Sunday, June 7, 2015

Key enablers for the Singapore Navy's growth strategy

The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) can deal with war machines in the surface, subsurface, air and electronic battlespace, but it needs to arm itself better against the pull of career options that could whittle down its ranks.

Lines of action drawn up for this year's RSN work plan are ambitious. And the stretch targets involving light carriers future fleet assets and fixed-wing naval aviation are tantalising to mull over.

But a larger, more capable and more sustained Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) capability to operate on and from the sea can only be enabled by the RSN's people.

At the current state of play, Headquarters RSN must be keenly aware of competing demands for its talent pool. Indeed, if fleet scuttlebutt is to be believed, the admiral assigned 33 MID may be on his way to swapping his Navy Number 1 Dress White for another kind of white - if you know what I mean.

Being the smallest of the SAF's three armed Services, the impact of any individual moving elsewhere is amplified in the Navy to a greater degree than people movements in the Singapore Army or Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).

A career at sea has always been challenging. But in the Singapore Army and RSAF, the aspirational goal of a proper work-family life balance is more attainable in peacetime with the privilege of rank or an understanding superior.

Not so in the Navy - no matter how big-hearted its people are. Naval patrols can stretch for days - and these are routine runs. A sea training deployment may see loved ones away from home for extended periods. The men and women who sign up for the rigors and excitement of shipboard life may be able to "take it". But loved ones differ in their ability to cope with, understand or appreciate such regular spells of absence.

At some point in time, RSN professionals will ask themselves if it is really worth it.
For capable, ambitious men and women typically in their late 20s or early 30s, the completion of their first contract often puts them at the proverbial crossroads where they have to count the opportunity cost of serving kin and country (often unappreciated by the general public), and being there for their loved ones.

The lofty ideal of being part of the best little Navy in the world and being able to serve aboard advanced warships make for a great sales pitch for newbies to the job market. But ideals, mission and vision statements do not pay bills. And what is the point of being able to bring to bear superior firepower against enemy combatants, when one's family is outgunned by peers in bread and butter issues?

The loss of a man or woman who decides to hang up the Navy uniform for good goes beyond the loss of one head count. Attrition stats do not tell the full story. Aboard a warship, group dynamics forged between the crew are vital for bringing out the best from the naval platform. This is especially so when naval warfare is characterised by the need for warfighters to have the mental agility to quickly and effectively sense-make evolving tactical situations before the impact of shellfire, missiles or torpedoes. Add a bad sea state, which translates to a rocking office, the challenges of shipboard life and the realisation that when the shooting starts, the end game may come about in mere minutes and you will realise this kind of career is not for everybody.

To be sure, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF have gone to great lengths to recruit and retain its people. The MDES scheme, for example, goes some way in nurturing skillsets in challenging, hard-to-fill vocations such as engineering.

The last mile that HR professionals will find complex is keeping salary benchmarks relevant amid competing demands for Singapore's talent pool. Indeed, there are many RSN vocations whose roles and responsibilities are quintessentially naval in nature and not merely maritime. There is a critical difference between the two. To confuse a naval function with maritime jobs that seem outwardly similar (warship CO versus container ship captain) risks undervaluing the talent, temperament and physical profile of individuals ideally suited for waging, and winning, war at sea. 

One must realise that manpower dynamics are not the same across all three SAF Services. Being the smallest Service, tasked with a growing list of sea security missions in a period of sustained vigilance, demands that people stay on their toes perpetually.

So we're asking our people to do more, under a remuneration table that hasn't evolved as quickly as mission requirements? And we expect them to stay, say and strive? No wonder the good ones are cherry picked by talent scouts... 

Bear in mind that RSN warfighters are hardwired to figure out what lies beyond the horizon and take decisive steps accordingly. In a tight labour market, MINDEF/SAF must do even more for the RSN to ensure each individual who decides to sail the high seas or man radar installations in defence of our vital interests takes home something more tangible than the fluff of a nice-sounding recruitment pitch. 

MINDEF/SAF must act decisively to avoid the situation in the early 1980s when sagging morale in the RSN drove people away from naval careers. To this end, it is heartening to note that the RSN is making overtures to mid-career professionals to join its ranks.

The effort to value RSN personnel better must precede any move to go for bigger platforms. This is because a steady and more robust pipeline of  qualified professionals sets the basis for the RSN to make the most of lean-manning and highly automated warships.

Get the formula right and the RSN can upsize its headcount in time for greater and bigger things to come.

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