Thursday, August 20, 2009

3G SAF (6): Evolution in revolution

Aug 20, 2009
By William Choong

WALKING into this sprawling facility, one would think it was the stomping ground of Q, the character in James Bond movies who supplies the spy with high-tech thingamajigs.

The facility hosts a bank of computers perched on tables in addition to a mass of wires, junction boxes and plasma displays. One room, with its banks of computers and massive heads-up radar displays of the Singapore Strait, tests command and control configurations for the Maritime Security Task Force.

In another room, the computers are equipped with what PC gamers would re-cognise to be the military-grade version of first person shooter games such as Counterstrike. Many of the lessons gleaned from this room have already been incorporated into the Army's Advanced Combat Man System, essentially a battlefield computer for infantrymen.

The most engaging display is a humanoid robot. Nearly 2m tall, it can walk, turn, climb stairs and even drop a ball into one's hand. The Terminator wannabe is still a work-in-progress, but in the distant future, it could be deployed in risky combat missions.

The facility houses the Singapore Armed Forces' Centre for Military Experimentation (SCME), which tests new war-fighting concepts for the SAF. The

SCME, in turn, is part of the Future Systems Directorate, which is responsible for coming up with new fighting concepts and getting a good 'sense' of the future.

'The SCME is...a place to seek new ideas, test them and, if (they are) found useful, then bring the capability to the SAF,' says Brigadier-General Tan Yih San, the SAF's Future Systems Architect.

In some way, the SCME - which was formed in 2003 - mirrors the development of the Third-Generation (3G) SAF, which also came of age after years of rigorous testing and validation. The new-look SAF, in turn, borrowed heavily from the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that has entranced militaries around the world since the awesome display of American technological superiority during the the first Gulf War in 1991.

The RMA anthem was summed up nicely by Admiral William Owens, vice-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1994 to 1996. He contended that emerging technologies and 'information dominance' would eliminate the two immutables of war that Carl von Clausewitz specified: 'friction' (that is, Murphy's Law) and the 'fog of war' (the inability to get a total view of the battlefield). In short, Admiral Owens argued that getting a God's-eye view of the battlefield would enable American forces to 'win the war'.

The arguments of RMA optimists are compelling. But has RMA changed the nature of warfare or merely its face?

The debate revolves around two schools of thought. One believes that the outcome of any war, even a high-tech one, is driven by 'one great principle'. For Antoine Henri de Jomini, Napoleon's aide-de-camp, that 'great principle' involved throwing the mass of one's forces against the 'decisive point' of the enemy. RMA optimists are in essence modern-day Jominians, arguing that the nature of war has changed, with information dominance as the new 'one great principle'.

In the other camp, Clausewitz's disciples contend that the outcome of war is driven by no great principle, given the prevalence of fog and friction. While cognisant of the benefits of high technology, they argue that war remains an inherently human and fallible enterprise. Technology has not simplified warfare; it has only made it more complex.

Put simply, Clausewitzians would argue that RMA has changed only the face, while the Jominians would argue that it has changed the nature of war. Clausewitzians remain unconvinced of the benefits of RMA.

'As political entities, social networks, economic organisations and technological systems change, so too must the character of war. But the nature of war remains the same: a clash of wills that requires one side to cry uncle before the other side can raise its arms in a victory pose,' argues Dr Bernard Loo, a defence analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

As we mentioned in the first part of this series, high technology in warfare can be affected by tactical, operational and, most importantly, strategic factors.

At the tactical level, information systems dependent on networks are susceptible to the vulnerability of such systems. As US strategist Thomas Barnett argues, networks' fast data processing times can make commanders slaves to their computers, leading them to shoot first and ask questions later.

Furthermore, it should be noted that computer networks are never infallible. In 1960, an early-warning radar in the North American Aerospace Defence Command (Norad) headquarters warned of a massive Soviet ballistic missile strike on the United States. A glitch in the computer system had removed two zeros from the radar's ranging instruments, causing it to detect what it believed was a possible missile attack at 2,500 miles (4,023km). Incredibly, the radar had detected a reflection from the moon, located 250,000 miles away.

At the operational level, Clausewitzians would argue that war - even informationised war - is inevitably caught up in the realm of chance and friction. And even if informationised armies can lift the fog of war, near-perfect (or even perfect) information does not necessarily mean correct perception.

Scholars cite an important finding from the literature on surprise in war: Surprise is not due to the lack of information per se, but rather, the cognitive and organisational factors that cause true and accurate information to be mishandled. This problem will only be exacerbated when more powerful sensors collect more chaff as well as wheat.

Commanders can enjoy a God's-eye view of the battlefield. But as they are buffeted by the stress and fatigue of war, they may be predisposed to see in ambiguous data what they expect to see or want to see. Possessing a God's-eye view of the battlefield does not necessarily imply that one would have God-like wisdom.

