Friday, December 30, 2011

45 Years of National Service: NS defaulter's homecoming for National Museum concert

45 Years of National Service 1967-2012.
This blog will mark the 45th year of NS in 2012 with a series of articles on defence matters Singaporeans can relate to. Your story ideas are, of course, welcome.

In a year that will mark 45 years of National Service (NS) in Singapore, one of the first classical concerts for 2012 will feature a piano recital by someone whose name is inextricably linked to national disservice.

Yes, Singapore-born British pianist convicted NS defaulter, Melvyn Tan, is coming to town.

His case was mentioned in Parliament in January 2006. His name was flamed by netizens in numerous discussions on NS obligations for Singapore-born males.

And in a bizarre example of freaky coincidences, his name appeared in a membership recruitment advertisement by SAFRA, the government-linked club for Operationally Ready NSmen (i.e. reservists) and full-time NSmen, in December 2005. Till today, I fail to see the humour of this ad. Maybe it's just me but I believe some defence issues are no laughing matter. The use of Melvyn Tan's name is a hideous example of black humour that parents of NSmen who gave their lives for their country will not find amusing. Please click on the image below and look at the name on the mock Safra card. It may have passed the spell check but the sanity check on this ad was sorely lacking.

Melvyn's homecoming next week, some six years after he triggered the most intense debate on NS defaulters in recent memory, is a timely reminder that time will heal most wounds. He has been elevated from the status of social pariah to a foreign talent courted by Singapore. Good for him.

Indeed, the newspaper article (see opening image) in the 29 December 2011 edition of the 90 cents newspaper sings praises to Melvyn without a single mention of his central role in triggering the debate on NS defaulters. The omission of this fact from an article published by a newspaper of record is interesting to mull over. He must be pleased as punch that his name now graces the national broadsheet under more cheerful circumstances.

Apparently forgiven by Singaporean authorities (because he has paid his fine?), forgotten by Singapore's mainstream media (because the writer did not check Newslink?) and overlooked by netizens who kicked up such a fuss in 2005, Melvyn is due to play at the National Museum of Singapore Exhibition Galleries. The duration of the event from 5 January to 27 January 2012 probably means he will be in Singapore to celebrate the Lunar New Year with his loved ones.

People who followed the Melvyn Tan saga probably recall that he was fined S$3,000 by a Singaporean civil court in 2005 for evading NS 28 years ago. The Tan family also forfeited the S$30,000 security deposit - in then-year dollars a princely sum - coughed up by Melvyn's parents in 1974 when he flew to London to study music.

When this amount of money is spread over a 10-year training cycle that most NSmen undergo and with the 2.5 years of full-time NS factored into the calculus, the penalty that the system extracted from the Tan family is in my opinion a small price to pay. It works out to a sum of S$2,640 a year for every year of NS Melvyn avoided, or just S$220 a month. Pocket change for well-heeled Singaporean families.

In exchange for this fine, the media attention and (apparently transient) cyberspace notoriety, Melvyn kept 2.5 years of his youth (NS was reduced to two years of full-time service in 2004) and was spared the kind of training Singaporean males are put through to keep the city-state safe.

While he chased his dream in London in flagrant disregard for his promise to return to serve NS, his loved ones back home slept safe and sound under the security umbrella carried aloft by every Singaporean son who answered the call to serve their country. His parents will never know the anguish that Singaporean families - especially mothers - experience when their sons and loved ones enter NS.

It is cruel comfort to families of NSmen who died that a defaulter ended up losing a hefty bond and fined by the system. In the past 45 years, a sizeable number of teenage soldiers and middle aged NSmen have died in the course of duty, each one an irreplaceable loss to a society whose birth rate is rapidly in decline.

If Melvyn really wants to put the past behind him, perhaps he could dedicate his performance to the NSmen who died serving their nation while he was away. It would inject meaning to his performance in a year in which Singaporeans will be reminded of how generations of NSmen have served with pride, dedication and distinction.

There must be pockets of Singapore's expatriate community with Singapore-born sons in the same boat as Melvyn who have calculated the possible impact of evading NS. All sorts of schemes and means will be tapped to keep their sons out of uniform. Some families may look at his imminent homecoming with relief and a sense of assurance that the system is able to forgive and apparently forget as grave a transgression as running away from the Singapore Armed Forces.

The Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) had better update its tip sheet for National Education discussions on "The Case of Melvyn Tan" because scheming minds may conclude that the price of defaulting NS isn't that onerous afterall.

It appears that if one pays the penalty for defaulting NS, then the system and Singaporean society will someday forgive, forget and say: let's move on.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Update to Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) website

Good to see the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) website refreshed on Tuesday 20 December 2011 with information on rebranded air force squadrons. The revamp is commendable.

But the website team should watch out for typos, especially those that can be caught by a spell check. Poor QC affects the credibility of the platform and messaging.

See if you can spot the glitch by clicking on the image above.

I know it's neither easy nor straightforward because this blog has its fair share of typos and grammatical errors. Get another pair of eyes to proof read information before anything goes online.

If website information is intended to tell our air force's side of the story during an infowar, the presentation and text must be top notch.

See how the experts do it here.

Don't let your IOs down.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A rail security threat: SMRT's failure to heed wake-up call from London Bombings, learn lessons from Exercise Northstar V

Please take part in the latest polls. Your opinions matter.

Six years after train and bus commuters were killed by terrorist bombs in the City of London, Singapore's largest train operator, SMRT Corporation, has yet to heed that wake-up call.

If SMRT's top management does not change its mindset, it may be time for a new broom to sweep clean because the stakes are too high and apologies are wearing thin.

The company's complacent attitude towards transportation security was laid bare in the most public manner imaginable during Thursday evening's train breakdown when rush hour commuters were stuck in trains for as long as 78 minutes.

All that while, hapless commuters were left - some literally in the dark - with no information and were running out of patience, time and fresh air. SMRT is lucky nobody died.

On Saturday morning, the SMRT train system in the heart of the Orchard Road shopping belt broke down again.

The impact on Singapore's economy through lost retail and food & beverage receipts is not insignificant, considering this is the holiday period for many heartlanders.

SMRT should consider itself lucky the system did not fail during the school examination period weeks ago as there would be hell to pay if students missed their papers.

In my view, the damage to public confidence from these breakdowns is more important than monetary losses from lost sales. It is also harder to quantify (hence the poll). Singaporeans must be wondering what more can be done to improve corporate governance in SMRT. Do we need to see people die on our trains before decisive action is taken?

We used to be so proud of our MRT system. People took trains from Toa Payoh to Yio Chu Kang for their first ever ride - when they had absolutely no agenda in the vicinity - just to ride the trains. Even as litter bugs defy government fines elsewhere, our trains were kept litter and graffiti-free years after they were commissioned into service. Train mishaps, like the two trains bumping one another at Clementi MRT station in August 1993, drew sympathy from heartlanders, not fury and spiteful comments we see today.

Even before SMRT opened for business, medals for bravery were won by engineers who were building MRT tunnels. The engineers used their construction know-how to bore into the debris of Hotel New World in March 1986, creating rescue shafts for our then-new Singapore Civil Defence Force.

That was the SMRT I grew up with.

Have complacency, avarice and sheer arrogance ("People can board the train, it is whether they choose to.") now become enshrined as corporate values for today's SMRT Corp?

This post will address the security aspects of the MRT breakdown and assess the information management during the episodes. There are already many sites in cyberspace railing against SMRT, so our assessment will focus on two themes:
1. Causal factors versus consequence management
2. Medium versus message for mass communications

Causal factors versus consequence management
Red flag: Failure to learn and internalise lessons from the Northstar series of public transportation exercises, particularly Northstar V on 8 January 2006 which involved four MRT stations.

Things do break down.

To use a Rumsfeldian phrase: "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know."

There are many reasons why a train network could fail.

Some causal factors are well known to the railway industry because rolling stock has been ferrying people underground for more than 100 years. Some factors, like terrorism, are new. Some are hideous like suicides. And some will catch us blindsided despite all the horizon scanning we may do. Live with that fact.

But there is a difference between being blindsided and failure to make the system more robust by dealing with any fallout, whatever the causal factor. The shambles we witnessed on Thursday evening emphasize how much more SMRT has to get its act together.

