Saturday, March 31, 2012

Decisive victors: A primer on the Third Generation Singapore Armed Forces (3G SAF)

Even if you’re not old enough to recall the time when SAF 2000 was a just paper plan, a comparison between the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) orbat from the 1990s and today will show that SAF 2000 authors have successfully pushed concept to reality.

With major elements of the Third Generation SAF ready for combat operations or approaching full operational capability, Singaporeans who are part of the SAF - our regulars, Operationally Ready National Servicemen, current and future full-time NSmen (NSFs) - must recognise there is no end point to this drive to be “3G”. Warfighters who serve the 3G SAF must therefore continue the process of continuous transformation needed to give the SAF a decisive edge, that cannot be achieved with numbers, during operations. But more on this later. 

A 3G SAF Primer
In Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF shorthand, the Third Generation SAF is commonly referred to as the 3G SAF. 

Because it was introduced around the time when 3G handsets started appearing on the market, it is common for people - even those in MINDEF/SAF - to think it was borrowed or inspired by the mobile telephony industry. This is not the case.

The context for the Third Generation SAF was meant to contrast it with two earlier phases of the SAF's development. By using this tagline with the word "transformation", it promoted the idea of an SAF on the cusps of a paradigm shift in the way it would conduct its business.

The first generation SAF started with the rapid build-up of the SAF following independence in 1965, when we needed to rapidly build-up a self-defence capability. The fledgling SAF had neither professional expertise nor funding to raise, train and sustain expensive and sophisticated systems. So we bought a lot of things second-hand. Nor did we have in any case the experience to know what we needed. The army's AMX-13 light tanks, air force Hunters, A-4 Skyhawks and Bloodhound long-range SAMs, and our navy's tank landing ships are examples of second-hand equipment acquired during the build-up. This phase lasted till the mid-80s.

The second generation SAF (or 2G SAF, if you will) characterised the period from the mid-80s till the end of the century. It was a phase in which we upgraded our capability by acquiring new and sophisticated systems, and upgrading existing systems (because by then, we had the expertise). Home-grown defence modernisation projects that turned the AMX-13 light tank into the SM1, RSAF F-5E/F fighter jets into the F-5S/T and the renovation of the navy's Missile Gunboats reflect the effort to introduce cost-effective upgrades to ageing defence equipment.

It was also a time when Singaporean defence planners gained a deeper appreciation of the need for free and unimpeded access to the sea lanes. Our navy, long neglected as the weakest of the three SAF Services, received closer attention and funding. New acquisitions served as a springboard which helped the RSN cut its teeth in fighting a multi-dimensional war at sea with its officers and men conducting surface, sub-surface, anti-air and electronic warfare simultaneously, in concert with other members of their task group and also with RSAF air assets. The project name was fitting indeed, if you know what I mean.

At the same time, the 2G SAF marked the period when the SAF started introducing Combined Arms Divisions and thinking "Joint". NSmen who served during the late 1980s and 1990s would recall that Army war games became increasingly complex. Large-scale, two-sided encounters such as Exercise Golden Sands, High Noon and Ulysses reflect the Singapore Army's push towards engaging the Enemy at a higher tempo of integrated warfare with concentrated violence wielding the full weight of warfighting resources not just within a CAD but that of SAF Services. 

The wraps came off RSAF 128 Squadron, then a hush-hush unmanned aerial vehicle unit, when it was sent to Australia to support Army exercises there. In years that followed, Army commanders considered the provision of UAV coverage over their area of operations not just a novelty, but an operational necessity. Having been convinced what persistent awareness can achieve, few 3G SAF Army commanders would want to go into operations without UAVs helping to watch over their AO.

Increasing awareness of the electromagnetic battlefield saw our air force raise the number of its TA-4SU Super Skyhawks not for training pilots, mind you, but for a combat mission requiring a back-seater that is still not talked about. Had they gone into action, I have little doubt their appearance over the battlefield would have stunned observers and they would have taken out the eyes and ears of the Enemy with relentless precision. To those who served, thank you.

MINDEF/SAF, too, had grounds for confidence in our air force. By then, RSAF CONUS detachments had joined other air forces in United States Air Force war readiness exercises codenamed Green Flag.

Former Chief of Air Force, Brigadier General Michael Teo, told the men and women of Team RSAF in his farewell speech to them on 12 August 1992:"If the button is pushed today, I am confident that the RSAF will, like a firestorm, unleash its full fury and visit destruction upon the Enemy. My confidence in you is total, our mission is clear. We will swiftly and decisively dominate the sky and gain air superiority. We will participate with the Army and Navy in the winning of the land and sea battles."

