Wednesday, March 31, 2010

April Fool

Taking the last bow: Twelve Republic of Singapore Air Force TA-4SU Super Skyhawks make their historic last flight over Singapore island on 31 March 2005. Seen here are Gryphon, Hornet and Phoenix flights, accompanied by a chase F-16D (Osprey). This was the largest massed formation of twin-seat Super Skyhawks in recent memory. The story behind this photo shoot deserves a blog post by itself. Picture by Mike Yeo

Five years ago, the newspaper I wrote for published a scoop that some readers thought was an April Fools' joke.

The last flight of Singapore’s Super Skyhawk warplanes earned my story a slot in the 1 April 2005 Prime Pages of the 90 cents paper and a tee shirt from a low-profile Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) unit.

That episode showed me that the information flow across Service boundaries in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has ample room for improvement.

On the morning the story appeared, a reader called to say that the half-page story on the last flight by TA-4SU Super Skyhawks in Singapore was an April Fools' joke. The reader was a Singapore Army Colonel.

Heavy hitters: RSAF twin-seat Super Skyhawks served a special combat role that has not been acknowledged till today. The RSAF operated one of the world's largest fleets of twin-seat Skyhawks and armed them with munitions that would have done much harm to the enemy. Photo by Mike Yeo

He reasoned that the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) would not retire the Super Skyhawk when its replacement, the Boeing F-15SG Strike Eagle, had not even been built.

As he was so convinced of the strength of his argument, I made a bet with him. The prize was a tee shirt from his low-profile unit.

I won the bet after the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) ran a story on the Skyhawk stand down.

If an SAF officer can misread succession plans for SAF war machines, foreign defence analysts watching Singapore from afar can make the same mistake too. In their case, only too easily.

This is how strategic miscalculations take place, especially when misconceptions or wrong viewpoints are compounded over time.

MINDEF’s tendency to play down big ticket purchases in its media releases doesn’t help the Lion City’s deterrent posture.

Defence buffs with long memories may recall that when MINDEF announced it had purchased Sjoormen-class diesel-electric submarines from Sweden for the Republic of Singapore Navy, it slanted the purchases as trial submarines – to see if Singapore needed submarines. Riiiiight.

The RSAF’s Chinook heavy-lift helicopters were purportedly bought for – ahem – “search and rescue” obligations in Singapore’s Flight Information Region as well as support of Army training. The RSAF has flown CH-47D Chinooks for numerous air assault training missions in support of heli-mobile SAF Guards battalions, but I cannot recall a single Chinook painted in SAR colours.

More recently, the Singapore Army’s Leopard 2A4 main battle tanks are said to be replacements for the SM1 light tanks (upgraded AMX-13 light tanks). Hrmmm… Those who know will probably be grinning ear to ear. One wonders what the press release will say when the SM1’s real replacement is finally unveiled. And what about the H... oh never mind. :-)

I thank the Army Colonel for so generously honoring our private wager and mailing me the tee shirt. I wear it with pride.

It was an honest mistake afterall. Few Army officers are privy to what goes on during RSAF Cascade briefings. The Army’s Workplan Seminars are also open to only a select few air force warfighters. This means few in the SAF, apart from those who work for the Joint Staff, are privy to the big picture.

With the Third Generation SAF gaining traction, it will be a challenge informing and educating one and all of fresh developments within SAF teeth arms and combat service support units.

If MINDEF's education effort falters, then defence buffs like myself cannot help but be entertained by the occasional April Fools.

Inform, educate and entertain. That’s the tagline of the newspaper I worked for. Isn’t it apt?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friend of the media

Today, I remember Colonel Bernard Tan Cheow Han, a friend of the media who left us suddenly on a Sunday morning four years ago.

From what I hear, COL Tan made a fine officer, family man and was the kind of person who nurtured life-long friendships.

His peer group officers, fellow warfighters and soldiers who served under his leadership fondly remember him till today. Not all military officers earn that sort of respect.

From what I experienced, he was a credit to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). Who can forget his ready smile, affable nature and genuine warmth that did much to forge meaningful defence media relations?

During Operation Flying Eagle in January 2005, COL Tan was part of the SAF team that made a firsthand appreciation of conditions in-theatre.

Despite having many things to assess, he made time to pull me aside during the visit, asked how things were and if there were any issues I wanted to raise with him directly. There were none (actually there were, but I settled them at LTC level and below). Conditions were austere but we coped as best we could despite the steep learning curve for all those involved in the operation.

The Colonel’s care and concern for the Singaporean media embedded with the OFE Humanitarian Assistance Support Group did much to keep us focused on our sense of purpose and kept our morale high. Truth be told, I would have been happy to stay out there a lot longer, waking up every morning with a 141-metre long LST beneath my feet.

COL Tan did much to raise the operational readiness of the Army’s information officers and improve the Singapore Army’s attitude towards journalists. Their attitude was guided by the tagline, “Who else needs to know?”, rather than a secretive “need to know” mentality that had shackled defence information management for years.

Army personnel who continue his outreach honour his memory by ensuring the Singapore Army continues to grow its pool of friends and supporters.

COL Bernard Tan touched the L.I.V.Es of many and is missed by his family and all who knew him.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Iron Dome

An interesting article from Israeli online site,, cited with permission from Haaretz.

