Sunday, September 28, 2014

Innovations in defence: Malaysia Boleh

When the Royal Malaysian Navy was tasked to conduct anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, it cranked into action plans to convert civilian-flagged vessels into naval auxiliaries.

The two ships, Bunga Mas Lima and Bunga Mas Enam, exemplify the British concept of Ships Taken Up From Trade or STUFT, a concept for harnessing civil resources as military assets that was demonstrated with decisive effect by the British Royal Navy during the Falklands/Malvinas War in 1982.

This gem of an idea by the Malaysians is but one of many examples of the innovative spirit in defence science and engineering north of the Causeway. The speed with which the MISC ships were role-changed for a naval role, given a fresh coat of haze gray warpaint and teeth in the form of naval helicopters tells us something about the level of the ops-tech integration in Malaysia's defence eco-system.

More recently, Malaysian Minister of Defence, Hishammuddin Hussein has said abandoned Petronas oil rigs off Sabah are to be given a new lease of life as forward operating bases. The converted rigs will be gifted to the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) as floating lily pads that can be used to generate and sustain the Malaysian military's presence and authority in the seas south of the Philippines that have been used by lawless elements to test Malaysian resolve.

Malaysia's plans for Petronas oil rigs hark back to the British idea of building platforms to defend the mouth of the River Thames against German air and seaborne intruders during World War Two. They also mirror the Iranian practice of using oil rigs to exert a military presence at sea.

When ESSCOM's assets are in place, Malaysian authorities are likely to welcome opportunities to square off the challenge. Knowing the level of training and motivation of Malaysian forces, such engagements are likely to be embarrassingly one-sided.

Closer to home, the raising of two battalions of Keris (Brazilian ASTROS II) multiple rocket launchers by the Malaysian Army shows that its defence strategists understand and appreciate the decisive impact that MRLs have in the confined battespace of peninsular Malaysia.

So while an MRL - a tactical level artillery asset - would hardly caused ripples when fielded by a European army (so vast are distances there), the weapon system is a tactical asset with strategic effect in the Malaysian Army's theatre of operations. In Europe, strategic weapon systems are subject to close monitoring and arms control protocols. But not so in Southeast Asia.

Clearly, someone in the Malaysian defence ecosystem must  have recognised the advantage that a mobile weapon system with a long reach can have during an Auto Strike situation when drawer plans must kick into action quickly to beat the reaction time of a hostile force as it mobilises from peace to war.

The addition of Metis M anti-tank missiles to Malaysia's war chest some years ago is noteworthy on two counts. Firstly, from an operational standpoint, the Metis missiles pack a punch as they have been designed to destroy modern main battle tanks like the Merkava. Secondly, from a force development standpoint, the in-service date for these hard-hitting missiles is indeed interesting to ponder over. Isn't it?

Alas, the Malaysians may not be masters of maximising public relations value from their defence innovations. They lack an annual Defence Technology Prize ceremony which lauds innovation, creativity and best practices in military technology. And while in Singapore, the Singapore Combat Engineers' idea for building a Floating Platform as an interim venue for our National Day Parades has been widely publicised, we have yet to see the Petronas oil rigs enjoy similar PR traction.

But just because you don't hear about their innovations, doesn't mean they have none to celebrate. Give credit where it is due. Well done Malaysia.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Unfinished business? Should the Singapore Armed Forces deploy to fight IS?

As the Americans scour the globe for an international coalition to fight the Islamic State (IS), it is only a matter of time before Gombak Drive receives a call to arms.

Singapore should be wary of any request(s) to commit the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) against IS forces, until and unless the United States demonstrates it is aware of the nature and complexity of the threat it faces in the theatre of operations.

At present, the rise of IS in Iraq and Syria has defied the slew of life-changing, post-9/11 counter terrorism measures devised to deter, detect and defeat the sort of nemesis that IS has come to represent.

The fact that IS has grown in stature and battlefield effectiveness to a sort of Foreign Legion for like-minded individuals indicates this is no self-radicalised group that somehow attained strength in numbers.

As yet, we do not know who their backers are. And these entities must have deep pockets, perhaps sustained by protection money from oil-rich Arab states in exchange for (temporary) immunity from the problems that have wracked some of their neighbours.