But it was still a numbers game. The third generation started when the idea of Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) gained traction among thinkers of military strategy overseas. But it is continuous transformation that makes the 3G SAF different from the RMA, which is an end point in the way you think about organising the military, using C3I as a force multiplier.

As stated before, the 3G SAF has no end point and is a continuous transformation. This transformation has achieved much in terms of military hardware, command relationships within and between various formations in the Singapore Army, Republic of Singapore Air Force and Republic of Singapore Navy, as well as terms and conditions for SAF personnel. Basics like the Number 4 uniform, rank structure and quality of duty meals have all changed. A teenager enlisting with the 3G SAF joins a vastly improved war machine from NSFs who served Singapore's citizens' army just a decade ago. 

Understanding 3G's call for continuous transformation
The downside of catchy taglines is this: They become dated after being reused year after year.

Once “3G” becomes yesterday’s story, it will be an uphill struggle for Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF publicists to portray the SAF as a fighting force to be reckoned with. How can a 3G war machine be the one to bet on when someone else boasts of capabilities of 4G or better? 

To be sure, MINDEF/SAF has always talked about its modernization effort as a journey, not a destination. This means the SAF does not transform into a 3G war machine the moment new hardware is introduced.
The SAF’s transformation is a continuous learning journey with adjustments and improvements made to Singapore’s citizens’ armed forces in terms of its people, warfighting concepts and military technology. 

"Continuous" means there is no end point. The notion of "transformation" means more than simply introducing innovations to the war we fight. A 3G SAF is, therefore, a fighting force in perpetual motion, experimenting with new battle concepts and military technology and transforming constantly. MINDEF/SAF PR material should continue sharing the original thinking behind the 3G SAF moniker, particularly with fresh enlistees who are none the wiser. The preservation of institutional memory is even more critical as many authors who laid the groundwork for SAF 2000 and the 3G SAF effort have either left the armed Services or have retired.

As with every kinetic movement, an ops pause is necessary now and again for people to catch their breath, to reflect and reconsider if the actions executed were good ideas to begin with. Otherwise our people may end up running in all directions for the sake of being seen to be doing something. Some officers confuse 3G with "unmanned" and believe they have attained the magic quality just by rolling out some remote-controlled gadget during a field exercise.

Future Systems Directorate
Enter the Future Systems Directorate, set up to support this process of continuous transformation by serving as an ideas sanctuary where Singapore's military minds can try and fail within a permissive learning environment.

The growing number of enlistees who are educated beyond polytechnic level (>60% of all enlistees) means the SAF is constantly refreshed with NSFs who have little or no problem assimilating warfighting technology introduced by the 3G SAF. 

For example, NSF section commanders entrusted with the "call for fire" function have little problem learning how to use the hand-held ACMS keypad, having grown up sending SMSes at a rapid-fire pace during their student days. The Battlefield Management System installed in armoured vehicles has a live chat function that allows secure, real-time transmission of messages typed between operators in AFVs - again, a function familiar with the Internet generation who can handle multiple chat windows with aplomb. 

As NSFs complete their two years full-time service and move to NS battalions, the SAF would benefit from having its NSmen share best practices from the private sector. Managed astutely, contributions from citizen soldiers are a powerful asset as modern battles become more wired and are fought/loss at a faster tempo. 

Armed forces with an all-regular force whose lower ranks are made up mainly of poorly-educated soldiers may find it harder improving their battle sense using advanced sensors such as unmanned ground sensors or unmanned aerial vehicles. Such forces tend to be saddled with institutional inertia as their headcount is relatively static and refreshed incrementally when old soldiers retire and are backfilled by new recruits. 

Those who know where the 3G SAF is headed do not worry about the tagline so long as the organisational culture of the SAF is embedded with the spirit of continuous transformation. But attention should be devoted to ensuring new recruits understand, appreciate and practice the 3G mindset. As even SAF regulars would have a problem writing an essay explaining the 3G SAF, we need to help our NSFs get a headstart with the transformation effort. Active intervention during their secondary school days is a good start.

In this regard, the SAF's move to build mindshare by adopting schools close to military camps and interacting with students through visits, exhibitions and talks is commendable. It creates an early touchpoint where teenagers clueless about the SAF can get an early induction into our armed forces. 

Impact of defence manpower on defence planning 
The drive to build a 3G SAF is critical because manpower dynamics will lead to a smaller SAF once the full impact of shrinking birth rates is fully felt about a decade from now. SAF planners looking at 2011's birth statistics have an 18-year lead time to plan for and accommodate the NSF cohort born last year. Taking into account leakage from emigration and childhood mortality (both of which can be estimated), SAF planners would have a good idea how many SAF11Bs will be issued when the cohort of babies born in a particular year reach enlistment age. The outlook is not promising. 

