Spirited defence at the heart of 3G SAF
By Jermyn Chow
WHEN tankee Master Sergeant Alvin Tan honed his gunnery skills in the past, he had to repeat the drill more than 10 times a day - amid grime, sweat and dirt. That is how he got a better handle of the 75mm gun in the SM1 tank.
Now, when the national serviceman goes for his in-camp training every year, he finds his targets in the crosshairs of a computer screen - in the comfort of an air-conditioned room.
This is quite a change, said the former regular who left the service in 1996. 'We spent most of our time repeating the drills until they became second nature. Now it's more about remembering which buttons to press and which screen to look at.'
Like Master Sgt Tan, most NSmen in their 30s and 40s would reminisce about charging up Peng Kang Hill carrying their rifles, 200 rounds and two grenades.
The foot soldier's only line of communication to his superiors then was an ageing radio set. He saw nothing beyond what lay before his eyes. Targets were plotted manually on physical maps.
But this changed five years ago, when the SAF embarked on the journey to transform itself into a third-generation (3G) fighting force. The 3G SAF's arsenal of high-tech platforms - stealth frigates, cutting-edge F-15 jets and Leopard main battle tanks - are all linked by a sophisticated network of sensors and communications systems.
This means that the 3G SAF soldier has practically the firepower of the entire armed forces in his backpack. Taking out the enemy - via artillery, fighter plane or main battle tank - can be accomplished within a matter of seconds.
Given the 'transformation' the SAF has undergone in recent years, an observer might think the 3G SAF is nothing but a high-tech fighting force. But that would be a mistake.
By themselves, the new weapon systems do not deliver the 'silver bullet'. As Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean remarked in an interview recently: 'You can't fight wars with electronics.'
The interaction of technology and the military throughout history is replete with examples of how human factors decided the outcome of various wars. During Israel's defence of the Golan Heights in the 1993 Yom Kippur War, for example, well-trained soldiers - backed up by only 150 tanks - repelled a massive Syrian force comprising 1,400 tanks.
Keenly aware of how critical the human element is, the SAF has poured massive resources into honing the skills and fighting spirit of its soldiers.
Having access to a steady stream of highly educated and tech-savvy enlistees has helped. Many soldiers would have seen 'frontline action' - albeit of the video and computer-game variety - before they were 'married' to their SAR 21 assault rifles during basic military training.
In the 2G SAF, the rank-and-file soldier was typically Singapore's equivalent of America's GI Joe: A hokkien peng whose educational qualification consisted either of O levels or below, and whose preferred language was not English but Hokkien. Now, about 75 per cent of enlistees are A-level graduates or polytechnic diploma holders. Most will eventually get their bachelor degrees.
The SAF recently revamped the career tracks of its regulars. One important change will allow them to further their studies in areas such as military history and engineering.
In toto, the SAF is one of the most 'educated' militaries in the world. As its future systems architect, Brigadier-General Tan Yih San, has noted, every 3G SAF soldier has an innate ability to soak up reams of information and act on them.
'Every one of them can potentially be a general. In more ways than one, that is our comparative advantage,' said BG Tan.
Understandably, a soldier's educational qualifications alone do not make him a warrior. Many from the 2G SAF remember the fighting spirit and espirit de corps of the hokkien peng fondly.
But in the 3G SAF, fluid geopolitical conditions, a glut of high-tech military hardware and different operational scenarios require highly adaptable soldiers.
First Warrant Officer (Ret) Lim Eng Beng would know. The secondary school dropout could speak only Hokkien and Mandarin when he joined the military in 1971. Today, he is one of the most prolific instructors within the Signals formation. His expertise includes devising the SAF's communication systems and imparting knowledge to younger soldiers.
Leveraging on the IT expertise of full-time national servicemen under him, 1WO (Ret) Lim wrote a computer program that captured the location reporting of SAF units by radio.
Said BG Lee Shiang Long, head of the SAF's Joint Communications and Information Systems Department and formerly its chief signals officer: 'It is a simple and useful software.'
'But this fellow did not let his educational background limit him. Instead, he continued to cheong (push ahead). Actually, there are some of such people around,' said BG Lee.
