Sunday, January 20, 2013

Hostage crisis in Algeria: Takeways for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Special Operations Task Force

[This is a personal commentary that does not necessarily reflect the views of the Singapore Ministry of Defence or Singapore Armed Forces.]

The moment an in-country hostage crisis involves foreign nationals, that domestic event will be immediately escalated into an international event.

Any options for resolving the crisis, whether diplomatic or military, must include an information management component that proactively addresses an international audience hungry for news, restless for answers and short on patience.

The manner in which Algeria carried out the hostage rescue operation last week at a desert natural gas plant is a noteworthy example of how a poorly-conceived or absent Information Operations (IO) plan can compromise a country's international standing.

Crisis communications Fail
Crisis situations abhor a news vacuum.

The lack of official news feeds will see news-gathering agencies gravitate towards anyone with anything to say on the matter. That quote or TV sound bite will then be packaged as a news item for transmission to a global audience.

R2D2 where are you? The Algerian natural gas plant that was attacked by militants, sparking a four-day hostage crisis that suddenly put Algeria on news bulletins worldwide.

For Algeria, the remote location of the hostage crisis - the natural gas plant looks like something you would find on the Star Wars planet of Tatooine - means that foreign embassies may lack boots on the ground to gather their own firsthand information.

Without the Algerian equivalent of a Director Public Affairs (DPA) or some official spokesman fielding questions from the media, the news clip that was broadcast in Singapore featured a harried-looking civilian who mouthed the mission intent of the hostage takers to a global audience - that they did it to drive the "Crusaders" from the country. There was no comeback from Algerian authorities to balance the story.

To foreign observers, their mental picture of a hostage situation could range from a police-type situation involving petty criminals with firearms to one where more military muscle is required. If terror elements who triggered the Algerian hostage crisis approximated what armed forces have to deal with in a small scale insurgency (rather than a SWAT type of incident), Algerian authorities should have wrested the initiative by making this clear from the start.

Score one point for the militants in the IO arena.

Two dimensions of a hostage crisis
Singaporean defence planners tasked with horizon scanning of existing or future threats have to contend with the fact that a hostage situation can have two dimensions.

The first embraces hostage rescue scenarios involving foreign nationals in Singapore.

The second dimension involves Singaporeans taken hostage in a foreign country. One should remember that the first Singaporean to die from a terror attack, the late Ms Lo Hwei Wen, was shot dead in Mumbai in November 2008. With global security in a state of flux, will must steel ourselves to the reality that more may follow.

As we have seen with the Algerian crisis, countries with citizens held at gunpoint will monitor the situation closely. We have already heard France, Japan, Malaysia and the United States speak out about the matter.

With the death toll reportedly at 23 hostages and 32 militants killed, Algerian authorities will have to brace themselves for the blowback once anxiety expressed by these foreign countries morphs into anger and the finger-pointing begins.

The country's international image resulting from this crisis is not pretty. There are allegations that Algerian forces carried out the operation ineptly or were trigger happy.

One should remember that the overwhelming majority of home viewers who followed the crisis on TV, through Internet news or their home nation's newspapers probably cannot point out Algeria on a map of the world to save their lives. This newspoint on the gas plant attack, which introduced Algeria to their stream of consciousness, portrayed a negative image of the country which damages its international standing.

The same situation could befall Singapore because many people in other countries do not know much about our city-state. Some still think Singapore is part of China. A large number look at our Asian features and are pleasantly surprised that we can speak English. It's a safe bet many foreign nationals do not read Pioneer magazine and there's a chance rednecks in rural America may think Ng Eng Hen is a kind of poultry.

Our IO plan, triggered by a hostage situation, must address not just a domestic audience but must be able to scale-up to address, reassure and cultivate a global audience. This must be executed in support of Executive Group decisions and deliver our messages to an audience round-the-world and round-the-clock.

Without giving too much away, it is reassuring that the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Special Operations Task Force (SOTF) and MINDEF and MHA intelligence agencies appear to be on top of its game for domestic security.

SAF capability gap
The same assurance cannot be said when we turn our attention to Singapore's ability to reach out to and support its citizens in an overseas emergency.

This is because the SAF lacks assets needed to project its counter terrorist assets to hot spots outside the immediate ASEAN region.

Singapore should consider itself luck that the area of operations for Operation Crimson Angel in 1997 took place in Phnom Penh, which was within reach of C-130 Hercules tactical airlifters from the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) 122 Squadron. Gassed up with full internal fuel and with underwing drop tanks, 122 SQN's pilots and aircrew flew a series of shuttle flights to the embattled Cambodian capital to rescue Singaporeans from harm.

The capability gap is glaringly apparent when operations take place farther afield.