It is interesting that the Israeli perspective describes Singapore as being surrounded by hostile neighbours and discounts the amount of diplomacy that takes place in the Sin-Mal-Indo relationship.

There's a lot of intelligence sharing that goes on between the Royal Malaysian Police and the Singapore Police Force and economic tie-ups, such as the huge investment Genting made in Singapore, that have no parallels in Israel.


Was Iron Dome defense system actually built for Singapore?

By Yossi Melman

A Paris-based online magazine covering intelligence and security issues this week called Singapore one of the most important customers of Israel's defense industry, laying bare the active, though secret, relationship between Israel and Singapore that began more than 40 years ago - a statement that comes after years in which Israel censored all local articles on the subject.

Intelligence Online, which is published in English on a bimonthly basis, states that the Southeast Asian island state helped finance the Iron Dome system designed by Israel's Rafael Advanced Defense Systems to intercept short-range missiles and rockets, in exchange for which it is supposed to receive several Iron Dome systems to deploy on its territory.

Even more interesting is the possibility the article raises that Iron Dome was designed first and foremost for the benefit of Singapore - not for the protection of Sderot and the southern communities in Israel that suffered from Qassam rocket attacks and mortar fire for seven years and are still suffering (though Iron Dome is not capable of intercepting mortar shells).

Israeli media have previously hinted at this, but the Defense Ministry has vehemently denied it.

The suspicions were bolstered by the fact that after the system was developed and one battery had been deployed as an Israel Defense Forces base, it turned out that the Defense Ministry had no budget for additional batteries. In that case, why was there a need to develop a system for which there is no budget and which the IDF does not intend to deploy?

According to Intelligence Online, which focuses on arms transactions between countries and corporations and on appointments of intelligence personnel and their clandestine activity, the Iron Dome transaction is the latest between Israel and Singapore.

The Web site, whose articles are available only to paid subscribers, has thousands of readers, including Israelis.

Iron Dome, which its developers said was tested successfully a few months ago, as Israeli media have previously reported, cost roughly $250 million to develop.

One battery, whose production cost is about $50 million, has already been deployed at a base in the south of the country, but so far has not been readied for operational purposes and has not yet been activated.
The anti-aircraft division of the Israel Air Force, which is responsible for operating Iron Dome, is training teams at a base in the north.
They will be operating the system in Israel, with the aim of intercepting Qassam and Katyusha rockets up to a distance of 40 kilometers.

Vulcan-Phalanx: cheaper and more accessible

Intelligence Online also repeats an argument published in recent years in Israel to the effect that if the Defense Ministry had really wanted to protect the residents of the south quickly and cheaply, it could have acquired a cheaper and more accessible defense system than Iron Dome: the batteries of the Vulcan-Phalanx cannon system manufactured by Raytheon.

The land-based version of the batteries, called Centurion, are deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they are used to protect American and NATO forces.

Although Defense Minister Ehud Barak has told Haaretz several times that Israel will acquire the Vulcan-Phalanx system, that has yet to happen.

In other words, the Defense Ministry may have given Rafael a development budget as a way of positioning the project as an Israeli military system that is ostensibly being used by the IDF but is really aimed at improving Israel's chances of selling it to Singapore and other countries.

Small country, hostile population

The cooperation between Israel and Singapore rests on the two small countries' shared sense of being under threat, since both are surrounded by a hostile Muslim population and want advanced weapons systems to maintain a qualitative advantage over their neighbors.

The Intelligence Online article argues that the fight against fundamentalist Islamic terror over the past decade has increased the cooperation between the two countries, as well as their sense of a shared destiny. In recent years, Singapore has confronted threats by Jemaah Islamiyah, a terrorist group that operates in Southeast Asia.

The island state, a neighbor of Indonesia and Malaysia, has arrested dozens of the group's operatives and exposed plans to attack the Israeli, American and Australian embassies, along with ships from those countries. One of Singapore's main sources of income is the Port of Singapore, which claims to be the busiest port in the world.

According to the article, immediately after Singapore declared its independence in 1965 it asked Israel to help it establish an army. IDF officers including Rehavam Ze'evi (who became a right-wing cabinet member assassinated in 2001) and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (now the industry, trade and labor minister) were sent to Singapore to head large delegations of military advisers, and helped build the army on the model of the IDF. Israeli military representatives have been active since then at the Israeli Embassy in Singapore, which was opened in 1969.

One of the issues the IDF representatives deal with is promoting large arms deals. Transactions mentioned in the article include Singapore's purchase of Barak surface-to-air missiles manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries and Israel's upgrading of fighter planes belonging to Singapore's air force.

In addition, Rafael supplied drones for naval missions and Israel's Elbit Systems supplied its Hermes drone.

Intelligence Online also says there is naval cooperation between the two countries, and notes that the commander of Israel's navy, Admiral Eli Marom, had previously represented Israel in Singapore.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Calculating the SAF's deterrent value

"The mission of MINDEF and the Singapore Armed Forces is to enhance Singapore's peace and security through deterrence and diplomacy, and should these fail, to secure a swift and decisive victory over the aggressor."

Deterrence forms the heart of Singapore’s defence strategy, but how would you explain this abstract concept?

One of the best definitions I’ve heard came from a visiting Israeli who explained deterrence using a mathematical formula.

