Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Yeonpyeong tension and what it means for Singapore's security

Among the many lessons that Singapore's defence eco-system can sieve out from the North Korean artillery strike on Tuesday (23 Nov'10) is the somewhat unsettling reality that an aggressor can get away with a first strike.

Should the same scenario pan out in a local context someday, Singapore cannot expect the United States military or other foreign forces (read: FPDA) to waltz in to its rescue. We are likely to be left alone to fend for ourselves, perhaps armed with sympathetic diplomatic messages from friendly countries and carefully scripted messages condemning the aggressor(s).

A test of Singapore's defence readiness must be matched by the political will to allow the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) full freedom of action. Anything less than the promised swift and decisive military response will erode the credibility of the SAF's deterrent edge, with detrimental results to commitment to defence and investor confidence.

Here are some first thoughts on the artillery duel over South Korea's Yeonpyeong island in the Yellow Sea:

1. From media reports on the incident, it is likely that Yeonpyeong was attacked by rocket artillery pre-registered on the island for eons. If reports that 200 "shells" (not rockets?) fell on the island are accurate, the death toll of two civilians and two South Korean Marines is a pitiful exchange ratio.

Simply put, artillery barrages against urban targets are more survivable than commonly imagined. We have seen largely the same result in places as far-flung as Lebanon, Chechenya and the Gaza Strip. Singapore's household shelter building programme, which aims to add a hardened shelter in each dwelling under the Civil Defence Act, is a prudent measure because civilians will not have the time to run to a communal shelter in an emergency.

2. The barrage unleashed by South Korean gunners against targets 12km away is likely to have had more public relations (PR) value than military effectiveness because artillery fire across such ranges done without a spotter cannot be expected to take out point targets on the mainland like tube and rocket artillery pieces.

On the other hand, the island is a point target. Doubling the garrison strength only serves to double the number of military targets for the north's artillery. The upsized garrison also strains the logistics train for a military force which to all intents and purposes has no manoeuvre value and is stuck on a point target.

The Germans made the same mistake when they kept reinforcing the Crimea during WW2 with forces that ended up bypassed and encircled. Their Russian opponents wryly called the Crimea the largest prison camp where inmates feed and look after themselves. Locking down the garrison in Yeonpyeong will end up with the same result as the troops would be more useful elsewhere on the mainland.

3. Acts of aggression during a period of tension (POT) cannot be left unanswered. The drawer plan of options available to the SAF must be scaleable against a range of responses. I have no doubt (as opposed to the phrase "little doubt"...) the SAF has exercised a range of conventional and unconventional military options. Plans aside, it is worth pondering if we will pussy foot like the South Koreans and give a muted response as the aggressor(s) probes MINDEF/SAF's resolve.

4. The idea that the North Korean military is run by nutcase looneytoons is unfair and dangerous. North Korea had previously warned that the unilateral live fire exercise on/near Yeonpyeong island would be matched with force. They made good the threat. In terms of the action-reaction cycle, the North Koreans made it perfectly clear how they would react to the war games. In other words, the end result of the OODA loop was announced long before the artillery rockets took flight.

5. Firepower alone does not translate to deterrence. Our Mexican friends paid for this lesson in blood and shared this with some of its friends. For those who missed it, remember this: Deterrence = (Force) x (Ability to use it)

The Republic of Korea Air Force and Republic of Singapore Air Force field an order of battle with the same battle-tested frontline warplanes as the Israelis. Airpower's contribution to deterrence was neglible as the North probably calculated that the South would not risk an all-out general offensive over a tiny island that the rest of the world had probably never heard of.

6. Finally, there must be a line in the sand which an aggressor(s) should not test. The risk of miscalculation is reduced when one articulates the defence strategy and makes clear the trigger points for the SAF to go into action. The aggressor(s) must be left in no doubt that the SAF's ability to strike almost automatically will be deadly and disabling.

The list of potential military and strategic targets must be tabled, studied and refreshed regularly in peacetime. These targets should be arranged in order of priority and backed by monitoring cells that will marshal and deploy the SAF during operations.

The geography of the SAF's likely area of operations puts a premium on leaders with a tri-Service mindset who can think in terms of how land operations are supported or influenced by the littoral environment and air battle. For example, aggressor force military assets may have to be boxed in by a picket line of anti-air warfare stealth frigates (aka sea-based air defence) backed by combat air patrols during a period of tension to deter and prevent enemy air power from leaking to a hinterland elsewhere.

As the South Koreans have learned through their indecisiveness, there is a price to pay for poor decision making and their defence minister and Shangri-La Dialogue participant this year has already been shown the door.

For Singapore, if the "go" order is given, the time for talk is over and the SAF must be allowed to peform as advertised and root out aggression at its source with what former RSAF chief BG Michael Teo described as a "firestorm".

The growth of SAF task forces enhances deterrence because Singapore will have scaleable responses against a range of contingencies.This is an improvement from the 1st Generation and 2nd Generation SAF's order of battle, which raised, trained and sustained combat units for conventional operations.

In the old days, SAF planners had to choose between going from 0 to 1, flipping from white to black (or green as the case may be...) with no half measure for situations which called for a swift and decisive response without the economically disabling effects of a general mobilisation.

Today's 3rd Gen SAF is a more lethal entity. The phrase "full spectrum" has been used to underline the armed forces' readiness to deploy in and engage with a host of situations. These run the gamut from small unit tactics against terror cells to operations involving the full force potential of the SAF.

