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*


Anonymous said...

I was there in 1996 and I think your portrayal of the CO rallying the troops after the accidents is just journalistic imagination. CO wasn't that charismatic a guy to begin with. Most of us were quite demoralised and scared, but being NSFs, what were we to do? If the top insist on continuing with the game, we just had to go along with it. Its not like we could all just say thanks, but no thanks.

FIVE-TWO said...

I believe Singaporean citizen soldiers, and society at large, to be made of sterner stuff. certainly a few casualty during peace time training is some what of a calamity, because it isn't suppose to happen. But casualties during a shooting war is expected. Certainly those of us who will take our rifle in our hands would expect that some of us will not come back.

Singaporeans are a pragmatic lot and when blanks become full metal jacket, few will have time to complain and most will be busy trying to settle matters at home and rushing off to the answer the MOB.

Having said that, one can definitely expect individual, soldiers and commanders alike, to suffer the shock of battle losses. How fast the troops can absorb the press on will determine our survival. And that, is when the pie meets the palate.

Anonymous said...

Have you not read about the Greek citizen soldiers of early Athens or Republican Rome in the early days?

David Boey said...

I value greatly every opportunity to speak with SAF troops.

The anecdote on 3 SIG Bn came from someone more senior than you at the time (1996) when 3SG Wong and PTE Png died. His perspective of the situation appears different from that of the rank-and-file. The difference in the way a staff officer and an NSF viewed the same situation is an interesting point worth thinking about.

Thank you for sharing your viewpoint,


Anonymous said...

The difference between SAF and the regional militaries is we are a (mostly) conscript military and being a small country and having relatively small population means if an accident happens even in peace time, it affects someone that everyone in the unit knows and this person is someone's son, brother, cousin, maybe father and a significant portion of the country is affected. It is only natural that the media takes a closer look as the conscripted soldier isn't someone who volunteered for the job and accepted the risks of being a soldier. And out tolerance for loss is naturally going to be lower than a larger country with volunteer military.
Good point about how the psychology of viewing significantly more information (more Red forces) has on the unit commander or PC. I am also fearful if the opponent were to seize a BMS unit during action - is there a way to disable them before they fall into the wrong hands? What is an entire squad is ambushed and had no time to disable the BMS? I recall the EP-3 surveillance plane that landed on Hainan with some of its equipment intact (the Chinese probably still managed to gain valuable intel on US intel gathering equipment).

Karen said...

can you tell me more story on the war game in may 1996 ?