S’PORE’S MIL­I­TARY IN­NO­VA­TION

Na­tion’s armed forces cre­at­ing new ad­van­tages to tackle geostrate­gic chal­lenges and se­cu­rity threats

New Straits Times - - Opinion - MCHAEL RASKA

SIN­GA­PORE’S mil­i­tary mod­erni­sa­tion tra­jec­tory projects a grad­ual evo­lu­tion­ary path. The First-Gen­er­a­tion (1G) Sin­ga­pore Armed Forces (SAF), dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s, fo­cused on ca­pa­bil­ity de­vel­op­ment of in­di­vid­ual ser­vices. The 2G SAF re­flected a pe­riod of con­sol­i­da­tion and adap­ta­tion from ser­vice-ori­ented strate­gic think­ing to­wards con­ven­tion­ally ori­ented com­bined-arms war­fare (1980s to 1990s). The 3G SAF (2000s on­wards) has been viewed in terms of tran­si­tion­ing to­wards mul­ti­mis­sion type forces with ca­pa­bil­i­ties rang­ing from de­fence diplo­macy to con­ven­tional war­fare against wide spec­trum of threats.

In the process, the SAF’s doc­tri­nal ori­en­ta­tion and op­er­a­tional con­duct has also shifted sig­nif­i­cantly in its char­ac­ter. In the 1970s, the SAF adopted is­land-de­fen­sive “poi­soned­shrimp” strat­egy, which en­vi­sioned high-in­ten­sity ur­ban com­bat to im­pose un­ac­cept­able hu­man and ma­te­rial costs to po­ten­tial ag­gres­sors. In the 1980s, the SAF moved to­wards a “por­cu­pine” strat­egy that aimed at lim­ited-power pro­jec­tion in Sin­ga­pore’s near seas and en­vi­sioned a pre-emp­tive pos­ture by trans­fer­ring a po­ten­tial con­flict beyond Sin­ga­pore’s ter­ri­tory.

Since the mid-2000s, the SAF has been de­vel­op­ing con­cepts anal­o­gous to a “dol­phin” strat­egy — a “smart” or net­worked SAF lever­ag­ing not only pre­ci­sion fires, ma­noeu­vre and in­for­ma­tion-su­pe­ri­or­ity ca­pa­bil­i­ties, but also de­fence diplo­macy in di­verse mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in ge­o­graph­i­cally more dis­tant ar­eas from Sin­ga­pore.

In do­ing so, the SAF’s grad­ual 3G force trans­for­ma­tion and its re­sult­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties have con­tin­ued to qual­i­ta­tively out­pace its neigh­bours in rel­a­tive terms. In­deed, one can ar­gue that the 3G SAF trans­for­ma­tion process — con­cep­tual, or­gan­i­sa­tional and tech­no­log­i­cal — that en­ables joint mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions, has ma­tured.

Go­ing for­ward, how­ever, Sin­ga­pore faces com­pet­ing strate­gic nar­ra­tives in terms of which types of ad­ver­saries and con­tin­gen­cies will prove to be the most con­se­quen­tial in the fu­ture. For ex­am­ple, the in­ten­si­fy­ing strate­gic com­pe­ti­tion in the South China Sea may re­strict the SAF’s free­dom of ac­tion in po­ten­tial fu­ture crises or even dur­ing peace­time op­er­a­tions.

The SAF will have to learn to op­er­ate in con­tested en­vi­ron­ments char­ac­terised by the pres­ence of so­phis­ti­cated long-range pre­ci­sion strike as­sets such as bal­lis­tic mis­siles, sub­marines, and fifth-gen­er­a­tion stealth fight­ers. At the same time, the SAF is fac­ing non-lin­ear threats rang­ing from ter­ror­ism to cy­ber and in­for­ma­tion war­fare cou­pled with in­creas­ing in­ter­nal de­mo­graphic and re­source con­straints.

The re­sult­ing hy­brid se­cu­rity en­vi­ron­ment makes tra­di­tional de­fence plan­ning strate­gies less ef­fec­tive. Tra­di­tional plan­ning pro­ce­dures be­gin with cer­tain threat as­sess­ments. But when threats are un­clear or shift­ing, plan­ners need to hedge — by pre­par­ing for dif­fer­ent pos­si­ble fu­tures and de­velop a port­fo­lio of ca­pa­bil­i­ties that can pre­pare peo­ple for a range of con­tin­gen­cies. But hedg­ing is also very ex­pen­sive, par­tic­u­larly with the in­creas­ing costs of ad­vanced weapons tech­nolo­gies.

