Sunday, February 24, 2019

Defence information tidbits keep Singapore Armed Forces watchers on their toes

Thought-provoking: An intriguing poster from Singapore's DSO National Laboratories featuring an RSAF Lockheed Martin F-16D.

When buying war machines from a country that tells all with full disclosure, are there no more military secrets to hide?

There undoubtedly are and it would be premature and ill-advised for armed forces to discard security classifications without thinking through long-term repercussions.

While sharing the type and number of war machines supplied gives observers an idea of what's in the arsenal, such data does not tell the full story. Assessing combat capability goes above and beyond merely counting hardware.

A thorough assessment of combat capability therefore encompasses a slew of inputs, the nature of which often treads on sensitive ground where one needs to navigate with care or risk stirring coffee with sometimes unpleasant civil servants.

Broadly speaking, these factors give observers an deeper understanding of how ready the war machines are to do their job if the button is pressed.

Are war machines ready to roll to carry out their mission or is the tank/fighter jet a workshop/hangar queen? The answer delves into hardware issues (reliability, availability, maintainability, durability etc) and heartware matters (commitment to defence from individual warfighters, unit esprit etc) because having a machine in tip-top mechanical condition counts for nothing if citizen soldiers are no-shows during a mobilisation.
How capable is the logistics support for sustaining operations? Resupply rates for POL and war shot and the methodology for sustaining operations cannot be easily discerned from the orbat. In addition, warfighters sometimes take a leaf from commercial operations, as was the case some years ago when the Republic of Singapore Air Force sent a team overseas to observe how cargo for air freighters was sorted. These sort of innovations are not reflected in orbat numbers.

What (if any) modifications have been made to customise the war machine to one's specific operational requirements and battle conditions? Placed side by side, weapon platforms that have benefited from capability enhancements often look identical externally to vanilla platforms.

How will the weapon be organised for battle? Once shipped, the decision on the scale and distribution of the weapon is one that the customer alone decides.

Countries that source equipment from the European Union and the United States must be prepared to see information on their purchases eventually appear in the defence press. Armed forces that traditionally keep their cards close to their chests must therefore adapt quickly and accept the reality that the arms trade today aspires to be more open than yesteryear.

Gone are the days when defence journalists will accept vague lines such as "weapon ABC was sold to an undisclosed Southeast Asian nation". Today, expect the scribes to dig deep, dig often and join the dots in an effort to see the big picture.

For the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), greater transparency in the global arms trade can contribute to deterrence particularly in situations where third parties (i.e. the supplier) disclose capability enhancements that might be awkward for the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) or SAF to say as the public signature or optics would be quite different. So while observers know that the arsenal is expanding, information on other aspects of the arms purchase should be safeguarded with a robust military security apparatus. When observers are left with a fuzzy and indeterminate notion of one's true strength, it is this strategic ambiguity that cautions scenario planners not to miscalculate lest their underlying assumptions are incorrect.

This week's Defense News story, "German documents reveal Singapore received more Leopard 2 tanks" (click here), is an example of how observers learned about the republic's upsized Leopard tank fleet even when officialdom said essentially nothing.

Journalist Mike Yeo noted in his story on additional deliveries of German-made MBTs to Singapore: "According to the register of conventional arms exports released by the German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, Singapore received 18 Leopard 2 main battle tanks in 2017, adding to the seven tanks the German government said it exported in 2016.

"The additional delivery in 2017 brings the total number of tanks received by Singapore to more than 170.

"It’s unknown how many tanks were ordered or what variant of was delivered. It is also unknown if this latest batch of tanks are brand new or refurbished secondhand vehicles, although the former is unlikely given production of the Leopard 2A4 has ended."

Moves to acquire more Leopard 2s through small incremental purchases that result in the total headcount creeping up steadily mirror earlier examples where small weapon purchases grew and grew over years, if not decades. It is an example of defence creep where the population of proven platforms and systems grew steadily, often out of the public eye. The AMX-13 light tanks, A-4 Skyhawks and F-5E/F Tiger IIs are examples of retired SAF war machines that started with modest numbers on the orbat but gained noteworthy critical mass, thanks to defence creep.

Whether by accident or design, the release of an image in August 2017 showing F-15SG Strike Eagle tail numbers that were out of sequence (click here) from previous bulk buys gave SAF observers insights into the RSAF's growing F-15 family. Like air surveillance, the task of information management is a complex one :-)

It's a tricky balance between being open lest potential opponents underrate one's capability and keeping some capabilities under wraps to catch other people by surprise. But let's be clear that every credible military force has trade secrets to protect - and for good reasons too.

One can expect occasional tidbits from European arms registers and arms notifications to the US Congress on weapon sales, not just on what Singapore acquires but what armed forces in the neighbourhood are buying too.

Absolute numbers aside, it remains to be seen how the Army's upsized fleet of more than 170 Leopard 2 tanks will be grouped for combat. Will they be cannibalised for spares or does the larger main battle tank force presage more transformations from the Army that might lead to the establishment of an armoured division and a rethink of current divisional estab as birth rates dwindle?

Is it Easter already?

You may also like:
RSAF Air Staff takes creative approach to studying air power. Click here


Locke said...

Dear David,

DSCA notifications are often an intent to buy but do give an indiction of the sort of capability that SG is seeking from the US.

I think the Rocks missle stands as an example of connecting the open source dots.


shawncentric said...

Mike Yeo does connect the dots, and I wonder just how much similarities the Type 218SG share with the Israeli Dolphin II class as they are built in the same yard and are around the same size.

shawncentric said...

When is an F-16 not an F-16?

When Lockheed Martin tries to sell them to India:

Locke said...


He cottoned on to something I was asking myself when the Sub was deliberately positioned to cover up the pictures of the launch tubes. Eventually some public picture of the type 218 will appear and I would bet my last cent they will have 650mm tubes.


Locust said...

TKMS and kockums have been working on multipurpose horizontal locks (see a26 pictures) which can launch divers, uuvs and cruise missiles. I think this is more likely

shawncentric said...

@ Locust:

MINDEF press statement list 8 torpedo tubes.

Interestingly, if you check out the 3.6mb image on the Thyssenkurp press site you can just make out a side torpedo tube door.