Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Singapore's position of armed neutrality and the South China Sea dispute

When Singapore despatched the tank landing ship, RSS Endurance, for duty in the Northern Arabian Gulf in October 2003, our use of the geographical place marker favoured by the United States and her Arab allies placed the Lion City squarely with the coalition of the willing.

Nautical charts marked the area as the Persian Gulf. But Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel who served aboard Endurance during Operation Blue Orchid (OBO 1) would probably recall the quaint moniker coined for the area of operations by the acronym-obsessed American military - they called it the NAG.

Now, as things hot up in regional waters to our northeast, Singapore must tread carefully as diplomats who serve various flags will use assorted platforms to peddle their respective national positions. Such posturing will also see them seed arguments with media agencies in an effort to shape world opinion, win hearts and minds.

More than just calibrating the tone, context and syntax of our public positions, deciding what to call the patch of sea may inadvertently swing Singapore's position from one camp to the next. We need to be cognizant that when references are made to the East Sea, South Sea or West Philippine Sea, the area referred to could all point to the same grid squares.

One would hope that the stringent selection criteria for our civil service and intensive efforts at grooming our young talents has produced interlocutors who can tell the forest from the trees, and can manoeuvre deftly amid the shenanigans of regional politiking.

Our position in the South China Sea demands more than sharp minds and razor wit.

Our public position that this island nation stands neutral must be credibly explained to right-leaning elements in regional countries who may rise to challenge that position. We must be prepared for such challenges not just in words (which are easier to shrug off or explain away), but also in deeds (which would really make our policy makers earn their pay).

If Singapore gives safe harbour to an American carrier battle group as the jabber over regional waters turns nasty and mutual defence treaties have been invoked, how would that sit with our position of armed neutrality?

Should military forces from a claimant state request similar access to Changi Naval Base, do we or should we grant unimpeded access? Would that naval presence then represent a sort of fleet in being, placed as the southern wing of a hammer and anvil arrangement that allows the claimant state to command both the northern and southern approaches to SCS SLOCs?

If they come once and then come more often, what then? If access is denied, would that sit well with the claimant state and our neutrality claim?

Regional naval forces conditioned to the halcyon days - pre-SCS dispute - when warships of various flags breezed in and out of Changi Naval Base and oftentimes shared neighbouring berths, may chafe at the idea should visiting rights need to be curtailed.

Such musings may be more real than you think.

Defence policy makers in regional capitals north of ASEAN are likely to think of additional channels which could be leveraged to advance their respective positions. The addition of friendly ports of call for naval units would count as such leverage. When one scans the map for likely safe harbours in this neighbourhood, it is more than likely the little red dot will pop up in their stream of consciousness.

Persian Gulf or NAG? Batu Putih or Pedra Branca? Taiwan or ROC?

Our system has walked such ground before. And handled such ambiguity quite successfully too, one might add.

But the complex, multi-stakeholder SCS tussle that could involve home ground in general, Changi Naval Base in particular, is a different proposition altogether. And we must be ready.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Cold War? Never heard of it, says SAF officer: The state of military education in Singapore

Among the tidbits shared with this blog, the one about the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officer who attended a strategic studies course clueless about the Cold War is one of the gems.

Granted, the officer was young (born after 1990). True, courses are tailored to upskill participants. Indeed, the SAF's mission readiness was not compromised by the said officer's ignorance and that officer is now more worldly-wise.

It reminds one of the true story of a non-uniformed SAF officer (NUSAF, this pre-dated today's DXO scheme) who, having been notified by AOD that an RSAF Scout 700 UAV had gone down around Poyan Reservoir, scribbled down frantic notes before screaming down the phone line:"But where is the pilot?" 

The strength of one's military awareness will not guarantee victory.

Lessons from the past
However, a lack of military awareness could possibly result in the SAF relearning painful lessons, paid in blood by more established armed forces, when such pitfalls could have been avoided in the first place as the possible solutions to many strategic, operational and tactical conundrums are enshrined in the lessons of war through the ages.

As a small nation with no hinterland, our first mistake on the battlefield could be our last. This is why the domain knowledge of SAF leaders should have breadth and depth, and must have a pedagogy that keeps up with the times .

It is easier said than done.

The anecdote from the military lecturer made a fine lead-in to the discussion on the state of strategic awareness among our fighting men and women, particularly officers in their 20s who are being groomed as future leaders in the most technologically-advanced fighting force in Southeast Asia.

Leading and learning
Quite possibly, many of our educators know the answer: Students conversant with world affairs and history stand out because such boys and girls are increasingly rare.

