In the Year 2030, we will find out if table tennis star Ms Li Jia Wei has honoured her promise to send her precious first born son for National Service (NS) in Singapore.
Terry Li, who will turn 21 in 2030, should have completed his NS by then if his school going journey unfolds like those of other Singaporean boys.
If and when he joins the ranks of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) or Home Team as an Operationally-Ready NSman (i.e. reservist), his contribution to defence manpower will be much-needed by our future
Army due to the manpower crunch. [I personally doubt he will ever carry an SAF 11B.]
SAF downsized more than 30 per cent
The SAF in 2030 could be 30+ per cent smaller than the 300,000-strong force of 2012's order of battle.
This is not a figure plucked from the air. The conservative guesstimate is based on projecting live birth statistics from the past decade to work out the rough number of 18-year-old NSFs in 2030 and the number of NSmen in service 17 years from now. It compares current day SAF Full Force Potential with future force potential using published live birth statistics as a baseline comparison.
Key assumptions that led to the forecast for a downsized SAF are:
1) That full-time conscription stays at two years, or 22 months for fitter enlistees.
2) That the 10-year NS cycle for NSmen is not extended to make up for the shortfall in defence manpower. NSmen from certain units may have to be persuaded to extend their NS commitment to stem the manpower shortage. From a legal standpoint, the system is on firm ground. Officers can be called up till 50 and other ranks are bound to serve till the age of 40.
3) That NS is not extended to women. A political hot potato, but one Singapore may be compelled to mull over to fill the ranks.
4) That the estab for SAF teeth and support arms remains at 2012's manpower manning levels.
5) That infant and childhood mortality and emigration levels remain at steady state.
6) That manpower apportioned to the SAF and Home Team, principally the Singapore Civil Defence Force and Singapore Police Force, remain at about the same ratio as today. The SAF could get an instant boost if SCDF and SPF NS intakes are cut back.
7) That there is no change in the exemption of first generation Permanent Residents (PR) from NS.
8) That there is no social engineering that will suddenly infuse Singapore with young NS-liable manpower.
Unless you're a military force like the 300 Spartans, any organised military that loses 30 per cent of its manpower can be considered operationally ineffective.
Fight current, fight future
We are convinced SAF 2030 cannot have the same orbat as SAF 2012. We had difficulty staffing every 200-series SA unit, 300-series SCE battalion and 400-series SAR battalion, the infantry and Guards units, medical, combat service, CMR units, Military Police etc using the 2030 manpower numbers. It could not be done.
Adjustments in force structure are needed because defence planners in the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the SAF will not have the bodies to flesh out combat and combat support units under the present-day orbat.
In addition, MINDEF/SAF will always have a need for units that will never win a Best Unit Competition trophy. We treasure such capabilities and defence professionals today because of the edge they give us. We will value them even more in 2030. Defence manpower needs to be always set aside for these groups and squadrons, now and in the future.
In operational terms, SAF 2030 could lose more than a division's worth of fighting potential. The loss could prompt a rethink of its ability to execute certain operational scenarios. Our forecast involved a worst-case scenario that ordered the SAF's Full Force Potential to push towards an objective, with Army divisions tasked with specific geographical references to be achieved by D+XX.
Impact on Commitment to Defence (C2D) in 2030
In this worst-case scenario, the NSF and NSman of the future will find himself safeguarding a Lion City where just 55 per cent of the resident population (3.8 million people out of 6.9 million) are Singapore Citizens.
It will be interesting to watch how MINDEF/SAF intends to sell the NS story as we approach 2030.
At the present time, there is no National Service army, no citizens army in the world that defends a country where the proportion of citizens is as small as the one projected in the Singapore Population White Paper.
Whether you look at Israel, Sweden, Switzerland or Taiwan, conscripts in these countries who answer the call to arms do so with the assurance their service to their respective countries is to safeguard the safety and security of their fellow citizens.
That message will be hard to sell to the Singaporean NSF in 2030, not when nearly half of the population are not part of what the government deems as the Singaporean Core.
- Who will the NSF and NSmen defend?
- Why should they do so?
- What better alternative(s) do we have to NS in 2030? An all-professional military force supported by the larger population?
As our citizens age and as our neighbourhood stays peaceful, questions will asked whether the Little Red
Dot should continue spending the largest slice of its annual budget on war machines.
