Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Survival of Singapore still dependent on NS

As the country looks to the next 50 years, Singaporeans must not allow popular or short-term benefits to undermine the fabric of the NS system. NS must prevail and remain credible. Photo: Tristan Loh


JULY 1, 2015

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has started to commemorate “SAF50” — in conjunction with SG50, the Republic’s golden jubilee on Aug 9 — with a major SAF Day Parade, to be held today. While this is a time to rejoice, it is also timely to reflect on the role of National Service (NS). This is especially so, given the calls by some Singaporeans on social media and Internet forums for NS to be shortened or done away with, so that the SAF becomes an all-regular force. Others argue that enlistees ought to be given a choice on what they want to do while serving NS.

I wonder if 50 years of peace have lured some Singaporeans into complacency. Have we forgotten the constant threats that we face? Years back, it was the possibility that our water supply could be cut off. Today, it is the aim of militant groups to create an Islamic Caliphate in the entire South-east Asian archipelago.

I hope my three grandsons, now aged between three and 13, will serve NS in its current form, and that NS will at least continue for the next 50 years. Why?

We have often been told that Singapore lacks physical “strategic depth” due to its small size. The city-state measures not more than 50km by 26km.

I am reminded of a conversation once between the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, Singapore’s first Defence Minister, and a senior Israeli military adviser on what would constitute a threat to the Republic. The adviser said a light mortar (which, in those days, had a maximum range of 4.6km) when fired into Singapore from across the Causeway would be deemed a threat. As young officers then, we would add that even a general-purpose machine gun, with an effective range of 1km, would be considered a threat.

This realisation pushed us to move rapidly from a purely defensive force to one that can carry the conflict, through power projection, beyond Singapore’s territory. This capability is a strategic imperative, as the Republic, because of its reliance on commerce and trade, can be “choked” to death. The country could perish even without being physically invaded.

It took Singapore more than 15 years from independence until 1981 to build the SAF from scratch to become a credible defence force, from when it held its first large-scale division exercise overseas to the present day, when it is seen as a well-oiled armed forces capable of projecting power externally.


It is easy and convenient to say that with the current technology available to the SAF, it can afford to wind down and reduce the training commitment of national servicemen, on the assumption that technology can take over some of the roles played by soldiers. This is an erroneous argument.

The SAF’s ability to project combat power depends on two critical elements. The first is firepower, which incorporates defence equipment with advanced technology. The second and, I would argue, more critical element is manpower. This means boots on the ground. And here, we are not just talking about mere numbers, which a credible armed forces certainly needs in order to form its divisions and the entire gamut of supporting elements. It is critical that troops be well-disciplined and prepared, and this can only be the result of tough and realistic training.

An all-regular force is a non-starter, as Singapore’s economy can ill afford the large numbers needed for such an existential capability.

It is, therefore, the NSmen who form the bedrock of a force capable of power projection.

The hope is that Singapore will not have to demonstrate this capability in a war, but continue to use it to help others in humanitarian missions. The last time the SAF significantly projected its ships, aircraft and troops was in humanitarian missions in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

An SAF capable of power projection is a critical component of Singapore’s total defence, along with diplomacy and economic security. Together, they give assurance to Singaporeans that the Republic can survive a crisis, because it has international leverage and friends, sufficient money to ride out rough times, and the necessary defence capabilities to overcome threats.

More importantly, an SAF that can project power externally enhances Singapore’s conceptual strategic depth, a belief system that citizens hold about the security and survival of the state.

Singaporeans acutely know that they are disadvantaged, as the country is a small state with a lack of physical strategic depth. If Singaporeans had not been extraordinary, they would not have survived. The Republic has also benefited from a peaceful and development-oriented South-east Asia during its first 30 years, and for that, we should thank former Indonesian President Suharto.

Singapore made good use of the first few decades after its independence to strengthen its security, notably in the areas of diplomacy, building its financial reserves and establishing a credible SAF.

As the country looks to the next 50 years, Singaporeans must not allow popular or short-term benefits to undermine the fabric of the NS system. NS must prevail, given Singapore’s unique circumstances, and must remain credible. This can come about only through tough and realistic training, both technically and tactically, at all levels of command. Field manoeuvres at the brigade and division levels must be had regularly to hone the skills and judgment of the commanders. There are no shortcuts.

