Archive for April, 2011

The Central Question: Assessing Military Effectiveness
For an armed forces that has a history of war, especially in its recent past, its performance in this history is evidence of its strategic effectiveness (or lack thereof, in cases of military defeat). The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) is notorious for the often slovenly appearance of its soldiers, but that does not matter, precisely because the IDF has more often than not performed very well in protecting the national interests of the country.
The SAF has no such luxury. It has never experienced war. True, the SAF has participated in operational missions under various international coalitions, and the performances of the soldiers deployed to such missions have generally been very positive. But as an armed forces, as a single military organisation waging war to protect Singapore’s national interests, the SAF is ultimately untested. This begs the question of the strategic effectiveness of the SAF, a question thoroughly justified since the SAF has commanded a very significant proportion of public resources, and the Singapore public has a right to know that the defence dollar has been well spent.
The (Potential) Fallacy of Deterrence
No doubt, the SAF can claim that inasmuch as Singapore has not experienced war, the SAF has fulfilled its mission of deterring aggression, and that only the second part of its mission – securing decisive victory when deterrence fails – remains untested. The problem with this claim is that the argument is circular: my deterrence works because no one entertains notions of attacking me; the fact that no one entertains such notions is precisely because of the fear of what my armed forces will do to that potential aggressor.
There are at least two problems with deterrence strategy. One, the absence of threat does not validate deterrence strategy; otherwise, the only conclusion one can reach is that Canada and the United States are at peace precisely because both countries succeed in deterring each other from potential aggression. Clearly, this is an absurd argument. The peaceful relationship between Canada and the United States has absolutely nothing to do with deterrence; rather there are other factors that underpin that peaceful relationship. The second problem with deterrence strategy, following from the first, is that we can never be certain that it works; we can only know when it fails.
What this therefore means is that the SAF cannot claim strategic effectiveness simply because Singapore has not faced war. The fact that Singapore has experienced peace throughout its existence as a sovereign country may be attributable to other factors potentially at work.
The (Apparent) Inevitability of Conflict and War and the Question of Credibility
Nevertheless, its peaceful existence cannot preclude the possibility – however remote – that Singapore might in the future face conflict and war. Inasmuch as that is true, then Singapore needs the SAF. Importantly, Singapore needs an SAF that at least has the public’s confidence that if war ever comes, the SAF can and will be able to defend Singapore’s existence. Both the Singapore public and foreign businesses (upon which so much of the Singapore economy is based) need to believe that the SAF is indeed a credible fighting force.
Given that the SAF has no military history upon which to rest its claims of credibility, then the image of the SAF then begins to matter fundamentally. The SAF therefore needs as much of the best accoutrements of war – the combat aircraft, tanks, warships, the weapons systems in other words – that the country can afford. That, however, is merely one side of the equation.
The second necessary part of the equation is the credibility of the human fighter behind those weapons systems. Skill at arms is merely one half of this part of the equation. Skill at arms in peacetime training does not necessarily equate to skill at arms in combat. The military analyst SLA Marshall in his book Men Under Fire demonstrates that the majority of soldiers do not fire their weapons in the proper manner in which they were trained. What is necessary, therefore, is the image of the soldier. Simply put, the soldier has to look, well, like a soldier. In that regard, the image of a soldier having his family’s female domestic helper carry his backpack is, well, not the image of a soldier that inspires confidence.
Revisiting Military Effectiveness
In that regard, this incident may undermine the public’s confidence in the SAF. The SAF may well argue that this was an isolated incident, that it is by no means reflective of all soldiers in the SAF. The SAF may also argue, as do most modern armed forces, that strategic effectiveness is derived from the strategic system that the armed forces will fight under. Both arguments are fair enough.
However, the best systems in the world will always be undermined by the human operators of the system. The best combat aircraft in the world is useless if the pilot flying this aircraft is poorly trained. In this regard, a soldier who does not carry his own backpack therefore conveys an image that cannot be comforting.
In the final analysis, this one incident does not necessarily mean that public confidence in the SAF suffers, nor should it mean that business confidence will necessarily suffer as well. However, given that the SAF commands such a large proportion of the national budget – Singapore is after all, the second highest per capita defence spender in the world – the public response is entirely justified. If nothing else, the SAF has to respond to this incident.