Whether due to mechanical fault or human error, the end result for a transport operator would be the same: A surge in the number of commuters, longer wait times and shorter tempers. In many respects, the surge can be estimated mathematically because passenger loads on typical days and the frequency of trains/buses can be guesstimated from passenger throughput statistics.

Mind you, SMRT had a dress rehearsal six years ago during Exercise Northstar V. This was Singapore's first civil emergency exercise that tested the readiness of train and bus operators, first responders and government authorities should terrorists mimic the playbook for the London/Madrid bombings.

Why was knowledge management so poor that lessons from that exercise could not be applied, tested and refined in the past six years?

Was Northstar V merely a wayang (Malay word for stage play)?

Looking at SMRT's December debacle, it is worrisome to think that our transportation security apparatus has been taking us for a ride all these years.

Minister for Transport Lui Tuck Yew put it succinctly when he told the media: "You see, our exercises are perhaps very scripted - we know what the scenario is, we know what is happening from one time period to another, and therefore people are geared to respond in a certain way."

Anyone who has served National Service in Singapore would probably nod in agreement.

Mr Lui is well qualified to make such as statement. Before entering politics, he served the Singapore Armed Forces, leaving the military as Chief of Navy with the rank of Rear Admiral.

Even if Northstar was a public relations circus, a serious after-action review (AAR) would have exposed areas in which SMRT should pay close attention to.

Was a proper AAR done after Northstar V or was the exercise a waste of tax dollars?

At a minimum, it should have identified a need to put shuttle buses on short notice for bridging services between train stations that are taken out of service (whether due to known knowns or unknown unknowns). In the Singaporean military, standby units are assigned are assigned a NTM and have to be ready to move within a specified time.

To be sure, placing a shuttle bus operator on a 30 minute NTM seven days a week would cost a chunk of change.

But in a city state where citizens are discouraged from owning cars, isn't such an investment worthwhile? Is the profit motive for SMRT such an overriding concern that they are happy to bet against Murphy's Law?

SMRT's beleaguered chief executive, Saw Phaik Hwa, may not realise this but she has several high-ranking former SAF officers in her management team. These include SMRT's senior vice-president for communications and services, Goh Chee Kong, who retired from SAF service with the rank of Colonel. As an Armour officer, NTMs would not be alien to COL Goh.

When I interviewed SMRT officials several years ago, I met a combat engineer who retired as a Lieutenant Colonel prior to joining the company. Among other things, this officer had taken part in SAF operations in UNAVEM. I am not sure who writes his pay cheque these days, but the point is that SMRT has a number of former military personnel the company can count on during a crisis.

I worry for the SAF if the training these officers received was discarded the moment they stepped into civvie street.

Being Malaysian born, Ms Saw may not fully appreciate the value that SAF personnel bring to her boardroom.

Any inquiry into SMRT's December debacle must look into the management style in the company. In particular:
1. How many of the SMRT personnel who took part in Northstar V in 2006 are still with the company today? What has been done to preserve institutional memory?
2. Why is SMRT's knowledge management so piss poor? What lessons were internalised from Northstar V? Prove it through documentation.
3. How often are emergency procedures practised, whether on table top exercises or full-troop exercises involving mock passengers?

A Red Team, given the mandate and authority to ask difficult questions, would help SMRT protect its stakeholder interest with a more robust consequence management plan.

As things stand, we heard SMRT's Goh say they could not cope with outages at more than four stations - which, interestingly, matches the number of stations involved during the Northstar V practice. On Thursday, some 4,000 people were trapped in trains during the breakdown at 11 stations.

So SMRT only "fights current" and never practices "fighting future" by scaling up its SOPs to cope with larger and more complex scenarios for consequence management? No wonder Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cut short his holiday...

Medium versus message
Red flag: Failure to provide accurate, relevant and timely updates on the situation. Failure to empower SMRT train drivers to speak to commuters. Lack of credibility in reporting the situation.

The company's failure to tackle crisis communications exacerbated the situation, fraying tempers and derailing the credibility of SMRT's corporate mouthpiece.

The seed of doubt was planted before Thursday's massive system failure when SMRT reported that some 1,400 commuters were affected by the fault on the Circle Line between Marymount and one-north stations from 6am and 11:45am. Why were so few commuters affected?

Second, the SMRT spokesman claimed lights and ventilation kicked in when trains lost power. But first person accounts and images of commuters standing in the dark paint a different picture. If there were no emergency lights, was there back-up ventilation? Even if ventilation was provided, would this be sufficient for a crush load of passengers? Was it prudent to keep passengers sealed in the train for up to 78 minutes?

Third, the picture of SMRT's vice president for rail operations playing the part of usher is unfortunate. Was this staged for the media to show that SMRT's management is hands on? After three outages in four days, shouldn't a VP's time and energy be better applied? Are there no reports to analyse, no engineers to interrogate, nothing in the back office to attend to? Will the system fix itself? If the system is so short of manpower they need a VP to play usher, SMRT is in deeper shit trouble than you and I can imagine.

If the events played out this past week were scripted for TV drama, the result would probably be rated as a black comedy or a B-grade farce.

That "Income opportunity" alert to taxis that went viral: Why are mass broadcast messages not read and rechecked before the send button is pressed? Can you imagine the furore if the breakdowns were caused by terrorists?

Going onto Twitter and Facebook will not innoculate SMRT against crisis communications woes. Instead of adding more tools to its tool box, it should focus not on the medium but the message it wants to convey to stakeholders.

The value of the content and timeliness of information dissemination is more important than boasting how many social media channels you maintain.

To be sure, it is easy being an armchair analyst with 20:20 hindsight spouting all sorts of gibberish on things that need fixing. So easy being wise after the fact.

This is precisely why we started a Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS) system some years ago. It helps identify problem areas and shows how upstream factors can impact elements downstream. In the case of SMRT, the RAHS would indicate how multiple outages reported at the 11 stations on Thursday would affect road and bus transport after the commuters are left stranded with no train services.

Is SMRT even aware we have such a system? It should now that Colonel Patrick Nathan has joined the company as its director of security and emergency planning. As an RSAF officer and one of the principal staff officers at the National Security Coordination Centre, he should know what resources SMRT can call into play.

The mainstream media should also do its part to help restore public confidence in Singapore's rail network. In doing so, trying too hard to manage public opinion would cause more harm than good.

A classic example would be Friday evening's story by ChannelNewsAsia, aired on its 9:30pm news bulletin. Its main premise was that not everyone felt the SMRT CEO should resign. Four commuters were interviewed and the standuppers for two of them were repeated twice, so we saw the two blokes appear four times. You can probably guess that the interviewees voiced the opinion that her resignation is not necessary.

Such stories fuel ridicule in cyberspace because ground sentiments are very different from the Orwellian reportage presented on state television. Why bluff ourselves? If people are angry, so be it.

Check out the segment from 6:00 mins onwards. Compare and contrast this with comments you read elsewhere. Are we on the same planet?

To do better, the broadcast journalist should have reported results of a street poll involving a respectable sample set (say 100 commuters) and spliced footage from the interviewees to reflect results of this poll for a balanced story.

Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was famously quoted saying in 1992 that 99 per cent of Filipinos are waiting for a telephone and the remaining one per cent for a dial tone.

We make sympathetic noises when the Singaporean media reports on brownouts or mismanaged public infrastructure in regional countries.

Now, tables have been turned.

As Singaporeans watch SMRT swing into damage control mode, how do you think our neighbours are reacting to our woes?

Related post:
Security breach at SMRT Bishan depot: A rail security headache. Please click here.

Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) should pay closer attention to info ops

Singaporean warplanes made a positive and decisive impact during the Forging Sabre live-fire exercise - striking assigned targets within minutes - but the same cannot be said of its info ops apparatus that manages its webpage.

Two months after the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) renamed some of its units, the RSAF webpage has yet to be updated to reflect the new nomenclature.

Accurate, relevant and timely information-sharing with netizens is evidently not a priority for the RSAF.

If the scenarios played out during Exercise Forging Sabre were to take place for real, the Third Generation RSAF will find itself scrambling to catch up with an enemy better prepared, better staffed and fully committed to winning the battle for hearts and minds.

