Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) in the Year 2030 (Part 1): Heartware matters

4 December 2022 update: 

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In the Year 2030, we will find out if table tennis star Ms Li Jia Wei has honoured her promise to send her precious first born son for National Service (NS) in Singapore.

Whoever is still alive in 17 years, please log this name and check with authorities if he has served/is serving as a full-time National Serviceman (NSF): Terry Li Tianrui. Date of Birth: 18 October 2009.

Terry Li, who will turn 21 in 2030, should have completed his NS by then if his school going journey unfolds like those of other Singaporean boys.

If and when he joins the ranks of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) or Home Team as an Operationally-Ready NSman (i.e. reservist), his contribution to defence manpower will be much-needed by our future
Army due to the manpower crunch. [I personally doubt he will ever carry an SAF 11B.]

SAF downsized more than 30 per cent 

The SAF in 2030 could be 30+ per cent smaller than the 300,000-strong force of 2012's order of battle.

This is not a figure plucked from the air. The conservative guesstimate is based on projecting live birth statistics from the past decade to work out the rough number of 18-year-old NSFs in 2030 and the number of NSmen in service 17 years from now. It compares current day SAF Full Force Potential with future force potential using published live birth statistics as a baseline comparison.

Key assumptions that led to the forecast for a downsized SAF are:
1) That full-time conscription stays at two years, or 22 months for fitter enlistees.

2) That the 10-year NS cycle for NSmen is not extended to make up for the shortfall in defence manpower. NSmen from certain units may have to be persuaded to extend their NS commitment to stem the manpower shortage. From a legal standpoint, the system is on firm ground. Officers can be called up till 50 and other ranks are bound to serve till the age of 40.

3) That NS is not extended to women. A political hot potato, but one Singapore may be compelled to mull over to fill the ranks.

4) That the estab for SAF teeth and support arms remains at 2012's manpower manning levels.

5) That infant and childhood mortality and emigration levels remain at steady state.

6) That manpower apportioned to the SAF and Home Team, principally the Singapore Civil Defence Force and Singapore Police Force, remain at about the same ratio as today. The SAF could get an instant boost if SCDF and SPF NS intakes are cut back.

7) That there is no change in the exemption of first generation Permanent Residents (PR) from NS.

8) That there is no social engineering that will suddenly infuse Singapore with young NS-liable manpower.

Unless you're a military force like the 300 Spartans, any organised military that loses 30 per cent of its manpower can be considered operationally ineffective.

Fight current, fight future

We are convinced SAF 2030 cannot have the same orbat as SAF 2012. We had difficulty staffing every 200-series SA unit, 300-series SCE battalion and 400-series SAR battalion, the infantry and Guards units, medical, combat service, CMR units, Military Police etc using the 2030 manpower numbers. It could not be done.

Adjustments in force structure are needed because defence planners in the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the SAF will not have the bodies to flesh out combat and combat support units under the present-day orbat.

In addition, MINDEF/SAF will always have a need for units that will never win a Best Unit Competition trophy. We treasure such capabilities and defence professionals today because of the edge they give us. We will value them even more in 2030. Defence manpower needs to be always set aside for these groups and squadrons, now and in the future.

In operational terms, SAF 2030 could lose more than a division's worth of fighting potential. The loss could prompt a rethink of its ability to execute certain operational scenarios. Our forecast involved a worst-case scenario that ordered the SAF's Full Force Potential to push towards an objective, with Army divisions tasked with specific geographical references to be achieved by D+XX.
The good news? MINDEF/SAF have a 17-year headstart to fix this problem.
Singapore's shrinking military will have to contend with a larger challenge in the area of hearts and minds - assuming for the sake of discussion the Singapore Government's self-declared planning parameter of a 6.9 million resident population is realised.

Impact on Commitment to Defence (C2D) in 2030

In this worst-case scenario, the NSF and NSman of the future will find himself safeguarding a Lion City where just 55 per cent of the resident population (3.8 million people out of 6.9 million) are Singapore Citizens.

It will be interesting to watch how MINDEF/SAF intends to sell the NS story as we approach 2030.

At the present time, there is no National Service army, no citizens army in the world that defends a country where the proportion of citizens is as small as the one projected in the Singapore Population White Paper.

Whether you look at Israel, Sweden, Switzerland or Taiwan, conscripts in these countries who answer the call to arms do so with the assurance their service to their respective countries is to safeguard the safety and security of their fellow citizens.

That message will be hard to sell to the Singaporean NSF in 2030, not when nearly half of the population are not part of what the government deems as the Singaporean Core.
  • Who will the NSF and NSmen defend?
  • Why should they do so?
  • What better alternative(s) do we have to NS in 2030? An all-professional military force supported by the larger population?
To be fair to Singaporeans, the average NSF and NSman will do his duty despite the grouses and unhappiness. But it would be improper for the system to take such a sense of duty for granted when social engineering will place question marks on the raison d'Etat for Singapore to raise, train and sustain a citizen's armed forces.