He defined the strength of deterrence (D) as military force (F) multiplied by the ability to use such firepower (A). In other words:

D = F x A

I love this explanation. It is easy to recall and sums up an abstract concept succinctly.

The D=FxA formula explain why countries armed with nuclear missiles that can destroy the world several times over failed to deter terror attacks on their soil.

In such cases, the nuclear firepower at their disposal is massive. This makes for a huge “F”. But the ability “A” for the nuclear-armed state to unleash such firepower is almost negligible for a host of reasons, including political, environmental and ethical considerations.

It is likely that terror cells that plotted attacks against targets in Britain (London Underground), Russia (assorted civilian targets in retaliation against operations in Chechenya) and the United States (9/11) were unfazed by the massive nuclear firepower that protected these countries.

When applied to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), the D=FA formula explains why Singaporean defence planners made media events out of SAF Open Mobilisation exercises during past periods of tension.

This includes Singapore’s response to the joint Malaysia-Indonesia war games in Johor, which culminated in the Pukul Habis (Malay for "Total Wipeout") airborne insertion 20km from Singapore on 9 August 1991 – Singapore’s National Day.

SAF combat units have also equipped for battle under the glare of media cameras and television crews on several other occasions. Some of you may have been involved in the planning and execution of these operations.

In such situations, the Open Mobilisations demonstrated Singapore’s strident response to sabre-rattling close to its shores. Seen mathematically, the deterrent value of the SAF is kept strong by showcasing the SAF's defence readiness as soldiers draw “live” ammunition and other war material, ready to roll into action.

In my view, the media coverage must be matched by a framework which ensures journalists can tell the SAF’s side of the story during active combat operations. This capability has been eroded somewhat in recent years, for reasons which I have voiced on numerous occasions on this blog.

But let’s get back to deterrence. As with most formulae, there are exceptions to the rule. In this case, the formula does not apply to people who are not easily deterred.

Take the case of Israel. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) represents a mission ready deterrent with combat elements that boast of a formidable battle record. The Israelis seldom hold back from pre-emptive and preventive strikes against targets that threaten Israel’s national interests and will unleash the IDF even against the tide of international opinion.

But IDF firepower failed to deter the buildup of Hezbollah’s military strength in Lebanon and things came to a boil in summer 2006.

Hezbollah’s combat power consisted of more than a rag tag bunch of fanatical gunmen, as the IDF learned to its cost when Israeli forces rolled into southern Lebanon to hunt and kill Hezbollah fighters.

Ring fenced by political constraints, the military minds that designed Hezbollah’s order of battle fought the IDF to a stalemate. To be sure, opinions differ on what Hezbollah and the IDF actually achieved. What cannot be denied is the fact that from concept to capability, Hezbollah’s combat power proved a force to be reckoned with.

Powerfully armed Hezbollah ground units (I don’t think we can call them infantry in the conventional sense of the term), fighting from fortified positions in an urban landscape, engaged IDF units as they entered prepared kill zones covered by overlapping fire arcs. The traditional concept of an infantry battalion was discarded in favour of small fire teams amply armed with a plethora of anti-tank guided munitions.

Hezbollah’s battle tactics are not the province of a non-state actor.

A conventional army that has a strong special forces component could, if it so wished, align its special forces units along similar lines. Special forces units can be trained, organized, armed and supported with hard-hitting munitions and automatic weapons, and dispersed like ants in the operations zone to await the invader.

A brigade-size special services group would be the ideal force that can be tailored for Hezbollah-type land forces tactics that bloodied the IDF. It goes without saying that such commandos must first equip themselves with ATGWs such as the Metis-M and rocket-propelled grenades. Throw in more ATGWs to the mix and the lethality of the revamped special forces teams will go up several fold.

The greatest challenge to upsizing the special services group would come from tearing the army from conventional notions of how ATGWs should be used. In most cases, the ATGWs would be vehicle mounted to maximise their mobility and armoured regiments that have these weapons would fight hard to keep them.

If I had the opportunity to correspond with Hezbollah strategists, I would ask them how differently they would have done things if not for the political constraints they faced.

For example, would they have set up an air force, a navy and an army along conventional lines? Would they have introduced tanks? What were their takeways from the Lebanon 2006 war?

Just as the Spanish Civil War provided a testing ground for military minds to refine their warfighting ideas, the Lebanon 2006 war has many takeaways for defence watchers - including those from Singapore.

As we learn, we have to be mindful how we describe the SAF’s transformation. Foreign observers may not view all our new war machines as deterrence enhancers.

A senior Royal Malaysian Air Force (TUDM) pilot told me point blank he did not see the TUDM's lack of airborne early warning aircraft as a weakness - Singaporean air bases could be observed by TUDM special forces teams (PASKAU?). To him, the ability to report the size, composition and warload of Republic of Singapore Air Force raid packages was an "early warning" capability and such time-sensitive intelligence could be obtained by non conventional means.

During a period of tension, the SAF will not hold the monopoly for having its forces first in the battlespace. We need to recognise that a wily opponent will try hard to catch us in the midst of a mobilisation when the SAF is at its most vulnerable.

It is perhaps more than coincidental that the Malaysian Armed Forces chose to call its rapid deployment war game Eksesais First Strike. There was no risk of having anything lost in translation as the name of battle manoeuvres was in English. This war game pitted TUDM and Tentera Darat warfighters against enemy air bases and involved the deployment of Malaysian Army units and armoured forces along the Malay peninsula.