As the Israelis learned during various operations across their borders, those at the receiving end of air strikes will let fly with a barrage of accusations that non combatants were killed, religious places desecrated and disproportionate military force was used.

The international media loves this sort of stuff because it makes wonderful newspaper copy and is a Made for TV moment.

It would be totally idiotic for us in Singapore to learn this the hard way when there are ample examples that make a clarion call for info ops to complement military ops.

It is therefore baffling and disappointing to see a half-hearted attempt at cobbling together facts and figures to inform and educate netizens about what is arguably the most powerful air force in South East Asia.

Many defence buffs who have visited the RSAF website end up disappointed. And so they take their eyeballs elsewhere.

The failure to build up and grow its market share is regrettable.

Young Singaporeans keen on building a career with the RSAF would probably make the website their first stop before making a decision of a lifetime. Having dated information on the website sours the organisation's corporate identity. It sends a negative first impression to these youngsters when the Air Force could have made a lasting impression from the first click.

Being first with the news is vitally important too during situations like this.

Above all, defence analysts from friendly and potentially hostile locations must be persuaded that the website is well worth visiting.

To those who know, there are individuals in AOD who have gone the extra mile to make sure commentators understand what the RSAF is all about. In many respects, I believe their effort has not been in vain. This is why I find the disjoint between the work of these info ops professionals and the half-baked website somewhat intriguing.

Maybe the website is outsourced to the lowest bidder? Or the job of updating the site assigned to people at the bottom of the pecking order (i.e. overworked NSFs)? Could budgets be so strapped that the trickle of funds from the billions spent on defence can't even raise and sustain a website with eye-popping pictures and engaging stories?

One would hope they get their house in order and do so quickly. If the RSAF is not careful, it could end up in a situation like this.

At the current state of play, one can trawl up much richer and more useful information on the RSAF from fan sites and, indeed, Wikipedia, than the paltry data presented almost as a token on the RSAF's home page.

Why must this be so?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

RSAF datalinks put through stress test at Exercise Forging Sabre

Eagle strike: A Boeing F-15SG Strike Eagle pays compliments to a ground target during Exercise Forging Sabre with a 500-pound JDAM bomb. The warplane is flown by a Republic of Singapore Air Force detachment located in Idaho for an intensive work up.

The job of defending Singapore's skies in wartime is a complex one.

Doing the same in peacetime is complex too.

At the Exercise Forging Sabre war games now taking place in the American state of Arizona, Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) warfighters practice drawer plans for complex air operations against simulated air and ground threats over a battlespace many times the size of Singapore island.

Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) war machines now gathered at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona tell only part of the story.

Also serving a pivotal role is a datalink that will be tested during the intense air activities on and above the expansive Barry M. Goldwater Range. This piece of defence electronics is arguably less photogenic than a F-15SG Strike Eagle with wall-to-wall bombs or an AH-64D Apache gunship loaded to the hilt with rocket pods and anti-armour missiles.

But the datalink is an advantage RSAF aircrew want to fight with, as Forging Sabre has apparently demonstrated.

The exercise enables the RSAF Air Combat Command (ACC) to test, validate and refine its concept of operations for wielding airpower in the defence of Singapore by fighting for and securing air superiority in the SAF's projected area of operations.

When deployed against a threat(s) armed with high performance warplanes and over a battlespace infested with anti-aircraft teams, ACC battle managers know that such air superiority cannot be assumed nor guaranteed.

Battle managers: Republic of Singapore Air Force and Singapore Army warfighters execute an integrated strike mission from the Exercise Command Post during the Forging Sabre war games.

During Exercise Forging Sabre, Team RSAF and their friends from the Singapore Army's Special Forces are being put through intensive hard fighting in contested airspace, day and night.

Commander ACC and XFS Exercise Director, Brigadier-General Lim Yeong Kiat, told The Straits Times that the war games are "as real as it gets".

BG Lim said:"Previously, we focused separately on the tactical development of troops, setting up and fine-tuning the command headquarters and testing new weapons.

"We're now ready to bring everything together in more realistic missions... We want to train the way we fight."

Airpower begins with us: A Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) armourer loads a live 500-pound Laser JDAM onto a Boeing F-15SG Strike Eagle flown by the RSAF. At the core of Team RSAF's ability to generate and sustain airpower is the synergistic relationship forged between aircrew, groundcrew and ACC battle managers during exercises such as Forging Sabre.

The air combat manoeuvres are more than shadow boxing. About 40 precision-guided munitions such as Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs and Hellfire missiles will be lobbed, dropped or fired during simulated combat missions that RSAF defenders will unleash day and night to crunch down enemy forces.

This includes Laser JDAMs that Singapore bought to meet and greet moving targets such as enemy tanks.

Away from the fireworks, datalinks have been working tirelessly to keep their masters informed and aware of the situation in the air. It is a stress test like no other because of the number of warplanes up in the air, the distances at which they fly, live ordnance carried and the duration of some sorties during Forging Sabre.

Such prescience gives RSAF defenders a crucial advantage in understanding what is going on around their aircraft and decide how best to fly and fight the enemy.

Describing the exercise scenario, BG Lim told cyberPioneer:"We will simulate a war game scenario where we have a "red" team acting as the opposition, as well as a "blue" team which will have to develop an operational plan against them. The "blue" force will have to contest for the airspace, and fight and win air superiority. They will also have to conduct dynamic targeting to destroy military targets such as enemy capabilities as well as dent their will to continue to fight with us."

Somewhere out there over the Barry M. Goldwater Range are aggressor warplanes looking for trouble. The RSAF aircrew could not see them as the enemy lurked far beyond visual range. Thanks to the datalinks, the aircrew knew where hostile threats were and could decide and act accordingly.

Air threats were not the only items displayed on the cockpit multifunction displays - flat screens on the instrument panel that show icons of friendly, hostile and unknown elements in the battlespace.

The locations of enemy air defence sites allowed aircrew to weave their way into contested airspace while avoiding the range rings of anti-aircraft gun and missile units.

At the same time, these anti-aircraft units and other hostile ground forces could be assigned as targets and demolished with concentrated firepower till the threats were neutralised, to use the clinical lingo of RSAF mission planners.

After viewing the integrated live-firing, RSAF Chief of Air Force Major-General Ng Chee Meng (above) said that Exercise Forging Sabre 2011 provided an excellent opportunity for the SAF to validate its integrated strike capabilities in a realistic and challenging environment.

CAF said: "I am very impressed by our people's combat proficiency, professionalism and dedication. I saw for myself today how our airmen and soldiers worked to bring together a sophisticated suite of both sensors and shooters, like our F-15SGs, F-16C/Ds and Apaches, to effect an integrated strike against a variety of targets, including mobile targets. This in itself is a very complex operation and I think they have done very well."

The irony is that the number of targets assigned to the shooters will grow as the SAF's sense-making improves.

Adding datalinks tightens the sensor-to-shooter process. To understand what this means, imagine the steps taken from the time something (eg a tank, ship or plane) in the battlespace is detected, identified and assigned as a hostile entity to the moment when the SAF assigns a shooter (eg a tank, warship, warplane or weapons team) to engage that threat.

When everything has to be done manually and verbally, the process naturally takes a longer time. The longer this takes, the more the data "ages" because a moving target may no longer be where it was when first detected. And we haven't even addressed the impact of the stress of battle, human error or mechanical failure.

Before datalinks, the process of coordinating an air battle was no different from Second World War days when voice communications were used to marshal and deploy RSAF fighter aircraft.

The noise of shrieking jet engines, the stress of keeping a vigilant watch against aerial threats and garbled voice comms diluted the pilot's ability to process the tracks shared by a ground controller vectoring a GCI or even a E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft.

Pilots had to pay close attention to what was said and mentally calculate the location, height, heading and speed of the tracks rattled off by the controller to figure out who was flying where. All this while flying the aircraft and trying not to get shot out of the sky.

Even for high performance aircraft such as F-15SG Strike Eagles, misunderstanding ground cues could result in wrong actions. This was seen during a National Day Parade Combined Rehearsal this year when a flight of F-15SGs had to abort their flypast when a cue to "hold" was misinterpreted and the flight missed its ingress datum.