Upsy daisy: Republic of Singapore Air Force aircrew from 112 Squadron using ropes to load bags and assorted items due to the lack of appropriate ground handling equipment during the Februaru 2011 quake relief operation in Christchurch, New Zealand. A proper airlifter would have done job better. (Photo credit: Ministry of Defence, Singapore)

Nothing says it better than the picture of KC-135R Stratotanker aircrew who assisted New Zelanders during the earthquake relief mission in Christchurch, New Zealand. A modern jet transport belonging to the Third Generation (3G) SAF had to load cargo using ropes because the right ground handling equipment was not available.

People familiar with the mission would know that the KC-135R that flew the Command Team and advance party to NZ had to wait about two days for heavy equipment and civil defence vehicles to arrive in-theatre aboard lumbering propellor-driven C-130s. The slower Herks flew to New Zealand with several stopovers in between to refuel.

We are lucky the operation in New Zealand had a humanitarian complexion and was executed in a benign operating environment.

In a terror attack kind of situation, you would not have two days to wait for Fat Albert to catch up.

If SOTF has to deploy for a rescue/escort similar to Crimson Angel at a faraway location, the 3G SAF will be hard-pressed to support this mission. To be sure, anywhere on the globe is within reach of the RSAF - it's a question of the number of refuelling stops one has to pencil into the mission. Anyone who has taken a ride in a C-130 for an appreciable length of time (four hours or more) would remember the enervating effect that riding in the noisy, cargo-class environment has on its self-loading cargo.

Our SOTF troopers will not be primed for action after a long flight in a C-130. We could of course use the KC-135Rs, but the downside is not having any heavy equipment upon arrival.

There are aircraft available that can help the RSAF do the job. Jet-powered airlifters from Russia and the United States of various models spring to mind.

Most operational experience
Under present circumstances, however, the SAF's force modernisation bucket list sees support assets such as airlifters some way down the list of priorities. Teeth arms - armour, artillery, warplanes, attack helicopters, warships and guided munitions - are high on the agenda. This is a pity.

It is ironic that in the post-9/11 world, the SAF warfighters with the most operational experience are precisely these "support" assets like our Chinooks, Cougars, Hercules and Super Pumas.

If you pick an individual RSAF helicopter squadron like 122 SQN (Hercules), 125 SQN (Super Puma) or 127 SQN (CH-47D Chinook), I bet you will find more pilots and aircrew with real operational experience in just one of these squadrons than all - repeat all - RSAF combat squadrons combined.

It's the same story in the Republic of Singapore Navy. More Endurance-class tank landing ship (LST) crews have served on missions overseas than their shipmates in the submarine or stealth frigate squadron. You would have more officers and ratings decorated for overseas missions on just one LST than in the entire stealth frigate squadron.

One hopes this operational reality will see MINDEF/SAF relook its bucket list/wish list so that the SAF units get the tools they need to finish the job.

The stakes of being caught unprepared are just too high.

You may also like:
Operasi Piramid
Civil Resources in action: Malaysia launches Ops Piramid to airlift Malaysian citizens from Egypt. Click here
Malaysian military operations that made headline news in Feb 2011. Click here

Operation Crimson Angel
Better than any SAF advertisement. Click here
SAF versus cynics and critics in the halcyon days of peace. Click here

On unsung heroes:
Special forces ops. Click here


Anonymous said...

Academic analysis.
No one but the superpower or wannabes can afford to maintain the logistics and forces for far flung missions such as you have considered.

Perhaps, you got carried away by Singapore's involvement in East Timor and other UN peacekeeping ops?

Anonymous said...

Get ST Aero to buy a few C-17s, SAF pay to use them when necessary. When SAF is not using them, lease the C-17s out for commercial work.

And to make sure one C-17 is available all the time, one will be permanently leased on stand-by.

Anonymous said...

In a benign rescue operations, I am sure the SAF will be able to conduct a rescue operation far beyond our shore.

Air Mobility capability notwithstanding, I am afraid there is very little evidence to suggest that the SOTF is nothing more than SWAT in military outfit. I am doubtful, but prepared to be proof wrong, that it has the experience to do an Entebbe style rescue that the Israeli executed successfully.

In a benign rescue mission, sure the SAF can easily do. They can provide the planes and ships but so can Sing Air and NOL. SAF could also provide the SOTF but I suspect the role would be nothing more than a border guard to check passport.

Even, if the SAF has the capability to do an Entebbe style rescue, it is worth noting whether there is any political will to do so. Such operations are fraught with risks and would run counter to the notion of non-interference in other country's affair.

Given the kia see nature of our bureaucracy, it is hard to imagine anyone willing to sanction such operation.

So any Singaporean caught in an hostage situation far from Singapore, I am afraid, you are on your own.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree with the above comment.

That is the one thing years of life in Singapore have taught me about its bureaucracy.

Even on an ordinary peacetime day you can get little help from your Singapore police regarding your neighbour's loan sharks.

Freespirit said...

Entebbe raid is interference in other's country's affair. Incredulous logic throughout.
You will assume a 19 year-old NSF will not shoot because he has never shot in anger.