Professor Stephen Biddle, an acknowledged critic of RMA, notes that during Operation Anaconda in 2002, American commanders looking at live video footage from reconnaissance drones thought they were seeing American soldiers on a mountain in Afghanistan. In reality, they were seeing Al-Qaeda fighters.

At the strategic level, RMA sceptics note the following: RMAs may help win battles; but even if they do, it does not follow that they will help win wars - that is, achieve political goals.

As Prof Colin Gray, an international relations scholar and Clausewitzian, argues, strategy entails the use or threat of force (the means) in order to achieve certain policy ends. Given that strategy is the 'bridge' between ends and means, the application of RMA in war needs to be translated into politically defined goals.

Many SAF officers interviewed for this series are aware of the arguments of RMA sceptics and are circumspect themselves about the putative benefits of RMA. They argue, however, that it is unfair for sceptics to use Clausewitzian arguments against RMA.

'RMA is about the means,' notes Rear-Admiral Joseph Leong, the SAF's Head of Joint Plans and Transformation. 'Clausewitz is talking about strategy - linking means to political ends. So he is absolutely right. But whether RMA works or does not work, it has nothing to do with whether it is inherently relevant or irrelevant. It is how you apply it,' he said.

He has a valid point. But even a competent application of RMA can sometimes result in huge losses.

In his 2002 work, Strategy for Chaos: RMAs And The Evidence of History, Prof Gray argues that even RMAs in Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany and the Soviet Union were defeated subsequently by 'political contexts of their own malign creation which they could not evade'. Napoleon's France, for example, was eventually defeated by countries like Great Britain and Prussia - which had learnt from the French RMA and adapted to it.

MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray - two former US military officers who have become scholars - argue that RMAs are useful only if they provide a 'clear strategic context' for victory - that is, if they can be used to compel an enemy to do one's will. A lack of such context led technologically superior US forces in Vietnam to flounder against a lesser foe.

Some scholars suggest there is a Newtonian action-and-reaction dynamic at work: Because war is a duel between two adaptable opponents, every successful technological innovation that gives a dominant military advantage to one party will occasion a countervailing response that shifts the advantage to the opponent.

Again, SAF officers acknowledge such arguments. But they point out that this means the SAF will have to continue evolving and learning from the strengths and weaknesses of Singapore's own RMA. A Revolution in Military Affairs, in other words, will have to be a permanent revolution in order to remain viable.

Moreover, they point out, the SAF does not confront the same threats the US does. And given the high literacy rate and technology savviness of National Service enlistees, new technologies can be absorbed quickly down the ranks.

Former chief armour officer Philip Lim points out that the 3G SAF is developing a new slew of capabilities to retain its edge in the region. At the same time, it has sought to guard against triggering a regional arms race.

What if potential enemies, in particularly those using asymmetrical tactics, adapt and work around successful RMAs? BG Lim's rejoinder: The SAF just has to develop more options to defeat potential foes even as they adapt.

If the SAF can strike at its enemies from the ground, they might erect a defensive barrier. But if the SAF can strike both from the ground and the air, they would have to erect multiple barriers, says BG Lim, who is now the Chief of Staff, General Staff (Army).

'If you are able to network multiple options together, you would make it more complicated for (the enemy) to come up with multi-defensive asymmetrical strategies. So we have (to have) more options as he develops more options,' he adds.

Adding perspective, BG Ng Chee Meng, formerly the SAF's Director of Joint Operations, says that while RMA ideas can be revolutionary, their successful implementation takes time.

'The word 'transformation' sounds quite nice, but I always believe that it's actually evolutionary transformation. I don't really think there's actually something called the RMA. In thinking maybe, but in implementation it's evolutionary,' says BG Ng, who is now the deputy chief of the Air Force.

In the long run, the major challenge for the 3G SAF is not the introduction of high technology per se. The major challenge is something decidedly more low-tech: changing the mindsets of soldiers. They need to adapt to new technologies and leverage them to the hilt, say senior officers.

A classic example involves railroads used for transporting the US space shuttle. The width of the railroad gauges was set at 4 feet and 8.5 inches simply because the railroads were designed by English expatriates who had based the width of the railroad on the width of the roads built by Romans. And the Romans, in turn, had built their roads to fit their chariots, which were made wide enough for the posteriors of two horses.

In other words, as one former SAF senior commander quips, a major design specification of the world's most advanced transportation system was 'decided over 2,000 years the width of a horse's ass'.

Says BG Lim: 'If you give a computer to a typist and do not change her mindset, she uses it as a typewriter. But if there's a change in mindset, the typist will change and evolve, moving the computer into word processing, into an office, and beyond office into a network. Even leaders need to change mindsets.'

The Revolution in Military Affairs must ultimately involve a Revolution in Military Mindsets.

This is the final instalment of the 3G SAF series.

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