increases strategic ambiguity because no country in the region has the ability to place the air base under 24/7 satellite surveillance. So unless one has boots on the ground, deep in Malaysian territory, one can never be sure if the HAS are occupied or empty.

The pace at which hardened facilities have been added to Malaysian army, navy and air force facilities is expected to increase in coming years. Indeed, one can expect that hardened infrastructure will become de rigueur as Malaysia modernises its defence facilities.

Malaysia may not have devoted the resources to nurture homegrown talent who can design hardened facilities, but this has hardly hindered the Malaysians from renovating defence infrastructure to increase their resilience against determined assault. If you're willing to pay for it, there are defence specialists who will design and build anything you desire.

Over in Singapore, the size, expertise and experience of our defence technology talent pool is often embedded as a sound bite in speeches that underline our ability to devise indigenous and sometimes unique solutions to defence matters. The design and construction of hardened infrastructure like the Merah loop areas in Changi and ammunition depots such as the Mandai Underground Ammunition Facility (UAF) are examples of such engineering projects.

This self-reliance is noteworthy and certainly worth developing further.

But the point should be made that one can import similar expertise from abroad, with no questions asked. Countries with the money to do so can rapidly accelerate their growth trajectory and level up, or surpass what our homegrown talent can deliver.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Response to plot by Batam terrorist cell to fire rockets at Marina Bay

Thanks to steady investments in defence capabilities - some of which have yet to be unveiled - the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) can detect and destroy artillery projectiles such as rockets in mid-flight.

The SAF has amassed several decades of experience operating radars designed to locate enemy artillery positions by tracking shells or rockets to their point of origin. Five types of counter battery radars have been fielded over the years by the Singapore Artillery and, in recent years, by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).

The RSAF counter rocket artillery and mortar (C-RAM) radars are operated alongside guided munitions that can be launched in quick succession, in all-weather conditions and at very short notice to intercept aerial threats like rockets. This new capability underlines Singapore's ability to anticipate and respond to a wide spectrum of security threats.

We are heartened by MINDEF/SAF's proactive and resolute stance in defending Singapore.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Unmanned systems in the future Singapore Armed Forces SAF

If defence technology allows a leaner Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to do more with less, think about the operational advantages that such technology would confer on a full-sized or an upsized military force.

As the SAF shrinks in the coming decades as a result of smaller intakes of full-time National Servicemen (NSFs), do not expect regional armies to be similarly disadvantaged.

The benefits we bag will not be unique to the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) or the SAF.

We must therefore be cognizant that the strategic narrative that will describe how the future SAF will offset the manpower shortfall must consider how other military forces could hijack or adapt parts of our StratNav for their benefit.

The future SAF is likely to leverage on improvements in its People, operational Processes and cutting edge defence Technology to stay ready, relevant and decisive. As we do so, we must appreciate that a military force that retains its current headcount can, likewise, embrace advanced defence know-how to up its game.

Singapore's strategic narrative must therefore be calibrated such that we do not inadvertently reinforce the image, identity and operational prowess of foreign armed forces who may do likewise.

You may have heard sound bites that relate to MINDEF/SAF being a smart buyer of defence technology. This is a hard-earned and well-deserved accolade.

Thanks to rigorous weapons evaluations, the SAF is also viewed as a reference customer.

But there is absolutely nothing to stop regional militaries from mirroring the SAF's procurement patterns. In so doing, they fast track their weapons purchases by saving the time, effort and resources needed to assess the suitability of war machines for use in Southeast Asia.

For instance, German-made Leopard 2 main battle tanks and American AH-64 Apache attack helicopters bought by the SAF after rigorous evaluations are also fielded by the TNI (Tentera Nasional Indonesia, Indonesian armed forces). While one does not doubt the capability of the TNI weapons staff, the TNI's processes for choosing defence platforms are not held in the same esteem as a stamp of approval from MINDEF/SAF.

A thinking audience would also realise that operational efficiency as a result of lean manning and operational effectiveness are not the one and the same thing.

A high level of automation may allow a warship to put out to sea with a smaller crew. But some essential functions aboard any man-of-war will continue to remain manpower intensive. One of these is fire-fighting and damage control. To be sure, inert gases and fire detection sensors can negate the threat of flashovers aboard a fighting ship. But the job of shoring up compartments with timber supports will continue to demand hands, legs and stout hearts who do not flinch from doing what's dangerous but necessary to save their ship. In such instances, leaning manning is an operational handicap.

The ability to assign unmanned systems to shoulder dull, dirty and dangerous duties should also be publicised carefully because a short-sighted StratNav could come back to haunt us.

The hunting and disposal of sea mines was cited as one area that the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) intends to assign to unmanned assets. This will build upon the RSN's experience in employing unmanned Swedish-made SAM (Self-propelled, Acoustic/Magnetic Minesweeper) robots for mine-sweeping support, together with Bedok-class mine countermeasure vessels (MCMVs).

One should, however, not go overboard in highlighting the virtues of the RSN's future mine-sweeping drones.

The Bedok-class MCMVs have demonstrated a laudable versatility and adaptability in carrying out missions for which they were not designed to undertake. One of these took place in December 1997 when RSN MCMVs were tasked to support the search for SilkAir Flight MI185, which had crashed in the Musi river in Sumatra. The ability of the MCMVs to support diving operations and in adapting their open-water mine hunting sensors for brown water operations was made possible by the warships' company.

What made the difference? The RSN's People.

Would a small, unmanned or optionally manned MCMV be able to do the same? One wonders.

The suggestion from Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, in his SAF Day interview that the future SAF would feature more unmanned/autonomous systems to counterbalance falling live births is not a theoretical musing.

Apart from replacements for the RSN's SAMs, manpower-intensive weapon platforms will be likely targets for MINDEF/SAF's drive to get more bang for buck.

We understand that some effort has been made to further improve manpower savings in Singapore Artillery battalions, where the big guns are loaded and fired in much the same way as black powder cannons hundreds of years ago.

Projectile is kept separate from the propellant. Both have to be inserted - one at a time by gunners - into the artillery piece. Muskets used to be hand-loaded in a similar fashion until better designed firearms "automated" the process for loading and discharging the projectile, followed by extracting spent shell casings. Some firearms made the firing cycle (load, fire, discharge shell casing, reload) so automatic that the weapons functioned much like industrial age machines. Hence the term: Machine Gun.

As the Singapore Artillery mulls over its future order of battle, one could expect defence scientists and engineers to bring the process for firing 155mm guns into the 21st century. The loading and firing of the guns could be automated to a high degree, with gunners providing value added by selecting targets of opportunity and in prescribing the volume and duration of fire needed to destroy the designated targets.

An artillery piece that is self-propelled and operated under armour by a small team of gunners protected from shell splinters and small arms fire would indeed allow SAF2030 to do more with less.

The firepower of future artillery battalions would not be compromised even as NSFs intakes decline.

But remember this: Unless there is a ban on the sale of such a weapon, any other army who fields such guns will, likewise, capture these bragging rights.

As we roll-out new war machines with a big bang, so can others.

What can they not mimic easily? It is the quality of the men and women in Singapore who serve the profession of arms, and the fact that the SAF fights as a tightly-integrated fighting force. Both virtues not easy to see, understand or appreciate - even for an informed audience.

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