Datalinks cut the chatter, presenting the data visually, securely and in real-time.

Studies by the United States Air Force (USAF) have proven that in two-sided air-to-air tactical engagements, the side that wielded information as a weapon racked up lopsided kill ratios against the one that did not fight with datalinks.

Exercise Forging Sabre is likely to demonstrate similar results to RSAF umpires charged with scrutinising how the air battles are fought, won or lost.

And these results are likely to be cascaded to RSAF squadrons on home turf, half a world from the largest and most complex air defence exercise intended to keep ACC poised and ready.

Past postings on Forging Sabre:
Reflections on Exercise Forging Sabre 2009: Every round counts. Click here
Practising the art of war at Forging Sabre. Click here
Forging sabres, forging knights: Making the most of battlefield experiments. Click here

This piece is dedicated to the people who will never win a Best Unit trophy, not because these warfighters are no good but because they do not officially exist. I have the highest admiration and respect for you.

All images are from the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).

Saturday, December 3, 2011

All US-based Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Air Combat Command detachments set to converge on Arizona for major war games

At a time when Singaporean families are enjoying the year end festive spell, several military families from Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) units based in the island Republic and the continental United States (CONUS) have their sights on Exercise Forging Sabre - the largest and most complex air-ground war games involving CONUS-based warplanes and helicopters.

Said to unfold in Arizona in the coming week, Exercise Forging Sabre (or Saber if you prefer American spelling) will unleash Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) warplanes, attack and heavy-lift helicopters over a simulated battlespace more than eight times the size of Singapore.

Exercise Forging Sabre (XFS) is also expected to feature the largest number of Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs dropped during an SAF integrated warfare exercise to prove that the air force can create a big bang wherever within the RSAF's strike radius and whenever SAF mission planners dictate within.

Unfettered by tight airspace restrictions over and around Singapore (which will be lifted in times of hostilities), RSAF air warfare planners and their Singapore Army counterparts have scripted war games that will pit XFS participants against simulated enemy targets in the air and on the ground.

The exercise hardware represents the tip of the spear for the RSAF's Air Combat Command (ACC), which is the air force organisation responsible for keeping Singapore's airpower poised and deadly for air operations round-the-clock in all weather.

War machines include the F-15SG Strike Eagle (the RSAF's most advanced all-weather strike aircraft), the F-16C/D Fighting Falcon, as well as AH-64D Apache attack helicopters and CH-47SD Chinooks.

This blog understands that the Singapore Army is expected to have boots on the ground too. The small size of Army ground surveillance teams is out of proportion to the damage these soldiers could inflict when they call in loitering RSAF warplanes.

It is understood that their insertion into simulated hostile territory will be aided by RSAF Chinooks. These choppers will fly as assault transports, screened by gun and rocket-armed Apaches and guarded by top cover from fighter planes as the Chinooks push deep into contested battlespace to insert Commando long range reconnaissance patrols.

Working far from the JDAM impact points are ACC weapon specialists and aircraft engineers. They will be responsible for keeping flying machines mission ready as well as bombing up F-15SGs, F-16s and arming Apaches with a range of munitions.

It goes without saying that thirsty fighters need to be fuelled and onboard stores such as chaff/flare decoys replenished before the next flight fight.

During XFS, RSAF air warfare planners are expected to be challenged as they practice planning, assembling, despatching and recovering strike packages that could contain warplanes and attack helicopters with different flying characteristics and weapon loadouts.

The complexity of this task is best understood when one remembers that there about 500 different ways to hang things onto an F-16's wing tips, wings and belly.

RSAF air warfare planners are expected to be assessed under time pressure as they pick the right mix of weapon stores, sensor/target designation payloads and fuel tanks of various capacities for every aircraft/helo in the strike package. At the same time, they have to right-size strike packages to fight and survive in contested airspace and plan their ingress/egress routes.

It is arguable that against an enemy out to kill you, there is no such thing as too much firepower. But as friendly forces fend off the simulated enemy onslaught in XFS round-the-clock, RSAF war planners must pace the tempo of their missions judiciously. This will ensure that they can dish it out to the enemy even when a flood of orders arrive.

With combat-proven American warfighters curious to see how all this is orchestrated by the SAF and with HQ RSAF eager for updates several time zones away, this will add to the pressure of an already complex exercise involving several tons of live ordnance, thousands of gallons of highly flammable jet fuel and multiple sorties by high performance (read: expensive) warplanes and helicopters.

Above all, every XFS participant needs to be kept safe till the show is over.

The addition of JDAMs will add a fresh dimension to XFS. In the previous exercise in November 2009, laser-guided Paveway bombs were used to change the landscape as the air force and Army HIMARS rocket launchers blunted enemy movements with coordinated air-land counterstrikes.

This year, satellite-guided JDAMs allow RSAF aircrew to hit more precisely and with greater autonomy than the Paveways, which need a ground or airborne laser to help the sensor in the bomb's nose home in on the laser beam (which is why it is called a LGB).

A single F-15SG orbiting hostile territory could, theoretically, take out multiple targets in one pass while its pilot, weapon systems officer and all the odds lumps and bumps on the Strike Eagle keep an eye out for enemy combat aircraft out to molest the warplane.

Speaking of lumps and bumps, another critical component of XFS are the black boxes so crucial for tightening the SAF's sensor-to-shooter loop.

XFS is expected to stress test datalinks that allow SAF air and ground units to build a clearer air situation picture. But we'll save that for another post as XFS gets underway.

Check Six!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Letter in Today newspaper, 28 November 2011

The letter in today's edition of the Today newspaper, "From transparency to opacity" by David Boey, was not written by me.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

1/3 empty or 2/3 full?: Suggestions for sensing the commitment of Singapore Permanent Residents towards National Service

Without a shot fired, Singapore lost the services of 4,200 male Singapore Permanent Residents (SPRs) who could have made a substantial addition to its defence manpower in the past five years.

In the same period, some 8,800 SPRs served two years of compulsory National Service (NS) with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) or Home Team agencies such as the Singapore Civil Defence Force or Singapore Police Force.

So is the glass one third empty or two thirds full? Both interpretations are valid and accurate.

The absence of more data, however, makes trend analysis and attempts to measure the commitment of SPRs to Singapore's defence impossible.

Data shared by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen last Tuesday (22 Nov'11) in response to a parliamentary question could have helped frame discussions on the matter more effectively if it stretched further back in time.

For a long time, heartland chit chat has suspected that SPRs pay lip service to NS and make a beeline for the exit when junior is due to be conscripted. The figures show this to be true: one in three SPRs liable for NS cops out after enjoying years of subsidised education and assorted benefits Singapore dishes out to foreign talent.

The explanation on NS was not just brief. The response was more like a g-string: skimpy, barely there yet still covering the vitals.

This sort of half-hearted reply shows that the system has some way to go before it hits the sweet spot when engaging the public. The system's speech writers ought to consider substance over form and not throw the bare minimum of statistics to queries from Members of Parliament.

This sort of appeasement does nothing for commitment to defence (C2D).

Indeed, it only stokes further debate in the heartlands, online and offline, on SPRs and National Service. There are Singaporeans who wonder if SPRs are taking us for a ride, using this island nation as a springboard before relocating to places such as Australia, New Zealand or the United States.

It's easy to criticise, so here are some ways in which the issue could have been better handled.

First, the data should have gone as far back as our national records allow. In our statistics-obsessed bureaucracy, these numbers would surely reside in the portals of some ministry somewhere.

Sharing year-on-year changes would help heartlanders understand and appreciate how SPRs have supported NS. It would build mindshare and far outweigh any risks to national security because SPRs who served in the 1980s and 1990s would have long completed their NS liabilities.

Let's be frank, the Malaysian Army or Indonesian Marines are not going to march into town just because they know how many SPRs failed to enlist for NS in years long past.

It may well be that in some years, the drop out rate is far smaller than the one in three seen over the past five years. If that is the case, we should try to understand why this was so.

Second, the discussion would be more meaningful if we were told which type of SPRs have a tendency to renounce their PR status. Presenting raw data without any elaboration only contributes to gossip and nagging suspicions that SPRs who hail from certain countries tend to have parasitic tendencies.