Underpinning Singapore's near-paranoid defence posture is the belief that you don't own what you can't defend.


Anthony said...

Just curious.. shouldn't force (in this equation) include ability? Having the ability still does not mean the readiness to use it, as seen in S. Korea's example

Perhaps the following equation would be more accurate?

Deterrence = (Force) x (Readiness to use it)

FIVE-TWO said...

as is well known (at least by my generation) there are/were lines in the sand well understood by our neighbours and tacitly acknowledged by their leaders. one such case is the waterworks in Johor, it is clear that any meddling in it will invite an almost automatic response from the SAF.

FinalFive said...

The equation is:

Deterrence = Capability x Will to Fight

Thanks to the latest Army Ad, we are in serious lack of deterrence. (Mon Nov 22 Post)

Anonymous said...

When we kept promoting ourselves as Lions, again thanks to the most bullshit army ads in the world, we have to be able to act like one & I want to see this. Not 'meow.. meow...meow' when roar is suppose to be called for.

pragmatist said...

Dear FIVE 2,

What is the automatic retaliation that you're referring to? The only viable retaliation which can serve as a deterent is a nuclear strike.

Our army is not a deterrence to a would be aggressor. We are not Israel and we certainly dont have a reputation as a warrier nation. Forget about fighting a war. Its not worth it. Its better to forge some kind of a political union with our neighbours and sign a defense treaty with them which protects our sovereignty.

Blowpipe said...

So long our potential adversaries do not have the balls to test our fighting will, SAF has done its job.

Not going to war does not mean we are pussy cats neither dying in war makes us hero.

mackinder said...

Pragmatist, viable retaliation does not require a nuclear strike.

Political unions are just fluff, sad to say international law is not a deterrent as we hope it would be. I'd take my chances with my military, thank you.

FIVE-TWO said...

pragmatist, I hope you are just simply very young. I also hope you have not yet served the SAF as you clearly have no idea what we can or are willing to do.

FinalFive said...


An example of the deterrence that the Singapore Armed Forces achieves - and this has been one of the most overused examples, is our response to Indonesia when the Boxing Day tsunami hit the region.

In the space of a couple of days, without proper maps and proper recall procedures, we were able to send down 2 LSTs, helicopters, Chinooks, Combat Engineers to build temporary harbours.

We were faster than the Americans, and certainly the Indons themselves.

We were more well equipped - The shock that the Indon military felt when they saw the Combat Engineer amphibious vehicle was palpable then (rumour has it).

We were clearly smarter - No proper maps. Some reports recorded that with HAND-DRAWN maps, we managed to land properly and deliver aid on time.

We were more dedicated than the other organisations, and showed more tact - All we did was initial relief, that was our mission. When the Indon military finally came in and NGOs, we left so they could take over.

We are not afraid of dead bodies, or hard work. NSFs helped to load dry ice on to the fields to preserve rotting bodies. My friends still recall scrubbing the stench of rot from themselves (when they actually got a chance to bathe). The commander - Commander 6 DIV? Rumour has it he didn't bother sleeping.

Now imagine if it wasn't 2 LSTs worth of food, blankets and fresh water, but 2 LSTs of weapons that we had ready...

I think we sent a very clear message that time. It was a real pity to me however, that the average Singaporean here didn't seem to care (But iphone launch, they raved like lunatics).

pragmatist said...

Dear Final Five and Five 2,

Dear Final Five, your detailed answer makes a compelling case for SAF's abilities. I dont doubt our ability to stage a devastating first strike. Its what happens next that concerns me.

I salute your enthusiasm. The country is safe with young men like yourself. Be patient with the musings of an older man. I was quite amused by five 2's perception of me being young. No, I am not young. War is terrible. I have seen the consecuences of man's cruelty and barbaric behavior. War includes death. It means leaving your wife without a husband and your children without father. I say this not to mock anyone but to bring to the table the terrible human cost of war.

I have served in the SAF for 6 years. And so I dont belittle the efforts of the SAF nor its fighting prowess. I have respect for our our men in green. I also respect the other side and their abilities. Underestimating the enemy and mocking them is part of the propaganda war. In reality, generals who fight and win wars always respect their enemies. Indonesian commandos are no pushovers.

Israel respect the Arab nations enough to never entertain the thought of occupation. Their battle field success has never translated into the occupation of Cairo, Amman or Damascus. Their attempts to occupy Lebanon ended in failute. It is their political arrangement and union with the US which keeps them safe. Dont brush off political unions, defense treaties and international law. A full scale attack against the enemy implies the occupation and the responsability of the enemy's well being.

An all out assault - sea, land and air - would leave Spore vulnerable to a devastating counter attack. Our geography does not give us the space for a demilitarized zone. Our neighbours are big enough to absorb a first strike and hit back.

Fighting a war is not providing relief operations. Dont dismiss political unions or being part of a defense arrangement. NATO kept the balance of power in Europe for over 40 years. And the "enemy" crumbled. The defense treaty between the US and S. Korea has kept the peace in that region. And dont forget its the political arrangement and multi polar politics which keep Israel safe.

MM LEE in one of his national day speeches, many years ago, spelled out the gravity of war and his relief that the flags of our SAF units did not include penants to commemorate major battles. He is a realist who has managed to keep the peace with our neighbours.

The bottom line is this: Yes, respect the SAF's ability to defeat our enemies but lets not get carried away by the jingoism which promotes fighting and defeating our neigbours in a blitzkrieg.

Anonymous said...

We need Iron Dome. Well done SAF.