As our citizens age and as our neighbourhood stays peaceful, questions will asked whether the Little Red
Dot should continue spending the largest slice of its annual budget on war machines.

Defence diplomacy 

Our friends in the defence arena and countries to which we have made defence arrangements, like the Five Power Defence Arrangement signatories (Australia, Britain, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore) deserve to know if a downsized SAF will lead to a corresponding dropoff in Singapore's defence and security activity.

Now that the Population White Paper is out of the bag, MINDEF/SAF should prepare itself to deal with such queries. It should make clear what the changing population make up would mean for the SAF's mission readiness, for Singapore's contributions to defence diplomacy, to international security arrangements like the PSI and UN-led missions, personnel exchanges, visits and exercises.

It would be preferable for MINDEF/SAF to help observers punch out the numbers rather than for defence observers to do it themselves and risk arriving at conclusions which are not in sync with planning parameters (i.e. taken out of context).

The impact on Commitment to Defence (C2D) from the sizeable Non Singaporean Core cannot be ignored or belittled.

Even in present years, rumours abound that immigration authorities may clamp down on the outflow of NSmen during a Period of Tension (POT). It is thought that NSmen may be prevented from leaving during a POT in an effort to prevent NS units from disintegrating through the leakage of citizens who fly the coop.

Should Singapore face a POT in 2030, NSFs and NSmen will have to contend with seeing the Non Singaporean Core flee our shores in anticipation of rough times ahead. Imagine the impact on morale when our transient fellow citizens show their true colours by not sticking around when it matters.

To be sure, MINDEF/SAF should have more than a handful of citizens in the Singaporean Core with Ramboesque ambitions to showcase in Pioneer magazine and frighten our Enemy.

But when you look at the bigger population landscape in 2030, the NSFs and NSmen left holding the fort (excuse the pun) in the emaciated SAF will largely be offspring of Singaporeans who are outnumbered statistically and under represented in society thanks to the sheer size of the Non Singaporean Core.

The shrinking size of the average Singaporean family spells further trouble challenges for C2D. Smaller families mean that the NSF may be the only son or only child left to carry on the family name.

MINDEF/SAF better come up with a convincing sales pitch to convince Singaporeans the sacrifice is worth it.

Even today, there is the impression Singaporeans are getting a raw deal by foreign talent who come here with no NS obligations. By the time the second generation of Singaporean Permanent Residents (PR) grow up, how many of them will still be around to serve.

Statistically, PRs have proven to be an unreliable source of defence manpower - About two thirds of NS defaulters are PRs.

Characters like convicted draft-dodger, Melvyn Tan, do not help MINDEF/SAF's messaging that there is a hefty price to pay for turning one's back on NS. Pay the fine and authorities will allow the draft dodger unimpeded access to our island nation. In Melvyn's case, the mainstream media will even forgive past transgressions and trumpet his career success everytime he times his appearance here around Chinese New Year.

Transplant this sentiment to 2030 and you can well imagine how morale can be butchered by the complexion of the Singapore population.

Elements unfriendly towards Singapore will have ample opportunity to hurt the morale of our NSmen even before they are mobilised for action, thanks to own goals scored by the system.

Realising that the SAF in 2030 has lost one in three warfighters compared to the current year orbat, MINDEF/SAF must also properly manage its deterrence posture. The dwindling Singaporean Core will also rob MINDEF/SAF of quality manpower needed as air force pilots and for SAFspecial forces.

Remember always that 17 years is a blink of an eye in a country's destiny. During the 19th century, German military strategists were convinced a future war would pit Germany against France and Russia and worked towards meeting this two front threat. This mindset was sowed years before the Schlieffen Plan was drawn up, with the plan itself hatched nearly a decade before the First World War. German staff planning thereby reinforced a toxic sense of neighbourliness and drove Germany towards a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Defence analysts may equate smaller numbers with a weaker force. When they do so, Singapore's strategy of deterrence will be blunted.

Roadmap for the future

This implies that effort and attention must be paid to managing this perceptions as the Population White Paper has already been released.

We must sense a readiness by MINDEF/SAF to guide citizen soldiers and defence observers on reading the population roadmap properly. And this effort must start today.

Thus far, since the Population White Paper was released, we have not heard a word on what this means for our citizens armed forces.

MINDEF either feels Singaporeans understand the situation fully - Do you? I don't - or that time and effort helping us understand what will unfold is simply not worth it.

Either way, MINDEF/SAF call the shots - as they always have.