Amid con­di­tions of strate­gic un­cer­tainty, the 4G SAF will there­fore need to fo­cus on in­sti­tu­tional agility — de­vel­op­ing sets of ca­pa­bil­i­ties to an­tic­i­pate chang­ing con­di­tions in ad­vance of need, while main­tain­ing core op­er­a­tional readi­ness. To do so, the SAF must build the next gen­er­a­tion of competent and com­mit­ted lead­ers of char­ac­ter who im­prove and thrive in am­bi­gu­ity and chaos. This means in­vest­ing in pro­fes­sional mil­i­tary ed­u­ca­tion that shapes strate­gic cul­ture em­brac­ing in­no­va­tion in com­plex en­vi­ron­ments.

His­tor­i­cally, Sin­ga­pore’s strate­gic cul­ture has para­dox­i­cally served both as an en­abler and con­straint in the SAF’s mil­i­tary mod­erni­sa­tion. On one hand, the SAF has been able to as­sim­i­late new tech­nolo­gies, main­tain high stan­dards in train­ing, readi­ness, and pro­fes­sional ethos. At the same time, how­ever, Sin­ga­pore’s strate­gic cul­ture has pre­cluded an en­vi­ron­ment sup­port­ing in­di­vid­ual “mav­er­icks” chal­leng­ing the es­tab­lished norms through a bot­tom-up type in­no­va­tion, while dis­cour­ag­ing fail­ure.

The 4G SAF should there­fore lever­age on Sin­ga­pore­ans with prob­lem-fo­cused, ac­tion-ori­ented, de­ci­sion-mak­ing styles, while shift­ing its or­gan­i­sa­tional ethos to­wards re­ward­ing bot­tom-up ini­tia­tive, cre­ativ­ity, as­sertive­ness, prac­ti­cal­ity, sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, adap­ta­tion, flex­i­bil­ity and tac­ti­cal im­pro­vi­sa­tion. In short, the SAF has to nur­ture “in­sti­tu­tional mav­er­icks” ca­pa­ble of tack­ling en­trenched bar­ri­ers to mil­i­tary in­no­va­tion.

As mil­i­tary-tech­no­log­i­cal gaps in South­east Asia nar­row, Sin­ga­pore will also have to search for its niche mil­i­tary-tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions to cre­ate strate­gic ad­van­tages. In this con­text, the SAF needs to fo­cus more on map­ping tra­jec­to­ries of strate­gic com­pe­ti­tion and mil­i­tary in­no­va­tion in East Asia.

Com­par­a­tive case stud­ies of mil­i­tary in­no­va­tion tra­jec­to­ries in dif­fer­ent geostrate­gic set­tings may help Sin­ga­porean pol­i­cy­mak­ers to de­tect change in new ap­proaches to com­bat; and prompt a de­bate on the va­lid­ity of es­tab­lished strate­gic par­a­digms and op­er­a­tional art. For ex­am­ple, the newly es­tab­lished SAF De­fence Cy­ber Or­gan­i­sa­tion should be­gin with de­vel­op­ing op­er­a­tional knowl­edge and con­cepts in the con­text of mil­i­tary ac­tion in cy­berspace.

Ul­ti­mately, the mil­i­tary ef­fec­tive­ness of the 4G SAF will de­pend on the di­rec­tion and char­ac­ter of Sin­ga­pore’s de­fence diplo­macy and strate­gic part­ner­ships. Strate­gic part­ner­ships shape Sin­ga­pore’s ex­ter­nal en­vi­ron­ment, pre­vent po­ten­tial risks, dan­gers and threats, and where it proves im­pos­si­ble to avoid them, pro­vide timely and ef­fec­tive joint re­sponses.

Re­ly­ing on strate­gic part­ners may im­pose greater for­eign pol­icy con­straints and ex­ter­nal de­pen­den­cies. While this is so, en­sur­ing fu­ture in­ter­op­er­abil­ity with select strate­gic part­ners may tilt in favour of Sin­ga­pore’s de­fence, par­tic­u­larly in the con­text of po­ten­tial mul­ti­ple, cas­cad­ing crises that char­ac­terise hy­brid war­fare.

Ul­ti­mately, the mil­i­tary ef­fec­tive­ness of the 4G SAF will de­pend on the di­rec­tion and char­ac­ter of Sin­ga­pore’s de­fence diplo­macy and strate­gic part­ner­ships.

Sol­diers march­ing dur­ing Sin­ga­pore’s Na­tional Day pa­rade. The armed forces have to nur­ture ‘in­sti­tu­tional mav­er­icks’ ca­pa­ble of tack­ling en­trenched bar­ri­ers to mil­i­tary in­no­va­tion.

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