Our friends in the defence arena and countries to which we have made defence arrangements, like the Five Power Defence Arrangement signatories (Australia, Britain, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore) deserve to know if a downsized SAF will lead to a corresponding dropoff in Singapore's defence and security activity.
Now that the Population White Paper is out of the bag, MINDEF/SAF should prepare itself to deal with such queries. It should make clear what the changing population make up would mean for the SAF's mission readiness, for Singapore's contributions to defence diplomacy, to international security arrangements like the PSI and UN-led missions, personnel exchanges, visits and exercises.
It would be preferable for MINDEF/SAF to help observers punch out the numbers rather than for defence observers to do it themselves and risk arriving at conclusions which are not in sync with planning parameters (i.e. taken out of context).
The impact on Commitment to Defence (C2D) from the sizeable Non Singaporean Core cannot be ignored or belittled.
Even in present years, rumours abound that immigration authorities may clamp down on the outflow of NSmen during a Period of Tension (POT). It is thought that NSmen may be prevented from leaving during a POT in an effort to prevent NS units from disintegrating through the leakage of citizens who fly the coop.
Should Singapore face a POT in 2030, NSFs and NSmen will have to contend with seeing the Non Singaporean Core flee our shores in anticipation of rough times ahead. Imagine the impact on morale when our transient fellow citizens show their true colours by not sticking around when it matters.
To be sure, MINDEF/SAF should have more than a handful of citizens in the Singaporean Core with Ramboesque ambitions to showcase in Pioneer magazine and frighten our Enemy.
But when you look at the bigger population landscape in 2030, the NSFs and NSmen left holding the fort (excuse the pun) in the emaciated SAF will largely be offspring of Singaporeans who are outnumbered statistically and under represented in society thanks to the sheer size of the Non Singaporean Core.
The shrinking size of the average Singaporean family spells further
MINDEF/SAF better come up with a convincing sales pitch to convince Singaporeans the sacrifice is worth it.
Even today, there is the impression Singaporeans are getting a raw deal by foreign talent who come here with no NS obligations. By the time the second generation of Singaporean Permanent Residents (PR) grow up, how many of them will still be around to serve.
Statistically, PRs have proven to be an unreliable source of defence manpower - About two thirds of NS defaulters are PRs.
Characters like convicted draft-dodger, Melvyn Tan, do not help MINDEF/SAF's messaging that there is a hefty price to pay for turning one's back on NS. Pay the fine and authorities will allow the draft dodger unimpeded access to our island nation. In Melvyn's case, the mainstream media will even forgive past transgressions and trumpet his career success everytime he times his appearance here around Chinese New Year.
Transplant this sentiment to 2030 and you can well imagine how morale can be butchered by the complexion of the Singapore population.
Elements unfriendly towards Singapore will have ample opportunity to hurt the morale of our NSmen even before they are mobilised for action, thanks to own goals scored by the system.
Realising that the SAF in 2030 has lost one in three warfighters compared to the current year orbat, MINDEF/SAF must also properly manage its deterrence posture. The dwindling Singaporean Core will also rob MINDEF/SAF of quality manpower needed as air force pilots and for SAFspecial forces.
Remember always that 17 years is a blink of an eye in a country's destiny. During the 19th century, German military strategists were convinced a future war would pit Germany against France and Russia and worked towards meeting this two front threat. This mindset was sowed years before the Schlieffen Plan was drawn up, with the plan itself hatched nearly a decade before the First World War. German staff planning thereby reinforced a toxic sense of neighbourliness and drove Germany towards a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Defence analysts may equate smaller numbers with a weaker force. When they do so, Singapore's strategy of deterrence will be blunted.
Roadmap for the future
This implies that effort and attention must be paid to managing this perceptions as the Population White Paper has already been released.
We must sense a readiness by MINDEF/SAF to guide citizen soldiers and defence observers on reading the population roadmap properly. And this effort must start today.
Thus far, since the Population White Paper was released, we have not heard a word on what this means for our citizens armed forces.
MINDEF either feels Singaporeans understand the situation fully - Do you? I don't - or that time and effort helping us understand what will unfold is simply not worth it.
Either way, MINDEF/SAF call the shots - as they always have.
Part 2 of this discussion will look at SAF 2030: Hardware matters
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