Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fitted for but not with: Up-arming the Singapore Armed Forces during a Period of Tension

War ready: Bronco variant known as the Warthog built for British Army operations in Afghanistan.

Show ready: Singapore Army Bronco tasked for joyride duty during an Army Open House at the SAFTI Military Institute.

Which version of the Singapore-made Bronco all-terrain tracked carrier (above) would you choose as your battle wagon?

It's a safe bet most of you would pick the uparmoured version in desert warpaint which serves the British Army as the Warthog.

The Singapore Army's troop carrier variant (70313 MID) can be uparmoured too as the tell tale attachment points all around the cabin clearly indicate. This Bronco lacks teeth, but a pintle-mounted 7.62mm GPMG can be rapidly added along with the bolt-on composite armour panels before it trundles into operations.

Hopefully, Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) war planners have drawer plans to add a proper shield and softmount for embarked, belt-fed automatic weapons because the lack of such protection would make Bronco gunners exposed from waist up bullet bait.

The Bronco is just one example of an SAF war machine fitted for but not with hostilities only war material.

Several other examples abound in the Army, Republic of Singapore Navy and Republic of Singapore Air Force.

Betting that a Period of Tension (POT) would buy war planners precious time to scale up the SAF to its full force potential is a delicate guesstimate. This strategic assumption demands timely, high quality strategic intelligence to guarantee the SAF does not get caught wrong-footed.

This guesstimate is all the more risky should the SAF face an all-regular force that is essentially at full mobilised strength during peacetime. To the all-regular force, wars are come-as-you-are affairs as the regulars already have what they need in their arsenals.

It is different for a citizens army like Singapore's. To mobilise for action means pulling manpower needed to drive the economy. Such a decision cannot be made frivolously. A crafty enemy who knows this can play around with trigger points to the extent that MINDEF/SAF may be flummoxed as to whether the threat situation warrants a full, partial or no SAF mobilisation during a phoney war scenario.

The same reasoning extends to the Home Team agencies, which are never 100% equipped for their full force potential and also have procedures for mobilising reserve manpower.

The window of several months preparation for a hot war expected to last less than two weeks is a scenario that can elicit endless comments from armchair strategists and staff college students.

If the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF are robbed of this preparation window, SAF warfighters and war machines are likely to go into operations without the touted benefits of all the bells and whistles.

With the defence budget already taking the lion's share of the national budget, keeping special order items for a hot war reduces the pressure on defence spending. The reasoning behind this is that essential items would be purchased and fitted on a just-in-time basis ahead of a shooting war.

This approach has practical benefits for war machines such as armoured vehicles. The additional weight from add-on armour would increase wear and tear during peacetime training, resulting in worn out vehicles and a higher maintenance bill.

It also preserve operational security as hostile forces are likely to be surprised by stuff that appears only during operations.

Mind you, the vanilla Bronco can still do the job. But without additional armour and close-in protection, the embarked infantry would be unable to respond during an ambush (the Bronco does not have firing ports and soldiers have to open the doors to fire their small arms).

The scenario that a POT would buy Singaporean strategic planners the window needed to crank up war preparations to full defence readiness may not come true if a wily enemy knows your playbook and executes countermeasures to catch the SAF off-balance.

The trick is calibrating the SAF with the right amount of firepower during peacetime without blowing the budget, without wearing out men and machines or scaring the sarongs of its neighbours.

War planners would do well keeping their powder dry by having drawer plans for hostilities only equipment that can be quickly delivered to the city-state during a POT.

This delivery window assumes that the entity responsible for the POT would be compliant (or stupid?) enough not to ring the city-state with an air and naval blockade which would deny the city-state access to essential war material.

It also assumes that home forces would pack the readiness, reach and firepower needed to escort overseas shipments into Singapore. The demand for round-the-clock patrols during the build-up to (assumed) hostilities, plus additional vigilance by an in-country counter attack force to guard against pre-emptive attacks by saboteurs is likely to strain the SAF the longer the POT stretches.

The re-arming of the SAF during a POT could also compromise or erase any diplomatic efforts to steer clear of war. This strategic conundrum arises because the other side cannot be expected to sit idly by while SAF war machines are brought up to full war standard. Its intelligence planners are likely to recommend precautionary deployments of their regular forces and such deployments run the risk of forcing the SAF into strike mode in which the time for talk ends and the shooting starts.

During a POT, RSAF escort flights or naval patrols for HVUs represent sensitive flashpoints that could quickly shrink months of anticipated POT to a heightened state of tension within days if any side miscalculates.

It is not a foregone conclusion that a POT would culminate in war.

The decision to move from peace to war posture is a political one and all that training and preparations could count for nothing if politicians vacillate and cannot reach a decisive decision point during a POT.

Weak-willed politicians may also hold back the SAF's drawer plan response. There are few things worse in strategic decision planning than curtailing the SAF into limited action where target sets are hit incrementally in pin prick attacks rather than in a massive autostrike blowout repeatedly and ruthlessly delivered day and night till the target sets no longer exist.

In such situations, a hostile army that moves quickly could dash Singapore's hopes of a "swift and decisive" response if it brings the city-state within the range rings of its artillery before the SAF can mobilise. Anyone who has seen the SAF mobilise large units would realise that mobilisation centres are a target rich environment teeming with citizen soldiers making the transition from civilian to soldier (sailor or airman, as the case may be). The mobilisation centres are a legitimate target under the laws of war. Spread over several hectares, these premises are also an area target ideal for imprecise artillery barrages fired by rocket artillery units.

With the resolution of ownership of Pedra Branca and increased efforts to reduce Singapore's dependence on Malaysian fresh water supplies, Singapore has cut down its list of potential casus belli by two scenarios.

The irony is that the less likely a shooting war, the more vociferous will be the calls for Singapore to explain the need for and relevance of the SAF.

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