Said 57-year-old 1WO (Ret) Lim: 'Age is not an issue when you want to learn - so you don't become redundant.'
Such eagerness to learn and contribute to the military is among the attributes that the SAF's leadership envisions for its soldiers in the battlefield of the future. Ultimately, it is the individual soldier's ability to hold up in face-to-face combat that matters.
Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz was dead right when he defined war as a contest of opposing wills. In the light of this oft-quoted dictum, a military's technological edge must not blind us to the human element.
A good illustration of this truth was provided by the former Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Within 10 years, the technologically superior Soviets were forced to withdraw, defeated by the poorly equipped mujahideen - some of whom were armed with primitive flintlock muskets - who believed that they would go to heaven if they died killing Russians.
If war is indeed a contest of wills, this means that there is very little that separates a clash between two club-wielding cavemen from a clash between two network-centric forces. Victory in either instance would turn to which side has the stronger will to win. Bolstering this rather esoteric element - what Clausewitz called 'moral' or 'spiritual' factors - stands out as among the most critical factors in war.
This recognition has enforced a duality of purpose in the 3G SAF: On the one hand, there is the determined upping of the technological quotient; on the other, there is acknowledgement that the souped-up technology is driven by men, and not vice-versa.
Put differently, the heart of the nimble fighting force remains the individual soldier. It is his gut, guile and wits that will see the battle through. As one Israeli general has noted, it is not the armour or the gun but 'the man behind the gun in the tank that makes the difference'.
To this end, the SAF is training its soldiers and commanders to become more than just competent operators of state- of-art weapons and gadgets. Instead, the 3G soldier, airman or seaman is trained to think about the larger implications of his actions - beyond land, air and sea.
'We know the higher intent and how our actions contribute to the higher scheme of things,' said Second-Lieutenant Andrew Ong, who was commissioned as an officer in June. The commando added that trainees are left alone to plan their missions, 'without much hand-holding'.
Instructors weigh in only after the mission so that trainees can 'learn from their own mistakes', said 2nd Lt Ong.
Commandant of Safti Military Institute Jimmy Tan said the 3G soldier should not be a yes-man who just follows orders. 'It is no longer: I tell you to go and you go.'
BG Jimmy Tan added that commanders expect a diversity of voices from among Singapore's increasingly better-educated soldiers. 'We want them to take ownership and sound off if they think they have a better solution to a problem.'
On the flipside, of course, these 'thinking soldiers' may ask too many questions and be too slow to exploit their superior situational awareness over enemy units and hit them hard.
SAF has thankfully kept its gunpowder dry, but its strategy to train and equip formidable defenders of the nation seems to be paying off. It has held its own, if not impressed, bigger militaries like those of Britain and the United States in bilateral exercises.
SAF officers have also been given command positions in multinational missions. Recently, a Republic of Singapore Navy officer was asked to take charge of an international anti-piracy patrol force fighting escalating violence in the waters off Somalia.
Should the SAF be called upon to unleash its firepower, its soldiers will win because 'they have everything' to outwit and outlast their enemy, BG Tan Yih San said.
In the end, however, high-technology in the business of war can get us only so far. When war breaks out, the individual soldier's training, adaptability, and most importantly, will to fight, will be called to account.
It might sound tautological, but only real war feels like real war. On the beaches of Normandy in World War II, nearly a fifth of the battle casualties were psychological in origin. An officer in the 1st Scots Guards in that war reported: 'How I hate shells. I have seen strong, courageous men reduced to whimpering wrecks, crying like children.'
BG Tan Yih San and his colleagues are cognisant of this. The SAF will win in potential conflicts, but only if individual soldiers 'have the will to go the extra mile just to beat the other guy'.
Ensuring the mettle of the individual soldier is the one constant in the SAF's ongoing modernisation. As BG Tan Yih San put it: '1G, 2G, 3G, even 4 or 5G, I dare say it will not change. What has changed is of course that the soldier will have more tools under his charge.'
This is the fifth article in a series of six on the 3G SAF.
The last part will be published on Aug 20.