First Strike against whom?

Elements across the Causeway view defence modernisation in a different light and we have to be careful not to fall for our own propaganda.

If Hezbollah's war planners can look at the IDF impressive orbat and conclude that there's another way to skin the cat, can't others arrive at a similar conclusion when looking at the SAF?

If our defence information management plan fails to persuade foreign observers of the war-winning potential of the networked SAF, deterrence will be compromised as the big "F" (firepower) will be scaled down in their calculation.

At present, publicity about the Third Generation SAF seems cut to a fixed template:
Insert name of new war machine, insert media opportunity to showoff what it can do in an SAF exercise, insert exercise codename, insert over-used catchphrases – firepower of the SAF, arsenal, codename, findfix and finish, etc etc *yawn* – insert official quotes and then conclude that it enhances deterrence.

The anonymous comment to the previous post was spot on when he/she raised the point about the SAF’s Learning Organisation mindset.

This is a point we don't hear much about and it would be instructive to note how the transformation of the 3rd Generation SAF has overcome blind alleys.

Hezbollah is a Learning Organisation too.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Thinking soldiers

For outstanding examples of how military transformation can make life difficult for your enemy, look towards Israel. Then look north.

Setting aside political baggage, a look at the performance of combatants belonging to the Lebanese political party, Hezbollah, during the summer 2006 war with Israel reveals many instances of military innovation that are relevant to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

Whoever planned Hezbollah’s war strategy broke the mold that Arab armies had used against the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) for decades.

One caveat: I have never been to the Lebanon. The inferences I draw here are based on post battle analysis and the pile of magazine clippings on the 2006 war that I've amassed.

In tank versus tank combat with Arab armies, IDF tankees had proven unbeatable. So Hezbollah waged war without tanks.

Israeli warplanes had an unmatched battle record against Arab aircrews. So Hezbollah went into battle without a single combat aircraft.

The Israeli Navy had Sa’ar 5 stealth corvettes bristling with missiles, automatic weapons and cutting edge electronic warfare gear. Hezbollah had no navy. But it attacked an IDF Sa’ar 5 corvette with a shore-based anti-ship missile, casting a poser on whether the Israeli Navy had really woken up to the loss of the destroyer Eilat in the world’s first SSM attack decades earlier.

Despite overwhelming odds, Hezbollah transformed its land-based force into a lethal war machine that fought the IDF to a stalemate.

To Hezbollah combatants, IDF armour such as Merkava main battle tanks were no deterrent. Merkava tanks were high-value targets whose destruction was sought after for its propaganda value.

IDF infantry who invaded southern Lebanon by the hundreds were not to be feared, but captured and used for barter.

Hezbollah’s missile teams had no compunction using anti-tank guided weapons against IDF infantry bunched up in defensive battle formations during urban combat. While conventional armies would ration anti-tank missiles for use against real tanks, Hezbollah tactics called for the use of these weapons in precision strikes against IDF infantry. Bunched up in Lebanese streets, Israeli infantrymen made nice tight targets for Hezbollah’s missile teams.

On 9 August 2006 (Singapore’s National Day), nine IDF soldiers were killed after the building they had occupied was demolished by Hezbollah guided missiles. The liberal use of ATGWs rewrote the playbook for such ordnance.

Rocket-propelled grenades were issued to Hezbollah infantry on a scale unheard of in most conventional armies. This includes the SAF section, armed with just two single shot Matador light anti-tank weapons under the current TO&E.

Add Metis-M anti-tank missiles to the mix, combined with fortified primary firing positions, multiple secondary firing positions as well as dummy firing points and one can understand the confidence with which Hezbollah infantry engaged their adversary.

Hezbollah waged war with Israel by transforming the way in which its forces met the Israeli war machine. It did not follow the linear growth path of military modernization. It did not evolve from one generation of war machine to a more advanced version.

Given a blank sheet to build its arsenal, Hezbollah’s military advisors chose to do things differently.

Their panache and innovativeness is different from Singapore’s military transformation, which has largely replaced older war machines with more capable ones and placed much faith in the power of a network-enabled fighting force.

Bionix 1 was augmented by Bionix 2. Old A-4SU Super Skyhawks made way for F-15SG Strike Eagles. Missile Gunboats retired as Formidable-class stealth frigates entered operational service. Old makes way for new in much the same way as old Israeli war machines are replaced with new ones.

But they faced a new enemy, an ardent combatant whose highly-motivated forces were fighting with a home ground advantage, fired up with the promise of an eternal place in paradise for those who waged war for the Party of God.

During operations, Hezbollah banked on the aversion of Israel’s citizen’s army to casualties and the free world's disdain for civilian bloodshed.

To achieve this end, Hezbollah made astute use of the world’s media. Foreign journalists were hosted on embeds in safer parts of Beirut, kept safe from harm to feed the world’s appetite for news of the war. Hezbollah's media officers conducted tours of Lebanese neighbourhoods devastated by Israeli air strikes to showcase Israeli brutality.

They are said to have fought the information war as resolutely as the physical battlespace. This is something the SAF should take note of.

Fighting without air cover meant the IDF won air supremacy by default.

To Hezbollah, this meant its combatants had to move faster and make better use of the urban sprawl to escape the attention of omnipresent Israeli eyes-in-the-sky.