From a logistics standpoint, IS strategists must have mulled over and implemented plans, processes and procedures to rearm, refuel and resupply an estimated 31,000 combatants in a battlespace that spans the now none existent border between Iraq and Syria. In any language, this is a sizeable army, not some rag tag militia with no form or structure. They represent a credible army in the field with an unknown order of battle, funded in the face of heightened financial stringency that monitors everything from the Hawala system to the global financial system.

Until we unmask the threat, the strategy to exploit air supremacy over Syria and Iraq to hit IS positions doesn't have legs to stand on. If it succeeds, it will be one of the few case studies in the profession of arms where air power alone wins the fight.

No country seems willing to put skin in the game with boots on the ground.

Ground forces have taken the form of advisors tasked to train, organise and equip anti-IS forces. This game plan is fraught with folly principally because known one can tell for sure who will ultimately benefit from the training and arms infusion.

This is why Singapore should sit things out before joining the posse.

This is no Operation Blue Ridge redux. The downside risk of having SAF train and arm combatants who are not what they seem is uncomfortably high. We should not place our people in this ambiguous situation which, truth be told, can be traced  back to the US decision to invade Iraq years ago on unsubstantiated claims the then regime was dabbling in weapons of massed destruction.

If anything, the deployment could take the form of a single KC-135R aerial refuelling tanker or C-130 airlifter sent to help the anti-IS coalition sustain the aerial bombardment of hostile positions. But until we know who the warplanes are being deployed against, and that airpower isn't being used by an astute enemy (which has no air force) to bomb their rivals into oblivion, should we even do so blindly?

Singapore's contributions to past international peace support missions indicate we will not shy from adversity, from combat situations or from doing the "right thing" when it matters.

There's a time, place and purpose to everything. And the time is not right for Singapore to join the anti-IS coalition with the deployment of SAF ground forces.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Prospects for non grads in S'pore: Societal shift needed to accept unconventional pathways

When I left the Singapore school system more than 25 years ago with qualifications that earned me a rejection letter from a local university, that development was the best jump start to self-development and lifelong learning I could ask for.

Thanks to a Singaporean who made his own way up the career ladder without a degree, my unconventional academic journey was eventually recognised when he gave me a chance to prove myself in corporate life.

That individual, Mr S.R. Nathan, embodies the societal shift needed as we ponder the value and potential of non graduates versus graduates.

The year was 1996. The place: An office at Raffles City which Mr Nathan used as ambassador-at-large.

He looked through my job application for his then-new strategic studies institute without a word before raising his head and asking a single question: You have A Levels and then you went on to Masters. So you don't have a first degree?

Mr Nathan's perceptiveness saw the past five years of my life compressed into mere minutes, with the expectation that as far as job prospects were concerned, I would soon be shown the door. 

Had it been any other public servant, the show would probably be over. But Mr Nathan bade me to continue.

He listened intently as I described how A level results failed to book me a place at a local university.

He seemed intrigued with the decision to head to work after my full-time National Service, starting at the age of 22 as the Singapore correspondent for a UK-based defence weekly. I was then the youngest freelancer engaged by the magazine and learned what I could from seasoned defence journalists.

The years of freelance work for defence publications, an invitation to present a paper at a defence forum at the age of 23 eventually led to a British academic sketching out options for furthering one's studies overseas. Back in the United Kingdom, that academic shared my dream with colleagues who taught defence/strategic studies. Three were approached. Three wrote back. They hailed from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, King's College in London and the University of Hull. All were prepared to assess the application for a Masters programme.

And so, the paper chase moved into high gear.

The British publisher of the defence magazine -  then and now an influential voice in the British defence scene - supported the application. As did the Naval Attache from an embassy in Singapore. Their endorsements underscored the value not just of networking (which anyone can do), but of proving oneself to an international audience who can be discerning.  

