Saturday, August 20, 2016

Hybrid Warfare spells new paradigm for Singapore

Open fire: The 16-hour blaze at CK Building in Tampines consumed three floors of the building and saw the largest deployment of Singapore Civil Defence Force assets and personnel. Picture by SCDF

Three separate events this past week - the breach of a police road block, a fire and a bank heist update - underline Singapore's fragility in the face of determined adversaries.

By extension, these incidents help explain the need for, and importance of, sustained commitment to building up Home Team assets alongside those that serve the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

First: The road block breach. This took place around 11pm on Tuesday night (16 Aug'16) when a car sped through a police road block in Sembawang. This triggered a 10-minute chase involving a police car and two police motorbikes. It ended after the car collided with a taxi and a van at a red light.

"Following the accident, the male driver put up a violent struggle and assaulted the Traffic Police officers in an attempt to evade arrest," said a police statement. This case was apparently drug-related.

The lesson here: Security cordons like road blocks are not puncture-proof. Current police protocols which call for suspects to be apprehended allow vehicles to bash through police lines. This is quite unlike the situation when stricter protocols are imposed to safeguard events like the Shangri-La Dialogue. In the latter, drivers who ignore police warnings and breach road blocks come under fire immediately.

Second: The fire. The blaze at CK Building in Tampines was billed as the largest fire handled by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) this year. The blaze was put out after a 16-hour effort by fire fighters. Here are the assets involved.

TNP Infographics by Cel Gulapa

The lesson here: If a single building involved that many personnel and assets, imagine the situation if an entire industrial estate was afire. Singapore is often seen as a concrete jungle. But outside the orbit of Home Team and MINDEF/SAF planners whose brief is to prepare for the worst, few Singaporeans may realise how easily our concrete jungle can be put to the torch.

The conflagration could be accidental. The spark could be lit by arsonists. Or real estate could come under fire from air strikes, naval bombardments or artillery barrages. The end result will be the same: Over-taxed civil defence forces that will have to confront multiple situations simultaneously and sustain the pace for hours on end.

Under such circumstances, the question "How much is enough?" becomes moot. Singapore will have to steel itself to situations where large fires are left to burn themselves out during a large-scale arson attack or hot-war scenario because civil defence resources will be stretched thin.

Third: The bank heist update. Remember the robbery at the Standard Chartered bank branch at Holland Village on 7 July'16? The alleged robber was said to have fled to the Thai capital, Bangkok, soon after he was said to have relieved the bank of tens of thousands of dollars with a single threatening note. We learned today that Thai authorities have said the alleged robber cannot be extradited to Singapore.

The lesson here: Despite high alerts and multiple layers of security at Singapore's border checkpoints, our security forces are effective only when they know what or whom to look out for. The alleged robber breezed past security checks with valid travel documents and got away before police investigators put together his identity. In a nutshell, he beat the OODA loop and slipped through the dragnet even as investigators sought to Observe, Orientate, Decide and Act.  

As Singapore's security planners from the Home Team and MINDEF/SAF face up to the threat of Hybrid Warfare, we must be cognisant that assets and well-trained personnel alone will not suffice to keep us safe.

Hybrid Warfare entails aggressors who aim to beat the system by thinking out of the box. This often entails assaults using assets or tactics that flout civilised norms of warfare.

In the case of the road block, it is clear that suspects who want a fast getaway can penetrate security cordons constrained by strict shoot/don't shoot rules of engagement (ROE) during normal situations. Not all roadblocks are guarded as strictly as the Shangri-La Dialogue. But it's a challenge knowing when to go on heightened alert when firearms can be discharged to stop a breacher and when normal, peacetime ROEs should apply to protect the wider public from the prospect of road blocks turning into free fire zones. Assailants hold the Initiative, having the flexibility of choosing the time, place and method of attack. Security forces must therefore be able to adjust their ROE posture rapidly.

Defence-minded observes mulling over the CK Building fire would realise how stretched SCDF assets and personnel will be when pitched against large-scale arson attacks. It goes without saying that a hot-war scenario will also place more demands on SCDF resources than it can realistically meet. The bottomline: A multi-layered approach to fire fighting and damage control in the heartlands and industrial parks anchored on fire wardens and volunteers who can hold the fort amid chaos.

Several decades of efforts under the Total Defence banner have given rise to a large cadre of volunteers all across Singapore. In coming months, as the SG Secure movement gains traction, growing numbers of volunteers trained, organised, equipped and briefed on how to deal with civil defence scenarios will contribute to mitigating Singapore's inherent vulnerability as a densely populated city-state.

The StanChart robbery emphasised how well-planned situations can evade even the best border security. We have to be prepared for unknown subjects (unsubs) involved in acts of aggression against Singapore residents to hatch a getaway plan that will beat the OODA loop.

Alas, dealing with unsubs with a getaway plan is a preferable option to handling individuals or groups with no getaway plan. In the latter, they will hold their  ground to the last bullet or the last blast and the end results could be far worst.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Hardening of Malaysia's TUDM Gong Kedak air base the shape of things to come

Under cover: Hardened aircraft shelters at the western end of Runway 08/26 at Gong Kedak airbase house Malaysia's most advanced warplanes, the Sukhoi Su-30MKM.

At the air base where some of Southeast Asia's deadliest warplanes roost, there's not a wing in sight.

The warplanes are safe in hardened aircraft shelters (HAS), under cover where the sun doesn't shine.

Tengah Air Base? Perhaps Paya Lebar Air Base?

No. It's TUDM Gong Kedak, home to the Royal Malaysian Air Force's 11 Skuadron. This is the RMAF squadron assigned to fly Malaysia's most advanced fighter jets, the Sukhoi Su-30MKM.