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A paper, submitted by an SAF 1WO while on course at the US Army Sergeants Major Course. He argues that Singapore’s society and the SAF’s military values have changed over time, with the growing influence of materialism and wealth, achievement, and peer pressures. The paper argues that for the SAF, effective and professional leadership needs to enforce and place the organisation’s core values, integrity, and moral courage in top priority. The full paper can be read here.

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Something that a British frieind sent to me, which I thought put a really interesting (and important) angle to this whole story:

The unrelenting coverage in the Singapore media of the story concerning a young soldier apparently having his pack carried by a maid has clearly caused as much consternation for Singaporeans as it has entertainment for certain elements of the expat community. It is particularly curious because people have been quick to condemn or defend, without having at least gathered the full facts of the incident. But if conjecture is the only calibration for this discussion, then I have a few thoughts of my own.

As a former professional soldier, and more to the point, a former Warrant Officer, a species of creature not celebrated for its bedside manner and gentle nature; having identified the idle young prince, I would have demanded an explanation, told him why he was wrong, reminded him of his wider responsibilities of wearing his nation’s uniform, bawled him out of the room with threats of unspeakable and medieval horror and then promptly phoned up my peers and enjoyed the comedy of the scenario. But Singapore seems unwilling and unable to leave the military to its own devices, confident that the powers that be will learn some lessons and deal with the young man appropriately, proportionately and within the context of the facts. For as embarrassing as the incident surely was and I can think of absolutely no excuses for his behaviour; ultimately, no one was hurt and I would argue that his behaviour only confirms an image many outsiders – and clearly from the reaction – some Singaporeans themselves already harbour about Singapore and its armed forces.

That is my view as a former professional soldier, but here’s the other side of the coin. I’m a father of three sons, two of whom are rapidly approaching military age, and I would be horrified if one of them were to be the centre of a furore similar to that which has unfolded over the past ten days or so, particularly if the miscreant is a National Serviceman and not a professional. The distinction is important for the simple reason that a conscripted man has no choice in what he does and the chances are that he will lack the same motivation and mentality demanded of a professional soldier. In addition, he may well be emotionally unsuited to being what his country has dictated he should become. Whatever this boy has done, he certainly does not deserve to be at the centre of what has become a very public storm. Immature young men have always made and will always make mistakes until they have gained an awareness of themselves and the world around them. It is incumbent upon a mature society to at least allow him the time and space to learn. I shudder to think what this experience might have done to this soldier’s self-esteem and confidence.

The Way We Were

Judging from the media, some of the loudest and most vociferous voices of criticism have come from former NS men from previous generations who have expressed a belief that their generation had life harder. I’m sure that this is a common expression from many an old soldier in many countries around the world and to be fair to them, there is sometimes some truth in this assertion. It is also true that passing years can romanticize and streamline the past and people’s recollections of their former glories are probably not as accurate as they might have been.

I joined the army in the early eighties and without exaggeration (I would like to think) was subjected to a regimen that by today’s standards would be described as bullying and perhaps on occasion, brutal. Those methods have long since been banned, giving my generation the righteous conviction that soldiers of the 21st Century didn’t know they had been born. Serving with the UK Airborne forces in Afghanistan in 2002 and the UK Commando Brigade in Iraq in 2003 dispelled me of this notion and convinced me that despite the failure of modern parenting, schooling and policing in the UK over the past 20 years (in my opinion), the UK’s young men didn’t lack anything from previous generations, proving that the raw material was as good as it had ever been. All this generation needed to learn was the selflessness of being part of a team; to feel the strength and pride of being part of a special organisation, and to have the benefit of older and genuinely experienced male role models to guide and sometimes chide them. With this point in mind, where does it leave the young man in the picture in The Straits Times? Is the blame for his actions really his alone?

