Friday, June 17, 2016

The Malaysian Armed Forces (ATM) strategy of trading space for time

The Malaysian Armed Forces (Angkatan Tentera Malaysia) is respected by military forces worldwide for its expertise in jungle warfare.

The same cannot be said for its urban combat capabilities.

Aware of its shortcomings, the attention of ATM strategists since defeating the decades-old communist insurgency in 1989 has focused on the task of strengthening its ability to engage in and sustain conventional combat operations in battlespace such as urban terrain.

The strategic pivot from counter insurgency (COIN) to conventional warfare has transformed the ATM. This pivot has seen its defence staff scale up their ability to plan, mobilise and deploy for military operations on a larger scale and intensity than was practised during the Emergency era.

Space for time
The goal is to shape the battlespace for the ATM to prevail over an aggressor by trading space for time.

At section level, we have witnessed the introduction of two RPG-7 launchers and a six-shot 40mm multiple grenade launcher - weapons optimised to engage armour-heavy opponents. Indeed, the current ATM infantry section is the most heavily armed configuration we have seen and the utility of the Army's basic unit will be enhanced once units are more tightly integrated under the Future Soldier System project.

Moving up the food chain, the Keris (Astros II) rocket artillery batteries bring the RAD's firepower to a new plane. These are tactical rockets. But in the ATM's area of operations, the Keris can exert a strategic effect especially when their 110km range rings bring an entire nation within firing range. This advantage is not lost on Malaysian defence planners.

The objective is to gain time so that a short war can be dragged out into a slug fest, which would see the ATM put into play its ace cards - a brigade-strength special forces capability and the ability to interdict the long, vulnerable logistics tail that is needed to sustain forward deployed units belonging to the intruder.

In this regard, the expansion of urban areas - particularly in the southern part of peninsular Malaysia - has caught the attention of Markas ATM (MK ATM) as the Malaysian war machine's orbat is realigned and optimised for conventional operations on home ground.

The ATM's transformation involves more than revising doctrine and acquiring new war machines.

Basic questions have been asked on the extent to which MK ATM should defend and protect population centres like cities, towns and even kampungs. Bearing in mind the dictum "he who defends everything defends nothing", ATM strategists are keenly aware that territory may have to be ceded before the counter punch.

Alas, this is a touchy issue which has no model answer.

One only has to look at the reactions of Malaysians to the Lahad Datu standoff in 2013 to understand that Malaysians have high expectations for their defence and security forces (and rightly so). As a consequence, Malaysians would probably not take kindly to the perception that any Malaysian town or city has been "abandoned" by MK ATM and would make known their sentiments vociferously, perhaps at the expense of coherent and effective defence plans which the rakyat is ignorant of.

Case study: Johor Bahru
Johor Bahru (JB) makes an interesting case study. ATM table top and full-troop exercises conducted in past decades under the Eksesais Gonzales and Eks First Strike series have put to test several scenarios anchored on the defence of Johor, in general, and the state capital in JB, in particular.

There are probably few cities with a resident population of more than 1.5 million souls in ASEAN that the sit right on the border with a neighbouring country. Add to this number non-residents who live or work in the area framed by JB/Iskandar, Pontian, Kulai and Kota Tinggi and the number easily creeps up to around 1.8+ million.

ASEAN cities enjoy a territorial buffer that is contiguous with the national boundary. Not so for JB. Indeed, if a parallel can be found for JB city, it would probably be akin to how Gaza's location leaves it vulnerable to armoured penetrations from across the border. You get the picture.

There is no easy answer to the strategic question of how JB's population should be protected during a hot-war.

If the populated decides to displace on its own accord, highways and arterial roads leading out from JB to northern population centres will be jammed with civilian traffic. ATM strategists recognise that a disorganised evacuation could work in favour of the ATM's strategy of trading space for time to organise a response.

This cuts both ways as clogged roads could hamper the ATM's ability to deploy forces by land from Melaka or Mersing. This is akin to the situation in western Europe during the opening phases of the German invasion of the Low Countries when the British Expeditionary Force and French military units had their deployment timetables upset by civilians who blocked the roads.

The high water mark? Probably an axis from Muar to Mersing.

It is important to understand and appreciate that the militarily conducive conditions in the hypothetical scenario involving Johor do not arise because MK ATM chooses to deliberately leave Johoreans to their fate. The southernmost division in West Malaysia, the 3rd Division, does not have the manpower, assets and training to evacuate 1.5 million people ahead of hostilities.

So even if a best effort is made, the ability of Malaysian authorities (ATM and civilian units) to move residents out of the way of a potential firestorm is limited.

Neither can we expect most Johoreans to leave home willingly. During the height of the flood crisis in Johor and Pahang years back, many residents chose to stay in their homes despite repeated warnings by Malaysian authorities to leave in the face of impending flooding.

Malaysian strategists surmise that the same would occur ahead of a shooting war.

Congested road networks will be more of an issue for a mechanised army as the bulk of the ATM is still built upon infantry units who are trained, organised and equipped for long marches on foot.

During the early stages of an incursion, the ATM's limited armoured forces are likely to remain dispersed till there are opportune conditions for a counter punch. Such conditions could emerge as the intruding army ventures further up the Malay peninsula because the funnel shape of the southern peninsula means that the frontage will increase as the intruder ventures inland. This means vanguard units will find their FEBA gradually expand, unit boundaries will thin out correspondingly as these units advance up the funnel.

The responsibility for providing food and water to the population that remains in JB will rest on the occupying force. This task is neither straightforward, easy nor it is possible to test such capabilities in war games on a scale which will be encountered during a hot-war. Even for specialised battalions optimised for civil military relations work in occupied territory, the scale of the operation, language barrier and potentially hostile responses from residents are expected to prove thorny challenges.

A battalion's worth of CMR troops, thrown into an urban conurbation like JB, will disappear amid the urban sprawl and will find difficulty retaining critical mass to fulfill its mission objectives.

The potential loss of goodwill with the resident population could therefore prove problematic. On a wider front, the intruder will have to work hard to explain its case to a global audience. But even as both sides can be expected to sharpen their strategic messaging, the advantage lies with the native population whose way of life has been disrupted by military operations.

The Malaysian population left in place will serve defending forces well. Such residents would be expected to facilitate the infiltration of special forces assigned to sustain a guerilla warfare campaign against the invader. In this regard, one should remember that unpaved roads and plantations of Felda settlements form a continuous network that is linked all the way from Negeri Sembilan and Pahang.

This "Felda Trail" could be exploited as a combat route by ATM special forces as they launch hit-and-run raids to whittle down the strength of the invader. It is perhaps little coincidence that Malaysia's GGK selection trials employ part of this continuous network during the long 200km three-day endurance march for GGK candidates, so it would not be terra incognita for ATM special forces operatives.

ATM's game plan is to play the long 'game' in order to maximise the utility of advantages it has namely: manpower, terrain and space. In such a 'game', captive population becomes an asset and also a source of motivation to sustain morale.


Unknown said...

Salient points discussed. Lets not forget that that they have actual peacekeeping/combat experienced troops and equipment as well. That could be the delta between a combat ready / combat capable unit in extreme stressed / time constrained scenarios.

Zulkhairi said...

Good analysis. You are as good as Tom Clancy in narrative writing ;). The funny part is i felt like a neighbor came over for teh tarik and tell a story "If i am a robber and a rapist, this is how i am going to get to your house. And i know you would be doing this and this to hit back at me"