The World War 2 era air base which 11 SKN calls home sits in the northern neck of peninsular Malaysia. The base underwent a massive transformation years ago to improve the resilience of key infrastructure. Tonnes of concrete, rebar and extensive earthworks were added to protect vital facilities such as aircraft hardstandings, command facilities, POL storage and ammunition dumps.

Blue print: Artist's impression of a Spantech HAS. Australian architects and engineers have made invaluable contributions to Malaysia with defence assets like fighter planes, rocket artillery launchers and ammunition depots housed in hardened facilities designed by Australians. Credit: Spantech Pty Ltd.

In the process, the landscape at the western end of Gong Kedak's single runway 08/26 was looped with aircraft taxiways that lead to triangular mounds of earth that covered reinforced concrete hardened aircraft shelters (HAS). Once sealed in its individual HAS, each Su-30MKM is immune to all but the heaviest ordnance and the most precise of attacks - or a lucky strike.

Hardened facilities at TUDM Gong Kedak are believed to be the most extensive and sophisticated at any RMAF air base. They were made possible by Spantech Pty Ltd, an Australian company that specialises in defence construction.

It's the shape of things to come in the Federation as Malaysian defence planners recognise the value and importance of protecting defence infrastructure that can generate and sustain Malaysian air power.

Spantech's growing list of projects in Malaysia includes ammunition storage and hardened vehicle shelters at the Malaysian Army's Kem Syed Sirajuddin in Gemas (above), where Astros II Keris MRLs are based. The ammunition depots protect the Astros II warshot, while some hardened vehicle shelters are thought to provide protected space in which Malaysian gunners can load and prepare their MRLs for operations and have these vehicles on standby for immediate deployment.

The extensive protection accorded to RMAF assets at Gong Kedak is not invulnerable to determined attacks.

We witnessed this during the first Gulf War when HAS in occupied Kuwait and at Iraqi airbases were routinely holed by precision-guided munitions designed to punch through hardened structures before detonating within.

However, such protection raises the stakes by forcing the aggressor to increase the quality and quantity of assets in the strike package and consider carefully the timing and direction of air or artillery strikes.

Blast resistant: Australian designed ammunition storehouses bear the brunt of a full-scale trial at Woomera testing range in South Australia in the early 1990s. Note the shock wave at the crown of the explosive plume. Singapore's defence engineers and scientists have carried out similar tests in places like Sweden to test and validate the design of blast doors for facilities like the UAF. Credit: Spantech Pty Ltd.

With HAS immune to strafing attack, bomblets from cluster bombs and blast effects from near misses, it would take the proverbial surgical strike to knock out each HAS or command node. Not easy even during peacetime conditions at a bombing range. Certainly more risky when the airspace around TUDM Gong Kedak will be defended by BVR-capable Su-30MKMs and ground-based air defence assets.

In addition, the ability to park one's warplanes under shelter increases strategic ambiguity because no country in the region has the ability to place the air base under 24/7 satellite surveillance. So unless one has boots on the ground, deep in Malaysian territory, one can never be sure if the HAS are occupied or empty.

The pace at which hardened facilities have been added to Malaysian army, navy and air force facilities is expected to increase in coming years. Indeed, one can expect that hardened infrastructure will become de rigueur as Malaysia modernises its defence facilities.

Malaysia may not have devoted the resources to nurture homegrown talent who can design hardened facilities, but this has hardly hindered the Malaysians from renovating defence infrastructure to increase their resilience against determined assault. If you're willing to pay for it, there are defence specialists who will design and build anything you desire.

Over in Singapore, the size, expertise and experience of our defence technology talent pool is often embedded as a sound bite in speeches that underline our ability to devise indigenous and sometimes unique solutions to defence matters. The design and construction of hardened infrastructure like the Merah loop areas in Changi and ammunition depots such as the Mandai Underground Ammunition Facility (UAF) are examples of such engineering projects.

This self-reliance is noteworthy and certainly worth developing further.

But the point should be made that one can import similar expertise from abroad, with no questions asked. Countries with the money to do so can rapidly accelerate their growth trajectory and level up, or surpass what our homegrown talent can deliver.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Response to plot by Batam terrorist cell to fire rockets at Marina Bay

Thanks to steady investments in defence capabilities - some of which have yet to be unveiled - the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) can detect and destroy artillery projectiles such as rockets in mid-flight.

The SAF has amassed several decades of experience operating radars designed to locate enemy artillery positions by tracking shells or rockets to their point of origin. Five types of counter battery radars have been fielded over the years by the Singapore Artillery and, in recent years, by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).

The RSAF counter rocket artillery and mortar (C-RAM) radars are operated alongside guided munitions that can be launched in quick succession, in all-weather conditions and at very short notice to intercept aerial threats like rockets. This new capability underlines Singapore's ability to anticipate and respond to a wide spectrum of security threats.

We are heartened by MINDEF/SAF's proactive and resolute stance in defending Singapore.

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.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) submarine marks 21 days at sea

At sea and underwater! A great chievement. Im so proud!

Malaysian Chief of Navy, Admiral Dato' Seri Panglima Ahmad Kamarulzaman bin Haji Ahmad Badaruddin, lit up twittersphere today with Hari Raya greetings sent from a Royal Malaysian Navy diesel-electric submarine. 

His point of pride: 21 days at sea by a Malaysian Navy sub.

This milestone - which a Malaysian defence observer says isn't the first time an RMN sub has spent three weeks out at sea - points to the RMN's ability to sustain its presence at sea through its submarine force.

Ramadan Kareem.