Young men in Singapore may or may not be cut from the same cloth as previous generations, but the only flawed standard by which Singapore can gauge this is by the comparison of generational changes in training regimes in the SAF because they have never faced trial by combat. A common cliché in the British Army is, ‘train hard, fight easy’, but as all men who have taken to a battlefield know, no matter how much an army may try to close the gap between training and the shock of facing combat for the first time, there will always be a gap and the only true and accurate judgment of an army is how it performs in battle. The SAF, through no fault of its own, doesn’t know its capability because it has never been tested, and every veteran of combat knows only too well that anyone can be a hero during a field exercise. But a real enemy never does as he is expected to do and has a genuine desire to kill you. The academy trained soldier may be a genius in the classroom, but he will undoubtedly find the sights, sounds, smells and confusion of a battlefield a third dimension that can disrupt the very best of table-top warriors. I would argue it is also true that the longer an army goes without a real operational test, the poorer it will perform, for the very human reason that it is hard to stay motivated for something which you think will never happen to you. Who really reads the safety cards in an aircraft, or takes note of emergency escapes every time they enter a high-rise building? By the same measure; how many of the current generation of Singapore’s soldiers think they will be called on to fight a war, since no Singaporean soldier has done so before? On what experience can they really draw?

Doubters – Inside and Out

This incident may indicate that deep down, Singaporeans aren’t convinced of the capabilities of its defenders, but that may be as much to do with confusion about what its true role is: defender of the State from enemies without, or a protector from historical problems and racial enmities within. In other words; is the primary function of the military to try and engender a spirit of unity and common purpose among young men from three groups divided by race and religion who shared a violent history as recently as 1969, or is it to wage war against one of two countries that share ethnicity and religion with one of the three groups that rioted here barely 40 years ago? This would be a tough ask for any society built on the cultural fault lines that Singapore experiences.

It is arguable that National Geographic’s portrayal of NS was not particularly helpful in trying to demonstrate the maturity and aggression of young Singapore males and it is arguable that the SAF took a big risk in allowing it to be filmed. The crucial question must be; would the average Malaysian or Indonesian soldier feel any great fears of having to face his Singaporean counterpart on the battlefield? Will they really see the ‘Faces of Steel, Stories of Courage’, or be taken in by the air force’s claim to have a ‘Higher Purpose’? Just what does that uncomfortably evangelical sound-byte actually mean? Perhaps the young soldier at the centre of the current collective soul-searching has his own ideas about higher purpose and self-worth.

Singapore and Singaporeans must understand that every army in the world has its idiots in uniform. My own former Corps had a man who was so inept in his attempt to sell secrets to the Soviets that they believed it was an MI 5 set-up and effectively called them to complain. Unwittingly, they brought a genuine would-be traitor to the attention of the Security Service and he was arrested. We also had a transvestite who crashed his car into a shop window while dressed in a cocktail dress and stiletto shoes, if nothing else, proving that it is hard to drive in high heels. Despite these incidents (and a fair few more besides) no one for a minute doubts the professionalism of the wider British Army. At the time of these two incidents, British forces had sailed 7000 miles south and on a shoestring budget, defeated Argentine forces in the Falklands. They had also been constantly in action in Northern Ireland for 10 years fighting a brutal terrorist war, and in addition, the SAS were at the forefront of Special Forces anywhere in the world. How would two similar scenarios, set within a Singapore context be dealt with by the media and reacted to by the wider population?

The Wider Picture

So why is there so much hand wringing in Singapore over the actions of one of its off-spring? Probably because despite the chest beating slogans declaring its potency as a fighting force – and it may be a potent force, it does at least possess the proven hardware even if its users are not – until the SAF is blooded in the most fundamental of ways, the hard truth is that it will never be on any international joint force commander’s wish-list of must have forces for a difficult deployment. In Afghanistan in 2002, British forces earned the dubious nickname of the Flintstones because they were so appallingly equipped, that they begged, borrowed and literally stole from the Americans (I still have a US army camp cot). For all this, the Americans have always respected the prowess and contribution of British soldiers. British politicians and military hardware may not be the envy of the world, but its soldiers arguably still are.

An army of proven capability and operational confidence would have shrugged this recent incident in Singapore off; in fact in Europe, America or Australia, such a story would not have made national news, because it is difficult to envisage a comparable scenario. Quite simply, nowhere else in the world has the same dependency on cheap, female domestic labour as Singapore does. Perhaps there is a wider issue at play here that interfaces with the use and often abuse of domestic helpers (as in this instance) and what might be described as a cultural misogyny, which is sometimes described in Asia as a patriarchal society, in which boys are often, quite openly favoured over girls. In the final analysis, a simple truism might be that if boys are pampered, it is not unreasonable to expect them to become pampered, selfish men and this will never produce an ideal recruiting pool for an organisation that requires its men to be selfless team players, physically tough, self-reliant and mentally robust. After all, an army is a reflection of the population from which it is drawn and so blaming a soldier for becoming the product of his culture, upbringing and environment would be harsh indeed. Perhaps this is the real issue that Singapore needs to address.

