Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Missing elements in Singapore Armed Forces war games

It's exercise season for Singapore's military!

In the past week alone, the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) churned out three news releases (Exercise Matilda, Ex Suman Warrior, Ex Valiant Mark) on war games involving the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and warfighters from at least five other countries.

More's to come when Exercise Wallaby is launched in Queensland, Australia, next week.

There's one critical element missing from all these muscle-flexing outings by the SAF: civilians.

Watch the snazzy video clips screened by MINDEF. Examine the images of the combat manoeuvres and you will see a sanitised battlespace devoid of civilians.

This will not be the case in real life should deterrence fail.

Non-combatants numbering in the millions will be found in the SAF's area of operations if push comes to shove and Singapore's war machine puts into practice war craft drilled during war games such as Ex Wallaby.

If SAF Armour is to advance over distances clocked in the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Rockhampton, it cannot realistically expect to do so in an AO emptied of civilians as in the Aussie outback.

Allied forces learned this the hard way during the opening phase of World War Two when British and French troops found roads leading to the battle area in the Low Countries clogged with civilian vehicles and refugees.

The same situation could upset carefully crafted drawer plans that have been rehearsed and replayed on computer and on military training grounds where map overlays mimic distances and objectives the SAF could be tasked to capture and hold in a hot war scenario.

If the SAF's advance crawls to a halt or fails to unfold with the promised "swift and decisive" effect, Singapore's war planners may find themselves in a fix as the city-state cannot sustain a long slugfest.

Adding to the difficult task is the likely presence of stay behind forces deliberately inserted to cause maximum damage on the SAF's combat service support (CSS) units. These units are the soft underbelly of the SAF - literally so because the SAF's armoured spearhead will be supported by logistics units that ply vulnerable supply routes in unarmoured vehicles, driven by combat unit rejects of dubious motivation, carrying highly flammable and combustible war material in an AO with long supply lines, no FEBA and uncountable ambush spots.

Matched against special forces fighting on home ground, the result of a clash between SAF loggies and special forces operatives determined to draw blood is not difficult to forecast.

It may be improper to inject war games such as Ex Orion and Ex Wallaby with such a high level of realism because doing so would alarm observers. It would also make the playbook obvious to trained eyes. And if the presence of huge numbers of civilians - real or simulated - really slows down the fighting units, the drag on morale from citizen soldiers who realise the enormity/futility of the task at hand may be difficult to manage.

Such mission scenarios are best fought in the virtual world, on plasma where computer algorithms can simulate to some degree of realism how the presence of non-combatants in an AO can blunt the advance of SAF manoeuvre forces.

It's high time that MINDEF/SAF upgrades the SAF's combat service support units to ensure they can do the job.

Soft-skinned B vehicles should be junked for armoured cargo carriers with excellent on and off-road capabilities. Protection against IEDs and mines should be a basic requirement. Remotely-controlled weapon mounts with a high degree of accuracy, day/night sights and ample ammunition should replace pintle-mounted GPMGs with no armour protection. Tempered glass should be replaced with armoured glass.

SAF planners need to plan and execute supply runs the same way an Armoured Battle Group is deployed for a thunder run. The supply convoys should have eyes-in-the-sky to probe and investigate the road ahead. Fire support should be ready on call. MSRs need to be treated the same way combat commanders view the battlespace. This is not a milk run but a combat operation in Indian country where the natives are hostile.

Above all, the heartware of SAF CSS units - the logisticians, drivers, aerial delivery pallet riggers and so on, need to be infused with the right fighting spirit and mindset of their mission and expected threat levels. For way too long, officers and WOSEs assigned to CSS units tend to be seen as the Cinderellas of the Singapore Army.

This mindset is perpetuated by MINDEF/SAF itself which likes to reserve media engagements and photo opportunities for the Defence Minister with teeth arms such as Armour, Artillery, Commando and Guards units. When was the last time you saw a Minister for Defence posing for newspaper photographers with Army truck drivers, clerks or water purification specialists?

Till now, CSS units have tended to survive on hand-me-downs. In the pecking order of priorities, the logistics units are usually at the bottom of the heap. They are the unloved orphan child who is last in the list of priorities, the ones whose budgets can be cut and whose wish lists remain so.

In the age of the M-16S1 5.56mm assault rifle, some CSS units were still armed with ancient AR-15s from the Vietnam War or unwanted SAR-80 assault rifles. They later progressed to M-16s when the rest of the Singapore Army transitioned to SAR-21 assault rifles.