Move upstream, speak to our educators and you would find ample examples of book smart students who struggle cobbling together a coherent argument for the General Paper. Writing skills aside, speak to them in person and you may discover that outstanding grades do not correlate with poise, EQ and structure and logic in thought processes needed to sustain a conversation on a professional topic.

Done with their A levels or polytechnic diploma, those with leadership potential who find themselves in Officer Cadet School (OCS) during their full-time National Service face a steep learning curve when learning the rudiments of the profession of arms.

Fast forward a couple of years and when that young officer finds himself or herself at a diplomatic cocktail reception, clinking glasses with foreign counterparts and chatting about professional matters, that's when astute observers will be able to filter the standouts from the poseurs.

For many, such learning will be lifelong. For some, the education process will be a blooming chore.

GMKE's demise
Compared to earlier generations of SAF officers, the learning journey has been made less onerous now that the General Military Knowledge Exam (GMKE) has been dumped.

The GMKE used to be the bugbear of less historically-aware officers who struggled to quickly get up to speed with a plethora of factoids that the exam deemed worthy of a well-grounded military education. Remember, this was pre-Internet. Research was done the old fashioned way navigating a maze of book shelves with book lists (not Wikipedia) and the Dewey Decimal system (not Google) to guide one along.

The GMKE was despised and today, few mourn its demise.

If you believe in substance over form, then whether or not the Third Generation SAF counts the GMKE as part of its DNA is really immaterial. The loss of the GMKE should not be bemoaned for sentimental reasons. But one should ponder how we can raise and sustain awareness of, and appreciation for, the lessons of war among young Singaporeans who have made the profession of arms their career choice. 

A former MINDEF Perm Sec said:"It is a question of (command) emphasis. GMKE is not what made officers read widely. In the early years, it was Goh Keng Swee who took a direct interest in the education of SAF officers. I recall how he used to recommend books to read, and his suggestions were taken seriously, because he was the Minister for Defence. His interests were eclectic, and not just military history. 

"I think this situation is compounded by the advent of the Internet, which filters information that the individual is interested in, and most likely, it is not going to be history."

Learning gap
If there is a generational shift where technology makes competing demands for one's time and attention, then MINDEF/SAF must recognise that the pedagogy within our military education system must move with the times.

What now? GMKE for Dummies, downloadable via a smart phone app? Clausewitz's On War, crunched down into Twitter-size factoids for easy digestion? Modern-day strategic affairs distilled into a tip sheet so you won't sound stupid in front of foreign diplomats while performing staff officer duty during the Shangri-La Dialogue?

To be sure, MINDEF/SAF is well aware the knowledge gap should not be widened.

Someone who teaches MINDEF/SAF officers said:"In general, there is keen interest in deepening the curriculum in the SAF, but there are practical limits to what can be done. Interest also doesn’t always mean it becomes a priority. Time and ability are the biggest constraints. Officers can’t be on course for too long, and a significant number of them simply don’t have the ability (or inclination) to appreciate academic study. 

"I have to point out this isn’t a uniquely Singaporean problem. It’s visible in military education around the world. The ability and inclination for study, however, may change in the future with a greater emphasis on a broadened curriculum in school and university, and more time for officers to attend courses. The academic quality of officers (insofar as critical thinking and writing are concerned) seems to be increasing, and more of them seem genuinely interested in the lessons conducted, though I can’t say they form the majority, or even a sizeable minority, just yet. Still, one should be optimistic."

That sounds like a promising start: More capable officers who are eager to learn.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that higher operational demands after the 9/11 terror attacks have resulted in a higher operational tempo for the SAF. Higher demands placed on performing homeland security duties such as Ops Bascinet have eaten into the time available for professional development (Note: Such operational taskings should fall as new infantry units have been raised specifically as security battalions, allowing NS battalions to focus on hot-war scenarios. But we'll save this topic for another day.) 

As courses tend to focus on developing specific skill sets needed for one's vocation - rather than belly-gazing on arcane topics like the use of armour during the Malayan Campaign - and as the local security environment leans towards homeland security ops, we risk raising a generation of SAF officers with a constricted world view on the value and roles of the SAF. 

This narrow strategic view is compounded by the lack of a Singapore defence university run by, and staffed with, professional warfighters tasked with delivering a military education curriculum superior to anything available here today.

"The SAF has also always been practical-minded," noted one observer.

"First, the SAF doesn’t have a defence university with its own faculty because of a lack of critical mass of officers to justify the investment. It’s possibly the only modern, professional force without one. The solution adopted is to outsource it, in this case, to NTU (through RSIS and the SAF NTU Academy, which for now is merely an administrative body). This is a workable solution, but it's an imperfect (and in some instances, poor) replacement for having its own academic institution with its own uniformed talent. 

