Sunday, October 25, 2015

Urban legends abound on the Singapore Armed Forces' true fighting capabilities

Show-and-tell: Developed in the 1980s by DSO National Laboratories but unveiled only in 2004, this TV-guided glide bomb was used to point observers to the growth trajectory and capabilities of Singapore's guided weapons engineers. It is understood that the weapon's development cycle involved testing of the optical seeker on a UH-1 and an actual drop test from an A-4 Skyhawk. A big leap for Singapore - though it should be remembered that German scientists pioneered such technology some 40 years earlier during WW2.

Mention Herakles in a Republic of Singapore Navy naval base and sailors within earshot might assume one is referring to the air/surface search radar on Formidable-class stealth ships.

Repeat the H-word within the fence line of another Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) base and those in the know might invite you to come stir coffee.

Have or don't have? Heaven only knows.* 

Urban legends about the SAF's true size and strength have captivated defence observers - professional and amateur, local and foreign - for eons.

Most of the time, such gossip is shared in hushed tones and passed on like a preciously hoarded gem. The "I heard" prefix that heralds yet another SAF myth is almost never followed up by photographic evidence that would prove or disprove rumours whether or not *insert your weapon of choice* actually exists in SAF colours. 

It's worse online where anonymous and purportedly reliable sources add more spice to the mix. But you already know that.

From Alexis (aka C******) to Zebra, the depth and breadth of defence know-how said to come under so-called project names is fascinating to track. 

In doing so, two principles apply: Validity and Accuracy. As a rule of thumb, an observation that is accurate may not necessarily prove the validity of a hunch/theory. There have been numerous accurate sightings of equipment under trial which people assume eventually entered SAF service, lending credence to urban myths about what's actually in our war chest. But more spadework is needed to validate/invalidate such reports.

As for the guiding principle on Accuracy: No hypothesis can be valid unless it is accurate. It is as simple as that.

But even wildly inaccurate urban legends serve a purpose in deterring those who wish Singapore harm because one is never quite certain what may pop out of the box. 

It is important to appreciate that all this guesswork might swing against our interests should foreign planners hedge against uncertainty. They could do this by buying more, buying better and buying frequently to up-arm and up-size themselves to strengthen their firepower.

And so, a delicate balance needs to be maintained between allowing urban myths to gain traction to create strategic ambiguity and not giving foreign players the ammunition to use urban myths to boost their own arsenals.

It is a tricky business.

Even as regional defence forces are coaxed towards the path of transparency through assorted arms registers, one must be savvy enough to delink idealism with reality. That which is theoretically achievable under ideal world conditions may not sit comfortably with real world realities. This is defence real politik.

We deter by making it clear our interests will be defended, however pitifully small our real estate, air and sea space may be to outside observers. 

Statements alone will not deter or protect. It is the demonstrated ability to blunt, parry and deliver counter strikes of our own, repeatedly and resolutely, that will. Responses that the other side does not anticipate or train for may lead to the proverbial knockout blow, which explains why secret edge capabilities need to be remain in the shadows. 

When the occasion calls for it, tantalising glimpses are given by MINDEF/SAF. Such occasions provide astute observers with telling clues of what they are dealing with. 

We saw this tease-and-tell during the 3G SAF Tech X exhibition in 2004. At that public defence exhibition, Singapore unveiled a TV-guided bomb that was developed in the 1980s by its defence community.

While armchair defence observers pooh-poohed the old tech (it was unveiled decades after it was drop tested in the South China Sea), professional eyes would see an indigenous guided weapon capability that unearthed more questions than answers. What is the state of Singapore's present-day GW capability? What other operational GW munitions customised for the SAF are in service? Besides guided weapons, what else has the defence eco-system been busy with in the intervening years?

If the story is told in full some day, these projects would showcase the work done by some 5,000 defence scientists and engineers who form the bedrock of Singapore's defence engineering capability.

Depending on which side of the border you live on, their story would either knock your socks off.... or keep you wide awake at night with worry.

* Have.

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