This is not xenophobia.

This country puts in a lot in terms of money, effort and attention to groom every SPR student. If we are being taken for a ride by calculative minds who migrate here, enjoy subsidised education and the security umbrella that Singaporean familities provide by supporting NS, we need to know. And the sooner the better.

The data sets are there. By not sharing it, the system is surrendering the initiative to discussion leaders who may - out of ignorance and not ill will - take the discussion to the lunative fringe areas that may hurt C2D.

Third, the manpower deficit from SPRs who dropped out over the past five years translates roughly to the loss of a Singapore Army division-minus. At a time when birth rates are declining, this is a real and substantial shortfall.

We were told to welcome foreigners because their offspring would stay, serve NS and sink their roots in Singaporean society. We were told our forefathers were immigrants too, so we should open our doors to new Singaporeans who want to start life here.

Alas, the SPR-NS figures show the price Singaporeans are paying for this policy.

We now need to know how to read the drop out rate. For example, is the shortfall within Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) estimates? How has the loss of a division-minus over five years impacted the operational readiness and order of battle of the SAF?

The lack of clarity is likely to make most of us interprete the data much like we would read school examination results. The 60% retention rate (8,800 out of 13,000 SPRs liable for NS) is still a pass, not quite a distinction (>75%) and overall probably a B-. Is this the way defence manpower figures should be read?

If not, educate and inform Singaporeans or you risk losing the initiative.

Fourth, Singaporeans need to understand why the SPRs are afraid of or do not want to serve NS. After all the flag-waving sing-alongs during National Day and sweeteners for new Singaporeans, if SPRs remain uncommitted, we need to know why.

Are exit interviews or any kind of engagement surveys done with SPR families before they scoot? What are they saying about NS?

Fifth, utmost efforts should be made to plug the leaks among SPRs. At the same time, MINDEF should reassure Singaporeans that their support for NS will never be taken for granted nor assumed.

Singaporeans and SPR families who send their sons for NS need assurance that they are not being taken for a ride.

What is to stop an SPR male from avoiding conscription, returning to his home country to change his name and get a new passport and coming back to the Republic to start life afresh? If you visit discussion sites frequented by SPRs and foreign talent, you may be amazed/disappointed/shocked by the candour with which they discuss how NS can be skirted or cheated. Their descriptions of full-time NSmen are also largely unflattering.

Is our system smart enough to detect such schemers? Is the effort worth it, really?

Sixth, if social ideas that underpin the huge intakes of SPRs in the past decade are not supported by NS enlistment numbers, should this policy be modified or dumped? Are Singaporeans supporting a weak attempt at social re-engineering?

In my opinion, the money, time and effort that was wasted on the 4,200 SPR men could have been better spent on book grants to deserving Singaporean students. But hindsight is always 20:20.

Lastly, data like this should be audited by an outside entity such as a defence-linked think tank to reassure skeptics. If even drug statistics can be misreported, we need assurance that the headcount for something as important as National Service is credible, accurate and presented in a timely manner.

Losing the support of one in three NS-liable SPRs is a loss that can be measured from annual enlistment numbers. But we should not fret over the loss of uncommitted SPRs because they are likely to make poor soldiers, policemen or civil defence rescuers.

More damaging is the loss of support from the wider Singapore population if MINDEF fails to explain the issue properly in future.

This damage can also be measured when ballots are counted....

Saturday, November 19, 2011

In power in the real world, out of favour in the virtual one: Why the PAP has few friends in cyberspace

Singapore's political elite are treated differently in the real world and in the virtual world.

In the real world, the People's Action Party (aka Men in White) has been kept in power since independence by winning the popular vote, thanks to support from six out of 10 voters in this year's General Election (GE).

In the virtual world, the MIW appear to be less popular. Almost every news item about Singapore on Internet news sites (Yahoo News) or discussion forums (hardwarezone) generates scorn and ridicule bordering on outright hostility towards the same party that rules our island nation.

This love-hate relationship has immediate and direct relevance to the defence of Singapore because citizen soldiers who do not support or respect the party in power are less likely to respond to a call to arms.

So why won't the majority of Singaporeans who voted for them speak out to defend the MIW?

Perhaps it is because the strength of this silent majority has been consistently over-stated through optimistic projections that they exist as a latent vote bank: Quiet, unassuming, not prone to theatrics (or hysterics, unlike the lunatic fringe), dependable and staunchly loyal to the end.

It is naive to think that this vote bank can be counted on, time after time, at every GE.

Indeed, some who voted for the MIW could have done so at odds with their personal convictions about the party. From anecdotal accounts, this group includes civil servants and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) regulars who cling to the impression that marking an "X" against the party is tantamount to career suicide.

But ground sentiments over the cost of living and red hot topics such as the pace and direction of the immigration policy are not sweet. All that pent-up angst must go somewhere.

And so it surfaces during lunchtime chit chat when former civil servants castigate the system. It appears in cheeky email chains circulated by former SAF personnel (some very senior, mind you). It stokes lively debates in the virtual world where the MIW become the lightning rod for criticism for everything you can think of from pet ownership in the heartlands to weightier affairs of state.

The size and strength of the silent majority is also eroded through own goals and collateral damage from government decisions.

For example, it would be interesting to find out how residents in Rochor Centre would vote in a hypothetical replay of this year's GE, now that they know their homes will be torn down to make way for a new expressway. You don't have to be a political scientist to figure this one out.

The own goal that came close to killing the goalkeeper includes the remark that residents in Aljunied would have five years to repent if they voted for the Opposition. They did so anyway.

Another reason for the reticence of the silent majority may be this group's unfamiliarity with the Internet.

The generation of Singaporeans who lived through independence in 1965 is thinning out. This group of voters may genuinely value the MIW's contributions. But their impact on online discussions is limited to non existent because the vast majority are simply not net-savvy.

The MIW's Janus-like persona in the real and virtual world is compounded by lack of guidance from top party leadership on how exactly the social media beast should be tamed. They appear to have entrusted the social media campaign to younger cadres, perhaps believing that good looks and a winsome smile are all it takes for engaging younger voters and the Gen Ys.

But is this mission placed in good hands?

In my opinion, some cadres seem unready and unqualified to take on the scale and intensity of a social media campaign. There was this young candidate - undeniably photogenic - whose spoke about her desire to engage the young through the Internet (which is commendable) during her maiden press conference. But nothing much is seen or heard these days from this MP. Her initiation into the hearts and minds battle was also brutal as she had overlooked the most basic - repeat basic - task of cleaning up her Internet footprint before chasing her political ambition. Worse, the candidate deleted personal pictures after they had gone viral - adding fuel to the fire through an ultimately futile task. So this sort of novice is leading the MIW's charge in cyberspace? Good luck.

Like a one-song band singing the same tune, their strategy appears to hinge heavily on Facebook and Twitter, as if this is the answer to winning the hearts and minds of Singaporeans.

When I was allowed to shadow a MIW team during their May Day walkabout this year, I was surprised by the lack of ideas from one senior MIW candidate when he quizzed a journalist for ideas on how young Singaporeans could be engaged. The team eventually won their seats, but the impression that they are out of touch remains etched in my mind and is replayed whenever I read about the party's PR blunders.(For the record, I have a clip of the conversation which is interesting to watch.)

Mind you, not all youngsters have part of their psyche permanently plugged into cyberspace. A good number value good old face-to-face debates. But during townhalls held with certain MIW big wigs, varsity students reacted with disappointment when the system required students to submit their questions before the event. How does this sort of mindset help engagement with the young?

In recent days, we're starting to hear that the MIW's youth wing may introduce more stringent checks on its members. This is a move to get to know prospective members better so as to avoid getting sucked into PR gaffes when inappropriate material posted online goes viral.

Now, tie this in with the censored Q&As and screened guest list during townhalls, steps taken to ban Facebook members or sanitise their comments after their remarks strike a nerve, and the system's legendary intolerance for people who speak up and you get a better idea why the party that won the popular vote is not so popular in cyberspace.