"Second, it seems to me there is a belief that investing in operational training with a tangible output that contributes to deterrence (that is, soldiers who can function better in the field) is a better use of time, than academic learning. After all, having a soldier who can shoot better is far more effective than one who can debate you."

Cold War or Cod War. MCV or MCMV. F-16 or M-16. Does anybody give a damn?

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Republic of Singapore Navy Day 2014

On the eve of the Republic of Singapore's 47th anniversary on Navy Day tomorrow, we present fun facts anchored on Singapore about naval warfare and Singapore's Navy.

Do write to us at projectrocky@gmail.com if you have more factoids for this list.

To all those in our silent service: Happy Navy Day  :-)

Before the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain's Royal Navy anticipated fighting with a balanced fleet out of the Singapore Naval Base. At full strength, this fleet would comprise a least one aircraft carrier, HMS Eagle, submarines grouped under the 4th Flotilla and heavy units deployed from Britain. This point validates the value of a balanced naval force structure, which includes submarines.

The Eagle and 4th Flotilla were reassigned to the Mediterranean theatre as Britain fought for her life for two years before war broke out in the Pacific. The presence of both would have added much bite to Force Z, especially if  Eagle was complemented by a second aircraft  carrier, the Indomitable. Naval units operating out of Singapore at full strength could have bought much needed time to reinforce Singapore with better combat planes and posed a serious menace to Japanese shipping supporting the Malayan campaign.

World records
They may not look it, but the RSN's 114-metre long Formidable-class stealth frigates are the world's most heavily-armed class of frigates. Each warship can be armed with a max warload of 24 Harpoon SSMs, which is the most number of anti-ship missiles carried by any frigate now in service.

Another world naval record: Compared to all known amphibious warfare ship classes, Singapore's 141-metre long Endurance-class ships can carry the most number of landing craft. This double-digit number allows each ship to land a battalion-size force in one wave.

Name games
Endurance-class Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) are, strictly speaking, Landing Platform Docks (LPDs). These warships were temporarily labelled with the uniquely Singaporean term, Helicopter Landing Ships, during the Indian Ocean tsunami relief mission in January 2005. This was done to make it clear to United Nations planners and the foreign media that the LPDs LSTs could embark helicopters.

Still on the LSTs: Our Endurance-class LSTs can each lay a causeway using pontoons attached to the side of their heli decks. This class of ships have never been seen publicly sailing with pontoons.

The special electronic warfare suite aboard upgraded Missile Gunboats, associated with the art of seduction/distraction, was codenamed Project Juliet. Another gizmo that helped the MGB crew detect the presence of enemy electronic transmissions was codenamed Project Eureka. The officer(s) who picked these project names must have had a poetic streak.

Naval hardware
The RSN's stealthiest vessels are also its oldest. These are the Challenger and Archer-class SSKs.

The two types of radar-equipped aircraft configured to support the Singapore Navy were converted from passenger/transport planes. The first was the Skyvan. The one now in service is the Fokker 50, heavily-modified as the Fokker 50 Mark IIS Enforcer.

Each stealth frigate can operate an air group of two types of platforms. The first asset is the familiar Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk. The other is unmanned.

There is a fast craft in RSN service, thought to be a semi-submersible, whose capabilities have yet to be disclosed. The warship was on the itinerary of the FFS squadron media embed in February 2009 but was not showcased due to a last minute decision. Yes, *sigh*.

The RSN operates the fastest firing weapon in the SAF's arsenal. This is the Dillon Aero M-134D 7.62mm minigun. Each fires at a rate of 50 rounds per second.

Trial versions of what evolved into the Fast Craft Equipment Personnel were initially propelled by screws. The propulsion was later changed to twin Hamilton waterjets.

A trial long-range radar array developed by the Defence Science & Technology Agency was mounted on the seawall at Changi Naval Base some years ago.

Our People
The term Ratings, used to denote RSN Specialists, never gained popularity in service.

Our submariners have all had their wisdom teeth removed.

More RSN officers and WOSEs from 3rd Flotilla have earned operational experience than those from 1st Flotilla, as the bulk of past overseas deployments were shouldered by LSTs. This ratio will change as personnel aboard our stealth frigates are sent for overseas operations more often.

Among the three SAF Services, the RSN has never had a Singapore Navy officer rise to the post of Chief of Defence Force. But the RSN beat the other Services when an RSN officer led the Ministry of Defence as its Permanent Secretary Defence - the top civil servant in the defence ministry.

