Sunday, August 31, 2014

Admin note: Blog postings

Hi everyone,
The month of August was a busy one and this resulted in the drop in attention paid to this blog.

The launch of an info management campaign for a Facebook page, drafting of corporate responses to a recent talking point all sapped opportunities for addressing defence-themed issues at the tempo seen months earlier.

However, these real world taskings provided invaluable opportunities for seeing info-management and corporate reputation management at work in addressing hearts-and-minds issues and in shaping perceptions.

Was reappointed to the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD) for a two-year term beginning this month. Will also contribute to ACCORD's newly-established Educational Institutions Council (click here for more). Aim to enhance outreach with NS stakeholders in due course.

Cheers :-)




 

Singapore's "stealth fighters"

For something as large, noisy and closely watched as F-15SG Strike Eagle warplanes, one would think it would be difficult tweaking the headcount without someone noticing.

Alas, if one goes by recent reports in the defence press, Singapore's military has apparently "quietly" expanded its fleet of F-15SGs by adding between eight to 16 additional Strike Eagles to the 24 warplanes it said it purchased.

If it indeed true, such a stunt development is not without its costs in two key areas:
1) Transparency
2) Applying common sense in protecting our operational security.

Background
The trend was outed by aircraft spotters whose meticulously kept notes on Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) war machines signaled that aircraft tail numbers - these are unique alpha-numeric identities assigned to individual aircraft - do not seem to tally. When plane spotters noted masking tape used to cover such codes, this further stoked their curiosity as to why the RSAF had taken such measures for its F-15SGs.

And so plane spotters collaborated with and between one another, across borders and over several years, to join the dots. Such sense-making resulted in the reports that surfaced recently.

According to the reports, Singapore could have between eight to 16 more F-15SGs than the 24 it is said to have purchased from United States warplane maker, The Boeing Company. Despite the somewhat pedantic discussion of aircraft numbering protocols, the jury is still out on the exact number of platforms fielded by the RSAF. Such ambiguity does wonders for deterrence because potential adversaries will have to hedge against the possibility that the RSAF warplane fleet is larger than orginally thought.

The cryptic statement from the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) did little to clarify the issue. A MINDEF statement to Jane's Information Group said:"The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) bases our procurement on the assessed long-term defence needs, and the RSAF has purchased sufficient F-15SGs to meet our defence requirements."

Make no mistake: News that Singapore's war machine may pack a heftier punch is indeed reassuring.

However, there is something to be said about applying common sense and logic to military secrets that can be protected, and order of battle developments that are best declared openly.

In the case of our F-15SGs, all the masking tape and new registrations in the world has not hidden the additional assets from plane spotters who have the curiosity to discover, the energy to pursue and the contacts to verify. This lesson, if lost on MINDEF/SAF staff officers who engineered the masking tape thingy, could have potentially damaging ramifications to Singapore's security posture in the areas of transparency and credibility, as well as opsec management.

One would hope the recent news flows solidly debunk the idea that no one would notice new registrations on SAF assets. Indeed, there are people who count not just  RSAF tail numbers but the number plates of SAF vehicles too. [Please click here for a guide to SAF number plates.]

So if the desired end state of obscuring the true size of the RSAF's F-15SG cannot be achieved by hiding aircraft identities, why do so when it raises questions on the level of transparency that comes out from Gombak Drive?

It's also worth pondering the kind of logic that applies to opsec guidelines. Surely someone must have recognised the futility of the exercise (new numbers, masking tape, obscure media statements) before the new aircraft hit the ramp and took to the skies?

What if the same tactic was applied to a war machine that MINDEF/SAF really needs to keep under wraps because such assets represent a combat edge? What if the trend is outed in the same manner, thus blowing the cover for something that should not have seen the light of day.

We may sound schizoid in saying this after venting about the issue, but MINDEF/SAF has a proven track record (pun intended...) for keeping its real secrets watertight. Not just large war machines, mind you, but entire units staffed over decades by a sizeable number of servicemen and servicewomen, with not a squeak revealed to those who do not need to know.[Click here for an expose on the RSAF's 200 SQN]

Perhaps other considerations swung into play when the RSAF upsized its F-15SG fleet without telling the whole world about it.

