Friday, July 1, 2011

SAF Best Unit competition needs to keep up with 3rd Gen SAF

While Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) warfighters who worked hard for their Best Unit trophy should be justifiably proud of their achievement, the question is whether the prize is worth their effort?

In the past decade, the transformation of the SAF into a Third Generation fighting force has shot far ahead of the terms and conditions drawn up years ago for the Best Unit Competition.

The inter-unit rivalry the competition generates is useful, especially for a peacetime armed forces with no imminent threat to rattle its sabres at.

But for defence observers who track the SAF's force structure, the level of competition seems to have been diluted in recent years for some categories of military units.

As the drawdown of forces has not been explained by the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), observers may - even with the best intentions - develop a hypothesis that some trophies are an easy win. It may also lead to speculation that some teeth arms have had their combat potential diluted as word leaks out of units that were quietly stood down.

For instance, the SAF Guards Formation was once a brigade-size formation with three battalions of full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) Guardsmen. The formation of heliborne infantry has since been pared down to two NSF Guards battalions after 2 GDS was stood down.

A study of the Singapore Artillery (SA) formation presents things in starker terms. Once upon a time, six Singapore Artillery battalions - 20 SA to 25 SA - vied for the Best Artillery unit trophy.

Today, the field of competition has shrunk to just three NSF artillery battalions. These are 21 SA, a hybrid battalion equipped with Primus 155mm self-propelled howitzers and FH 2000 155mm heavy artillery guns, 23 SA, which is another hybrid unit whose batteries are armed with Pegasus 155mm heavy artillery and M142 HIMARS rocket artillery, and 24 SA with its Arthur and Firefinder fire detection radars.

One does not have to be a gambler to realise that the odds have improved for the three COs, compared to the Singapore Artillery's heyday when Chief Arty commanded six NSF artillery battalions.

More puzzling is the apparent dilution of hitting power as two NSF arty battalions were taken off the orbat tables.

Is technology such a force multiplier than the new HIMARS justifies the disbandment of two tube artillery battalions? Or was this a case of Hobson's choice due to declining birth rates?

It is presumed that SAF artillery battalions are now evergreen units, which means the respective six-gun batteries are constantly active and not stood down whenever a batch of NSFs complete their two years NS when they hit their Operationally Ready Date (ORD).

It is further presumed that the substantial pool of gunners built up during the 1990s gives SAF force planners a sizeable stock of defence manpower to ensure the SAF has more than enough gun crews for its Army divisions. This fulfils one of the tenets of War, which is Mass.

Observers familiar with the 200-series SAs would realise this is true.

However, if combat potential and firepower were measured by numbers alone, the Japanese would never have conquered Singapore during WW2 and the SAF would have nothing to fear from its neighbours.

By mixing and matching freshly-ORDed servicemen with NSmen from earlier batches, SAF force planners can certainly ensure units are committed into battle at the full estab strength.

However, the vexing question is the impact such a plug-and-play approach will have on unit cohesion.

During WW2, the German Army was so strapped for manpower along the long Eastern Front that ad hoc emergency units were hastily put together to plug gaps in the frontline. On paper, these emergency units or Alarmeinheiten had the estab manpower authorised for infantry battalions. But as officers and NCOs barely knew one another, the fighting potential of these Alarmeinheiten was poor. Several German generals have noted this in their post war memoirs and their thoughts are worth mulling over by SAF planners.

It is one thing to fight and die for strangers (i.e. fellow Singaporeans). It is quite another to be ordered to fight and die with strangers.

Warfighters from evergreen units need to be given sufficient time to bond with their counterparts who may be of a different age group and physical fitness level from their cohort. When fatherhood dawns, NSmen will have different priorities in life too, adding to the gulf between newly-arrived NSmen and the lau jiaos (older soldiers). Band of brothers they are unlikely to be.

MINDEF/SAF must ensure the engagement of NSmen is pitched at a level that helps them understand and appreciate the rationale for force structure changes. Afterall, the introduction of SAF mono intake battalions in 1980 was publicised as a means of bolstering unit cohesion as the NSFs stay with one another throughout their reserve training cycle.

What about now, with evergreen units?

At the same time, literature should be shared in the open domain for defence analysts who maintain order of battle spreadsheets to understand their 200-series, 300-series and 400-series NS battalions of support arms better. We see eroded combat potential as ORD personnel are thrown in penny packets to patch up understrength NS battalions.

Aside from assuring defence watchers that the Best Unit competition is still a good yardstick of how big a fight an SAF unit packs, the tricky part comes with informing and educating people that the field of competition is much broader than the candidate units people read about in newspapers.

These closed battalions and squadrons do not exist and their respective COs have always been bench warmers when Best Unit trophies are given out on SAF Day, which falls on 1 July.

It is ironic that some of these units and squadrons wield precisely the kind of sensors and war machines that helps the SAF justify its 3rd Gen moniker.

So as those shiny Best Unit trophies sit alongside the parade ground today waiting to be claimed by proud COs, think ahead of Best Unit competitions of future years.

The status quo should change to ensure this annual affair stays ready, relevant and makes a decisive contribution to the defence readiness of Singapore.


Anonymous said...

Uh, actually, I'd have thought that being excused best-unit type competitions would be a morale-booster for the undeclared units :-)

Anonymous said...

the number of undeclared units are growing rapidly, to what ends i can only guess with the information i manage to gather from my sources.

Anonymous said...

What happened to 20SA? Has it disbanded or just become undeclared?