Saturday, October 8, 2011

Singapore's 12th Parliament: Gearing up for the Defence Budget debate for Work Year 2012/13

We're just months away from learning how much Singapore will spend on defence for its 2012/13 financial year, which begins on 1 April 2012.

Defence planners now punching out the sums can expect their budget estimates to be closely scrutinised not just by noise-making netizens but also by an increasingly vocal public who will speak its mind.

This past week, we saw a parent question the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) over the $2.50 surcharge each guest had to pay for refreshments at an air force graduation parade.

Such attention is not all bad because it beats apathetic citizens with zero commitment to defence.

If the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF calibrate their defence messages astutely, questions on defence spending can do much to strengthen awareness of, appreciation for and support towards our island nation's defence needs.

This will be a tall order in 2012. Next year's defence budget is expected to crown the S$12.08 billion defence budget for FY 2011/12 and the hike in spending will come amid harsher economic conditions and increasingly likeable neighbours.

Explaining why tax payers have to cough out more for guns over butter at a time when jobs are scare and pay checks are hardly growing will be a major challenge for MINDEF/SAF. Support for a citizens armed forces from Singapore citizens and SPRs is therefore a mindset MINDEF/SAF must work hard to gain, first and foremost.

This challenge will come amid increasingly warmer ties with Malaysia, Indonesia and the rest of our ASEAN neighbours. This is the second challenge for defence budget script writers because our chumminess with Malaysia, Indonesia and stronger support from powerful forces from the United States will make it tougher for MINDEF/SAF to explain big ticket purchases.

If the threat of outright invasion is remote or theoretical, why arm ourselves to the eyeballs with guns, bullets and bombs?

At the same time, calls for this island nation not to let down its guard against transnational terrorism may in turn trigger calls to scale down the SAF's conventional defence posture in favour of a purely homeland defence/counter terrorism force. It will be cheaper, less manpower intensive and more relevant to the security environment.

If this theme sounds familiar, it is because we heard the idea raised during the 2011 General Election by some Opposition candidates. Expect an encore if we experience a recession and spike our defence spending.

MINDEF's budget planners must be aware that debates in Parliament over defence spending, known formally as Committee of Supply (COS) debates, will take place in a House with an unprecedented presence from Opposition parties.

The COS statements tabled by MINDEF's three political appointees must therefore be robustly road tested before they are read out in the House to avoid being caught wrong-footed when the debate is in full play.

Defence-related public relations flops include the National Service Recognition Award (NSRA) and MINDEF's attempts at explaining the White Horse issue. That we hardly hear a squeak about the NSRA these days points to the lost opportunity at using this expensive scheme to cultivate better C2D. The NSRA is a good idea gone bad because of poor PR positioning, it has become the bastard child of defence PR that is best not talked about. What a shame.

What we are seeing these days is a concerted effort by MINDEF to showcase the new Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister of State for Defence Lawrence Wong Shyun Tsai and Senior Parliamentary Secretary Dr Mohamad Maliki bin Osman to citizen soldiers through the mainstream media.

They appear at every grip-and-grin photo opportunity in front of cameras and will get another PR platform at Exercise Wallaby in Australia.

Initial feedback that has trickled back to this blog from citizen soldiers who were part of the media opportunities is positive. The trio appear competent, well-briefed, able to hold their ground when meeting Operationally Ready National Servicemen (i.e. reservists) who may not have voted for the MIW in the first place.

Time will tell whether the PR coaching and behind-the-scenes TV screen tests will result in political appointees who can explain the sensitive topic of sky high defence spending in a convincing manner, not just to skeptical Singaporeans but also to neighbours who may rightly ask what all those war machines are meant for.

Defence planners who are shaping the Third Generation SAF must also ask themselves if the growth of SAF capabilities must continue on a linear basis with a newer war machine replacing an outdated weapon platform or weapon system.

Innovative solutions to defending Singapore may be a wallet-friendly alternative aside from simply renewing the SAF's arsenal when the life-of-type of weapon platforms and systems approach their respective use by dates.

When the Polish army went to war in September 1939, its cavalry regiments were acknowledged as among the best in the world. These had been developed and honed through the centuries and Polish lancers and other horse-borne soldiers were considered the apex of this capability development.

But German invaders broke tradition by investing in the panzer. Breaking the rule book on positional warfare, the German General Staff combined its panzer regiments with dive bombers, which they used as flying artillery, and airborne spotters orbiting the battlefield in prop-driven Fieseler Storch light planes whose incredible short takeoff/landing performance made them as versatile as today's helicopters.

More recently, Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon have shown they do not have to match the Israeli army tank for tank to draw blood.

