Saturday, July 16, 2016

Unmanned systems in the future Singapore Armed Forces SAF

If defence technology allows a leaner Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to do more with less, think about the operational advantages that such technology would confer on a full-sized or an upsized military force.

As the SAF shrinks in the coming decades as a result of smaller intakes of full-time National Servicemen (NSFs), do not expect regional armies to be similarly disadvantaged.

The benefits we bag will not be unique to the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) or the SAF.

We must therefore be cognizant that the strategic narrative that will describe how the future SAF will offset the manpower shortfall must consider how other military forces could hijack or adapt parts of our StratNav for their benefit.

The future SAF is likely to leverage on improvements in its People, operational Processes and cutting edge defence Technology to stay ready, relevant and decisive. As we do so, we must appreciate that a military force that retains its current headcount can, likewise, embrace advanced defence know-how to up its game.

Singapore's strategic narrative must therefore be calibrated such that we do not inadvertently reinforce the image, identity and operational prowess of foreign armed forces who may do likewise.

You may have heard sound bites that relate to MINDEF/SAF being a smart buyer of defence technology. This is a hard-earned and well-deserved accolade.

Thanks to rigorous weapons evaluations, the SAF is also viewed as a reference customer.

But there is absolutely nothing to stop regional militaries from mirroring the SAF's procurement patterns. In so doing, they fast track their weapons purchases by saving the time, effort and resources needed to assess the suitability of war machines for use in Southeast Asia.

For instance, German-made Leopard 2 main battle tanks and American AH-64 Apache attack helicopters bought by the SAF after rigorous evaluations are also fielded by the TNI (Tentera Nasional Indonesia, Indonesian armed forces). While one does not doubt the capability of the TNI weapons staff, the TNI's processes for choosing defence platforms are not held in the same esteem as a stamp of approval from MINDEF/SAF.

A thinking audience would also realise that operational efficiency as a result of lean manning and operational effectiveness are not the one and the same thing.

A high level of automation may allow a warship to put out to sea with a smaller crew. But some essential functions aboard any man-of-war will continue to remain manpower intensive. One of these is fire-fighting and damage control. To be sure, inert gases and fire detection sensors can negate the threat of flashovers aboard a fighting ship. But the job of shoring up compartments with timber supports will continue to demand hands, legs and stout hearts who do not flinch from doing what's dangerous but necessary to save their ship. In such instances, leaning manning is an operational handicap.

The ability to assign unmanned systems to shoulder dull, dirty and dangerous duties should also be publicised carefully because a short-sighted StratNav could come back to haunt us.

The hunting and disposal of sea mines was cited as one area that the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) intends to assign to unmanned assets. This will build upon the RSN's experience in employing unmanned Swedish-made SAM (Self-propelled, Acoustic/Magnetic Minesweeper) robots for mine-sweeping support, together with Bedok-class mine countermeasure vessels (MCMVs).

One should, however, not go overboard in highlighting the virtues of the RSN's future mine-sweeping drones.

The Bedok-class MCMVs have demonstrated a laudable versatility and adaptability in carrying out missions for which they were not designed to undertake. One of these took place in December 1997 when RSN MCMVs were tasked to support the search for SilkAir Flight MI185, which had crashed in the Musi river in Sumatra. The ability of the MCMVs to support diving operations and in adapting their open-water mine hunting sensors for brown water operations was made possible by the warships' company.

What made the difference? The RSN's People.

Would a small, unmanned or optionally manned MCMV be able to do the same? One wonders.

The suggestion from Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, in his SAF Day interview that the future SAF would feature more unmanned/autonomous systems to counterbalance falling live births is not a theoretical musing.

Apart from replacements for the RSN's SAMs, manpower-intensive weapon platforms will be likely targets for MINDEF/SAF's drive to get more bang for buck.

We understand that some effort has been made to further improve manpower savings in Singapore Artillery battalions, where the big guns are loaded and fired in much the same way as black powder cannons hundreds of years ago.

Projectile is kept separate from the propellant. Both have to be inserted - one at a time by gunners - into the artillery piece. Muskets used to be hand-loaded in a similar fashion until better designed firearms "automated" the process for loading and discharging the projectile, followed by extracting spent shell casings. Some firearms made the firing cycle (load, fire, discharge shell casing, reload) so automatic that the weapons functioned much like industrial age machines. Hence the term: Machine Gun.

