Saturday, October 13, 2012

Fighting the plasma war with the Singapore Armed Forces Battlefield Management System (BMS)

In peace and war, there is such a thing as Too Much Information.

Being able to see first, see more, decide and act faster is a double edged sword: Warfighters with such prescience may be embolded to stay and fight - or they may flee in the face of superior numbers.

This is the dilemma posed to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as it taps on military technology to give its warfighters a better sense of the battle situation than ever before.

The Battlefield Management System (BMS) showcased during Exercise Wallaby this past week is arguably a step forward in exploiting computers, assorted military sensors and the wonders of modern info-comms technology to produce a best effort, realtime picture of the battlespace.

Indeed, SAF warfighters gain a clearer appreciation of situation not by poking their head outside their armoured vehicles but by viewing the flat plasma screen of the BMS and toying around with its features.

In an instant, friend and foe shows up in vivid colour on the bird's eye view of the map grid. Text messages and pictures can be sent from one BMS-equipped platform to another as fast as one's fingers can type.

With SAF war machines exchanging information with one another as the battle unfolds, new hostile elements can be added when they are encountered. This keeps the air and ground situation picture refreshed.

BMS is the visual representation of knowing yourself and knowing your enemy. This display of Precision Information would have knocked Sun Tzu off his chair.

Dangers of tech infatuation
But hardware alone does not guarantee victory and the reliance on technology - left unchecked - could morph into an infatuation with technology, putting in a gizmo for the sake of doing so.

Having data sent wirelessly exposes the SAF to attempts to disrupt, degrade, destroy or exploit such free to air information. Boffins who work for the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF are betting on the improbability that algorithms that encrypt the data can be broken.

During the Second World War, the Germans made the same bet - and lost. The secret behind the breaking of the Enigma codes is so closely guarded that the full story has yet to be unclassified decades after many German U-boats were sunk.

If a clever Enemy can read our mail, this would be an advantage that an astute Enemy would keep quiet about. The Allies certainly behaved this way. They exploited Enigma judiciously, sometimes to the extent of allowing convoys to fall into ambushes set by German submarines as a sudden course diversion with no Allied surveillance assets in sight may have aroused German suspicions that their codes had been compromised.

Even without the threat of code breakers, Too Much Information could bedevil Singapore's citizen soldiers.

Corporate warriors would be familiar with bosses who demand near instantaneous responses to emails, day or night, work day or weekend. With BMS, the SAF could breed a keyboard warrior mindset where soldiers are fixated more with trading information on the BMS, than in using BMS to fight the battle.

Breaking point
Too Much Information could also unnerve the troops when the tide turns against them. The BMS is a boon to morale when things are going your way and the red Enemy icons are erased one by one, indicating you are winning. But if the reverse happened, this bird's eye view might test the fight or flight instincts that are in every soldier. And let us be frank, that flight instinct will kick in for some commanders. Should that happen, the realtime tracking would show this in an instant, thus challenging the rest of the team to make a call whether or not to stay or abandon the position.

In all gunfights, there is a breaking point - that test of will to fight - at which the skirmish line loses its critical mass. That breaking point is the moment at which astute commanders viewing the situation can sense that the tide has turned (for or against their favour, depending on which side you're on). A rupture of defence lines can be turned into a rout by concentrating combat power at that weak spot.

This is why commanders like to lead from the front - not because they are bullet-proof but because it gave them a firsthand view of the state of play and critical junctures at which immediate and violent action against the opposing force should be initiated with remorse or delay.

Another worry with BMS is the possibility that the system could fall into Enemy hands intact. Should this happen, the Enemy would be presented with an information bonanza. To guard against this, SAF war machines that carry BMS are said to have a master key that wipes out all data in an instant. But to assume that a soldier can assess the situation so astutely and time his/her action of wiping out the data so precisely is asking too much of our citizen's army.

Pulp fiction and real shooting wars are peppered with situations where incredibly close calls ended up with the hero living to fight another day. Are we to expect BMS custodians to sit in their vehicle wondering if they should trigger a system shutdown the moment the first enemy rounds start plinking their armour? And when is that kamikaze moment? When the enemy is at the top hatch of your vehicle?

Modern warfare is filled with examples of the Enemy capturing military hardware largely intact. It is dangerous, indeed foolhardy, to assume the SAF is innoculated against this malady. Vehicles could fall out of one's hands by accident, design or inept command decisions. If popular brands of smart phones can be cloned, what makes you think the SAF's BMS cannot be reverse engineered?

Another point worth considering is the way Gen Y citizen soldiers fit into the tech-centric SAF. Much ado has been made about their higher education levels - 60% of full-time National Servicemen having attained a polytechnic diploma or better. Their ability to work with high tech gizmos like BMS makes a cheerful story for MINDEF/SAF. Their mastery of keystrokes, their rapid-fire SMSes conjure visual images of tech-savvy NSFs tailored just right for the tech-centric Third Generation (3G) SAF. It's almost like the wired generation of Gen Ys and 3G SAF were made for one another, with such a serendipitous pairing resulting in increased combat power.

Indeed, the increasing reliance on plasma by the 3G SAF has evoked comparisons between the colourful moving icons marching across SAF plasma screens with those fought on computer games.

Such comparisons are unfortunate. They do nothing to harden mindsets to the reality that fighting real operations is not a computer game.

In war, Game Over is for real.


Anonymous said...