One consideration could have centred on the request by the United States not to be seen as stoking an arms race in the region by pumping more high-value assets into Asian skies. The F-15SG is, afterall, the most advanced variant of the United States Air Force's most lethal and combat-proven warplane in service and an infusion of more Strike Eagles to the RSAF - which in effect bolsters regional tie-ups such as the Five Power Defence Arrangements and the ASEAN family's air defence shield - may ruffle feathers farther up north.

When all is said and done, Singapore has adopted the adage of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Those who know would realise the RSAF's ability and mission readiness to pack a punch just got deadlier thanks to its new "stealth fighters".

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Success factors for SAF Volunteer Corps need better clarity

When the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) begins inducting around 100-150 people (including women, first generation Permanent Residents and new citizens) into the ranks of the SAF Volunteer Corps in March 2015, the success or lack thereof of the scheme may be used by observers as an indicator of society's Commitment to Defence (C2D).

For a country fixated with using numbers as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), we can expect the number of people who step forward as SAF volunteers to be closely watched.

If the scheme proves massively oversubscribed, then all's well on the C2D front. Or is it?

If wild horses can't drag people to volunteer, then people may see it as a flop. Or does it simply need time to gain support?

Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, has already indicated he is "not aiming for mass numbers". Be that as it may, that "100  to 150" figure is likely to float in people's consciousness. It is also likely to pop up in future as the media revisits the story, thus forming a rough baseline for gauging support for the March 2015 intake.

It is hard enough to generate and sustain support for National Service (NS). Indeed, sentiments earned by MINDEF/SAF seem to go against the grain of prevailing sentiments towards NS in other countries. What more a scheme to enlist support from segments of the population to put their lives on hold to serve the military?

More than just numbers, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF may find its defence information management framework confronting fresh challenges because handling news breaks on the SAF Volunteer Corps may prove more challenging than the current state of play involving full-time National Servicemen, Regulars and their loved ones.

To be sure, MINDEF/SAF has tapped volunteers for decades. But by and large, these individuals possess skill sets in specialised fields such as law and medicine and are inducted into military service in carefully prescribed numbers. Such cohorts join the SAF Volunteer Corps not just with the right skills, but the right motivation too and, in many cases, are probably cherry-picked by MINDEF/SAF.

Next year's plan to enlarge the SAF Volunteer Corps will bring in people from different age groups (which is fine) and motivation (which is dicey) who differ in their ability to not just fit in but contribute meaningfully to the SAF (which is a big unknown).

It would be unfortunate if the SAF Volunteer Corps morphs into a gap-filler for people who are at a loss what to do with their lives. Ditto if it turns out to be a kind of Outward Bound School adventure camp on steroids. There's also the possibility people will sign up, only for MINDEF/SAF to reflect wistfully that the pioneer batch of volunteers is more trouble than they are worth.

Apart from the sign-up numbers, the spotlight will also fall upon the number of individuals who go out of course or fall out from the SAF Volunteer Corps. This is, afterall, a volunteer programme.

Having decided to bite the bullet by opening up this avenue for Singaporeans/SPRs to contribute to national defence, it will be hard for MINDEF/SAF to unplug the effort without any red faces at Gombak Drive.

The risk that the volunteer programme will be forced-fed to cough out success factors, whatever the expense in time and effort, is a troubling one because Singaporean society is simply too small for such machinations to go unnoticed.

People will talk. Pioneer batch volunteers will be courted by the media for their first-person accounts. Impressions will be shaped along the way.

If the way forward for C2D is to boost the ranks of the SAF Volunteer Corps, then MINDEF/SAF may want to articulate its definition of success factors with greater clarity.

It may also need to consider setting up milestones that should be attained as the programme matures. Setting such milestones would give MINDEF/SAF the room to manoeuvre should public reception to the scheme swing either way, because we're now moving into uncharted territory as regards military volunteers and C2D and the last thing MINDEF/SAF needs is to find itself boxed in on a path of no return.

The "lemon law" mindset should apply scheme for SAF volunteers - we hope it will work as advertised. But if it falls short over time despite no lack of effort from officialdom, then the system should be given the leeway to rescind the scheme.