As the Singapore Artillery mulls over its future order of battle, one could expect defence scientists and engineers to bring the process for firing 155mm guns into the 21st century. The loading and firing of the guns could be automated to a high degree, with gunners providing value added by selecting targets of opportunity and in prescribing the volume and duration of fire needed to destroy the designated targets.

An artillery piece that is self-propelled and operated under armour by a small team of gunners protected from shell splinters and small arms fire would indeed allow SAF2030 to do more with less.

The firepower of future artillery battalions would not be compromised even as NSFs intakes decline.

But remember this: Unless there is a ban on the sale of such a weapon, any other army who fields such guns will, likewise, capture these bragging rights.

As we roll-out new war machines with a big bang, so can others.

What can they not mimic easily? It is the quality of the men and women in Singapore who serve the profession of arms, and the fact that the SAF fights as a tightly-integrated fighting force. Both virtues not easy to see, understand or appreciate - even for an informed audience.

You may also like:
Key enablers for the Singapore Navy's growth strategy. Click here
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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Eight things to note about the Singapore Armed Forces SAF New Armoured Fighting Vehicle

1. It was unveiled 10 years after the project began in 2006.

2. It is due to be commissioned by 2019.

3. It has more cameras than gun barrels.

4. New AFV optronics are designed for the hunter-killer role.

5. Imagine: Glass cockpit.

6. It is the first AFV designed and built in Singapore that shed the 3-metre limitation on vehicle width. The New AFV is noticeably larger than the M113 Ultra it will replace and the Bionix family.

Fast facts:
L: 6.9m, W: 3.28m, H: 3.2m
3 crew + 8 dismounted

M113 Ultra
L: 5.32m, W: 2.8m, H: 2.8m
2 crew + 9 dismounted

7. The relaxation of the width limitation recognises the New AFV's role as a consort to heavy armour such as the Leopard 2SG main battle tank and SAF Armour's future tank-killing vehicles.

8. You should see its stablemate.

You may also like:
The old and the new #tank. Click here.

Tidbits on the SAF. Click here

Project H. Click here

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

SAF 2030 faces key challenges in managing manpower shortfall

Without a shot fired, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will see its manpower down by a third from 2030 as a result of dwindling birth rates.

This quantum - permanent and significant - sits at the threshold at which defence professionals would consider tagging the "combat ineffective" label to military units that suffer a loss of such magnitude (typically, if estab strength falls below 69%).

To stay ready, respected and relevant, the SAF must shrug off this impression.

It is a tall order and time is of the essence.

Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF must not squander the coming years in making sure this shortfall does not compromise the SAF's bench strength. Fifteen years is not a long time. If you lived through the tumult of the 11 September 2001 aftermath, didn't those intervening years since 9/11 go by in a flash? That same time frame till present-day (15 years), projected forward would bring you to 2030.

New defence platforms and systems can take years to acquire and be phased through the progression charts that lead from Initial Operational Capability to Full Operational Capability (FOC). For example, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Hermes 450 unmanned aerial vehicles achieved FOC on 30 March 2015, some eight years years after the UAVs were delivered in 2007.

For the Singapore Army, the new Armoured Fighting Vehicle (AFV) mentioned by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen at his SAF Day interview this year was conceptualised in 2006. But the new AFV is due to be rolled-out around 2019.

Defence capabilities take years to nurture. Such assets can be bought off the shelf at any time, but the backend processes needed to ensure MINDEF/SAF maximises the war-winning potential of new assets will take years to raise, train and sustain.

If nothing is done to adjust how the SAF conducts its business, that 30% manpower shortfall will exact a deleterious effect on the SAF's order of battle. Combat and combat support units will struggle to perform their mission with vacant positions. The orbat, if left unchanged from present-day, will have under-strength units that cannot deliver their full potential due to insufficient manpower.

The 2030 timeframe is significant for another reason.

It marks the juncture at which the RSAF is due to vacate Paya Lebar Air Base - the RSAF's largest airbase by land area - for a greenfield site on reclaimed land in Changi.