Unless the SAF learns to harness technology to make up for smaller NSF intakes, the SAF orbat may be left with undermanned battalions. The impact this will have on the SAF's defence readiness should be obvious to everyone. 

When MINDEF/SAF publicised the then-new FH-88 155mm gun howitzer's gun crew needed about four gunners less than the M-68 155mm gun it replaced, it reinforced MINDEF/SAF's commitment to fielding hardware with lower manning demands. You can better appreciate how a single gun with a smaller gun crew benefits the SAF when moving from battery level (six guns) to battalion level to the Singapore Artillery as a combat formation. Defence manpower savings are sizeable, especially when the whole of SAF sets its sights on war machines with lower manning levels that can outperform the platforms being replaced. 

If lower birth rates are a reality, the long lead-time needed to source for, acquire and introduce new weapon platforms and systems is another impediment to change. 

It can take years before a new war machine attains full operational capability with any armed forces. To be sure, the process of buying and unveiling a new tank/jet fighter/warship can be done as soon as the cheque clears and the new war machine is painted in your colour of choice. But integrating the new piece of kit as a fully combat capable war machine will take much longer. 

The long lead-time needed to reshape any fighting organisation underlines the relevance of the 3G SAF's learning culture. There are cynics who poke fun at the SAF and those who want nothing more than to serve and forget. 

But defence professionals whose duty, training and instinct is to make a clinical assessment of the fighting capabilities of a force for war have remarked to me on many occasions how impressed they have been with the SAF as a adaptive, potent and operationally ready military organisation. 

To be sure, the SAF has walked into blind alleys. And cynics have constantly mouthed the Singaporean military's lack of real world combat experience as a comeback line to poke fun at the SAF. NSmen are among the biggest culprits. Who does not enjoy a lark about NS life? The taller the tale, the more laughs it generates. Even among strangers at a dining table (business lunch or wedding dinner), the question "Where did you serve your NS?" is an instant and fail-safe conversation starter. 

Publicising the 3G SAF 
Stories of yesteryear tried hard to describe the transformation effort as a continuous learning journey. In many respects, this gradual shift in nuacing newspaper stories from SAF 2000 as a concept, to military experiments to new platforms and systems has helped defence observers see how the SAF has transformed itself. 

But there’s a curious tendency to assume that military experimentation comes to a halt the moment a 3G element is introduced. An SAF officer in charge of PR told me years ago stories on the 3G SAF would move away from reporting on experiments to showing how systems being experimented on had been operationalised. In my opinion, this mindset was a mistake.

This could explain why we hardly read about military experiments these days. When was the last time you read about the Future Systems Directorate? Many Singaporeans should be reminded about its important mission. Such tinkering with war machines, the commitment to military experimentation ought to continue with undiminished vigour, intellectual rigour and tolerance for failure.

Some of the celebrated examples of military engineering were not designed for the role they excelled in. This includes Germany’s 8.8cm anti-aircraft gun, whose high muzzle velocity turned out to be ideal for killing tanks. The first tank landing ships deployed for amphibious landings during WW2 were converted from oil tanker hulls. And the Royal Air Force Lancaster bomber would never have made a name for itself as a long-range bomber had the twin-engine Manchester not been redesigned as a strategic bomber with four engines and a heavier bombload.

Singaporean defence engineers have also made modest contributions to the field of military engineering.

Republic of Singapore Air Force Hawker Hunters day fighters were reconfigured in the 1980s as a ground-attack aircraft and were the only Hunters in the world with a centerline weapons hardpoint to carry bombs or rocket pods. Several Hunters were unique, being the only ones with a special sensor package for a reconnaissance role.

Naval engineers upgraded the RSN's 45-metre missile gunboats to carry Gabriel and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The missile craft were configured to give maximum flexibility in the warload depending on the mission requirement. Each MGB could carry up to four Gabriels, which were guided by an optical sight after launch, and up to eight Harpoons, which could hit targets beyond the horizon. Gabriel missiles were retained even after the Harpoons were acquired. However, the heavier triple cell trainable launcher was discarded in favour of single cell missile pods which flanked the enlarged superstructure on upgraded MGBs. This allowed the Singapore Navy's missile craft to target and engage the Enemy in congested waters more effectively than the Harpoons which were designed for open water operations rather than fire missions in littoral waters dotted with islands and friend/neutral shipping.

