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.
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.
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.