NS will also contribute significantly to the integration of male citizens and second-generation permanent residents through shared values and experiences. Thus, it is important to continue to uphold the sanctity of national-defence obligations. NS, in its present form, will remain relevant, and if we acknowledge this reality, it will continue to be the bedrock of Singapore’s future security, survival and success.


BG (Ret) Law Chwee Kiat served 30 years in the SAF. He retired from active service in 2000 and his last appointment was Commander, Training and Doctrine Command.

SAF reorganising to tackle challenge of hybrid warfare



SINGAPORE — Against the backdrop of a shrinking military force and neighbouring countries boosting their defence budgets, Singapore is modernising its defence systems and gearing up to meet the challenge of hybrid warfare.

Besides boosting the existing fleet of motorised vessels in the air force and navy, new unmanned systems for land will also be introduced, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in a media interview last Friday ahead of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Day tomorrow (July 1).

The proportion of motorised vehicles in the army will go up from the current 25 per cent to 50 per cent, and could increase even more, he added.

[With our ageing population, SG may have the first soldiers in wheelchair - All-terrain, machine-gun armed, armoured wheelchairs. ]

“Demography is our largest challenge,” he said, noting that the number of conscripts will fall by a third in the next 15 years.

But the SAF’s strategy has never been to compete on numbers, he said.

“That would be the weakest basis to compete, because that’s what we lack. But it’s always been with superior skills and knowledge, intelligence, information and technology.”

The SAF is also looking at new infantry vehicles and ships that combine both manned and unmanned systems which the lean force can optimise to its advantage, he said.

For instance, the recently acquired Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, artillery systems and lean frigates can be operated with a fraction of the manpower their predecessors required.

“(It’s about) integrating systems so you have multiplier effects, (with) small teams which are able to see first and effect quicker, and able to call on the resources of the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy at one time.”

Dr Ng said that based on projections until 2050, there is no need to extend the two-year National Service stint or make it obligatory for women “at this point in time”.

“But it does mean that our systems will require national servicemen to do more things (and) take on higher responsibilities,” he said.

The SAF’s efforts to overhaul its systems have also allowed more regulars and national servicemen — including those who are less combat fit — to be deployed in areas which require more intelligence, such as the Cyber-Defence Operations Hub set up two years ago.

MINDEF will scale up deployment in cyber operations as the threat of hybrid wars rise, Dr Ng said.

As a small country and an open economy subject to varying influences, Singapore is particularly susceptible to hybrid warfare, he said, adding that the SAF has already begun to re-organise and acquire new capabilities to meet this challenge.

“It can cripple your systems. It can steal your secrets. It can give misinformation to your people so that it affects morale. This is exactly what we saw…in Ukraine and Crimea.”

Dr Ng also highlighted rising nationalism among Asian countries — particularly large economies like China, India and Indonesia — as another challenge, noting that defence spending in the region has outstripped Europe.

“The clarion call is that our country must rise, our country must protect our interests. In that context, the very optimism that this is an Asian century (where) you are able to determine your own future and you have harnessed bigger resources for your own nation...But obviously, things can also go wrong, as it has in Europe, and other parts of the world… When that happens, small countries suffer first and predominantly.”

As a small country with a “primarily deterrent” military, Singapore maintains close relationships with neighbouring countries, he said.

“Whether it is the Malaysian Armed Forces or Tentara Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian National Armed Forces), they are close interactions that we do… many of the (transnational) problems will mean we have to do it collaboratively with other militaries,” he said.

While the SAF must continue to transform its systems to manage new challenges in complex environments, Dr Ng stressed that it is important for younger soldiers to identify with the ethos of a strong defence force.

Singapore’s pioneer soldiers, having undergone suppression under the colonial rule and Japanese Occupation, were “thoroughly convicted” that Singapore has to be defended. The same resolve and grit must be passed on to future generations, he said.

“These bitter and painful lessons they experienced first-hand etched in them a deep conviction… they learnt that you can only own what you can defend. If you can’t defend it, you don’t own it… It was a simple, clear, fundamental tenet of living that they learnt.”

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