By William Choong
BEFORE soldiers in the Singapore Armed Forces became the so-called third-generation (3G) force that they are today, their first- and second-generation predecessors, according to a popular story in the SAF, were like pygmies who lived and hunted in the tall grass of the African savannah.
'Every time we went out on exercises, we did not know where we were, where our buddies were or where the big game were. Hence we called these pygmies the (where the) f***-are-we tribe,' quipped a senior officer.
The SAF's leap into 3G technologies changed all that. For NSmen who served in the 1980s or 1990s, the SAF was still very much a 2G force.
Imagine Private Chow, a humble 2G infantryman, running into a platoon of enemy soldiers on a hill. He would alert his section commander, who in turn would radio the enemy's position up the chain of command. The radio message would be verbal, and the enemy's position would have to be fixed on a map by senior commanders. They would then assess the situation, mull over potential platforms to engage the enemy, and then pass down instructions to different units for follow-up action.
All these processes would take a long time. The successful execution of a strike would hinge on Private Chow submitting the correct information. God help his unit if he got the enemy's location wrong, or if someone mapped the enemy's position incorrectly. Fratricide - the accidental killing of one's comrades - was always a possibility because of such mistakes.
Enter the 5kg Advanced Combat Man System (ACMS), a battlefield computer packed with sensors and communication devices. Imagine Private Chow's 3G successor, Sergeant Koh, bearing the ACMS on his back into battle. Seeing an enemy platoon on the hill, all Sergeant Koh would do is 'mark' the target with his SAR-21 assault rifle and send an SMS-like message or digital image to his commanders.
Sergeant Koh's 1-800-DIAL-A-BOMB would throw up a rich picture of the battlefield for his commanders. And better still, the 3G force's 'sensemaking' algorithms would be able to dial up potential solutions to take out the enemy, be it via artillery, fighter aircraft or main battle tanks. In short, 3G technologies have reduced procedures once measured in hours and minutes into a matter of seconds.
Naturally, 3G-type warfare would seem alien to many NSmen accustomed to the 2G world. This is understandable. 3G concepts such as 'empowerment', 'decentralisation', 'augmented cognition', 'Erdos random networks' and 'OODA loops' seem to emanate either from the MBA or information technology worlds.
The 3G SAF is essentially the local offshoot of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), which seeks to transform militaries across the world with the help of high technology. The 3G SAF can be summed up in three 'Gs': the Google-lisation of war; the ability to get a God's-eye view of the battlefield; and lastly, pure Grunt.
# GOOGLE-LISATION. The Napoleons and MacArthurs of history hoarded battlefield information, wielding it to win campaigns.
As a result of the ACMS, as well as similar systems in the SAF's new Leopard tanks and stealth frigates, a truly socialist revolution has been effected in the military sphere. No longer is critical battlefield information restricted to generals. Instead, relevant information - one's own location, where friendly forces are, where the enemy is - is shared among a number of people, from four-star generals to junior commanders.
The above three pieces of information sound straightforward, but they are critical in the waging of war. For millennia, soldiers have sought to dispel the fog of war. Like other advanced modern militaries, the SAF has latched on to an electronic fix to dispel the fog.
# GOD'S-EYE VIEW. Thanks to Google-lisation, Sergeant Koh and his commanders can now see the same 'common tactical picture' - a God's-eye view of the battlefield. More importantly, Sergeant Koh will no longer face an enemy soldier alone; rather, the enemy soldier will face a Sergeant Koh backed by a 'system' of other weapons - Leopard tanks, unmanned aerial vehicles, 120mm mortars, artillery and fighter aircraft.
Likewise, it will no longer be an enemy tank against an SAF tank. Instead, it will be an enemy tank versus the SAF tank plus all other supporting weapons platforms - what is called a 'system of systems'.
'In urban environments, just trying to figure out where you are is a big challenge, let alone where your buddies are and where the enemy is. They may be a few streets away. You can't even see where they are. So that capability that we get from the Leopard tank is not just the tank but a 'system of systems' war-fighting capability,' said Brigadier-General (NS) Ravinder Singh, the Defence Ministry's Deputy Secretary (Technology).
