Friday, March 30, 2018

Understanding Singapore Armed Forces SAF war machines through open source information

Many interesting nuggets about Singapore's military can be found from close examination of open source literature. Such "Easter Eggs" are found in weapon brochures from defence companies or pictures taken in foreign training areas upon whose soil the Official Secrets Act cannot touch.

Even before social media entered our lives, events such as open houses and arms shows offered rich opportunities for data miners to do their stuff.

Researchers have been rewarded with tantalising glimpses of war machines that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) placed on field trials that were never publicised. The MaK Armoured Weapons Carrier, which was tested by the SAF in the 1990s, is one example. Pictures of the heli-portable tracked vehicle found in MaK brochures from that era show assets that appear to be in SAF warpaint. Though the pictures do not single out the Lion City's armed forces, SAF cognoscenti should be able to pick out the Easter Eggs unaided.

Keen observers and SAF otakus would have learned the same from open source literature of the United Defense M9 Armoured Combat Earthmover (ACE), which emerged second in a two-horse race between the American ACE and British Combat Engineer Tractor. Tail number registrations of new SAF assets on acceptance trials overseas are another source of data. Many other examples abound.

Along with data mining comes the job of making sense of all the data. Two rules worth following when sussing out signals from the noise as as follows:

Validity: A hypothesis can be accurate but not necessarily valid. All too often, we see people jumping to conclusions, force-fitting the "facts" to fit their own hunch or hypothesis. It takes discipline and a systematic approach (key elements in the info-collection cycle such as Plan, Collect, Process, Analyse, Disseminate/Red Team Review etc) to information gathering to avoid this pitfall.

Accuracy: This essentially means one's observations must be reliable and unbiased. Not easy when we all have inherent biaises towards how we see various situations. One must also be able to discern between observations and opinions when joining the dots to find those Easter Eggs. Have fun while doing so. :-)

Note to the reader:
There's an Easter Egg in the text. Can you find it? Happy holidays everyone. :-)

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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Singapore Army restructures to stay ready, relevant and decisive

Photo: Singapore Army

Although one hardly hears about the Singapore Army's efforts to transform itself into a Third Generation fighting force nowadays, rest assured the army has not kept idle.

News that the 3rd Singapore Division attained Initial Operational Capability (IOC) status last August as the Singapore Army's first 3G Combined Arms Division points to more exciting developments on the transformation front.

Given that FOC follows IOC, one naturally assumes that the other army divisions - the largest organised fighting units capable of independent land warfare operations - are likely to follow suit in due course.

One might even surmise radical changes to the Singapore Army's structure and organisation might be on the cards. Such changes must be explained clearly to stakeholders so that people do not confuse any revisions to the orbat as a sign of weakness.

If and when legacy units are rebranded, defence watchers whose job it is to make sense of developments such as force structure revisions must be convinced that the Singapore Army restructured its combat units to enhance the operational readiness and lethality of its component divisions.

There is a risk that superficial analysis might prevail. For instance, defence watchers might count the number of legacy units and compare this with the new force structure and end up with the misconception that more in the past and fewer in future means less hitting power. In short, a streamlined army with less punch.

Such a train of thought could not be more erroneous or wishful.

How does one explain all this without a free coffee? It is, undoubtedly, a tricky line to thread. But let's try.

The Singapore Army's order of battle has always been a source of intense speculation. Bar-talk and armchair analysis aside, a hard look at numbers points unambiguously to the fact that the Singapore Army has more to show than many people appreciate.

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Armour Formation is a prime example. In the 1990s, when my university mentor, Dr Tim Huxley, and I compared SAR numberplates in his attic like stamp collectors at a swap meet, one discovered that the operationally-ready National Service (i.e. reservist) SARs were numbered in the 400-series. As of 1995, the NS SARs were clustered around the low 400s.

Today, there are indications that the Armour family has grown. However, even when one strips away SARs that have been stood down (example: 452 SAR), one finds it difficult reconciling the number of NS SARs thought to be active with the number of existing armoured brigades.

This conundrum lends itself to two possibilities:
First, the SAF Armour brigades are larger than the tradition model of three battalions per brigade. Second, we have more armoured brigades in the Singapore Army.

It is interesting to speculate on the second possibility. This is because the number of battalion-strength NS SARs which are still active, when paired with the existing Singapore Armoured Brigade (SAB) thought to reside outside the orbit of divisional command, gives you enough SABs to form an armoured division.

This hypothesis is, to me at least, a "wow" moment.

So if and when legacy units are reshaped and reformed, one must factor in the possibility that the baseline comparison (i.e. how many units exist on paper) might be on the low side and that there might be other unassigned units that one must reckon with.

Singapore Army force planners who earn their pay working out such numbers have my highest respect for the work they do and I look forward to learning more in due course.