Almost every blogger and discussant who uses social media has his or her own hobby horse. This runs the gamut from neighbourhood cats to saving Bukit Brown cemetery, the arts, gender matters, transport, housing to defence and security. The list goes on. The system's knack for demonising and opening an account with those who speak up is regrettable. All it does is create conditions for a perfect storm when commentors for all sorts of issues, who have been taught a harsh lesson for speaking up, end up unfriending the MIW. To use a military analogy which many of you will understand, the MIW needs to fix its IFF as its blunt handling of critical voices cannot tell friend from foe.

There will come a day when the MIW has to cash that cheque. When that day comes, they will discover (belatedly?) that their failure to cultivate goodwill comes with a price - none of the chastened spirits in the virtual world will speak out for them.

Now in belly gazing mode, the MIW appear to be trying hard to craft a grand strategic plan to engage citizens and netizens better. If such effort is meant to shore up confidence in and support for the MIW come election time, it follows by the same logic that a failure to do so puts re-election campaigns on tenterhooks.

Their best answer may come with letting go of their control freak mentality in the virtual world and engaging citizens/netizens in meaningful debate. Mindsets also need to be rewired to stop villifying people whose point of view may not agree with the party's. We all carry the same passport at the end of the day.

If and when they are ready to do so, Singapore's political elite may be pleasantly surprised to discover that Singaporeans are not as politically naive, irrational or unreasonable as they appear to be.

During times of national crisis, like the SARs emergency in 2003, all of Singapore looked towards the MIW for strong leadership and for their technocrats to steer this island nation clear of the crisis. They did not disappoint.

Internet blogger Alex Au chose his words well when he was asked on his blog (click here for the discussion) why the popularity of alternative media for political news has not resulted in more Opposition votes. Mr Au replied: "Because having a better understanding of Singapore politics and the issues before us does not automatically mean rejecting the PAP."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Power for the People: Security implications from importing electricity

While a bright idea, the suggestion that Singapore could import electricity from its neighbours should not cast a shadow over the island nation's goal to be self-reliant in critical resources such as power and water.

The suggestion has already created a buzz among Singaporeans who wonder if all the effort weaning Singapore off Malaysian water will be negated by future reliance on Malaysian or Indonesian electricity.

The buzz was generated by a remark by Second Minister for Trade and Industry S Iswaran on 31 October 2011 when he officiated at the opening of the Singapore International Energy Week.

The minister said that by the end of 2011, Singapore's Energy Market Authority (EMA) would start asking the public for feedback on how electricity might be imported and how electricity from foreign power stations could be sold in Singapore.

As far as is known, nothing has been cast is stone. The EMA still has to mull over feedback from its forthcoming public consultation exercise, so it's early days yet before consumers get to see any new electricity tariff tables.

Observers have noted that a critical element was missing from the minister's remarks: The amount of electricity Singapore may import.

Any assessment on the feasibility of this project from a national security standpoint cannot be written until one knows how much Singapore will rely on foreign-sourced electricity.

For example, there is a big difference between a proposal to bring in 10 per cent of Singapore's average daily consumption and a plan to import, say for example, 30 to 50 per cent of our electricity requirements.

There is a nagging concern that over dependence on foreign-generated electricity may put the Republic at risk should the foreign government decide to flick the switch off for whatever reason.

Singaporeans who lived through the episode when then-Israeli President Chaim Hertzog visited Singapore in 1986 may recall protests by angry Malaysians chanting "Potong! Potong!" (potong means cut in the Malay language) when demanding that the Malaysian government signal its displeasure by cutting off the water supply to Singapore. Back then, about 60 per cent of the water Singapore used in a day was supplied by raw water from the Malaysian state of Johore.

Fast forward to 2011. Singapore's strategy for developing four National Taps - expanding local water catchment areas, reprocessing waste water from sewers as NEWater, setting up desalination plants and importing water from Malaysia - has reduced our vulnerability to such theatrics.

Importing electricity is not the same as importing fuel for power stations. So while 80 per cent of the electricity generated in Singapore comes from natural gas fields in Indonesia, such reliance can be hedged by importing the same fuel source from another country. This explains why Singapore is investing in a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal with an in-service date set in 2013. When fully operational, LNG tankers from other suppliers could dock and unload the fuel, which will then be piped to powerplants here.

Singapore learned the hard way how raw materials for its economy, such as sand and granite, are vulnerable to what can be politely termed as supply disruptions. Though it may sound illogical to ship sand/granite from farther afield when there are quarries closer at hand, such extraordinary measures are an Economic Defence measure to hedge against undeclared embargoes. The policy of diversifying the sources of supply has been reinforced by stockpiles comprising giant pyramids of sand/granite set up around Singapore that are intended to help local industry withstand supply disruptions for a certain period of time.

The rice stockpile with four months' worth of the grain is another example of Economic Defence in action.

We also have a petroleum stockpile and an ammunition stockpile of warshot - both of which are best not discussed here. Just know that we have it.

Turning the spotlight on importing electricity, it may sound astonishing that a country that can think out of the box (NEWater) and plan years ahead before imported water from Malaysia runs dry in 2061 would lose its strategic foresight when it comes to electricity. This is not how the system we know plans for the future.

These are the likely scenarios regarding electricity imports:
First, the amount of electricity Singapore may import is likely to be small, possibly in the low teens percentage-wise or even less. Such access is a hedge against unforeseen systemic failures in Singapore's national grid. For example, a turbine fault could cause a localised brownout and the extra boost from a foreign power station would then serve as a lifeline during such situations.

Second, the EMA's public consultation trial balloon could underline the importance of maintaining a level of national self-reliance in power generation.

With the inherent perils of relying too heavily on neighbours who may flick the power on or off, this may advance the argument for a powerplant fuelled by clean energy with the capacity to meet current and projected demand (for example, by the desalination plants) for years to come.

That source of clean energy would be - you guessed it - a nuclear powerplant.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Letter in Today newspaper, 9 November 2011

Just wanted to clarify that the letter in today's edition of the Today newspaper, "Subsidies for private citizens who pursue degree at private institutions?" by David Boey, was not written by me.

What are the chances of having a somewhat active letter writer with the same uncommon family name?

Well, after 3.5 years with a gaming company, one begins to realise that even razor slim, longshot odds do come out tops once in awhile!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sing govt's pledge to engage citizens will face tough tests in 2012

Whether or not those dark clouds on the horizon will result in an economic storm next year, the system's public relations (PR) professionals better belt up for a hectic 2012.

It won't be business as usual and stock replies plucked from the time-tested PR stylebook are likely to fall flat because the game has changed in three major ways.

Firstly, corporate disclosure in 2011 was cheered by report cards that reflected a global economic recovery. After the financial crisis of 2008, this year was no annus horribilis thanks to the recovery that kicked in last year. The report card tabled by Singaporean sovereign wealth funds and government-linked companies therefore showcased respectable performance figures and nice sounding text that describe the growth story.

This may not be the case in 2012. The benchmark set this year with full page, full colour ads in the mainstream media will expose the system's PR professionals to brickbats when the numbers don't look so rosy. Steering clear of publicising the results in major newspapers will not help as people would read it as a retrograde movement that unravels the benchmarks in corporate disclosure set this year.

When one's portfolio of investments is bruised, the standard response that investments are, ahem, "long term" may not go down well with heartlanders who have heard it all before. This may be true. This may indeed reflect a financially sound and prudent approach to coaxing maximum value from one's investment war chest. But outsiders may not share the same long term vision, especially when the dollar amount of losses (realised or paper losses) is trailed by many zeros.

The volume and intensity of criticisms in the real world and cyberspace will go hand in hand with the extent of losses reported - the higher the sum, the greater the fury.

Corporate disclosure is a double edged instrument. This means that whether the report card is good or bad, a poorly-written media statement or unconvincing sound bite may come back to haunt the system the next time Singaporeans head to the polls.

Secondly, one needs to recognise that world opinion on matters of national concern to the Singaporean government, such as nuclear energy and National Service, will make it more challenging explaining such matters to people on this island.

The days when the system's spin doctors could reinforce an argument with a string of first world countries who made similar decisions is fast slipping away. In the case of nuclear energy, one will be hard pressed to argue the case for nuclear power when industrial heavyweights such as Germany and Japan appear to be turning away from nuclear power to other sources of clean energy.