And so, off I went to the UK for a course of study that leverage on what I assessed to be two strengths: in language and in military history/defence matters. In the early 1990s, Singapore's education system did not offer any courses in strategic studies to students outside the Singapore Armed Forces. This meant that the net had to be cast wide to countries that did offer such courses to civilians. Help came from unexpected quarters. At the time, when the National Defense University in the United States was downsizing its National Security Management courses due to budget cuts, a contact there mailed the entire series of Blue Book textbooks to me. This series of about a dozen books proved of immense value in laying the academic foundation so necessary for the Masters in Strategic Studies that I embarked on from September 1995.

Thanks to that piece of paper and with Mr Nathan's advice, I eventually joined Singapore Press Holdings as a daily-rated temp, converting to full-time employment six months later. I have not looked back since.

It wasn't all smooth sailing. The five years in the academic wilderness as a non graduate taught me who my real friends were. Some made scornful remarks about freelance work (try telling people you work from home), others were dismissive about strategic studies/war studies as they'd never heard of it (honestly, their views didn't matter and I gave up explaining what it was all about), others made disparaging remarks about non grads in the guise of offering unsolicited "advice" about university courses (have access to better qualified advisors, thank you). It was great to purge one's life of such characters.

Mr Nathan's willingness to look beyond conventional notions of academic pathways is precisely the societal mindset change needed as Singapore examines career opportunities for people without degrees. Beyond the recent burst of media stories of non graduates made good, Singapore Inc needs to walk the talk.

Our education system needs to reorientate itself quickly because the openness the British university admission system displayed 20 years ago when they were willing to consider work experience as a criteria for a Masters course is, alas, relatively unheard of in Singapore even today. British varsities are apparently not unique in their approach to assessing candidates. The US system is similarly inclined.

One can only wonder at the untold number of Singaporeans who have had their educational aspirations dashed by a system that needs to check the boxes so rigidly that individuals who do not conform to current concepts of talent management fall through the cracks.

The good news is this: Success stories of individuals who made it invariably have some common themes woven into their narrative. These include an innate stubborn belief in their ability to succeed no matter what, passion/drive in pursuing their course of action and a sense of realism in what can be done.

While some elements are within an individual's control, there is an added element of luck and in meeting the right people at the right time.

For me, the turning point emerged during that interview by Mr Nathan. And for that, I remain forever grateful.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Admin note: Blog postings

Hi everyone,
The month of August was a busy one and this resulted in the drop in attention paid to this blog.

The launch of an info management campaign for a Facebook page, drafting of corporate responses to a recent talking point all sapped opportunities for addressing defence-themed issues at the tempo seen months earlier.

However, these real world taskings provided invaluable opportunities for seeing info-management and corporate reputation management at work in addressing hearts-and-minds issues and in shaping perceptions.

Was reappointed to the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD) for a two-year term beginning this month. Will also contribute to ACCORD's newly-established Educational Institutions Council (click here for more). Aim to enhance outreach with NS stakeholders in due course.

Cheers :-)


Singapore's "stealth fighters"

For something as large, noisy and closely watched as F-15SG Strike Eagle warplanes, one would think it would be difficult tweaking the headcount without someone noticing.

Alas, if one goes by recent reports in the defence press, Singapore's military has apparently "quietly" expanded its fleet of F-15SGs by adding between eight to 16 additional Strike Eagles to the 24 warplanes it said it purchased.

If it indeed true, such a stunt development is not without its costs in two key areas:
1) Transparency
2) Applying common sense in protecting our operational security.

The trend was outed by aircraft spotters whose meticulously kept notes on Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) war machines signaled that aircraft tail numbers - these are unique alpha-numeric identities assigned to individual aircraft - do not seem to tally. When plane spotters noted masking tape used to cover such codes, this further stoked their curiosity as to why the RSAF had taken such measures for its F-15SGs.

And so plane spotters collaborated with and between one another, across borders and over several years, to join the dots. Such sense-making resulted in the reports that surfaced recently.

According to the reports, Singapore could have between eight to 16 more F-15SGs than the 24 it is said to have purchased from United States warplane maker, The Boeing Company. Despite the somewhat pedantic discussion of aircraft numbering protocols, the jury is still out on the exact number of platforms fielded by the RSAF. Such ambiguity does wonders for deterrence because potential adversaries will have to hedge against the possibility that the RSAF warplane fleet is larger than orginally thought.

