Sunday, September 10, 2017

Beware tech infatuation in the Third Generation Singapore Armed Forces 3G SAF

Call centre: MAN 5-tonner seen during Exercise Wallaby 2005 with a non-standard inscription on the driver's cabin door.

Tech-related news out from Singapore had a bruising week at the end of July 2017.

On 27 July, it was reported that 300 drones failed to fly during a National Day Parade rehearsal the previous Saturday (22 Jul'17) due to a technical problem with the GPS guidance.

Also on 27 July, social media reported that an app linked to the SGSecure movement - which aims to raise the level of security awareness and national resilience among people in Singapore - had earned a dismal One Star rating (Five Stars reflect the best user experience). This was after citizen soldiers complained of being coerced into downloading an app which they found had little relevance or value.

That same day, Amazon Prime was launched in Singapore. Within 24 hours of its launch, a flurry of complaints marred the online shop as customers vent their frustrations that Amazon Prime failed to fulfil its promised two-hour delivery window.

A bruising week for technology in Singapore, no doubt. But tech weak?

Hands up those of you who will forego tech for the typewriter and migrate back to snail mail. Any takers?

Despite these setbacks, technology continues to dominate our lives in Singapore.

The examples cited above are relevant to defence efforts in the Lion City because:
a) It makes one wonder how military ops that rely on swarm UAVs will be affected if these fail to perform;
b) Unhappy citizen soldiers could affect commitment to defence;
c) If Amazon Prime fails to deliver, would Call For Fire also fail?

The downside for Amazon Prime is limited to bad press and unhappy customers.

The downside for the military if a tech-enabled sensor-to-shooter system fails will be more dire. Doubly so in a short-war scenario where boffins may not have the luxury of time to install a system update.

When the Battlefield Management System (BMS) was first unveiled to the media around the turn of the century as part of the Third Generation (3G) Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), one oft-quoted anedote used to describe BMS was the parallel with the pizza delivery service of a famous chain. (This pre-dated food delivery apps, so please bear with the story telling).

At the time, customers of a popular pizza delivery service used just one number for deliveries anywhere in Singapore. Television and radio ads for the pizza company had a catchy jingle built around the number. See picture above for a hint.

According to the SAF, BMS functioned in broadly the same way. A request for fire support, routed by warfighters through the BMS, would prioritise and allocate assets expeditiously.

This concept of operations (CONOPS) may work perfectly for war games involving a small number of tactical units plugged into the grid.

However, the reality is the SAF has never operated with everything "switched on" at the same time to serve the full force potential of the SAF.

Whether the C4ISTAR system can cope when under time pressure and under fire is a question that no one can answer, as it has never been tried before in the real world with every single SAF radar and electronic sensor switched on.

The history of warfare has many examples of outgunned, low-tech combatants who managed to not only prevail on the battlefield, but win the day.

The United States Army in Vietnam dominated their regular and irregular North Vietnamese adversaries in defence technology. The MacNamara Line relied on a variety of electronic gadgets to thwart the movement of Vietnamese forces in the jungle.

In the air, F-4 Phantom warplanes initially went into battle in Indochina without a gun. Air warfare planners had deemed guns irrelevant, in view of the reach and lethality of the combo of short-range (Sidewinder) and medium-range radar-guided AAMs (Sparrow) that could (theoretically) knock bandits out of the sky outside gun range.

During the 1991 Gulf War 1, the aerial might of coalition forces using the then-new J-STARS surveillance planes and F-15E Strike Eagles failed to find and destroy a single Iraqi Scud TEL. This despite overwhelming superiority in sensors/shooters that blanketed Iraq.

More recently, the tech-heavy Israel Defense Forces (IDF) went to war several times against Hezbollah units in Lebanon. Both sides claimed victory. While this may be true when argued from the IDF's perspective, the hard truth is that Hezbollah is still in business. And tank warfare using the likes of Merkavas and other IDF heavy tank assets will never be the same again in Lebanon, when faced with an adversary liberally armed with ATGMs fired from well-emplaced and prepared kill zones with overlapping fields of fire.

As you read this in September 2017, preparations are underway Down Under for Exercise Wallaby (XWB). As with previous editions, this year's XWB will once again put to test the tech-heavy SAF's ability to fight and manoeuvre, with military operations coordinated by computer.

It's a fine CONOPS, which we should carry on perfecting.

But at no point should one embrace tech so blindly to the point of tech infatuation.

You may also like:
A primer on the 3G SAF. Click here.
SAF demonstrates Dynamic Targeting at Exercise Forging Sabre. Click here.
Urban legends abound about the SAF's true combat capabilities. Click here.


Anonymous said...

Back when I was doing NS I had a weekend COS duty and that was when I first heard that jingle. So I gave them a call (this is before cellphones) and found out the camp next to us actually ordered pizza first.

Anyway, 45 min later I strolled down to the main gate, said hello to my friends doing guard duty, and picked up my pizza. Lol!

David Boey said...

Thinking Soldier. LOL


Unknown said...

I guess the opposite is more true.

The embrace of technology is too slow in the SAF. The big jump to digital electronics must be made faster.

The individual soldier might not be totally digital but the commanders cannot use 1990s mindset to fight even a low intensity conflict.

I do know a lot of units are still stuck in transition. It might be the Achilles heel not transiting faster.

I may be wrong but the cover stories of this system or that jet is just a story. The real innards are a different ballgame altogether.