Saturday, April 27, 2013
Round the clock and round the world: Good defence relations pave the way for Singapore Armed Forces war games overseas
In ASEAN armed forces, incident-free war games would hardly be rated newsworthy.
The one exception is the armed forces of Singapore, which makes headlines not from what the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) does during combat manoeuvres but where these war games are staged.
This past week, reports in Singapore about military exercises in Brunei and Germany underlined the global mindset that Singapore's citizens' armed forces have embraced in overcoming land constraints.
The determination to keep the SAF's combat edge sharp is seen in the often overlooked fact that Singapore sends more soldiers overseas for war games and has more detachments overseas than all other ASEAN countries combined.
The sun literally doesn't set on SAF training. Singapore's military preparedness takes place round the clock and round the world, thanks to strong defence relations forged between our city-state and friends abroad.
SAF trains worldwide
In Asia, the SAF has conducts war games on home ground year-round. Arrangements with Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Taiwan and Thailand have allowed the SAF to flex its combat strength on foreign soil. The SAF has also been to South Africa for live-fire exercises involving field artillery and air defence missiles.
When its lights out in Asia, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) detachment in Cazaux, France, gets to work teaching pilots about air combat and ground attack mission profiles. We also have RSAF pilots who have trained in Italy.
Achtung Panzer!: Germany's State Secretary for Defence Rudiger Wolf (in beige trench coat) and Singapore's Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen (second from right) briefed on the bilateral live-fire exercise executed by a German panzer unit and Singaporean tank forces. (Photo: Ministry of Defence, Singapore)
The Singapore Army flies its flag in Europe too. This past week, the NATO-Bergen training area in Germany was the focus of media attention when Defence Ministers from Germany and Singapore reaffirmed close ties and revealed that the SAF would be allowed to conduct armour training in Germany twice a year with immediate effect.
As Europe beds down for the night, a new work day dawns for multiple RSAF detachments and training arrangements in CONUS. Such activities stretch the breadth of the United States and range from pilot training in Florida to the F-15SG detachment in Mountain Home, Idaho.
Once a year, the SAF works with the US military to bring everything together at an Air-Land exercise codenamed Forging Saber. Previous editions of Forging Saber allowed the SAF to raise the bar incrementally when concentrating the firepower of SAF war machines on land (like HIMARS satellite-guided rocket batteries) and in the air (Apache attack helicopters, F-15 and F-16 warplanes) with unmanned assets like UAVs. This year, Forging Saber is expected to lift the threshold even higher.
It will be clear from this snapshot of the world that the SAF trains with subject matter experts in all parts of the globe, many of whom have amassed years of combat experience.
To be sure, our ASEAN neighbours in Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam have ample space in their countryside, air and sea space for their respective armed forces to stretch their legs. So there's really no need for these countries to invest in training arrangements elsewhere.
Overcoming land constraints
Singapore's land constraints make military training a constant challenge. Simulators for war machines do help, but only to the extent needed to get a full-time national serviceman competent in knowing how to operate the weapon platform or weapon system, which buttons to press.
To step up the proficiency ladder means experiencing the full combat potential of the war machine when it reaches out and touches the target kilometres away. Such live-fire training can only be accommodated overseas because the maximum range for live-fire army training in Singapore is a fraction of the effective range of key weapons like Leopard tanks (it can kill a tank more than 2km away; our artillery can rain shells on targets up to 42km away and guided rockets much further than that).
The next level of combat proficiency comes when the citizen soldier, sailor or airman realises how each war machine integrates itself in the whole mission plan. Such know-how cannot be acquired in the two years of full-time National Service.
This is why the Operationally-Ready NS battalions which have completed their first tranches of high key in-camp training are, in my view, the best trained NS units. These soldiers would have graduated from section, platoon, company, battalion to brigade-level live-fire training and may have been exposed to the rigours and fast-paced at which integrated live-fire exercises take place when Army units train alongside the RSAF.
Our overseas commitments cost money. For MINDEF/SAF to scour the world for training arrangements underscores Singapore's determination to build strong and meaningful defence relations with partners worldwide. Multiple training opportunities also ensure we do not have all our eggs in one basket.
Payoff from training worldwide
The payoff is the signal Singapore sends that the SAF will not be a paper force. No effort will be spared maintaining the defence preparedness of its citizen soldiers, even while keeping within the constraint on defence spending capped at 6 per cent of our GDP.
Another payoff is the fact that the thousands of Singaporeans who train overseas will open the eyes of Singaporeans and our foreign friends to one another. Each is an "ambassador" for his/her country who can bridge ties in his/her own special way.
It is a safe bet that a good number of the 1,300 soldiers sent for Exercise Panzer Strike in Bergen, Germany, could not point out the place (or country!) on a map of the world. Having been there, done that, they would (hopefully) have broadened their appreciation of geography.
Such learning is a two-way street. Ausralians in remote Rockhampton, Bruneians in Temburong and citizens in training areas where the SAF has step foot would have learnt a little something about our little red dot. One hopes our soldier-diplomats do a good job at building positive mindshare.
The payoff isn't just one way: What Singapore lacks in land, we give back in other ways.
The numerous exercises and opportunities for interaction hosted by the Republic of Singapore Navy's Command and Control Centre at Changi Naval Base have brought together maritime security professionals from around the globe as they set about securing transnational maritime trade.
As the situation when a merchant vessel is owned by a company from one country, registered under a foreign flag, carries cargo made in Country A for a customer in Country B and has crew members from Countries A to Z is an everyday occurrence, Singapore has helped maritime security experts pool their expertise to safeguard seaborne commerce.
Next month's Shangri-La Dialogue security conference is another way the Lion City gives back to the international community. The event organised by London's International Institute for Strategic Studies will see defence ministers from the world's most powerful nations gather in the same ballroom to talk about weighty world affairs.
Singapore's contribution comes the security presence, seen and unseen, that will allow the talks to unfold incident-free.
Deft diplomacy and a thorough understanding of foreign partners is what keeps defence relations in fine fettle. This is a road Singapore appears to know how to navigate astutely.
Posted by David Boey at 12:39 PM