While I think you have a valid point about hostile forces capturing our equipment in times of war, I can think of 2 even more plausible scenarios:
(1) some of our own "citizen" soldiers relaying information or even equipment to potential enemies before the war begins (we will hand out more and more PR-ships and citizenships to foreigners as our population numbers continue to decline. Based on my interactions with some of these new citizens, I believe there's a small, but nevertheless a signifiant number who could be a so-called "5th column" in times of war), and
(2) spies for any potentially hostile country may already have their hands on some of our latest gadgets, including BMS.

AhHuatTooTheBusy said...

BMS and all these kind of gizmo good for top heavy SAF.

Must give all those crabs and stars something to manage mah.

Recent exercise in States, wah so many people at HQ watching the movie.

On the ground, less and less people. Section 7 man. Full Platoon (minus call in sick/headache) probably 18.

After attrition, nobody left to do fighting for managers.;)

Solution? Outsourcing loh.

TunkuTakTentuh said...

Shiol Sial!

If capture the BMS, then kasih wayang siddikit lah.

"Oh sorry uncle wrong turn, coming back soon for red bean night snack"

...then sit back and relax, watch where all the Singapore units are, eat Nasi Lemak.

Don't forget to thank Singapore Technologies.;)

AhHuatIsYourBruther said...

Eh TunkuTakTentuh,

you also forgot rokok.

I also come join in kawan.

TunkuTakTentuh said...

What you 6th collum ah?

AhHuatPonteng said...

No Lah...

You know where we are, I know where you are.

Take break and siam first mah? Relak now Fight later.The less we bleed.


Anonymous said...

BmS if captured compromise is at most at tactical level. No strategic manuvouer information will be made avail at company level. Unless battalion CO vehicle/CP kena captured. If situation is imminent, CO must decide to give the order to turn the kill switch unless the RPs guarding the battalion CP are caught totally sleeping such that even the staff were caught surprise ! So from now on all RPs and the RSM must be damn serious. Cannot anyhow appoint attend B,light medical excuse personnel to play RP. Their role is even more vital now besides digging latrine hole and erecting battalion toilet for the visiting brigade commander.

123 said...

1. There really isn't a breaking point because it is not up to the individual soldier to believe he can run away. He always believe he has to hold the line and there is a concept of delaying the enemy. Until the order is he can retreat. He also knows it's irresponsible to not at least delay the enemy a few more moments, because, if not, he will allow the enemy to access many weak points. I think this idea is alrdy obvious to most soldiers. And similar to a poll about shooting your own countrymen, he'll only do it if he himself is convinced that it is for a greater good, it's not so hard to decide right, like if the guy alrdy breached our line despite warning and suddenly shows us a bomb. And so on.
1a. like wad the guy above says, we dunno the strategy, that's why there isn't a breaking point. But i disagree with him:1. tactical, BMS, is still impt.2. i think the circumstances for shutdown is closer to the one below instead.
2. I can't imagine a war without such system. I dun believe that we will continue to disallow our information to be viewed by everyone jus so we can keep it safe at the HQ. I think we should learn to accept that. There are limitations, and yes we should not proceed until the limitations are solved. That means we are actually flexible and wun use it if we cannot be sure whether the system is compromised. I'll even say it's illogical to use it despite the risk, i dun think anyone will do that or anyone will even think that is right. But at least we know this is going to be the way forward. Lastly, once again, this is no different from cracking traditional communications, so despite bms's better presentation, it really is no more damaging than having older communication system compromise. The difference doesn't exist.

123 said...

We want live to fight another day, because we want to delay the enemy longer. I dun expect normal ppl to understand this, but i'm sure the ppl who served with me knows this alrdy.

AhHuatBuayTahan said...

"we want to fight another day because we want to delay the enemy longer"


What talking you?

You like delaying enemy ah? Even very the not normal people cannot understand this...or maybe they can.

Lucky BMS system got no this kind of message.


Anonymous said...

Hi David,

I see SAF as being too enamoured to technology.

As history & more current conflicts have shown, the most important war fighting abilities are soldiers' physical/mental toughness, fighting spirit,doggedness coupled with a high level of individual & organizational competence in military skills etc

The above when combined with high tech weapons & the knowledge of how to use it effectively is a war winning combination.

Danger with SAF strategy is that
when its hi tech equipment such as BMS, GPS, comms etc are degraded or countered by the enemy, SAF soldiers are no longer able to fight effectively at the basic in- the-trenches, eyeball-to-eyeball level.

All hi tech advantages can be countered as shown by creative application of countermeasures including tactics & strategies.

Red Indian with Tomahawk

123 said...

Thx to wad AhHuatBuayTahan said, i'm no longer sure that everyone understands the idea anymore. So, yes, we should fear using it.

Anonymous said...

BMS is but a souped up radio set. radio communication can be compromised, but the idea of dumping the radio because they could be captured by the enemy is just unthinkable.

futhermore, the BMS is located in a armored vehicle, capturing a BMS intact will be a bit harder compared to capturing a radio.

even if you do capture one, chances are its a front line unit with information limited to a very tiny area for a very limited time.

Anonymous said...

I think the more fundamental question to ask is how all this new technology has changed the way we fight. From what I have seen, we are more efficient but we are not necessarily more effective.

The said...

///Hi David,
I see SAF as being too enamoured to technology. ///

Yes. So, when the enemy closes in, are our soldiers going to fight by whacking the enemy on the head with their keyboard or monitor.