The cryptic statement from the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) did little to clarify the issue. A MINDEF statement to Jane's Information Group said:"The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) bases our procurement on the assessed long-term defence needs, and the RSAF has purchased sufficient F-15SGs to meet our defence requirements."

Make no mistake: News that Singapore's war machine may pack a heftier punch is indeed reassuring.

However, there is something to be said about applying common sense and logic to military secrets that can be protected, and order of battle developments that are best declared openly.

In the case of our F-15SGs, all the masking tape and new registrations in the world has not hidden the additional assets from plane spotters who have the curiosity to discover, the energy to pursue and the contacts to verify. This lesson, if lost on MINDEF/SAF staff officers who engineered the masking tape thingy, could have potentially damaging ramifications to Singapore's security posture in the areas of transparency and credibility, as well as opsec management.

One would hope the recent news flows solidly debunk the idea that no one would notice new registrations on SAF assets. Indeed, there are people who count not just  RSAF tail numbers but the number plates of SAF vehicles too. [Please click here for a guide to SAF number plates.]

So if the desired end state of obscuring the true size of the RSAF's F-15SG cannot be achieved by hiding aircraft identities, why do so when it raises questions on the level of transparency that comes out from Gombak Drive?

It's also worth pondering the kind of logic that applies to opsec guidelines. Surely someone must have recognised the futility of the exercise (new numbers, masking tape, obscure media statements) before the new aircraft hit the ramp and took to the skies?

What if the same tactic was applied to a war machine that MINDEF/SAF really needs to keep under wraps because such assets represent a combat edge? What if the trend is outed in the same manner, thus blowing the cover for something that should not have seen the light of day.

We may sound schizoid in saying this after venting about the issue, but MINDEF/SAF has a proven track record (pun intended...) for keeping its real secrets watertight. Not just large war machines, mind you, but entire units staffed over decades by a sizeable number of servicemen and servicewomen, with not a squeak revealed to those who do not need to know.[Click here for an expose on the RSAF's 200 SQN]

Perhaps other considerations swung into play when the RSAF upsized its F-15SG fleet without telling the whole world about it.

One consideration could have centred on the request by the United States not to be seen as stoking an arms race in the region by pumping more high-value assets into Asian skies. The F-15SG is, afterall, the most advanced variant of the United States Air Force's most lethal and combat-proven warplane in service and an infusion of more Strike Eagles to the RSAF - which in effect bolsters regional tie-ups such as the Five Power Defence Arrangements and the ASEAN family's air defence shield - may ruffle feathers farther up north.

When all is said and done, Singapore has adopted the adage of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Those who know would realise the RSAF's ability and mission readiness to pack a punch just got deadlier thanks to its new "stealth fighters".

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Success factors for SAF Volunteer Corps need better clarity

When the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) begins inducting around 100-150 people (including women, first generation Permanent Residents and new citizens) into the ranks of the SAF Volunteer Corps in March 2015, the success or lack thereof of the scheme may be used by observers as an indicator of society's Commitment to Defence (C2D).

For a country fixated with using numbers as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), we can expect the number of people who step forward as SAF volunteers to be closely watched.

If the scheme proves massively oversubscribed, then all's well on the C2D front. Or is it?

If wild horses can't drag people to volunteer, then people may see it as a flop. Or does it simply need time to gain support?

Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, has already indicated he is "not aiming for mass numbers". Be that as it may, that "100  to 150" figure is likely to float in people's consciousness. It is also likely to pop up in future as the media revisits the story, thus forming a rough baseline for gauging support for the March 2015 intake.

It is hard enough to generate and sustain support for National Service (NS). Indeed, sentiments earned by MINDEF/SAF seem to go against the grain of prevailing sentiments towards NS in other countries. What more a scheme to enlist support from segments of the population to put their lives on hold to serve the military?

More than just numbers, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF may find its defence information management framework confronting fresh challenges because handling news breaks on the SAF Volunteer Corps may prove more challenging than the current state of play involving full-time National Servicemen, Regulars and their loved ones.