These tactical considerations were matched by a strategic bombardment campaign, fought using a bewildering variety of unguided rockets, the likes of which Israel had never endured before.

Missiles fired singly and in barrages disrupted the Israeli economy and sapped civilian morale.

These rockets exerted an impact on Israel’s political and military scene all out of proportion to their actual military value.

For Singapore, the master plan for hardening civilian infrastructure has been thrown behind schedule, thanks to wrangling by developers more concerned about their bottomline and the creativity of architects who skirt the mandatory bomb shelter rule by leaving a token structure standing (all new Singaporean homes must include a bomb shelter). Thanks to such dilatoriness and foot-dragging, the number of Singaporean homes equipped with a hardened shelter has fallen somewhat behind what the master plan had envisaged. Pity.

If Singapore was to face with an enemy willing to think out of the box like Hezbollah, the SAF would probably fare no better than the battle-tested IDF. Indeed, our tight adherence to the scripted war plan would probably see the SAF worse off.

With Malaysian peace keepers on active duty in southern Lebanon, it probably won’t take long before the Federation’s military intelligentsia give some thought to Hezbollah’s war fighting methods.

When that translates into the real transformation of the Malaysian Armed Forces, the SAF will really have its work cut out for it.

And if we don't stay one step ahead of regional armies, our young officers will never make it to CO. And by that I don't mean Commanding Officer...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Project Puzzle

Here's something for crossword fans.
It's a mix of stuff used on land, sea and air.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Honest mistake in Peace Triton photo caption

Having been in the hospitality line since May 2008, I picked up a catch phrase from my F&B colleagues that applies to the messed up Peace Triton photo caption in today's newspaper - it only takes one roach leg to spoil a good soup.

Some netizens were aghast that after nearly 45 years of nation building, Singapore's main English language broadsheet, The Straits Times (aka the 90 cents newspaper), can let slip a mistake like "Royal Singapore Navy".

The "R" has tripped up foreign defence writers many times before, defacing otherwise well-researched articles penned by scribes who have yet to learn Singapore is a republic.

Surely the 90 cents newspaper would know better?

Whether you want to term this a glitch, human error or an honest mistake, the point to note is that a newspaperman's credibility can be sunk by what could be politely termed as quality control issues.

Years ago, a friend of mine bore the brunt of a news editor's rage when the then 55 cents newspaper published a photo of Oxford University upside down. His defence that he wrote an otherwise flawless story proved futile. The newsroom's stand was that a journalist earns his/her byline not just by delivering clean copy within deadline, but also for ensuring that the story is error-free from headline to deck summary to photo caption.

It is irrelevant whether the caption was provided by the photo journalist. Good teamwork should see photographer and writer check one another's work to ensure picture complements the story, and vice versa. My personal preference has always been to make space for good pictures and this is how seemingly mundane events like a Minister of State for Defence MOS(D) ACCORD visit to the Naval Diving Unit can end up splashed across two Home pages - the pictures were worth it.

To this day, that friend feels the Oxford Uni mistake was unfairly credited to his account.

In those days, the 90 cents newspaper took a serious stance against errors. Offenders had to bear the shame of having their mistakes pinned on the newsroom notice board along with their hand-written defence. Street smart journalists kept their arguments brief and took it on the chin; those who had yet to grow up spilt a lot of ink in ultimately futile defences which were pinned up for all to see (and laugh at).

It is no laughing matter when newsroom policy dictates that a journalist's bonus will be forfeited when three or more inaccuracies are kept on file for that work year. This is why some journalists try to hide their mistakes by bargaining with news makers not to report their oversights. It is unsavoury and less than ethical, but it has happened.

As a quality control measure, newspapers rely on copy editors to polish unedited copy. Some young reporters with poor news sense barely recognise their story drafts after copy editors throw it back to them to check the facts. In some cases, the only things left unchanged are the full stops.

Even then, mistakes are made - one memorable recent example being the case when the 90 cents newspaper published the wrong picture of a man who died during an endurance race.

Defence stories in the 90 cents newspaper thread the line between writing for the masses and catering to fact hungry defence buffs eager to pick a bone with the smallest glitch.

It does not help when journalists end up calling every man-of-war a "battleship" (warship would be a far safer catch-all term), every armoured fighting vehicle a "tank" and every automatic weapon a "machinegun".

During an assignment to cover the F-15SG Strike Eagle roll-out, a journalist sought my help with his copy. He asked what was the big deal with the Republic of Singapore Air Force's new warplane radars, since all fighter jet radars were also "AN" radars. I thought he was joking and waited for the punchline, then realised he was serious and proceeded to give a quick tutorial on United States Department of Defense airborne radar nomenclature.

This is where the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) should step in. If MINDEF really had a strategic view of PR, it would have invested in peacetime tutorials not just for defence journalists but all scribes down the line to teach them the rudiments of military hardware and jargon.

MINDEF's Malaysian counterparts in Jalan Padang Tembak have done so for years - please scroll back to my earlier posts to see how the Malaysians treat their own media.

MINDEF's (the Singapore MINDEF, not the KL one) investments in educating Singaporean newsrooms will help prevent red faces as somewhere in the newsroom's chain of command, someone is likely to pick up glitches like the RSN one.

Journalists joke that today's Page 1 story is good enough to line trash bins or wrap fish tomorrow. That may be the case, but military units the world over take pride whenever their units are showcased in the media in a positive light.