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In this RSIS Commentary, Nah Liang Tuang argues for greater cooperation amongst ASEAN members in improving Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) capabilities within Southeast Asia. He explores past disasters that have struck the region, such as the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami that killed over 200,000 people across the region and beyond. Greater USAR capabilities within ASEAN nations as well as intra-regional cooperation mechanisms would improve the survivability of victims affected by such disasters.

The full commentary can be read here: http://www.rsis.edu.sg/publications/Perspective/RSIS0522011.pdf

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Stratfor CEO George Friedman pens this commentary on the concept of ‘humanitarian’ wars, which are wars where the combatants claim to be fighting neither for their national interest nor to impose any ideology, but rather to prevent human suffering. In Friedman’s terms, humanitarian wars are ‘immaculate interventions’, which conclude without causing other undesired consequences. He discusses the ethical, moral, and legal complexites inherent in conducting such wars. Looking at past interventions in Somalia and Iraq, he warns that such responses likely fail to achieve favourable endgames for the those involved.

The full commentary can be accessed here: http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20110404-immaculate-intervention-wars-humanitarianism

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How many of us worry about China’s defence spending? Or rather, what is there that should make us begin to worry about China’s defence spending? Several things, really, that I think we should at least pay attention to.

1. We don’t actually know the full extent of China’s defence budget. Quite a number of defence analysts and China-hands (and the two are not necessarily one and the same) suspect that there are elements of Chinese defence spending that are hidden from public scrutiny. China’s defence budget is simply too opaque, these quarters will say. This may well be true. Which means China may actually be spending much more on defence than Beijing admits to. But how many other countries do not find some way of hiding some defence expenditures? I remember in my MA (Strategic Studies) course attending a seminar on Japanese defence spending and the speaker argued that some elements of defence spending do not officially come under the defence budget. How much of the US defence budget that was spent on a once-top secret stealth technologies project was open to public scrutiny? So, inasmuch as we worry about the true extent of China’s defence spending, what our worries betray is our underlying assumptions about China as a strategic entity and its likely strategic behaviour in the future.

2. How much of China’s defence spending outstrips economic growth? Assuming the first concern to be true, this is then a difficult one to tell. Officially, it seems that the two – defence expenditure and economic growth rates – are not totally out of sync with each other. If this is true, then China is not going down the path of the now-defunct Soviet Union, which spent way more on defence than its economy could actually afford, to the point of bankruptcy. IF (and admittedly a bif ‘if’) there is not much hidden defence spending, however, Chinese defence spending is increasing primarily because the economy is growing. 25% of a 6-inch pizza is not a lot of pizza; 25% of a 16-inch pizza may be too much for one person!

3. What is China’s future strategic behaviour likely to be? Honestly, who knows?!?! From its history, we can see a couple of potentially disturbing trends, but also other less potentially disquieting trends as well. The disturbing trends: the period where Imperial China had a tributary system with other smaller political entities in pre-colonial Southeast Asia; and Communist China’s erstwhile sponsorship of Communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia. The less disquieting trends: China also spent a great deal of its history shutting out the outside world, wanting as little to do with the outside world as possible. So which trend do we wish to project into contemporary China’s likely future? Our answers to this question really only betray our biases about China. These biases will persist, in many cases, contrary evidence notwithstanding.

Other issues to come …

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Some time back, a commentary I wrote triggered a powerful response from two academics based at the US Naval War College. Links to the two can be found here.

Now, China has just released its 2010 Defence White Paper, the html version which is available here.

I may be tempting fate/wanting lightning to strike in the same place twice (take your pick of metaphor). It does seem to me that how we view China’s future strategic behaviour is driven by a number of assumptions: about the pace and direction of its economic growth; its future strategic behaviour extrapolated from its past, to name only two. Some of these assumptions can be considered as at the very least weak, if not outright problematic. I agree that how China behaves as a strategic actor, based on current projections, is something we will have to keep a concerned eye on; that is not the same as China being an active threat now, or even the long term.

But more on that later …

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