Saturday, July 16, 2016
Unmanned systems in the future Singapore Armed Forces SAF
If defence technology allows a leaner Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to do more with less, think about the operational advantages that such technology would confer on a full-sized or an upsized military force.
As the SAF shrinks in the coming decades as a result of smaller intakes of full-time National Servicemen (NSFs), do not expect regional armies to be similarly disadvantaged.
The benefits we bag will not be unique to the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) or the SAF.
We must therefore be cognizant that the strategic narrative that will describe how the future SAF will offset the manpower shortfall must consider how other military forces could hijack or adapt parts of our StratNav for their benefit.
The future SAF is likely to leverage on improvements in its People, operational Processes and cutting edge defence Technology to stay ready, relevant and decisive. As we do so, we must appreciate that a military force that retains its current headcount can, likewise, embrace advanced defence know-how to up its game.
Singapore's strategic narrative must therefore be calibrated such that we do not inadvertently reinforce the image, identity and operational prowess of foreign armed forces who may do likewise.
You may have heard sound bites that relate to MINDEF/SAF being a smart buyer of defence technology. This is a hard-earned and well-deserved accolade.
Thanks to rigorous weapons evaluations, the SAF is also viewed as a reference customer.
But there is absolutely nothing to stop regional militaries from mirroring the SAF's procurement patterns. In so doing, they fast track their weapons purchases by saving the time, effort and resources needed to assess the suitability of war machines for use in Southeast Asia.
For instance, German-made Leopard 2 main battle tanks and American AH-64 Apache attack helicopters bought by the SAF after rigorous evaluations are also fielded by the TNI (Tentera Nasional Indonesia, Indonesian armed forces). While one does not doubt the capability of the TNI weapons staff, the TNI's processes for choosing defence platforms are not held in the same esteem as a stamp of approval from MINDEF/SAF.
A thinking audience would also realise that operational efficiency as a result of lean manning and operational effectiveness are not the one and the same thing.
A high level of automation may allow a warship to put out to sea with a smaller crew. But some essential functions aboard any man-of-war will continue to remain manpower intensive. One of these is fire-fighting and damage control. To be sure, inert gases and fire detection sensors can negate the threat of flashovers aboard a fighting ship. But the job of shoring up compartments with timber supports will continue to demand hands, legs and stout hearts who do not flinch from doing what's dangerous but necessary to save their ship. In such instances, leaning manning is an operational handicap.
The ability to assign unmanned systems to shoulder dull, dirty and dangerous duties should also be publicised carefully because a short-sighted StratNav could come back to haunt us.
The hunting and disposal of sea mines was cited as one area that the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) intends to assign to unmanned assets. This will build upon the RSN's experience in employing unmanned Swedish-made SAM (Self-propelled, Acoustic/Magnetic Minesweeper) robots for mine-sweeping support, together with Bedok-class mine countermeasure vessels (MCMVs).
One should, however, not go overboard in highlighting the virtues of the RSN's future mine-sweeping drones.
The Bedok-class MCMVs have demonstrated a laudable versatility and adaptability in carrying out missions for which they were not designed to undertake. One of these took place in December 1997 when RSN MCMVs were tasked to support the search for SilkAir Flight MI185, which had crashed in the Musi river in Sumatra. The ability of the MCMVs to support diving operations and in adapting their open-water mine hunting sensors for brown water operations was made possible by the warships' company.
What made the difference? The RSN's People.
Would a small, unmanned or optionally manned MCMV be able to do the same? One wonders.
The suggestion from Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, in his SAF Day interview that the future SAF would feature more unmanned/autonomous systems to counterbalance falling live births is not a theoretical musing.
We understand that some effort has been made to further improve manpower savings in Singapore Artillery battalions, where the big guns are loaded and fired in much the same way as black powder cannons hundreds of years ago.
Projectile is kept separate from the propellant. Both have to be inserted - one at a time by gunners - into the artillery piece. Muskets used to be hand-loaded in a similar fashion until better designed firearms "automated" the process for loading and discharging the projectile, followed by extracting spent shell casings. Some firearms made the firing cycle (load, fire, discharge shell casing, reload) so automatic that the weapons functioned much like industrial age machines. Hence the term: Machine Gun.
As the Singapore Artillery mulls over its future order of battle, one could expect defence scientists and engineers to bring the process for firing 155mm guns into the 21st century. The loading and firing of the guns could be automated to a high degree, with gunners providing value added by selecting targets of opportunity and in prescribing the volume and duration of fire needed to destroy the designated targets.
An artillery piece that is self-propelled and operated under armour by a small team of gunners protected from shell splinters and small arms fire would indeed allow SAF2030 to do more with less.
The firepower of future artillery battalions would not be compromised even as NSFs intakes decline.
But remember this: Unless there is a ban on the sale of such a weapon, any other army who fields such guns will, likewise, capture these bragging rights.
As we roll-out new war machines with a big bang, so can others.
What can they not mimic easily? It is the quality of the men and women in Singapore who serve the profession of arms, and the fact that the SAF fights as a tightly-integrated fighting force. Both virtues not easy to see, understand or appreciate - even for an informed audience.
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Posted by David Boey at 6:45 PM