Saturday, November 27, 2010
The Yeonpyeong tension and what it means for Singapore's security
Among the many lessons that Singapore's defence eco-system can sieve out from the North Korean artillery strike on Tuesday (23 Nov'10) is the somewhat unsettling reality that an aggressor can get away with a first strike.
Should the same scenario pan out in a local context someday, Singapore cannot expect the United States military or other foreign forces (read: FPDA) to waltz in to its rescue. We are likely to be left alone to fend for ourselves, perhaps armed with sympathetic diplomatic messages from friendly countries and carefully scripted messages condemning the aggressor(s).
A test of Singapore's defence readiness must be matched by the political will to allow the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) full freedom of action. Anything less than the promised swift and decisive military response will erode the credibility of the SAF's deterrent edge, with detrimental results to commitment to defence and investor confidence.
Here are some first thoughts on the artillery duel over South Korea's Yeonpyeong island in the Yellow Sea:
1. From media reports on the incident, it is likely that Yeonpyeong was attacked by rocket artillery pre-registered on the island for eons. If reports that 200 "shells" (not rockets?) fell on the island are accurate, the death toll of two civilians and two South Korean Marines is a pitiful exchange ratio.
Simply put, artillery barrages against urban targets are more survivable than commonly imagined. We have seen largely the same result in places as far-flung as Lebanon, Chechenya and the Gaza Strip. Singapore's household shelter building programme, which aims to add a hardened shelter in each dwelling under the Civil Defence Act, is a prudent measure because civilians will not have the time to run to a communal shelter in an emergency.
2. The barrage unleashed by South Korean gunners against targets 12km away is likely to have had more public relations (PR) value than military effectiveness because artillery fire across such ranges done without a spotter cannot be expected to take out point targets on the mainland like tube and rocket artillery pieces.
On the other hand, the island is a point target. Doubling the garrison strength only serves to double the number of military targets for the north's artillery. The upsized garrison also strains the logistics train for a military force which to all intents and purposes has no manoeuvre value and is stuck on a point target.
The Germans made the same mistake when they kept reinforcing the Crimea during WW2 with forces that ended up bypassed and encircled. Their Russian opponents wryly called the Crimea the largest prison camp where inmates feed and look after themselves. Locking down the garrison in Yeonpyeong will end up with the same result as the troops would be more useful elsewhere on the mainland.
3. Acts of aggression during a period of tension (POT) cannot be left unanswered. The drawer plan of options available to the SAF must be scaleable against a range of responses. I have no doubt (as opposed to the phrase "little doubt"...) the SAF has exercised a range of conventional and unconventional military options. Plans aside, it is worth pondering if we will pussy foot like the South Koreans and give a muted response as the aggressor(s) probes MINDEF/SAF's resolve.
4. The idea that the North Korean military is run by nutcase looneytoons is unfair and dangerous. North Korea had previously warned that the unilateral live fire exercise on/near Yeonpyeong island would be matched with force. They made good the threat. In terms of the action-reaction cycle, the North Koreans made it perfectly clear how they would react to the war games. In other words, the end result of the OODA loop was announced long before the artillery rockets took flight.
5. Firepower alone does not translate to deterrence. Our Mexican friends paid for this lesson in blood and shared this with some of its friends. For those who missed it, remember this: Deterrence = (Force) x (Ability to use it)
The Republic of Korea Air Force and Republic of Singapore Air Force field an order of battle with the same battle-tested frontline warplanes as the Israelis. Airpower's contribution to deterrence was neglible as the North probably calculated that the South would not risk an all-out general offensive over a tiny island that the rest of the world had probably never heard of.
6. Finally, there must be a line in the sand which an aggressor(s) should not test. The risk of miscalculation is reduced when one articulates the defence strategy and makes clear the trigger points for the SAF to go into action. The aggressor(s) must be left in no doubt that the SAF's ability to strike almost automatically will be deadly and disabling.
The list of potential military and strategic targets must be tabled, studied and refreshed regularly in peacetime. These targets should be arranged in order of priority and backed by monitoring cells that will marshal and deploy the SAF during operations.
The geography of the SAF's likely area of operations puts a premium on leaders with a tri-Service mindset who can think in terms of how land operations are supported or influenced by the littoral environment and air battle. For example, aggressor force military assets may have to be boxed in by a picket line of anti-air warfare stealth frigates (aka sea-based air defence) backed by combat air patrols during a period of tension to deter and prevent enemy air power from leaking to a hinterland elsewhere.
As the South Koreans have learned through their indecisiveness, there is a price to pay for poor decision making and their defence minister and Shangri-La Dialogue participant this year has already been shown the door.
For Singapore, if the "go" order is given, the time for talk is over and the SAF must be allowed to peform as advertised and root out aggression at its source with what former RSAF chief BG Michael Teo described as a "firestorm".
The growth of SAF task forces enhances deterrence because Singapore will have scaleable responses against a range of contingencies.This is an improvement from the 1st Generation and 2nd Generation SAF's order of battle, which raised, trained and sustained combat units for conventional operations.
In the old days, SAF planners had to choose between going from 0 to 1, flipping from white to black (or green as the case may be...) with no half measure for situations which called for a swift and decisive response without the economically disabling effects of a general mobilisation.
Today's 3rd Gen SAF is a more lethal entity. The phrase "full spectrum" has been used to underline the armed forces' readiness to deploy in and engage with a host of situations. These run the gamut from small unit tactics against terror cells to operations involving the full force potential of the SAF.
Underpinning Singapore's near-paranoid defence posture is the belief that you don't own what you can't defend.
Posted by David Boey at 12:34 PM