To be sure, MINDEF/SAF has tapped volunteers for decades. But by and large, these individuals possess skill sets in specialised fields such as law and medicine and are inducted into military service in carefully prescribed numbers. Such cohorts join the SAF Volunteer Corps not just with the right skills, but the right motivation too and, in many cases, are probably cherry-picked by MINDEF/SAF.

Next year's plan to enlarge the SAF Volunteer Corps will bring in people from different age groups (which is fine) and motivation (which is dicey) who differ in their ability to not just fit in but contribute meaningfully to the SAF (which is a big unknown).

It would be unfortunate if the SAF Volunteer Corps morphs into a gap-filler for people who are at a loss what to do with their lives. Ditto if it turns out to be a kind of Outward Bound School adventure camp on steroids. There's also the possibility people will sign up, only for MINDEF/SAF to reflect wistfully that the pioneer batch of volunteers is more trouble than they are worth.

Apart from the sign-up numbers, the spotlight will also fall upon the number of individuals who go out of course or fall out from the SAF Volunteer Corps. This is, afterall, a volunteer programme.

Having decided to bite the bullet by opening up this avenue for Singaporeans/SPRs to contribute to national defence, it will be hard for MINDEF/SAF to unplug the effort without any red faces at Gombak Drive.

The risk that the volunteer programme will be forced-fed to cough out success factors, whatever the expense in time and effort, is a troubling one because Singaporean society is simply too small for such machinations to go unnoticed.

People will talk. Pioneer batch volunteers will be courted by the media for their first-person accounts. Impressions will be shaped along the way.

If the way forward for C2D is to boost the ranks of the SAF Volunteer Corps, then MINDEF/SAF may want to articulate its definition of success factors with greater clarity.

It may also need to consider setting up milestones that should be attained as the programme matures. Setting such milestones would give MINDEF/SAF the room to manoeuvre should public reception to the scheme swing either way, because we're now moving into uncharted territory as regards military volunteers and C2D and the last thing MINDEF/SAF needs is to find itself boxed in on a path of no return.

The "lemon law" mindset should apply scheme for SAF volunteers - we hope it will work as advertised. But if it falls short over time despite no lack of effort from officialdom, then the system should be given the leeway to rescind the scheme.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) wraps up Exercise Red Flag after fighting alongside frontline USAF war machines

Night fighters: RSAF F-15SG Strike Eagles, looking sinister after nightfall in their dark grey warpaint, are readied for operations during the USAF-led Exercise Red Flag Nellis, marking the F-15SG's debut at the war games. The high tempo of air operations, scripted under realistic hot-war scenarios that involved large formations of friendly and hostile warplanes, tested the mettle of RSAF pilots and Flight Line Crew alike as they fought to generate and sustain airpower. (Photo: RSAF)

In the air, high performance "enemy" war planes waited for the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) to enter the aerial arena during the Red Flag war games led by the United States Air Force.

And we obliged time and again, by day and by night, with RSAF F-15SG Strike Eagles making their presence felt for the first time alongside friendly airpower.

On the ground, "hostile" surface-to-air missile batteries scanned the skies, eager to claw down our fliers in contested airspace. And we taught them the meaning of DEAD - Destruction of Enemy Air Defences - with short, sharp concentrations of precisely-delivered aerial might.

Despite the ferocity of play, all who flew or supported the multitude of missions during Exercise Red Flag - Nellis lived to fight another day, wiser and more attuned to the demands and complexities of high intensity aerial combat fought round-the-clock at a punishing mission tempo.

By day and by night: RSAF F-15SG Strike Eagles sustain the pace of round-the-clock air strikes, with the same fighters turned around for combat flown by fresh RSAF air crews. RSAF Flight Line Crew assigned to our war machines were integral to the RSAF's ability to sustain the punishing pace of air combat missions launched from the USAF's Nellis Air Force Base. (Photo: RSAF)

Led by the United States Air Force (USAF), Exercise Red Flag was fought over a battlespace many times the size of Singapore island with 102 war machines from the USAF, French Air Force and the RSAF staging out of the USAF's Nellis Air Force Base in the Nevada desert.

