By David Boey
WHEN Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel are called upon to defend their country, there would be few - if any - Singaporeans who would question the relevance of Singapore's military strength.
But the SAF's readiness and the commitment of its soldiers, sailors and airmen should not be taken for granted. The combat capabilities currently deployed took years of steady investments to raise, train and sustain.
Consider the Commando Special Operations Force (SOF) that stormed Singapore Airlines flight SQ 117 at Changi Airport on March 26, 1991 and saved 123 passengers and crew. Four Pakistani hijackers had threatened to kill one hostage every 10 minutes unless their demands were met. They gave the Singapore authorities five minutes to decide what to do. Three minutes into the countdown, the SOF settled the issue by killing all four hijackers.
The operation, codenamed Thunderbolt, marked the first time the SAF resolved a hijacking with deadly force. The operation also marked the first occasion when an SAF unit was deployed for operations even before its existence was publicly acknowledged. The veil of secrecy over the SOF was lifted only on Feb 20, 1997, nearly six years after the SQ117 rescue and some 13 years after the SOF was formed in April 1984.
Among the Singapore Army's fighters, SOF troopers are probably the most expensive soldiers to train, organise, equip and support. Yet the Ministry of Defence argued that they were a necessary investment.
A year after the elite unit was formed in 1984, independent Singapore endured its first economic recession. But the unit's development continued unabated, nevertheless. Had Mindef opted for what was financially expedient rather than what was operationally prudent, the SQ 117 rescue - executed years later - might have had a very different outcome.
Two operations flown by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) further demonstrate how defence capabilities can be called upon decades after they were first established.
The RSAF set up 122 Squadron to fly C-130 Hercules medium-lift tactical airlifters in 1977. The squadron's years of experience in flight operations, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief flights around the region, paid off in October 1990 during Operation Nightingale, when two C-130s flew medical supplies to Jordan. Iraq had invaded Kuwait that August and 122 Squadron was tasked to deliver 23 tonnes of medical supplies to the United Nations Disaster Relief Organisation in Jordan.
The second operation occurred in July 1997, when 122 Squadron evacuated more than 400 Singaporeans from Phnom Penh when the security situation in the Cambodian capital deteriorated. Two waves of air evacuations were carried out during Operation Crimson Angel using C-130s protected by commandos.
As these examples show, it may take decades for people to appreciate the value of defence investments. However, the lack of such investment can become apparent in a much shorter time. This is because hostile elements can be quick to exploit gaps or shortcomings in Singapore's defences.
Take the piracy problem, which plagued Singapore's defence planners in the 1980s. Attacks by sea raiders at places like East Coast Park, West Coast Park and Tuas made the headlines in the 1980s, showing that sea robbers had found loopholes in Singapore's seaward defences. Singapore paid the price for an ill-defined maritime strategy.
The situation today is markedly different. Round-the-clock surveillance of Singapore's territorial waters by naval patrols and sensors like radars, air surveillance by shore-based Fokker 50 maritime patrol aircraft and cooperation with regional navies send a signal of Singapore's determination to safeguard its shores. But attacks recorded in nearby sea lanes prove that pirates continue to prowl regional seas. Strip away the assets of the Republic of Singapore Navy and the sea robbers will surely return to our shores. Dare we take that chance?
A balanced budget
THE operations cited above do not mean that Mindef should command an unlimited budget. Neither should one expect our nation's elected representatives to be mute witnesses to the SAF's transformation into a 3rd Generation fighting force.
Questions on financial stewardship will ensure that Singapore gets the maximum bang for every defence dollar that is spent. Defence planners should indeed explain how the 6 per cent of GDP that Mindef spends is spent wisely.
However, it is important to ensure that long-term defence capabilities are protected, no matter what the short-term economic conditions. Capability erosion could easily come about through cyclical variations in defence spending.
One must appreciate that combat capabilities for the SAF's land, sea and air units take years to attain full battle readiness from the time new hardware is introduced. Indecisive defence funding would not only send a weak deterrent message, it could also hamper Singapore's defence posture through less realistic training or less capable defence equipment.
The writer was this newspaper's defence correspondent. An earlier version of this article appeared in Pioneer, the SAF's monthly magazine.