The challenges in explaining the need for and importance of National Service (NS) are similar to that faced by nuclear energy proponents because the number of countries who maintain conscript armies is dwindling. Taiwan is the latest example.

The old chestnut that NS is needed for citizens in the Lion City to sleep well at night will lose its appeal at a time when our neighbours are all smiles and courtesy. Furthermore, the lack of depth in defence discussions here coupled with the general reluctance by the Singaporean Ministry of Defence to foster such debate may prompt people to rationalise that the Special Operations Task Force, rather than armed teenage soldiers, are Singapore's best defence against transnational terrorism.

Thus far, foreign deployments spearheaded by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) have all relied on professional arms such as air, naval and special forces, raising a poser in some minds whether NS is still relevant in this changing strategic milieu.

If you think about it, the publicity generated by the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States may prod people in Singapore to likewise ponder over the issue of corporate payscales. More to the point, heartlanders may see an oblique link between the restiveness shown by Americans towards payscales on Wall Street with the hot potato issue of ministerial pay scales. Mind you, both issues are explosive and unresolved.

The paradigm has changed. Standard PR lines for damage control or consequence management that may have worked wonderfully well in the recent past need to be recast to reflect changing world opinion.

Lastly, the success (of lack thereof) of the system's spin doctors in handling the PR challenges of 2012 will indicate whether or not Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's call to engage Singaporeans and be more open has been taken to heart... or given mere lip service.

One can obviously follow the old PR playbook with the same old standard responses repackaged for local consumption.

But there is a price to pay for half-hearted explanations of a fait accompli in government decisions. There is a penalty incurred for reacting to feedback from citizens rather than proactively championing the same, and a cost for typecasting cynics and critics of a particular standpoint as dangerous radicals out to tear down the house.

To a defence-aware audience, the word "engage" has two meanings.

One is the warm, fuzzy, consultative spirit that PM Lee surely had in mind when he urged MPs in the 12th Parliament to engage their constituents better.

The second meaning is the kind of engagement the SAF is used to. In this instance, to engage means to kill (in the context of hearts and minds, this is a metaphor).

One hopes the system can tell the difference between the two and engage Singaporeans properly.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Forging sabres, forging knights: Making the most of war games and battlefield experiments

Just as important as forging sabres is the process for forging knights who will wield those proverbial sabres.

In this regard, military war games will be just that - time wasting, cash burning military outings - unless warfighters embrace the right mindset to maximise the time spent outfield.

One should never expect things to unfold according to plan. Nor should the result of any two-sided engagement be a foregone conclusion against a thinking enemy.

Losing a mock battle and failing to extract the lessons from such situations defeats the purpose of two-sided engagements. Failure-averse officers who cannot see value from bloodless combat might as well have toyed with war games on plasma or stayed at home.

In a situation where warfighters are trained and indoctrinated in the same system, it is not difficult to anticipate how opposing staff officers might marshal and deploy their forces for the simulated battle. The structure and organisation of opposing units would be a known entity, as would the combat capabilities of war machines in the order of battle.

More importantly, shrewd staff officers who can read their opponent's personality may be able to guess how his forces may be deployed in the field along with the tempo at which he will push his subordinate commanders.

Reservists may be viewed as softie, city boy soldiers. But many of their commanders have chalked up more experience in field exercises than regulars. And it would probably surprise most regulars who have yet to spend a day in a corporate boardroom how much strategising actually goes on in profit-driven enterprises. An ably-led and motivated reservist unit is therefore not to be underestimated - as some regulars have found out at war games.

Remember too that when manoeuvres take place over axis overlaid on terrain that the command staff have fought over since they were junior officers, this sucks the realism out of the war games.

The spirit of aggression driven into the psyche of manoeuvre forces is also muted by the fact that everyone knows that whatever the outcome, everyone will emerge unscathed when the exercise is cut.

This may embolden commanders to risk forces in situations which they would not do, or hesitate just a little longer, in real life. It could also prompt commanders to lead with more dash and aggression that they actually have, if the bullets were real and the body count permanent.

When tempered with the right attitude, full troop exercises (FTX) give war planners a crucial opportunity to frame a battle and think through the various permutations for their command decisions.

It exercises not just options but underlines the consequences of poorly-executed command decisions.

To be sure, war games for manoeuvre forces can logically be conducted on plasma. It is certainly a cheaper and faster way of testing drawer plans and assessing tactical options than sending warfighters long distances to flex their muscles.

With a FTX, however, the friction inherent in planning, organising, deploying and supporting large bodies of troops - say for example one brigade versus another - in the field becomes obvious. Add in the air support elements (i.e. warplanes, tactical support aircraft and helicopters and UAVs) as well as assets that map out the enemy's electronic order of battle and the land battle grows into a more complex operation in multiple dimensions and with far greater depth than one's own frontage.

Having forces deployed in the field also shows the vulnerability of such units to enemy action. Even when inactive behind the line of departure, large bodies of troops and military vehicles need to supplied with rations, fresh water, ammunition and POL. When immobile, such military assets become military liabilities.

You only have to see a brigade in the field to realise what a plump target all those troops and vehicles look like from the perspective of enemy commanders with the reach and rules of engagement for firing at coordinates beyond line of sight.

Command decisions are not only hampered by Redcon 3 units that plod lethargically across the plasma at a subpar rate of movement. War games demonstrate that military planning, already a complex process at the best of times, may be complicated by an opposing command staff that is determined to observe, orientate, decide and act faster than one's own command apparatus.

Even worse that wincing from a battle lost "unexpectedly" (because only a fool goes to war fighting to lose) is scripting war games such that opposing forces are primed to fail.

In such situations, everyone merely goes through the motions for fear of upsetting the rhythm of the war games whose end result has already been decided before troops and vehicles move into action.

When warfighters fear losing face more than losing a war game, that's when you realise people are not getting the most out of their field training.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) celebrates its 40th year; warplanes from all FPDA signatories fly into Singapore

Typhoon warning: Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon from 6 Squadron enters the landing circuit at the Republic of Singapore Air Force's Changi Airbase (East) on 1 November 2011. The RAF sent a contingent to the RSAF airbase to take part in a static display to mark the FPDA's 40th year. The Typhoon was last seen in Singapore skies during the Next Fighter Replacement Programme (NFRP) flyoff that saw the RSAF pick Boeing's F-15SG Strike Eagle as the A-4 Skyhawk replacement.

The Five Power Defence Arrangements marked its 40th anniversary in Singapore this afternoon with a display of airpower at Changi Air Base (East), off Changi Airport.

Supporting the display were warplanes from all five FPDA signatories, viz Australia (RAAF F/A-18A Hornet), Malaysia (TUDM F/A-18D Hornet), New Zealand (RNZAF P-3K Orion), Singapore (RSAF F-15SG Strike Eagle) and the United Kingdom (RAF Typhoon).

We span the ocean: The open weapons bay doors and EO device under the nose of this Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K Orion maritime patrol aircraft from 5 Squadron RNZAF are perhaps the only hints that this turboprop has teeth. Despite the lack of fast jets, the RNZAF is one of the world's leading proponents of blue water surveillance, having honed its crews on long range, long duration missions over the unforgiving southern oceans. New Zealander Orion crews routinely fly 15-hour missions over featureless ocean with two engines shut down (!) to maximise mission endurance.

The warplanes are deployed to the region for FPDA war games codenamed Exercise Bersama Lima, which pits air and naval forces from the five nations against a simulated attack by conventional forces against peninsula Malaysia and Singapore.

Heavy air activity over West Malaysia and Singapore island provided Singaporean plane spotters with a bonanza of aircraft spotting opportunities. This includes flying activity this past weekend from the Republic of Singapore Air Force's Paya Lebar Airbase, which had a busy time sending up and recovering multiple strike packages comprising F-15SG Strike Eagles and C-130 Hercules sorties.

This morning, attention was centered on Changi's Runway 3 as FPDA warplanes came in to roost at the RSAF's Changi Airbase (East).