During my past visits to Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) establishments, I have always enjoyed seeing how SAF units take pride in clipping out - sometimes laminating - newspaper or magazine stories they like and pinning them on notice boards. Many of these stories were not written by me, but by local and foreign journalists whose bylines are the buzzword for credibility and authoritativeness in defence reporting.

It will be interesting to see how our Seahawk helo crew will explain to visitors that their birds cannot, as reported by the 90 cents newspaper, carry Aster or Harpoon missiles, plus the fact that Singapore isn't headed by royalty.

With the SAF due to receive more hardware this year and with military exercises ratcheting up their size, scale and complexity, Singaporean defence journalists will have no shortage of opportunities to showcase how crisp, clear reporting can tell a good story.

Failing which - as the "Royal Singapore Navy" episode clearly demonstrates - the rest of Singapore will have a good laugh at their expense.

God Save The Queen.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Blue on Blue: Part 22

Realistic war games ensure the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) trains as it shall fight, but nothing will prepare Singapore's citizen soldiers for the shock of its first casualties.

The speed with which SAF commanders stabilise the situation is critical in peace and war as their leadership has a direct impact on the will to fight among their troops... or lack thereof.

Back in May 1996, a Singapore Army war game almost went offline after two signallers were killed during a road traffic accident.

The 3rd Signal Battalion, which was involved in field trials of the Army's First Generation Command and Control Information System (CCIS), had to make the painful decision whether to proceed or shelve its part in the war game after two signallers were killed and one injured.

I am told that a Signal officer, Major David Koh (now BG Koh), rallied 3 SIG signallers and got things on an even keel with his firm, decisive leadership. The signal battalion not only recovered from the shock of the tragedy but went on to accomplish the objectives of the CCIS battle manoeuvres.

That said, there was a time to mourn and tears were shed by grown men as they came to grips with the reality they would never see their friends again.

Simulating casualties during war games will never come close to the psychological trauma that warfighters will face when body bags pile up. If the body count of just two soldiers during peacetime field manoeuvres can unsettle a battalion, it doesn't take much to understand the psychological perils of a shooting war involving the SAF's full force potential.

If the SAF mismanages the battle situation, that scenario could see body bags of teenage Singapore soldiers and middle age Operationally Ready National Servicemen (i.e. reservists) pile up in frightful numbers.

Psychological conditioning is thus a vital component of planning before hostilities. It can help SAF personnel recognise the nervous tension people will experience when coping with the loss of someone they care for. This of course assumes the hostile entity goes with the game plan and affords tiny Singapore a headstart in its defence preparations. Alas, we may not have the luxury of time.

Our ability to recognise that military operations carry substantial risks - despite the best efforts at minimising or mitigating such risks - is not the same as saying that SAF personnel should develop stone hearts towards one another.

Soldiers fight harder when they care for one another. Indeed, numerous studies have shown that in the heat of combat, individuals are prepared to make ultimate personal sacrifices not for volk, fuehrer or fatherland but for the soldier fighting alongside them on their left and right.

People watching the SAF have told me that Singaporean society comes across as being casualty averse.

Losing five dragon boaters at one go becomes a national tragedy. The crash of Singapore Airlines Flight SQ006 pained the entire country and resulted in "live" television updates of the death tally.

It was pointed out to me that the Malaysian Army, by comparision, lost three paratroopers on the eve of Malaysia's biggest air show in December 2007 and the column inches devoted to the dead servicemen and women paled in comparison with SAF tragedies in the Lion City.

Whether we like it or not, foreigners have been known to look at our limited, behind-the-wire deployments to places such as Afghanistan and Iraq and argue that we are a citizen's army not prepared for the shock of combat.

In some ways, they are right.

The discussion on the level and depth of coverage that fatal incidents deserve is beyond the scope of this commentary on psychological conditioning. My sense of the matter is that the amount of coverage Singapore devoted to military casualties and other national tragedies reflected the sense of loss Singaporeans feel towards their fellow citizens.

That said, we should be cognizant of how foreigners view our attitude towards casualties. They may not view things the same way we do and will interprete the situation in a manner that advances their own agenda. This is Psywar 101.

Efforts to condition Singaporean warfighters to the brutal face of war must factor in the impact that information superiority will have on SAF personnel.

It is a military truism that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. This means SAF personnel must recognise and accept the hard, painful reality that a clash of arms may not swing in its favour all the time.

With Battlefield Management System (BMS) features such as Blue Force Tracking, BMS-equipped units are given a broader appreciation of unfolding firefights with more immediacy, detail and accuracy than ever before.

When Blue icons start to disappear, how will commanders and soldiers react?

In the past, soldiers had a worm's eye view of the firefight that extended a modest distance from the lip of their foxhole.

Today, SAF wide area sensors allow Singaporean warfighters to see first and see more. The theory behind BMS argues that seeing first and seeing more will, in turn, allow warfighters to decide better, act faster and finish decisively. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the theory.

If reality doesn't match the catchy tagline for Integrated Knowledge Command and Control (IKC2; known tongue in cheek by NSmen as "I can see too!"), SAF personnel may feel a sense of loss that the new fangled systems are not working as advertised. There is the concurrent risk that the shock of this eureka moment will have a destabilising effect on unit cohesiveness and the "will to" fight. Soldiers may feel let down.