The substantial volume of airspace designated for Red Flag was fully utilised by the participants, who launched successive waves of warplanes in what is known in military jargon as "large force employment exercises". Put simply, this involved sending sizeable formations of warplanes to sweep the skies of hostile aircraft so that friendly airpower could be unleashed against a variety of ground targets.

The Americans and French contributed 83 aircraft while Singapore deployed 16 warplanes and three Chinook heavy-lift helicopters for combat search and rescue. All assets experienced realistic, high intensity air combat when pitted against aggressor units whose sole focus was to make it a bad day for friendly forces.

All frontline USAF warplanes took part, including the F-22 Raptor -  the world's most advanced warplane. The Raptors were joined by F-15 Eagles, F-16 Vipers, EA-18G Growler electronic warfare planes and E-3 airborne early warning aircraft, the last example serving as a flying radar station that directed the air battle.

The French were represented by a C-130 Hercules.

Special year: With tail art commemorating the 20th anniversary of Peace Carvin this year, this RSAF F-16D Fighting Falcon may look pretty but was sent to the USAF's Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) for serious business. The F-16D was one of eight sent by the  RSAF's Peace Carvin II detachment in Luke AFB for pilots and Flight Line Crew to gain firsthand experience participating in the USAF's premier air power readiness exercise, Exercise Red Flag.

Lifeline: An RSAF CH-47 Chinook skims the flight line at Nellis AFB. These heavy-lift choppers practised how they would execute combat search and rescue (CSAR) missions over contested territory, providing a home delivery service for friendly fliers looking for a ride home. In combat, CSAR missions would be supported by RSAF assets like UAVs and fighter aircraft, with the warplanes flying top cover and cleaning up the ingress and egress route of undesirable elements.

Singapore's contribution drew upon three RSAF CONUS detachments. The RSAF deployed:
* Eight F-15SG Strike Eagles from the Peace Carvin V detachment, flying as part of the USAF 428th Fighter Squadron from Mountain Home AFB in Idaho
* Eight F-16C/D Fighting Falcons from Peace Carvin II, flying under the banner of the USAF 425th FS from Luke AFB in Arizona
* Three CH-47 Chinooks from the Peace Prairie detachment, Grand Prairie, Texas.

The nominal roll of Singaporean warfighters was substantial - some 290 RSAF personnel took part in the exercise.

Singapore has taken part in Red Flag since 1982. Indeed, the RSAF is humbled to know that it is the only Southeast Asian air force invited to take part in the war readiness exercise year after year.

Generate & Sustain: A thirsty RSAF Chinook heavy-lift helicopter is topped up with aviation fuel during Exercise Red Flag. Flight Line Crew from the USAF, French AF and RSAF sustained the pace of air operations. This was no 9-to-5 job as Red Flag air warfare planners scripted the war games with missions which saw large formations of warplanes and helos launched round-the-clock, putting a premium on the fast turnaround of assets under close-to-war conditions.(Photo:  RSAF) 

Despite the RSAF's long association with Red Flag, many RSAF fliers and Flight Line Crew at this year's exercise were probably not even born when the RSAF had its first experience pitted against the famed Aggressor squadrons that Red Flag is known for.

With experienced pilots simulating hostile warplanes in the air and air defence units with their trigger on mock SAM launchers on the ground, friendly fliers had their hands full concentrating on executing their missions at substantial range, over unfamiliar terrain, in large formations flying alongside new friends, sometimes in the dark and all the while with someone out there hunting for you.

The score card, while not publicised, was not the main takeaway from Exercise Red Flag. Having flown and fought in a realistic, complex, high-threat environment, RSAF pilots and FLCs know what it takes to fly and fight at a tempo set by Red Flag air warfare planners -who scripted the exercise with the aim of making USAF and friendly forces ready for action.

Lieutenant Colonel Tham Yeow Min, RSAF Peace Carvin V Detachment Commander, said: "We value the opportunity to train alongside our USAF and FAF counterparts in this large-scale exercise as it allows us to hone our operational competencies. This high-end exercise provides the RSAF with an opportunity to benchmark itself against leading air forces.

"The RSAF has always done well at Exercise Red Flag  - Nellis, and RSAF F-15SGs will continue to uphold the high standards."