Sunday, October 2, 2011
Fire at 1 Pulau Bukom underlines need to protect vulnerable economic infrastructure
If it took more than 100 firefighters 32 hours to put out the industrial fire at Royal Dutch Shell's largest oil refinery on Pulau Bukom, imagine the resources needed to control a blaze initiated by hostile action.
The stubborn oil refinery blaze underlines the vulnerability of petrochemical complexes on Pulau Bukom and Jurong Island should these complexes appear on the target list of any aggressor(s).
These highly flammable facilities and the tankers that service them are the soft underbelly of Singapore's economy. Such assets cannot as yet be protected from an aggressor that takes the first shot.
Though the 32-hour fire on Pulau Bukom was put out at 9.18pm on Thursday, some 100 Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) firefighters, 13 fire engines and 21 support vehicles remain on high alert on the island should the blaze flare up again.
During a hot war when people on mainland Singapore and offshore islands must brace themselves for enemy action, the SCDF will be hard-pressed to allocate such resources to one emergency - because there will be many conflagarations island-wide.
The insurance that comes from hardening Singapore under a Total Defence masterplan will take time to achieve.
Homes are being hardened gradually under building rules that call for all new homes to include a household shelter. But it will take several decades more before the masterplan's goal of having a household shelter in every home and work place is reached. And this assumes property developers do not attempt to skirt round this law through a liberal interpretation of building laws.
The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has also taken steps to protect vital infrastructure through camouflage, concealment, dispersal at its army, air and naval bases.
However, some military assets such as radars cannot be hardened. Such emitters need to scan large volumes of battlespace 24/7 to give battle managers a good sense of their battlespace. Retract these radars into hardened silos and the emitters would be shut down - thereby saving the enemy the trouble of targetting these sites in the first place. The enemy wants the SAF to fight blind.
Those of you who have endured traffic snarls along Singapore's expressways will probably agree our transport nodes are another weak link that need to be addressed.
All it takes is one fender bender to close just one lane during rush hour and traffic could be backed up several kilometres from the accident vehicles.
Expressways and arterial roads choked with bumper to bumper traffic will hamper SAF efforts at mobilising its full force potential. The vulnerability of Singapore's road network to saboteurs or conventional artillery attack should therefore be obvious to defence watchers.
Those of you who have seen a Singapore Army division on the move on mainland Singapore during war games such as Exercise Mousedeer would realise the sheer number of tracked and wheeled vehicles in the division's orbat. In any lead up to hostilities, a clear passage for SAF divisional units cannot be guaranteed especially if aggressor forces such as special forces are determined to interfere with road movements.
Singapore is a fragile nation.
The scenarios sketched out above are, however, less dire when one assesses the advantages that a nimble intelligence apparatus and defence technology can bring to the SAF.
Combat proven systems are available to alert, detect, track, target and destroy rocket artillery broadsides before damage is done.
Though arguably expensive and resource-intensive to field, such systems enhance Singapore's ability to soak up a first strike should our intelligence network and deterrence fail.
To be sure, the technology to detect and track incoming tube and rocket artillery munitions has existed for decades. Firefinder radars such as the TPQ-37 with 24 SA can already do so.
What the SAF lacked was the muscle to kill such munitions before the end of their journey.
Assuming Republic of Singapore Air Force weapons officers and specialists are not asleep at the switch, the protection afforded by quick-reaction counter fire units will negate any military advantages of firing first.
Indeed, a miscalculated first shot by any aggressor(s) would reinforce the Lion City's international position should the decision be made to defend this island with terminal intensity.
It is said that the RSAF is revamping its gun and missile-armed air defence units to ensure these units keep pace with military developments.
Older systems such as the radar-directed 35mm Oerlikon twin cannon are said to be on their last legs.
A rumoured incoming system will be a game-changer if it works as advertised.
No defence shield is 100% leak-proof. But if the effectiveness of a massed rocket artillery salvo can be blunted and backed up by a response plan to hunt and destroy not just the assets that fired those rockets but blow out the brains behind that hostile act, this plan will enhance Singapore's deterrent posture.
Steps should also be taken to explain to Singaporeans and friends abroad why the new system will be a game-changer.
For Singaporeans, the new system would represent more than just another war machine to be gawked at during an RSAF Open House. It would, for the first time, give Singapore's citizen soldiers the ability to knock down incoming rocket artillery with precision. If properly calibrated, public communication messages can shore up commitment to defence because our erstwhile vulnerability against such munitions would have been addressed.
For neighbouring countries, the new system would strengthen the security landscape because the SAF would no longer be held hostage to the need to strike first and hit pre-emptively under its rumoured drawer plans. In a period of high tension, the SAF can demonstrate maximum restraint as politicians and SAF battle managers who are aware of such a system will know the effectiveness of a surprise first strike can be negated.
As with any war machine, the introduction of a counter measure against a certain munition (counter-fire missiles versus rocket artillery) can trigger a counter-counter measure.
The SAF must therefore stay watchful of such dynamics in arms purchases, and keep its battle managers alert always.
Posted by David Boey at 11:33 AM