Imagine a platoon commander who sits at the Line of Departure staring at his BMS monitor. Wide area sensors and battalion-level tactical sensors feed information to his display which show the positions of known Red Force positions, weapon characteristics and movements. Blue Force Tracking completes the picture by showing the position of friendlies. The PC takes comfort from seeing numerical superiority and believes the SAF is technologically superior to the Red force.

When SAF manoeuvre forces start moving into action, the wily enemy springs a surprise. Blue icons start disappearing with alarming speed, knocked out by heretofore unknown enemy assets.

In a pre-BMS situation, the platoon commander would fight his own war across a relatively narrow frontage that has been assigned to his platoon. BMS is a game changer. The Singaporean officer's worm's eye view has evolved to a bird's eye view, near realtime and 24/7. How would the Singaporean soldier react when he realises he is up to his neck in hostile territory and the odds are suddenly stacked against him?

The use of BMS also means that commanders will likely be tied to a command node farther from the frontline. I know this is a debatable point as I have attended SAF briefings that point out that the command presence will move closer to the action.

My point is that the current state of play of defence electronics demands a command platform with a certain footprint and a minimum number of plasma screens so commanders can make best use of the available battlefield intelligence. The SAF is unlikely to position such a command node close to the forward edge of battle area.

As the Israelis found to their cost during clashes north and south of Israel, heavy dependence on plasma resulted in a somewhat diluted command presence at the front line. The battle cry, Follow Me, had morphed into 21st century battle orders sent via text messaging informing such and such a unit of their next objective.

The SAF must never allow plasma to replace the value of command. "Follow Me" must never give way to an "After You" mentality, particularly for an untested citizen's army.

Moving forward, it may be worth the SAF's while to experiment with the psychological impact of BMS.

Try fiddling with the data displayed during an ATEC exercise or a large force-on-force encounter during an Air Force or Navy battle exercise and watch how the command staff react. Do this unannounced. Stack the odds massively against the Blue Force. Do it to a scholar officer gunning to raise his CEP, secretly film the moment and see what results. : )

The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) must also be mindful how it calibrates publicity for its Third Generation SAF.

The transformation effort is a journey which involves constant evolution and adaptation.

From time to time, this journey may result in the SAF walking down what former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam described as "blind alleys". Truth is, not everything will work. This is what battle experiments and field trials are for.

MINDEF's spin doctors must therefore have the backbone to realise that publicising the 3rd Gen SAF means more than goading the national media to bang out heaps of praise, as is currently the case.

Is the current Public Affairs Directorate up to it? *crickets*

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Heart of War

Today, the Singapore Artillery remembers two of its fallen gunners in an annual tribute it has carried out for the past 13 years.

The newspaper tributes pass almost unnoticed year after year, except for people familiar with the events that took place during the first Thunder Warrior artillery war game on 9 March 1997 in Waiouru, New Zealand.

On that fateful day, tragedy gave way to heroism as Singapore’s citizen soldiers and New Zealand Defence Force personnel fought to save the gun crew of an FH-2000 155mm field howitzer that blew up during the live fire exercise.

Full-time National Serviceman (NSF) Third Sergeant Tan Han Chong, 21, an artillery specialist, and NSF gunner Lance-Corporal Low Yin Tit, 18, died when a 155mm shell exploded prematurely in their FH-2000. The shell had been armed with a faulty fuze, sourced from the United States but actually Made in China. Go figure.

The gunners were from the 23rd Battalion, Singapore Artillery (23 SA). Eleven other SAF servicemen were injured and four were hospitalised.

Years before this blog was started, I noticed that Headquarters Singapore Artillery (HQ SA) would remember 3SG Tan and LCP Low on their death anniversary. At first, I wondered if interest would peter out after a couple of years.

But HQ SA has never failed to mark the occasion.

I may stand corrected but the Artillery formation is the only one I know among all the SAF Services – Army, Navy and Air Force - to have run tributes for so many years. Defence watchers who track SAF developments from open source material are likely to have arrived at the same observation.

I find the newspaper tributes very touching. HQ SA’s dedication to its gunners exemplifies the core value “Care for Soldiers” (in this case, “Care for Gunners”?). It is one of the seven core values that many Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) servicemen will probably be unable to recite by heart even with the threat of extra duty.

The gunners in 23 SA would have been refreshed several times over in the past decade and it is likely that few NSF artillery officers and gunners in the battalion would know 3SG Tan and LCP Low personally.

At HQ level, probably only a handful of gunners who gained firsthand experience with Exercise Thunder Warrior 1/97 are still in service.

But the tributes continue, reflecting the Singapore Artillery’s desire never to lose touch with its past.

The inquiry into the fatal incident produced results that could have shaken the confidence of a less cohesive command structure.

But live-firing exercises resumed and gunners’ confidence in their weapons was restored.

How long more the newspaper tributes will carry on is open to question.

Even if the annual tributes are dropped some day, I am confident that somewhere within the ranks of HQ SA, the two fallen gunners will be remembered.

At 23 SA, every round counts. So does every gunner.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Remembering 9 March

I wonder if they'd do it again.

Two views of Ops Crimson Angel'97

Singapore's largest air evacuation operation, codenamed Crimson Angel, made front page news in July 1997.