Hezbollah's mastery of their home ground, use of fortified primary, secondary and alternate firing positions, liberal use of guided munitions to target armoured vehicles and awareness of the limitations of omni-present Israeli UAVs (most of which scan the battlespace in black and white imagery with a limited field of view) made Hezbollah fighters credible opponents against the Israelis.

Armour deficient with no warplanes or combat helicopters and no naval combatants, Hezbollah fought the Israelis to a bloody stalemate during the Summer 2006 war.

We also have to be aware that our vigilant defence posture does not end up breaking the bank. There are indications that the United States deliberately emphasized its space defence effort, dubbed Star Wars, to lure the Soviet Union into investing in weapon development on an unsustainable basis. We could fall into a similar trap if we mindlessly raise, train and sustain a numerically superior army without backing this with a credible public position on how such forces can win a war.

The relevance of these examples to an SAF intent on growing its capabilites year-on-year is clear.

SAF equipment due for replacement include the Super Puma/Cougar medium-lift helicopters, M-113 Ultra and Bionix 1 armoured fighting vehicles and Fearless-class Patrol Vessels. Fast landing craft are also needed to ferry the SAF's third MBT type, the Leopard 2SGs.

Our wish list is long and our pockets may be deep, but our threats are difficult to see or explain without ruffling the feelings of our neighbours or alarming the populace with a seige mentality.

Therein lies the challenge for MINDEF's FY2012/13 budget planners.

Whatever the case, the COS debate next year should be a show-and-tell well worth following.


Anonymous said...

Are you counting the M60 based CEV as an MBT type? Yes/no answer is sufficient clarification pls, don't want to breach opsec.

David Boey said...


Anonymous said...

Thanks, much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Why are you so persistently cheerleading for defence spending on hardware ? Hardware is easy. The tough part is maintaining support for a citizen army. In terms of economic cost, I think national service (full-time and reservist) is far more expensive than any submarine or aircraft.

Not sure whether you are saying that you agree or disagree that counter-terrorism is an appropriate mission for the SAF. I don't think that it is. The Americans chose to millitarize their "War on Terror" because that was the only tool they had, but that was a mistake we should know better than to follow.

Unknown said...

@ stngiam: I do not think CJ is shamelessly cheer leading for spending on defence hardware.

You have acknowledged that ours is a citizen army; I personally find it criminal if the government do not matched its spending on defence with the commitment that the sons and daughters of Singapore had given and are continuing to give.

David Boey said...

Hi stngiam,
I hold the idea that one's defence should never be taken for granted.

But this doesn't mean I also believe S'pore's military machine should be built up year after year with the biggest slice of the national budget.

The two viewpoints are not contradictory.

Best Regards,


Anonymous said...

With the PAP dominated and WP supplemented parliament I don't expect there will be much serious debate about defence expenditure. So defence expenditure increase is a foregone conclusion.

On your point about not taking defence for granted, well what does that mean? Does defence simply mean military?

The problem is that there is no attempt to dig deeper into what is meant by defence. Hence when talking about defence we always end up Defence = Military = Military hardware = Technology.

If we are not too careful, the defence spending could itself bankrupt the country or end up spending on the wrong thing.

Anonymous said...

I think it helps for us to reflect on a cautionary note that (GEN) Eisenhower made when he stepped down as president of the U.S. in 1961. I produce the passage I find most relevant to our conversation:

"A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction...
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together."

Singapore is not too different in that we have actively cultivated own military-industrial complex that is often not acknowledged that way, but unproblematically interpreted as a strength in our national defense and economy. SAF personnel, senior or otherwise, do transit to executive, managerial and technical positions in the industry. By itself it's not a bad thing. But we must remember such connections have the potential to turn self-serving. Joseph Schumpeter, a great economist and thinker, also pointed out too that "a machine of warriors, created by the wars that required it, which now creates the wars it requires." We must remember our national defense should not and cannot be purely conceived as military. While we do have a "total defense" policy articulated but it is seldom seen implemented in full or conscientiously. Perhaps it's time to revisit this wise concept I believe proposed by Mr. Lee Hsien Loong when he was still in the SAF.

Mr Boey -- I feel that you do push a convincing albeit aggressive point about the need to upgrade our platforms and maintain our edge through technology. But I cannot help but feel our thinking is not only far from mature, but also has borrowed heavily from other militaries. Borrowing in itself is not a bad thing. But it becomes suspect when the vocabulary we use - RMA, EBO, network-centric warfare, warfighters, transformation - seem to trail the U.S. journey of military reorganization.

I'm not saying we have followed others wholesale. But it is discomforting to witness how our national military thought leadership is so determined by the prevailing fads and fashion in military organization and technology use.


David Boey said...

"If we are not too careful, the defence spending could itself bankrupt the country or end up spending on the wrong thing." - Anonymous comment, 11 Oct 2011 12:07 AM

Dear Anonymous,
You hit the nail on the head with this sentence.

Best Regards,