By William Choong
MANY Singaporeans who grew up in the 1970s and the 1980s would remember the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as the country's silent sentinel. Think 'poisonous shrimp', an analogy used after Singapore's independence in 1965 describing how the Republic sought to kill its predators if eaten.
A direct outcome of this: The SAF, being a deterrent force, was rarely seen in public by Singaporeans. The SAF was a fighting force that would reveal its full strength only in times of war.
No longer. Singapore's fluid strategic environment now requires the silent sentinel to be on duty 24/7, sometimes in the public view, both in and outside Singapore.
Take Second-Lieutenant Danny Goh, an air force officer who heads 60 men operating the I-Hawk, a low- to medium-level air defence system. I-Hawk batteries are deployed in undisclosed locations around the island. As part of the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) Air Defence and Operations Command (ADOC), they watch our skies 24/7.
Or Major Chew Chun Chau, the commanding officer of RSS Independence, a Republic of Singapore Navy patrol vessel that is part of the Maritime Security Task Force (MSTF), an inter-agency body that keeps watch over Singapore's congested territorial waters. His tasks involve escorting high-value ships to Jurong island, deterring pirates through its sheer presence, and protecting military ships. Again, the MSTF is on watch 24/7.
Second Sergeant Mohd Rilwan, a section commander at the 6th Singapore Infantry Regiment (6 SIR), has been trained to protect vital petrochemical facilities on Jurong Island. Together with other agencies such as the Police Coast Guard (PCG) and the Maritime Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), 6 SIR is part of the Island Defence Headquarters (IDHQ) - also on alert 24/7.
The ADOC, MSTF and IDHQ - as well as the recently announced Special Operations Task Force - might sound like new additions to acronym-mad Singapore. But they are in essence peacetime 'task forces', part of the 'high readiness core' of the 3G SAF. While task forces such as the IDHQ and MSTF see 'action' at the low end of the threat spectrum, the 'full force potential' of the SAF will be unveiled at the high end of the spectrum.
The high-readiness core has already seen action outside of Singapore. Over the past decade, servicemen have been sent for reconstruction and peacekeeping operations in war-torn countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Timor Leste. The high-readiness core has also participated in a series of humanitarian relief and disaster relief operations: In Thailand and Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami that wreaked widespread destruction; and more recently, in China following the Sichuan earthquake and Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis.
Such deployments are classified as Operations Other Than War (OOTW). Taken together, they show that the strong, silent sentinel of the past has now become fully switched on across a variety of high-profile 'missions' - or what SAF officers like to call 'full spectrum operations'.
As Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean observed at a security conference last year: 'The security challenges we face (today) are multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. They come from '360 degrees'. Many of the new security challenges are also transnational in nature and require multilateral cooperation. Issues such as energy security and food and water security affect us all.'
This in itself represents a sea change in thinking. Traditionally, militaries were trained for conventional conflicts. But since the turn of the century, so-called non-traditional security threats - such as energy security, terrorism, piracy and climate change - have forced militaries to reflect on and reconsider their roles.
For example, after the 2004 tsunami, the United States aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, which was steaming towards Iraq to carry out combat missions, was diverted to become the American headquarters for relief operations in Indonesia. In recent years, the Pentagon has sought to reconfigure its military forces for use across a 'spectrum' of missions, including some 'soft' ones such as disaster relief and medical support. The Bundeswehr, or German armed forces, also practises 'full-spectrum operations'.
Full-spectrum operations and OOTW engender a benefit for militaries like the SAF. Historically, militaries faced two outcomes: If deterrence held, there was no need for active defence - and as a result, capabilities were not tested or sharpened. And if deterrence failed, there would be a need for defence, and as a result, military skills were tested.
OOTW straddles both possibilities and falls between two stools, as it were: On the one hand, since the military is deployed on a variety of missions, its fighting edge and operational readiness are maintained. But on the other hand, the gunpowder is kept dry for there is no all-out war.
In toto, OOTW and full-spectrum operations sound laudable. Sceptics, however, argue that the 3G SAF is basically an offshoot of the Revolution of Military Affairs (RMA), which focuses on high technology applied to the business of war. As such, high-tech military hardware cannot be brought to bear in low-tech environments such as disaster relief or national reconstruction. Can a Leopard main battle tank, for example, be used for humanitarian assistance?
SAF officers counter that the 3G SAF - and RMA in general - are not merely about the application of high-technology platforms per se, but involve also a fundamental reconceptualisation of ideas in the military sphere.