Lenses were trained on warplanes rarely seen in Singapore skies such as the Royal Air Force (RAF) Eurofighter Typhoon, which was supported for her Far East deployment by a VC-10K tanker. The Typhoon's appearance at Bersama Lima is significant as it is the type's first appearance in the Far East since Typhoons were engaged in combat operations over Libya. Experience gained from operations over Libya are likely to have fuelled many war story sessions in aircrew messes in Malaysia and Singapore.

Storm warning: Not a typhoon but a thunderstorm. A Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon from 6 Squadron is framed by a approaching thunderstorm as Changi Airbase (East) secures itself for Cat 1 lightning risk conditions. The Cat 1 condition put an end to the ground viewing of the aircraft after just 10 minutes. Out of frame is the RSAF safety officer, a one-woman crowd control party, who was busy shepherding everyone off the open area before the storm broke.

The visit to CAB was ruined by an incoming thundercloud that imposed a lightning risk of Cat 1 on the airbase. As such, we had just 10 minutes at the Transport Apron to literally shoot-and-scoot and there was no chance to loiter. :-(

It was ironic that the secondary effort ended up contributing the motherload of images (some of which you see here) when the point of main effort inside the base was scuppered. Well, no plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Unsung hero: Royal Air Force deployments to the Far East depend heavily on tanker/transports such as the VC-10, which is flown by 101 Squadron RAF. Apart from tanker support which gives warplanes longer legs, such converted airliners also carry groundcrew, spares and equipment for first line maintenance work - the lack of which will crimp any air force's ability to generate and sustain airpower during deployments far from home.

Proud heritage: Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18A Hornet wearing special anniversary livery to commemorate 75 Squadron's 70th year. Defence buffs might remember that RAAF 75 SQN has a special link with Singapore because the unit's Mirage IIIO interceptors used to be based at Tengah Airbase years ago.

Double trouble: A pair of Boeing Hornets flown by Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) partner nations, Australia and Malaysia, grace the Transport Apron at Changi Airbase (East). The Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18A wears a special colour scheme to make 75 Squadron's 70th anniversary (1942-2012) while the Royal Malaysian Air Force F/A-18D from 18 Squadron wears darker warpaint almost similar to the grey on RSAF F-15SGs.  

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to the RSAF Air Operations Department, the Public Affairs Directorate at the Ministry of Defence, Singapore, and the team at Changi Air Base (East) for facilitating this rare spotting opportunity.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sing Govt's pledge for more openness requires rewiring the system's sensitivity to feedback, removal of vindictive mindset for views it dislikes

In some countries, openness between a government and its people is a given.

In Singapore, the government's pledge to be more open makes Page One news (ST, Govt pledges to be more open, 21 October 2011) - which says a lot about the current state of affairs.

This well-intentioned move will not gain traction without a concerted effort to rewire the system's regard for, reaction to and treatment of Singaporeans who raise feedback.

It is one thing to call for better government-to-people communications. It is quite another dealing with the impression that the system harbours a grudge against people who actually make the effort to speak up. However grand the intention, the first point will not succeed if the impression that the system is small minded, hyper sensitive and vindictive lingers.

When playwright Alfian Sa'at had his application as a relief teacher rejected by the Ministry of Education in June 2007, netizens suspected it had more to do with the tone and subject matter of Mr Sa'at's writings than his qualifications as an educator.

When Opposition supporter Geraldine Soh lost her customer service officer job at a town council in May this year, opinion was split over whether this move was triggered by work performance issues or whether it had something to do with her volunteer role at an Opposition rally.

There are other examples. Not all involve Singaporeans. This includes the 2004 case involving SPR Ryan Goh, who was an SIA pilot.

Such incidents resonate with Singaporeans who have experienced the system's wrath personally. They fuel the impression that the system has low or no tolerance for people with a different social outlook/point of view and is prepared to hit Singaporeans where it hurts most - their rice bowls.

I get the same impression whenever I hear media professionals bemoan how access to certain newsmakers can be switched on and off, depending on whether the tone of the story is acceptable. Such Pavlovian-like social conditioning will damage our country in the long run because the system is signalling that it does not accommodate news that could hurt its ears.

In many specific cases analysed, it is a certain individual or group of influential mandarins in a ministry/stat board/GLC who take a dislike to the choice of words or editing style - rightly the perogative of a news editor - rather than the accuracy of a report. When miffed, they withdraw or hold back access to indicate their unhappiness. Heaven only knows whether the MIW's political appointee (i.e. the Minister) is suitably appraised of such action, but I would guess that Ministers have better things to do than meddle with five cents/10 cents issues such as the day-to-day running of press relations.

In 2009, I paid the price for writing a letter on training safety in the Singapore Armed Forces to a local newspaper and for offending the then-DPA with my online comparisons between MINDEF's Public Affairs Directorate and the Army Information Centre. For as long as I live, I will never forget that episode.

Such punitive action is a blunt instrument that cuts down the well-meaning and malicious alike. It breeds a dysfunctional culture where bad news is swept under the carpet or sugarcoated because an honest, clear and concise appraisal of the situation may offend sensitive bosses.

Worse yet, ambitious individuals may know which buttons to press to advance their career and enhance their CEP because the rewards for towing the line can be tangible and are indeed not insignificant. These Machiavellians are the enemy within that the system has to watch out for because they put self interest over that of the organisation they serve.

I harbour the impression that there is a deliberate effort to blacklist individuals and create a cordon sanitaire by excluding these blacklisted individuals from certain life options.

By extending this exclusion zone all over the island, over time and over a myriad of issues that Singaporeans care enough about to speak up on, such an approach could poison Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's call for building heartware with Singaporeans (more to the point, the GE 2016 voters).

It also creates conditions for a perfect storm when bad feelings are built up in various arenas of public debate and the system has fewer champions to defend it or explain its point of view.

Whether it is in *insert your topic of choice*, this rice bowl wrecking combo of exclusion plus retribution in our tiny city-state gives rise to ever increasing numbers of people who turn their backs on the MIW (Men in White, the colloqial term for ruling People's Action Party) out of frustration or sheer disillusionment with the system.

Are you then surprised that the MIW come under fire whatever topic comes up for discussion on online forums like Yahoo news?

It is ironic that when I catch up with individuals belonging to or allied with the MIW, I can sense that their commitment to serve is neither fake nor self-serving. But there seems to be a serious disjoint between the MIW leadership's inner thought processes and how Singaporeans at large perceive these individuals.

This image disjoint - for example when things are good the MIW takes all the credit and during a recession it's the fault of the global economy - is regrettable because these individuals have their hearts in the right place. They just don't seem to know how to project themselves better, short of Facebook postings and grip-and-grin opportunities in the mainstream media.

Remember that in a city-state with a small population, the number of people who are articulate and prepared to share their views is finite. We are an Asian society and the ones prepared to step up and speak up are the exceptions, not the norm.

When feedback is handled with a heavy hand, this sort of vindictive behaviour will trip up efforts in consensus-building because those who speak up will quickly realise we're all forced encouraged to sing the same tune.

The less articulate and less gutsy won't even bother making their presence felt, but will lurk and continue to snipe anonymously in assorted online platforms.

Those whose rice bowls have been broken will continue to fight on, perhaps with sharper criticism and stronger determination than ever before because they have nothing more to lose, really.

We do not feel the full effects of the perfect storm now. This is simply because the causes people are passionate about are disparate (example: the Bukit Brown greenies may not care what military nuts are passionate about and vice versa) and the various commentators have no reason to cross paths.

It would take a national event such as a GE for you to see the perfect storm in action. That's when almost every issue the MIW had a hand in becomes a lightning rod for criticism online and offline.

At a national level, more openness and better communications may be a strategic ideal.

Alas, Singaporeans who have spoken up know that the system is hardwired to respond in a certain way. These tactical responses kick into play way below the pay grade of the PM and will take some effort to counteract because it is an attitude that has been ingrained - maybe even tacitly encouraged? - over decades.

I bet that if you trawled every grid square on the Singapore map from Changi Point to Tuas, you will find many more individuals with stories similar to Alfian Sa'at and Geraldine Soh that never made the news.

Every one is a lost opportunity at building heartware and a potential obstacle to the vision of engaging Singaporeans.

In this case, the potential roadblock to PM Lee's vision is the system itself.