Lastly and on a purely personal note: If I were young again and given a choice to sign on with any SAF Service, I would choose the Navy.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Too smart for our own good

After firing several million rounds over several years under operational conditions without a single stoppage, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) wrote to the weapon's maker to report a happy "problem": The ADF was still trying to figure out the weapon's mean time between failures.

The killing power from this weapon's prodigious rate of fire and accuracy has made this weapon sought-after by warfighters the world over.

Only in Singapore do we have an issue with this instrument of war.

Against a mountain of endorsements, only in Singapore can we find fault with the weapon by fussing over engineering that has evolved from generations of gunsmiths since the first Gatling gun was fielded.

Despite the weapon's fearsome reputation as a man-stopper, you can count on one hand the number of such weapons in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) arsenal.

Yes, this is a sad story that would become tragic if a single SAF man or woman died because of the lack of firepower in battle, slaving over a GPMG when they could bring on the rain on the Enemy and flatten them swiftly and decisively.

Make no mistake: Our special forces operatives would love to get their hands on as many of these weapons as they can. Ditto our Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) helicopter squadrons.

Procurement impasse
None will come their way until our defence engineers can convince themselves the weapon is safe to operate. You see, after the SAF acquired a trial batch for operations, additional procurements were tripped up by concerns over the possibility of a cook-off.

Concerns raised are valid.

Such attention to the quality of our firearms is commendable - and we say this with absolutely no sarcasm - as the safety and reliability of our war machines and instruments of war should be beyond doubt.

But this issue has had the weapon's maker perplexed as it ignores the weight of evidence that underlines the performance of the said weapon under demanding operational conditions.

Testimonies amassed from established armed forces like the ADF count for nothing. Neither do explanations that the cook-off cannot occur as imagined by the defence engineers concerned, simply because the rounds are not chambered in the part of the weapon our defence engineers have an issue with.

Sadly and embarrassingly speaking, this episode which is making its rounds among defence-aware individuals worldwide -  repeat: worldwide - is one case where our defence procurement processes are too smart for its own good.

Book smart, members of the project team in question undoubtedly have the paper qualifications needed for the job at hand.

What they perhaps lack is the exposure to the art and science of gunsmiths.

With more years in this field, they would also gain from additional exposure and experience that will help them appreciate weapon engineering considerations whenever foreign arms vendors come a-calling to introduce a new weapon.

So the Triple Es comprising Education, Exposure and Experience should be kept robust and balanced in our defence eco-system.

What we have witnessed is a procurement impasse as the project team concerned struggles works at gaining a deeper understanding of the mechanics of a proven weapon.

In the meantime, who loses? It is our men and women in the SAF who deserve every technological and operational advantage Singapore can give them before they deploy for operations.

This episode is noteworthy because our defence procurement processes and protocols are known worldwide for their rigour and no-nonsense approach to weapon evaluations. We are respected as a smart buyer. We have been feted as a reference customer by arms makers whose products survived intensive scrutiny by our weapon procurement teams.

Success stories
What happened in this instance should not detract from successes in military engineering that buffed up Singapore's reputation in the defence science and engineering realm.

Successes are lauded each year during the Defence Technology Prize ceremony, which are the Oscars of Singapore's defence science community.

Declared projects form the familiar narrative that underline and emphasize the Lion City's prowess in military engineering.

The low-profile projects reinforce this narrative by providing tantalising suggestions and hints at the breadth and depth of our weapons engineering capabilities.

Years after the RSAF stood down its A-4SU Super Skyhawks with one last flight across the island, Singapore watchers who scrutinised the size and composition of  the final formation that comprised a dozen TA-4SUs may have been puzzled at the RSAF's need for so many twin-seat Super Skyhawks. Add to this the 10 TA-4SUs in Cazaux, France, and one would have a good idea of the number in the RSAF orbat.

The project to weaponise the twin-seat Super Skyhawks as Wild Weasel radar-killers under Project S must rank as one of the lesser-known success stories in our defence science annals. The sizeable number of such warplanes available for special missions strengthened the air force's ability to carry out its assigned tasks in contested airspace with a cost-effective and hard-hitting warplane in the vanguard of air strikes. Our defence eco-system performed eminently well in this instance.

It is perhaps not surprising that cases where we could have done better become talking points, precisely - or thankfully? - because such episodes are uncommon.

Dog bites man is often not considered newsworthy (caveat: depending on which body part is bitten). But not the other way around.

Gossip surrounding the project involving the weapon with the high rate of fire is a man-bites-dog moment that makes it an instant talking point.

It will not break the system because our defence eco-system is strong and enduring.

But we have much to learn and internalise from this episode because we can do better when handling similar cases in future.