Denied an opportunity to accompany the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as the Non Combatant Evacuation Operation unfolded, the Singaporean media had to be content with photographing the returning C-130s at Paya Lebar Air Base. That was the only photo opportunity that the Singaporean media was granted. If not for the headline and caption, one could be forgiven for thinking the picture was taken after a aircraft joyride at an Air Force Open House.

Almost a week later, a picture published by the International Herald Tribune (IHT) caught the eye of Singapore's future prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong. It captured Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) soldiers in action in Phnom Penh.

He said that "this single photograph spoke volumes for the professionalism and reputation of the SAF".

"It did more to improve the SAF's image than any advertising campaign," said Mr Lee.

If Singaporean photo journalists had been given the opportunity to photograph Ops Crimson Angel in-theatre, I am sure the Singaporean media would have showcased just what they are capable of doing when the shackles come off.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Better than any SAF advertisement

With Work Plan season round the corner, the Defence Ministry's spin doctors are likely to be polishing their arguments for more defence dollars.

A more insightful Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) at the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) would argue for less, because it can count on outside voices to tell its side of the story with more impact, literary panache and credibility than any PAFF organ.

Indeed, PAFF's weakened ability to host media embeds will count against the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) in peace and in times of troubled peace. Don't even get me started on whether PAFF can support the SAF if Singapore were to fight a Wallaby or Forging Sabre-type battle scenario north of the border. Simply put: we can't do it and will lose the battle for hearts and minds.

In 1997, then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described a newspaper lensman's image of SAF soldiers in action as one that "spoke volumes for the professionalism and reputation of the SAF".

"It did more to improve the SAF's image than any advertising campaign," Mr Lee added.

That picture was taken by a foreign media photographer who operated out of Phnom Penh's airport. He was not part of the media entourage that the SAF escorted to Phnom Penh aboard one of the 122 Squadron C-130s tasked to execute Operation Crimson Angel, the SAF's largest non-combatant evacuation operation. Indeed, the only photographers allowed on that flight were PAFF's own photographers.

There are many reasons why the media may not accompany a military operation. Lack of space is one, safety and security is another common reason/excuse. A defence information professional, say for example a competent Director Public Affairs, must weigh the benefits of capturing the moment for a larger audience, and push his case in situations where the value of publicity merits the presence of a credible voice.

In times of need, media pools are one way in which rival newsrooms close ranks to share resources.

I reproduce the article below, plus Mr Lee's comments published in the 90 cents newspaper on 21 July 1997 in an article titled "Better than any SAF advertisement".

International Herald Tribune, 10 July 1997

"Recently, the SAF mounted an operation to evacuate Singaporeans from Cambodia. The Singaporeans there had organised themselves, worked out emergency procedures, set up communications, gathered at designated places, and calmly evacuated from Phnom Penh. Their SAF training showed. The RSAF flew out 450 people from Phnom Penh on six flights in four C-130s. The operation went smoothly.

"The International Herald Tribune published an Associated Press photograph of the operation. It showed two SAF soldiers, in full battle order, checking two civilians about to board the aircraft, using hand-held metal detectors.

"A third soldier stood alert in the background, near the loading ramp of the C-130, weapon held at the ready. They looked totally competent and well-organised, which they were. The caption was factual: 'Singaporean troops conducting a security check at Phnom Penh airport before evacuating their countrymen'.

"But this single photograph spoke volumes for the professionalism and reputation of the SAF. It did more to improve the SAF's image than any advertising campaign." - Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister (now Singapore PM), Lee Hsien Loong, 20 July 1997

Now let's look at how PIONEER magazine photographed the same event from the safety of the C-130 cargo ramp.

The same event, photographed from a different perspective, resulted in a picture that in my humble opinion is less dramatic than the one published in the IHT.

PAFF realised the importance of media embeds and this reached the high water mark during Operation Flying Eagle when it hosted the largest contingent of local and foreign journalists after the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami.

The capabilities carefully built up since then have been whittled away, due to reasons which many of you will be familiar with.

Today's PAFF seems casualty-averse, going by the flurry of excuses they throw to Singaporean news editors and journalists whenever they ask to accompany SAF operations to places such as Afghanistan. Truth is, ladies and gentlemen, you could die just as easily in Singapore after being knocked down by a rogue diplomat or other assorted life-robbing events.

If roving foreign journalists can produce heart-stirring images that beat any SAF advertising campaign, just think about the impact such images can have on public sentiments if lensmen one day photograph the SAF in a negative light.

Not every operation will unfold the way we would like it to happen. In combat situations, particularly those on occupied territory, the SAF will have to work hard to buff up its international image.

It is true that allowing independent observers to watch your combat forces at work entails some risk to your public image. Red faces may ensue should journalists write about events, issues or observations MINDEF/SAF would rather keep under wraps.

But MINDEF/SAF defence professionals should have the confidence that the SAF will project the "right" international image and maintain the moral high ground.

No less important is having the backbone to roll with the blows. Afterall, a soccer match with a 1:0 result in one's favour is a match won. So is a match with a 6:4 result. You won the match even after letting in some goals.

This sort of mindset and strategic level of public affairs calls for a very high standard of defence information management, which is something beyond the capabilities that the current-day PAFF can deliver.

Are you surprised when high-risk SAF combat deployments to Afghanistan and the Gulf of Aden received paltry coverage and local and international awareness?