Sunday, June 13, 2010

Our Best Units

In the run-up to Singapore Armed Forces Day on 1 July, the Defence Ministy will cast the spotlight on SAF units that performed well in the past work year.

Later this month, the Singaporean media will trot out winners of the SAF's Best Unit competition.

The stories due to appear in the print, broadcast and online media are likely to carry the same soundbytes - how the men and women worked hard to achieve success, why the respective Commanding Officers (COs) feel proud of their achievement, who the COs credit for the win and what were some of the key challenges overcome this past year.

Throw in the photo opportunities and one has a nicely packaged series of stories on the 41st Best Unit competition. The winning air force squadron will almost certainly pose with a banner proclaiming the prize the squadron bagged. The Navy's best ship will muster all hands on deck for a photo call. And the Singapore Army's best warfighters will strike a pose that emphasizes their operational prowess.

Even as COs of winning units polish their media lines and fuss over upcoming photo opportunities, more than a handful of SAF officers, Military Experts and Specialists know they will be bench warmers at the SAF Day Parade on 1 July 2010.

They are out of the game not because they failed to make the cut. They weren't even in the running because of the units they serve, the missions they perform or the war machines they operate.

In my opinion, the Singapore Army, Republic of Singapore Air Force and Republic of Singapore Navy are likely to possess closed units in their order of battle.

In the not-so-recent past, the RSAF's orbat added two squadrons that operate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) virtually overnight. This took place on 25 May 2007 after the air force's UAV Command was inaugurated.

While the RSAF's 116 SQN and 119 SQN finally saw the light of day, several more have not...

In 2003, when I first wrote about the Singapore Army's Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Explosives (CBRE) Defence Group, the pioneer batch of officers spoke of how their then-unnamed capabilities were kept low key. These warfighters knew they existed as mail continued to arrive at their desks courtesy of an Armed Forces Post Number that routed all snail mail to their closed unit.

Even their spouses could not be let in on what they did.

For a city state that anchors its defence strategy on deterrence, Singapore's approach in arming its defence forces with resources that can catch the aggressor(s) wrong-footed - whether it is a one-front or two-front conventional war, or an undeclared war waged by a non-state actor - is a prudent one.

The tricky part comes with balancing defence secrets with the spirit of transparency that defence diplomacy forums such as the Shangri-La Dialogue aim to foster.

Transparency in defence is touted as a confidence-building measure. In a region dogged by historical baggage, frank dialogue and sincere exchanges among neighbours are certainly preferable to situations where mistrust and misunderstandings rule the day.

But to ditch operational advantages in the defence sphere in the name of transparency is not only naive, but a strategic cop out.

In the United States - long upheld as the bastion of diplomacy and free speech - American citizens were kept in the dark when the F-117 stealth fighter and B-2 bomber were under development. Not until the F-117 was commissioned into operational service did the covers come off one of the free world's most closely-guarded military secrets.

I don't have a ready answer on how one should calibrate transparency. While I welcome more transparency when it comes to issues on training safety - because the lack of it damages commitment to defence and the SAF - it is unwise for defence planners to tell all when it comes to defence capabilities.

Keeping secret some parts of our defence inventory does not mean that we are hamstrung from making known the intent of our defence strategy. Inventory and Intentions are two different things.

Indeed, deterrence is enhanced when foreign observers are clear what the mission of the SAF is. We strengthen our case when foreigners know that everything they think they know about the SAF obscures aspects which they can only guess about. These unknown elements are factors that could throw their calculations off balance should deterrence fail.

Transparency and good neighbourliness aside, the other tricky part when it comes to black diamonds lies with ensuring a steady stream of funding for these capabilities, as well as individuals with the right stuff for the assorted roles.

How do you recruit when you can't tell the job candidate how he will earn his pay or where he will be based? We can't expect everyone to see above and beyond the standard recruitment pitch and realise there's a more exciting way to build a career than what's stated on SAF recruitment brochures.

Therein lies the danger of the Best Unit media blitz: As the SAF trumpets success, it must not do so at the cost of COs, MEs and Specialists who serve in SAF units that cannot be mentioned.


FIVE-TWO said...

The professionals who served in the "unmentionable" units should be well satisfied with what they are doing. In my mind, the best unit competition and recognition should be a mere sideshow for this people.

Anonymous said...

I think many professionals who serve in those units are also not the type to covet after bright shiny objects like Best Units Awards.

I don't mean to say that open recognition is not important, but I'm sure many of them who serve in important yet invisible units know they answer to a higher calling that goes beyond all these.

Kudos to those who have chosen and persisted in this career.


Anonymous said...

Hi, thanks for remembering those in the intelligence community whose contributions and the vigilance that they keep are indeed beyond the obvious

Anonymous said...

Best unit is meeting management performance indicators. How often have we heard stories about so-called elite units failing in battle?

Anonymous said...

I nominate the writer of this blog as best reporter of the year.

FinalFive said...

Asides from the official Best Unit Competition, there's also the informal Best Unit competition - the one which is judged by Regulars and NSFs who trade stories (never verified, but too detailed to be mere fluff) about legendary actions by certain units. Or rather certain commanders...

I recall two stories - On an Company v Company exercise, a particularly ingenious Infantry OC had bravely changed his tact for conducting a night attack on the defending company. He had a Section use tripflares to distract the defending force, leading them to think that they were going to be attacked in one direction - and delayed his attack till midnight (greatest tiredness level). He then got his men to advance on the sleeping company, tapping each soldier 'defending' in the trench position on the shoulder as they advanced and whispering "you're dead".

Of course there are fantastically funny stories like how a Scout Platoon commander got captured because he got lost in the midst of mission and approached the 'enemy force' to find out which knoll they were at. I'm glad the majority lies with legends.