The Third Generation SAF would send a strong deterrent message indeed if CSS units were overhauled from top to bottom.

It would take a bold SAF staff officer to argue that Army drivers should be armed with weapons such as the P90 5.7mm submachine gun. And why not? The Belgian gunmaker that designed the P90 made it a compact weapon designed to be carried by helicopter pilots and truck drivers.

But in the SAF, the P90 has been elevated to a weapon for crack Commando LRRP teams, who value its compactness and killing power of 5.7mm rounds designed to punch through body armour. Don't our SAF drivers deserve the same hitting power in an ambush?

With SAF teeth units transformed to fight a 3rd Gen battle, it's time to shift the spotlight to CSS formations and other GS Command units.

It is no point making a big show of war games such as Exercise Wallaby when defence observers look at the tail in the SAF's tooth-to-tail ratio and realise where the weak links are.

The weak links in the chain are the ones hostile forces will gun for.


C/S 24S said...

You touched on a valid point wrt "missing elements"; SAF should consider simulating these as obstacles to units advancement. Simulate human refugees, human shield, simulate blue on blue situation, simulate media press distractions.

Anonymous said...

A timely reminder that your combat force is only as effective as what shores it up.

Anonymous said...

How valid your points are, from gulf war 1 to the present in afganistan,civilian,logitics are critical on the front. SAF should extend the full spectrum scenario, otherwise an exercise will only be a show and tell reheasal drama. Or we will always be paper tiger.

Anonymous said...

what makes you think that all CSS forces are as underarmed as you made out to be?

Anonymous said...

As a former logistician who served at HQ CDO, I would say that your points are definitely valid, and whilst the logistics training I received did mention the type of challenges we would face in resupplying troops, the reality is that we are sitting ducks in the event of an enemy ambush, with little or no defensive capability and with the only option for escape being to tell our drivers to floor it and get us the hell out of there. Certainly something the SAF needs to consider very seriously when investing in enhanced warfighting capabilities, but leaving its backbone with not only last generation weapons and equipment, but more importantly last generation doctrine, which will find itself sorely lacking in the modern battlefield.

Ngiam Shih Tung said...

Every modern conventional (i.e., Western model) army will face the same problem. Even if intial ops are "successful", what is the end-game for any likely scenario ? Indefinite occupation ? If not that, then what ? I doubt that any good answer has been found yet, even after 46 years of thinking about it.

Anonymous said...

The easy solution to this is to role spare capacity (& older) NS reserve units as supply line overwatch units. I highly doubt re-arming the log train with P90 as oppose to AR15 will make an iota of difference otherwise.

The other issue of roadside ambush will be far harder to tackle, particularly with the evolving tactic of IEDs.

Kara said...


I believe MSR overwatch duties are being done by brigade and division MPs currently as part of traffic control ops but their orbat is woefully understrength to carry it out effectively. Those NSmen MPs can definitely agree with me.

The idea of plugging in second line reserve unit for overwatch will definitely play into the enemies hand. A unit stuck with rear echelon security is one less unit at the frontline to commit for combat operations

Anonymous said...

Look at how drivers are selected, using the absolute leftovers. Yet they are often expected to drive solo when they cannot even read a map. In an actual ops, where will they end up? Dont think they are paid enough to buy Garmins.

MTOs dont even need to have a driving license for god sake.

Anonymous said...

Agree with concerns raised by fellow contributors here. The security company must be a proper infantry/armoured infantry company raised from the SIRs. It is not right to retrain/convert other vocationalists to do the security company role. The long lines of CSS trains should also be relooked to see how the vehicles and personnel in them can be better protected from IED and other type of ambush, etc. Losses to the train may be as crucial as combat losses a short distance up front for, without immediate resupply or repairs, combat efffectiveness will be seriously hampered.

Anonymous said...

Hopefully some time can be found in log units' packed schedules for modest convoy and security training . The daily business of teeth units is combat training, the daily business of log units are milk runs and garrison activities to support the teeth units.

Also, I hope my log unit does not covert to the SAR-21 just because the national project has to be seen as a success.

Anonymous said...

"In the age of the M-16S1 5.56mm assault rifle, some CSS units were still armed with ancient AR-15s from the Vietnam War or unwanted SAR-80 assault rifles."

I wonder if some was actual ARVN stock.

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