Archive for July, 2010

In 2000, the British Ministry of Defence formalised The Military Covenant. The Covenant is essentially a social contract between British society, represented by the Government, and serving members of the British Armed Forces. In a nut shell, if servicemen abide by certain rules and standards, they can expect to be treated honourably by the rest of society.

You can read more about the Covenant here.

Part of the Covenant inevitably includes Standards. The British Army website has a section on that here.

That’s where it gets a better interesting (at least to me).

Smack right at the top of the webpage is this photo:

Young people enjoying alcohol responsibly


I’m not sure how one’s supposed to interpet the photo. Is it there to speak to youths, the age group which forms the bulk of the Army, by portraying the Army as a trendy, hip organisation (though with that photo it’s a bit of stretch)?

Or is it an implicit reminder that such a lifestyle–booze and partying–may be a challenge to Army standards?

The caption to the photo suggests it’s the latter:

It is difficult to list every standard that affects our professional and private lives, but if we live by our Values, then the Standards are clear.

Perhaps this is a tacit suggestion/reminder that the military is still indeed different from the rest of society.


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Every year the SAF holds it Best Unit Competition, and almost every year 1 Commando walks away with the top prize. No one ought to be surprised. The Commandos are, after all, supposed to be the ‘best of the best of the best’, so we ought to expect that they would end up with the best scores in the IPPT and marksmanship test scores. Which sort of begs the question: why even bother? This applies especially for the other Army units participating in the so-called competition.

It was interesting that the stated rationale for the SAF Best Unit competition is that it seeks to foster a competitive spirit amongst the SAF. If that were the case, then why is it that there have been cases in the past where some units were found to have ‘cooked’ their test scores – including 1 Commando, incidentally? If all the competition is meant to do is to foster competitive spirits within the organisation, why should some units end up resorting to cheating? Something does not add up.

What does not make it to public consumption is, I suspect, the importance that this competition has in the upward mobility of individual officers. If your unit wins any specific competition, does it not mean that its performance reflects on your performance as the individual officer commanding the unit? As the commander, how well your unit performs is a reflection of your own capabilities. Surely this has to be the case, right?

If this is true, it therefore means that promotions can be to some extent determined by this competition. So, does this therefore mean that those who are promoted are the most capable? And in a military environment, capability must surely translate, ultimately, to the issue of combat effectiveness. Does this therefore mean that in war, our Commandos will be the most combat effective, the most potent element of the SAF?

Two Murphy’s laws of combat throw up an interesting idea. One law says that no inspections-ready unit ever passed combat. The corollary law states that no combat-ready unit ever passed inspection. Combined, both laws suggest that these peace-time inspections, and the competitions that occasionally emerge as a corollary of these inspections, may not have too much relevance to the experience of actual combat, actual war.

Let’s be fair, however. I’m not about to suggest that the SAF Best Unit Competition should be dismantled, that the skills being measured in these competitions are completely irrelevant to war. Rather, I think that the skills and competencies that are being assessed in the Best Unit Competition, these skills and competencies are merely the most basic building blocks that success in war ultimately requires. For us to be successful in war, we will need a military organisation that has people that know how to short, that are physically fit enough to endure the physical rigours and deprivations of combat and war. We will need people who do know how to manage their logistics, provide for proper management of their manpower resources. Without these skills and competencies, the military organisation would fall apart.

But combat and war are much, much more than the mere sum of these specific skills and competencies. War is an inherently dynamic process, and our best preparations for war – absolutely necessary as the Roman proverb (si vis pacem, para bellum, or if you want peace, prepare for war) tells us – will nevertheless not fully prepare us for the experience of actual combat. Helmuth von Moltke famously said, “No operations plan survives contact with the enemy.” We may go into war with the best laid plans, but we need to expect that our best laid plans will have to be changed, adapted more or less depending on the situation, the moment we meet the enemy. And this is simply because the enemy will almost certainly not behave the manner in which we have expected him to.

So, to consider these competitions as the reflection of military skill and competency is not entirely incorrect. It’s just that it’s also neither entirely correct. So, by all means, maintain the SAF Best Unit Competition, continue to assess these competencies and skills, but do so with full awareness that these competencies and skills form only a small part of the overall story!

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The then Maj Alfred Fox penned this piece half a decade ago. Incidentally the now LTC Fox will be spearheading the NDP 2010 mobile column. So whats an opinion in the SAF? Is the ‘ok lah, I agree’ so eloquently expressed by a particular UGPMET student behind the safe confines of closed doors still acceptable?


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