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.


edwin said...

Hmmm... the problem with simple formulas is that they are simple :P I think that besides the capabilities of the force (F) and the ability to use it (A), deterrence also depends on the perception of the adversary (P). After all, the original formula makes it seem like deterrence is solely the product of your own actions, while in reality factors beyond your control also affect the deterrent effect that is generated. This is where agents like the media come into play.

Anonymous said...

Why haven't they made you general yet or Military Media Moghul yet? We need you! You are the most important commentator of our military affairs! Without you, Singapore will be conquered! You speak for the common Hokkien peng! You are our beloved hero! We await your ascent to the pedestal of greatness! A modern day Hannibal!

Ben Choong said...

so the refined formula should be D = (F x A)/M, which is motivation to achieve aims regardless of cost? I just thought that perception is just another way of saying deterrence :P

Its true, the proposed formula is quite simplistic, but I think it does cover quite a lot of ground. Of course, we can always run a regression on this and tease out which effects play a bigger role and identify missing ones, which is not unlike the statistics/econometrics homework I've been hammering away at last night :P

On the issue of ATGWs, that's not the only weapon system a really motivated advesary can wield unconventionally to cause disastrous results. Grad rockets from MLRS systems have been used singularly in Gaza and Afghanistan. The best defence is indeed a learning organisation, thinking how to defeat the enemy outside the box. I have full faith in our military that as soon as these threats are identified, we'll work towards negating these threats. We have a strong R&D arm and I know our upper echelons are highly capable, but it'll be nice if the public can be informed of how MINDEF wishes to address these threats. I don't know, put editorials in the papers talking about these threats and how MINDEF has taken steps to deal with it? In that way, room for speculation gets squeezed out, and people's concerns are allayed?

Ben Choong said...

"Why haven't they made you general yet or Military Media Moghul yet? We need you! You are the most important commentator of our military affairs! Without you, Singapore will be conquered! You speak for the common Hokkien peng! You are our beloved hero! We await your ascent to the pedestal of greatness! A modern day Hannibal!"

Military Media Moghul = Hannibal?


|-|05| said...

Hannibal ante portas

Anonymous said...

"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. "

The question that I would have asked is if they were the Lebanon Armed Forces required to defend the suzerainty and territory integrity of Lebanon, and without the fall - back of Syria and Iran, how would they have designed their armed forces? Can the conventional armed forces of a sovereign state, with the responsibilities and role of a sovereign state, really hope to emulate the T&O of Hezbollah? It will be really instructive to see if the Hezbollah model is adopted by the Syrian and Iranians. I just want to sound a note of caution while 'asymmetric' seems to be a popular phrase can works both ways. A section of SAF infantrymen equipped with ACMS, plugged into the network of UAVs and other sensors, able to call on supporting fire from strikers such as F-16s and Apaches, may just about have a more than even chance against a Hezbollah 'section' occupying a fortified position. It's asymmetry in the reverse. I have said previously that the IDF failed tactically in Lebanon but learning from it, it refined its tactic in CASTLEAD. The shame is that because it did well in CASTLEAD, you have less commentators and analysts producing materials online about it. Nothing beats news like bad news I suppose.

Ben Choong said...

To build on what Anonymous (non-flamer) said, I also did mention that the BMS/ACMS would only be helpful if we knew what we were up against. If an infantry patrol stumbles upon an IED and sounds it off, it would be extremely useful for the next resup or even armoured column coming by. However, if they just see a pile of thrash and walk by when in reality it has an explosive hidden in it...hence the need for a strong LO?

As to the silence around Cast Lead, I feel its also contributed by the fact that the IDF restricted journalists from fact I feel those that entered ended up reporting all sorts of bad news (remember them calling smoke shells some bizarre new weapon meant to kill and maim Palestinians?)...but yeah, given the present silence it proves IDF did so well to even override the bad press effect :P

edwin said...

Like I mentioned before, I feel that the IDF still lost the media battle for OP Cast Lead... for a variety of reasons, the most pertinent (to us) IMO being the perception of them as the aggressor. The doctrine of Forward Defence means that it would be easy to tar us with the same brush as well.

Also, I'm not sure how effective NCW will be when combating tactics like the use of human shields, locating in heavily populated areas etc. that are the bread and butter of insurgents in Central Asia nowadays. The communications link between the trooper and the F-16 doesn't matter if the CG restricts the use of air support for fear of civilian casualties, as GEN McCrystal has done. The whole point of 'asymmetry' is to nullify the effect of overwhelming information and overwhelming firepower that conventional forces can bring to bear, and that includes systems like ACMS. On the other hand, for state actors to use such tactics would be to basically shoot themselves in the foot and delegitimize themselves, so this is probably not the most likely scenario, worst case as it might be. Against more conventional adversaries I'm sure systems like ACMS and BMS will work their magic, as long as we can win the ECM/ECCM battle :)

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Anonymous said...

In addition to new technologies as mentioned ad nauseum in our 3G SAF releases, there needs to be a relook at new ways of fighting as well... The ability to intercept and jam enemy communications for example, can be negated by having runners on bicycles, for example...

Anonymous said...

I would prefer to look at the comment from the RMAF pilot that "Singaporean air bases could be observed by TUDM special forces teams (PASKAU?)....intelligence could be obtained by non conventional means" quite differently. I'm sure S'pore's electronic and airborne intelligence are also bolstered by human intelligence working on the ground in M'sia watching and monitoring the RMAF bases 24/7. The AEW aircraft is not useful just for early warning of enemy planes taking off but also, critically, directing and guiding interceptors during air battles, thus providing the interceptor pilots with multiple pairs of eyes and enabling them to react and fight faster. the potency of the 'eye in the sky' cannot be under-estimated, as evidenced in the IDF rout of the Syrian airforce in the air battle over the Bekka Valley in which the IDF destroyed more than 100 Syrian fighter planes without losing a single one of their own.