Coming up:
Part 2 of this discussion will look at SAF 2030: Hardware matters

You may also like:
SAF versus cynics and critics. Click here
Decisive victors: A primer on the 3G SAF. Click here
PAP MP Alex Yam Ziming vs Internet noise. Click here


Anonymous said...

I'm doubtful women will serve NS. Israel has done it, but is that the only country with female conscripts in modern times?
We went from 10-men section to 7-men, perhaps Mindef can some up with even more efficient allocation of manpower? Or perhaps technology (like droids of some sort) will take care of the shortfall?
My most concern has to be the population of only 55% citizens. I proudly served NS with no regreats in the 1980's. I do not want my 2 year old son to serve in 16 years when half of the country does not serve.

Anonymous said...

Any loss in manpower by 2030 is already set in stone. The future defenders of Singapore in that time have already been born and we know their numbers. We should do two things in parallel to resolve the issue:

The first is making the most of this limited pool of manpower. For all our investment in defense, we are still very poorly equipped compared to first world forces. We can go a lot further, and shift from a manpower-intensive infantry-based force to a more mechanized ORBAT. We have already begun the transformation, and by 2030 I imagine that we will have two armor battalions for each infantry battalion instead of the other way around, and even that infantry battalion will be mechanized. If we have too few men, then we need more machines.

The second is adjusting our defense posture in line with certain inescapable realities. Our current military strength vs our neighbors is due to our much more advanced level of economic development. However, we are plateauing at first world levels (indeed, best in the world in some ways) and they are catching up rapidly. Further afield, China is also developing rapidly. Eventually, we will be a rich country surrounded by other rich countries with much greater size and manpower. We will eventually need to scale back to being a "poison shrimp" again. There is no shame in this -- Switzerland has essentially this posture.

Sgcynic said...

A minister who let in foreign labour by shiploads when he was minister of manpower, who could not handle study of Chinese in primary schools when he was education minister, we now require to solve our orbat? *Face palm*

Anonymous said...

Any woman with TFR = 0 at age 30 should report to boot camp.

Anonymous said...

Any women with TFR=0 at age 30 should report to boot camp?

our TFR will jump for sure.

Anonymous said...

In the past even if we are not happy doing NS, we still die die did our best becos we know we needed to protect "OUR Country" and "OUR Family and friends/buddys". If you ask me during those day, I will tell you i will fight to the end to protect SG.

But now and come to 2030, i will NOT fight for this Land anymore.. I will just report back to camp, draw my rifle and return back to my home. My rifle will Only protect my own family and friends. NOT those foreigners inside this land.

Anonymous said...

Anon February 12, 2013 at 1:31 PM

Machines also need men to maintain. More men than you imagine. After you train them in maintenance and tactics, how much time left for exercises?

Anonymous said...

Gov already betrayed this country and singaporean so no point for us NSman to protect this land full of foreigners.... wait, come to think of it, we have already beening invaded by foreign force!!! why no call-up?????

Anonymous said...

The Roman Empire fell because they conscripted too many mecenaries who joined the army only for the money. The FT conscripts are the "mecenaries"...when things happens, they'd be the first ones to run away, or worst still, turn their gun barrels against us. Let's learn our lesson from history.

Unknown said...

Generally good analysis by David. I am an insider and to perhaps make matters worse, I can say that ppl in the establishment are not really examining this issue. In my own research for a thesis, I believe there is a solution to this manpower crunch problem... It entails changing the way we fight, re-think our political and military objectives. But David's point about selling the NS narrative is the real problem. Are we heading towards a 'Monaco' of Southeast Asia?

Anonymous said...

You wont need that much man power in the future. Much of our manpower is allocated to become infantry troopers of one kind or other. In modern sensor/shooter warfare, the infantry man is obsolete. He has only short range sensors of low sensitivity and low fire power and accuracy. Add his low survivability when faced with precision weaponary, low endurance, low mobility, the only missions where the human trooper is required will be very specialised and highly technical and will be accomplished by special forces types.

Networked hunter killer swarms are actually possible with todays technology in most terrain, yes even jungle, walking robots are extremely capable now, the only lagging technology is power source. Its possible to power them by hydrocarbon fuels but they become noisy and loose stealth. In 10years once battery technology has caught up u will see some of the current prototypes become operational. And it wont be 1 for 1 replacement. 3 or 4 1-2meter square mother ships with direct fire self defence capability will host swarms of micro uavs and ugvs the size of a small bird or dragonfly. They can cover 1-2 kilometers of frontage and a kilometer of depth what traditionally u needed a battalion to cover. Once u detect the enemy, precision fire from the rear destroys him within minutes. Mass encounters will be few, and ecm, network denial and elint will be critical.

If anything NS may be phased out as roles get too technical and complicated for part timers.