When that move takes place, it will mark the first time the RSAF will swap a dedicated air base for one co-located with a civilian airport. Not just any airport, mind you, but Changi Airport - one of the busiest air hubs in Southeast Asia.

Future MINDEF/SAF policy leaders and communications professionals will have to convince stakeholders in Singapore and abroad that this confluence of factors - a permanent and sizeable shortfall in defence manpower, loss of a dedicated airbase to a co-share arrangement with a civilian airport - does not translate to any erosion in defence readiness and deterrence value.

Since independence and with the introduction of National Service in 1967, the SAF has grown steadily year after year. A downsized SAF would put Singapore in uncharted territory as neighbouring countries would see their military strengths maintained at current levels or enlarged in 2030. It is an open question whether the smaller SAF would be seen as weakness, not just by regional players but also by foreign investors who will need assurance that their investments in Singapore will be safeguarded.

Against this backdrop, Singapore's main source of energy - the Natuna gas fields in Indonesia - are expected to run dry. This means Singapore's search for a viable and economic source of alternative energy will compete for the public's attention even as the SAF redraws its structure and organisation.

At the same time, present-day irritants in the South China Sea, threats from global extremism and regional power tussles could still hang over our heads in 2030.

Add to that the changing political landscape in Singapore three election cycles from now and one cannot assume support for defence policies and programmes will be evergreen.

Dr Ng's prognosis that the SAF of the future will have cutting edge assets that compensate for the fall in manpower hinges on continued support for the SAF in hearts and minds and from government coffers. Alas, none of these are guaranteed.

The manpower challenge is not easy to overcome. But MINDEF/SAF planners who examine live birth records have a 18-year headstart to do what's responsible and necessary. The more perplexing problem is whether Singaporeans will understand the changing strategic landscape and pull together as one to give MINDEF/SAF the groundswell of support it needs to sustain a citizen's armed forces.

Populists arguments to spend limited funds on other concerns may erode support for defence programmes at a time when the SAF is changing its shell.

There are many ways to offset the 30% drop in manpower.

First, by leveraging on defence technology as a force multiplier. This narrative is a tried-and-tested one. Ever since the Lardon gun allowed HQ Singapore Artillery to downsize its 155mm gun-howitzer crews as the FH-88's self-propelled, first round self-embedding capability and flick rammer feature reduced manpower demands, we have heard how the SAF has worked to optimise manpower using defence science and technology.

Second, introducing more women to defence roles. In this regard, the mindset change from MINDEF/SAF is welcome. SAF women pioneers, particularly pilots, would have experienced firsthand early prejudices and misgivings that placed a glass ceiling on the roles women could serve. Spurious arguments were made that placed bureaucratic roadblocks to having women sit in RSAF fast jet cockpits. We must thank our female SAF pioneers for persevering in their respective formations despite misogynistic remarks and mindsets that were hurtful and damaging to the career prospects of dozens of talented and capable women.

Thankfully, the situation has changed for the better. Those in positions of responsibility must ensure MINDEF/SAF never regresses to the dark days of the 70s and 80s.

Third, opening more roles to the SAF Volunteer Corps. The number of SAFVCs is modest today. But it is growing at a steady clip. More to the point, every volunteer who commits time and energy to serving the SAF releases one full-time National Serviceman (NSF) for other roles. Looking ahead, this effort must be sustained. In time to come, the handful of SAF volunteers will grow into hundreds. Within the next few years, we can expect to see the SAFVC headcount surpass the 1,000th volunteer. The pioneer SAFVC cohorts will serve as mentors to future batches of volunteers. Their feedback and experience will refine and reshape the training curricula adopted by all three Services who host volunteers, thereby contributing to an even more enriching and meaningful experience for future cohorts.

Fourth, the national service cycle could be lengthened or women could be enlisted for NS. You need not be politically-savvy to realise these will be hot potato issues. The climbdown from a full-time NS window of 2.5 years to two years, operationalised in late 2004, cannot be reversed without exacting political cost. And the ground may not be sweet for expanding NS to women.

These facts of life underpin Defence Minister Dr Ng's point this year about doing more with less.

We better take heed because the MINDEF/SAF community does not have the luxury of time.