# PURE GRUNT. The 'system of systems' concept - where individual weapons platforms are meshed into a coherent whole, with each becoming both a 'node' of information as well as firing platform - was pioneered by the American admiral Bill Owens in the 1990s.
The concept might sound complex, but not if one is familiar with the Godfather. When one takes on Don Corleone, it is not just Don Corleone one takes on but the entire mob. Similarly, in the context of the 3G SAF, the enemy would take on not just this or that SAF unit, but an all-seeing, all-knowing totality.
This 'system of systems' concept enables the Google-lisation of information and provides every soldier a God's-eye view of the battlefield, both with one end in view: delivering pure grunt, or firepower, to hostile targets.
In battle, whoever sees his opponent first, thinks quicker and kills him faster will win. Formally, this process was called the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act) loop.
Again, OODA loops sound complex, but a pertinent example here is the classic gun duel. Two men placed back to back with loaded weapons in hand will walk a preset number of paces, turn to face his opponent, ascertain the exact location of his foe, and shoot. Whoever completes the OODA loop first wins.
'If we can outcycle potential adversaries, if we can have 100 OODA loops within his one OODA, there will be no time for him to react. That's the main idea (of 3G)' said Brigadier-General Ng Chee Meng, the SAF's Director of Joint Operations.
Out-OODAing the enemy is the key goal behind the three 'Gs', the core components of the 'brains' behind the 3G SAF - Integrated Knowledge-based Command and Control (IKC2).
Terms like 3G and IKC2 might sound futuristic, but the SAF's transformation has been gradual. The momentum picked up around the turn of the century, informed by the RMA efforts of more advanced militaries, like America's. The SAF, as well as other militaries, was influenced by the awesome display of high-technology military hardware during the First Gulf War, when United States-led allied forces drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
But Singapore's 3G endeavour is also unique, the product of various factors specific to Singapore - among them, falling population growth rates, a tech-savvy population and the growing availability of technology. The Navy's stealth frigates are classic examples: They are manned by just 71 men - a huge achievement, given that most naval frigates elsewhere are usually manned by twice that number.
The RMA and its Singapore offshoot are not without their fair share of sceptics. At the tactical level, it has been argued that putting too much emphasis on computer networks would leave soldiers, sailors and airmen vulnerable if these networks failed in times of war.
At the operational level, it has been argued that the ability to out-OODA potential opponents might make commanders slaves to their own computers. US strategist Thomas Barnett, for example, has argued that becoming enslaved to dumb machines that 'count incredibly fast' could lead network-centric forces to shoot first and talk later.
At a strategic level, some critics have argued that a super-competent military will not by itself ensure the accomplishment of the political goals of war. The Vietnam War is a pertinent example. The Americans won almost all the battles in that war, but lost the war nevertheless due to their lack of political will.
SAF officers interviewed for this series, though confident of the 3G SAF's capabilities, evinced a sense of circumspection. Their counter-arguments would be explored at length throughout this series.
BG (NS) Singh, for one, said the SAF has gone to great lengths to protect its networks - for example, with backup systems such as high-frequency radios in the SAF's stealth frigates.
'In the end, we have to evolve - that's really what the 3G SAF is about. The adversary we're facing is going to evolve their tactics, their techniques, based on the capabilities that they see.'
THE six-part 3G SAF series, beginning today, seeks to do three things: describe the state of military transformation in the SAF; explore its many facets; and examine the benefits and challenges associated with the transformation.
We interviewed SAF servicemen across all ranks, from generals, colonels and lieutenants to specialists-in- training, all of whom have been schooled in the 3G mantra: 'see first, think quicker, kill faster'.
Of particular interest would be the sections on integration, which will describe the 3G SAF in air-sea and air-land warfare. The section on full-spectrum operations will examine how the SAF has evolved, not only to handle so-called conventional wars, but also a range of operations such as the protection of vital installations, disaster relief, and overseas deployments in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
The second part in this series will appear next Thursday.