For Singapore’s land forces, improvements made to the AMX-13 light tanks gave them the ability to kill T-72 main battle tanks, thanks to a special armour-piercing munition developed by local engineers.

The common thread between the examples cited above is the fact that all the war machines have been retired. The stories can therefore be shared without compromising operational security.

To those who know, many more examples abound in the 3G SAF. The SAF therefore presents a fascinating study of how a small country with limited industrial potential can adapt, modify and upgrade war machines to suit the specific operational requirements of its land, air, sea and intelligence forces.

As the 3G SAF gains traction, publicising such stories would recognise SAF personnel for their service and dedication, reassure heartlanders and Singapore's friends. It would send a clear signal that the SAF is a force to be reckoned with and sharpen the 3G SAF's deterrent edge as a force for war, determined to fight and achieve a swift and decisive victory. 


Anthony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anthony said...

Given the niche role that the Gabriel filled because of its optical guidance capability, it's strange that RSN discontinued its use with the advent of the Fearless PV

Anonymous said...

EMP weapon. Apparently it can be generated conventionally nowadays.

Who said...

Hmmm there was an article in the 80s indicating at least 1 Hunter gun pod was removed and it was convert into an electronic version , hope I can find it .

Abao said...

A 3G army is good, but we cannot continue to pump money non stop into defence without evaluating the cost effectiveness.

also, what is the point of having superior technology when no one believes in the sovereignty of the state?

Anthony said...

If you want peace, prepare for war

Anonymous said...

The intents and purposes of a 3G army is well and good. But I also feel that MINDEF should pay attention to 3 issues on the ground: actual availability of assets (including CSS and CR assets which are just as important as combat assets), availability of manpower with requisite medical PES according to ORBAT and the morale of NSMen, particularly in these times when people feel that PRs and new citizens either do not have to do NS or can even escape NS commitment. MINDEF has to re look this issue and not bury its head in the sand.

Anonymous said...

In a balance of terror, what's the real value in upping your sophistication well beyond the perceived threats. It perceived treats are not even half your capability, what's the point of striving so hard to up the ante in a one-man race? Furthermore, if you are retiring untested upgrades which your perceived threats can only dream about, are we making the most of it by selling them at a good price to those not in our geopolitical battle arena?

what you divulged here is just a lot of unsubstantiated hot air, don't mind my saying when you consider the current fortunes of the US armed forces in places like Iraq and afganistan. Remember, the Vietnam war? The US was reported to have unloaded ordnance of all descriptions exceeding all they payloads dropped in WWII. A lot of good it did the US and its allies. War machines are only be a small component of how to fight a war and win, IMO.

Anonymous said...

What's so secret about the tech or tactics of the TA-4 Sykhawk from so many years ago?

No, it must be the political sensitivity of the unannounced target!

Anonymous said...

Your comment on the secretive TA-4 Sykhawk 2-seater on a mission left me dangling on a high rope. I'll never know what mission it was.
Any idea why we didn't upgrade to the new Gabriel-2 missile. I know we were looking into buying for our Fearless class vessels but changed our minds. Was the Harpoon better?

David Boey said...

Hi (above),
Re: TA-4 Skyhawk. You should be able to figure it out lah...

Anonymous said...

Boey said : The common thread between the examples cited above is the fact that all the war machines have been retired.

Therein lies the wastfulness of consistently heavy defence expenditures well in excess of that of potential "attackers" and acting too early in anticipation of our falling birth rate. In 20 years time, the rapid rate of technology progress will make obsolescent of most of our hardware and will further automate the manning and firing of war machines.
The point is the high state of readiness and armament in the light of a low-war probability comes with an unacceptable huge cost at the expense of many real needs of the people (social safety net, medicare etc)that go unsatisfied. For years and decades all the other ASEAN countries together spend less on defence than Singapore alone. So if they run 1 step, why does Singapore need to run 10 steps ahead when 3 steps is more than enough to be superior? Since day one of SAF, how many generations of hardware have we junked and replaced and how much of training costs spent and wasted without engaging in any real fight? This reminds me of an audiophile relishing in buying and continuosly upgrading high-end equipment at high cost but with diminishing returns.

ZZ said...

David, it's me again.

I was wondering about the SM1 tank's 75mm ammunition. Could our rounds design not be entirely local? I read about an American 80s private venture light tank prototype that successfully penetrated T-72s front on, firing ARES telescoped 75mm rounds from AAI Corp. Could our round have something to do with it?

About the Skyhawks, could I ask you if their role was physically destructive or simply disruptive?