Specifically, the SAF's RMA is represented by the 'brains' of its transformation: Integrated Knowledge-based Command and Control (IKC2). As was described in the first part of this series last week, IKC2 - or, as the joke in the SAF goes, 'I can see too' - comprises four components: power to the edge, fighting as a system of systems, superior force structuring and enhanced decision-making. All four components are evident in the various task forces. Moreover, since every mission the task forces are deployed on is unique, the four core components can be constantly honed and the forces can acquire greater flexibility.
For example, within the MSTF, there is enhanced decision-making because all the agencies involved - naval units, the MPA, PCG, Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and Singapore Customs - get the same 'operating picture' of Singapore's waters.
In addition, the MSTF can operate as a 'system of systems'. When confronted with a potential maritime threat, it can 'mix and match', drawing upon the resources of the rest of the SAF - say, helicopters and chemical, biological, radiological and explosive (CBRE) units - as well as those of other civilian agencies under the MSTF umbrella.
These IKC2 concepts have also been applied to IDHQ, which is responsible for protecting vital installations such as Jurong island and Changi Airport. When confronted with a potential threat - say a suspect bumboat heading into a gazetted area near his observation tower on Jurong island - 2nd Sgt Rilwan can call on either a PCG vessel patrolling near him or a wider network of resources in IDHQ. Such empowerment of frontline units is termed 'power to the edge'.
Another IKC2 principle is superior force structuring - the ability to cobble together task forces to suit particular missions. ADOC, for example, was formed in 2007 after a shake-up within the RSAF. The reorganisation of the RSAF into five commands - including ADOC - was its most radical since its formation in 1968.
Previously, the RSAF had fighter jets on different airbases reporting to different base commanders. This meant that fighter pilots trained well only among themselves. With the shake-up, the RSAF can now participate in a slew of joint operations with the army and navy, and even with civilian agencies like the police, in say, counter-terrorism.
'The reorganisation is very bold. The RSAF has moved from base commands to functional, mission-based commands. Not many air forces have got the guts to do it,' said Brigadier-General Lee Shiang Long, head of the SAF's Joint Communications and Information Systems Department. The ability to configure task forces together - and quickly - is a marked change from the 2G SAF, where the three services (army, navy and air force) largely operated on their own to hone their competencies. Now, the three services can operate jointly - the military catchword being 'interoperability'.
Following the 2004 tsunami, for example, Operation Flying Eagle assembled humanitarian assistance and disaster relief units and got them ready for deployment within 48 to 72 hours. In April, the SAF task force sent to the Gulf of Aden comprised elements from the three services: a Landing Ship Tank, two Super Puma helicopters and 240 personnel.
This 'configurable', Lego-like ability ensures that the SAF can put together the necessary elements for a variety of missions, said BG Ng Chee Meng, the SAF's director of joint operations. 'We seek to exploit the spectrum of capabilities available to the SAF, and put these forces together to achieve the outcome. It's not throwing army units, navy units, air force units to sort out the issue,' he said.
Agreeing, BG Philip Lim, chief armour officer, said this ability to 'plug and play' will be a critical component of all future operations, be they conventional or unconventional like in humanitarian relief and disaster relief.
Countering sceptics who say high- tech RMA cannot address unconventional problems, BG Lim said it was precisely the thinking behind the SAF's IKC2 philosophy - in particular its 'system of systems' concept - that enabled Operation Flying Eagle to be put in action so expeditiously.
'I would say that increasingly for OOTW, the ability to plug and play is becoming more important because the spectrum of operations is very diverse.
'You'd never know when you would need engineer units to work together with special forces, plus a medical team ... If units were not networked, they cannot talk to one another, and you would find that you cannot rapidly put teams together and deploy,' said BG Lim.
SAF officers acknowledge that this ability to configure task forces quickly has gone through a learning curve. For one thing, given that task forces like the IDHQ and MSTF employ SAF assets together with other civilian agencies, there is the possibility of organisational cultures clashing. While the military uses map coordinates for its operations, for example, the police uses road maps.
All these issues, however, accentuate the need for a 3G SAF that is highly adaptable for a variety of missions. 'The SAF really is designed and built for the defence of Singapore and so it has...very conventional, traditional capabilities,' said BG (NS) Ravinder Singh, Deputy Secretary (Technology) at Mindef.
But newer missions such as counter- terrorism, anti-piracy and humanitarian assistance show that the SAF has 'recognised that there is a new trajectory', he added.
This is the second part of the 3G SAF series. The third part will be published next Thursday.