Archive for May, 2011

Collin Koh explores the capabilities of the Indonesian Navy’s Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship missiles and discusses its implications for regional stability in this RSIS commentary. The Yakhont system is potentially destabilising given that they are difficult to counter effectively, and its deployment on highly mobile naval platforms offers it increased lethal range. The successful deployment of Indonesia’s Yakhont missiles may spur other regional nations to acquire enhanced countermeasures or comparable anti-ship missiles.

The commentary can be downloaded here: http://www.rsis.edu.sg/publications/Perspective/RSIS0852011.pdf


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RSIS Senior Fellow Sam Bateman discusses the prospect of increasing Sino-US military competition in the Asia Pacific in this commentary. He argues that the strategies articulated in the defence white papers on both sides are unhelpfully aggressive and at times unclear, which creates suspicion and heightens the possiblity of conflict. However, high-level discussions such as a recently concluded meeting between Chinese military officials and their US counterparts may help to cool rising tensions.

His commentary can be assessed here: http://www.rsis.edu.sg/publications/Perspective/RSIS0822011.pdf

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something a British friend of mine sent to me a couple of days back. my thanks to him for letting me reproduce his essay – edited a little for style – here. its a bit long, but worth the effort to plough through …


This essay is a thumbnail assessment of Singapore’s ability to defend itself from an unconventional threat as viewed from the perspective of a low-tech adversary. The key issue of this essay is to link national traits to a nations ability to defend itself. Crucial questions being; can an army that recruits from what is a largely blue and white-collar population really be molded into an effective fighting force? Does a nation with such a small population really believe that it can independently conduct any war without at the very least mobilizing its women in the way that Israel does? Can a country built on such deep racial, religious and cultural divisions – regardless of how they are papered over – really hope to remain unified when the only realistic enemies Singapore might confront – Malaysia, Indonesia and Islamic terrorism – would raise serious issues of conscience and loyalties among some of its citizens from within its Malay and Indian populations?

Threats, Defences and Things that go bump in the night: the relevance of Human Factors

Star gazing, horoscopes and prediction of threats: three preoccupations, or perhaps occupations that people of all nations, in all times have striven to turn into sciences in an attempt to bring order, optimism, comfort and security into their lives. Science and ultimately the resultant technologies have been applied to all three of these subjects with greater or lesser degrees of success, and if one has a willingness to believe, horoscopes and positions of stars can still influence decision making in even the most modern nations. Were this not true, building projects using the most scientifically advanced methods of construction and engineering would begin without it being deemed necessary to build shrines and offer prayers, or projects not commencing unless the day is seen to be auspicious. Similarly; ‘bad money’ would not need to be burned, nor food left under trees and in the streets for various spirits and hungry ghosts – presumably those already drummed out of buildings. I might be describing Singapore, though it could be China, Korea, Vietnam, India and a host of other countries that still attempt to entwine superstition and science. More than that, I am also describing the human capacity to believe the unprovable and untestable and see the world in a way that suits the inhabitants of such societies, even in the face of information that might suggest a contrary way of thinking. Despite the lack of empirical evidence, there may well be some substance to these beliefs and though superstition and faith is a different discussion, what it constantly demonstrates is the human proclivity to believe – no matter how seemingly outrageous – or sometimes to ignore, what is in front of our eyes if it brings some comfort. In 1939, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, it is likely that Neville Chamberlain really did want to believe that he had negotiated “Peace in our time”, as he desperately declared on his return from Munich. Sadly, the reality of negotiating with Adolf Hitler became somewhere in the region of 60,000,000 dead and the deployment of the Atom Bomb. As hunches go, it’s probably safe to say that Chamberlain’s thoughts on Hitler weren’t tinged with genius and he might just as well have tried burning incense. In a more modern sense; it takes an unimaginable depth of belief to fly a passenger plane into a tower block, or strap explosives to one’s body and vaporize a bus queue.
And while there is more science involved in assessing a threat, there is also a large element of what can be described as the Human Factors: the untestable, illogical, spontaneous, unpredictable, inspirational facets of human behaviour that will always ensure that there is a gap between what one thinks, or sometimes hopes that an enemy will do and what he will in fact end up doing. And of course all of these factors that might drive the enemy are also within those who would try and assess what that enemy might do. If an assessor and his potential enemy are influenced by religious faith, horoscopes, auspicious days, lucky numbers and fate in addition to cultural molding and a narrow experience of life; where does that leave them as tensions start to rise?
Without doubt threat assessment benefits from technology, whether in the form of surveillance platforms or communication intercept, but that science is pointless unless the product of such methods is assessed intuitively and accurately and measures put in place to counter a given threat. How will the clearest satellite photograph assess the ability and motivation of the soldier sitting in the location he is observed? Is he well fed, paid, trained, suitably equipped and effectively supplied? Is he well led, have faith in his government and motivated as a result of a series of beliefs that he holds to be true and unchallengeable? Is the tank squadron identified by aerial surveillance real, or is it a mock-up created as part as a deception plan and over-laid with the broadcast of false transmissions for added authenticity? General George Patton’s phantom division in the south east of England in the lead up to D-Day in 1944 was a classic example of deception, just as the British and Americans use of dummy radio transmissions was a more modern example of attempting to disguise real intentions prior to the start of the war with Iraq in 1991.
Science and technology have created weapons systems that might give one of two potential combatants an advantage, but if deployed in the wrong place, employed in the wrong way and placed in the hands of forces – human beings full of those varying X Factors that determine all of these things – that lack the will to use them, then the conflict is probably not worth fighting. And if a weaker nation is capable of a realistic self-assessment that accepts the limits of its own abilities, then perhaps ultimately, the best form of defence against a given threat is to avoid it, or reducing the chances of it occurring in the first place. This course relies less upon conventional, industrial weaponry and weapons systems and more upon intelligence gathering and the intelligent politics of pursuing mutual interests with a potential aggressor, concurrent with alignment with nations whose influence upon a potential aggressor might be significant. I have heard Singaporeans express the view that in a war with Malaysia, Singapore’s military would need to hold out for between 3 – 5 days before outside influences could muster a response. I think the most pertinent questions would be; is a conventional war with Malaysia even likely? But if it is, how many shells exploding in the shopping malls on Orchard Road or amongst Singapore’s closely packed high-rise housing could modern Singaporeans endure? More to the point; what would be the long term impact on the nation if it’s much hyped and hugely expensive high-tech military fails to keep the enemy from the gate?

Strategic Realism
With its geographical size, small population which experienced a forced independence on the back of racial tension with one of its two much larger and more powerful neighbours and no tradition or experience of war fighting, Singapore has every right to feel vulnerable and insecure in a way that small independent nations (in terms of population) such as Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Slovenia, Iceland or Luxembourg do not. What will continue to influence any threat emanating from Malaysia in any conventional sense, are the simmering racial and cultural issues between groupings that are also present in Singapore because of their common colonial ancestry. This is an ever-present national threat, but these racial fault lines can just as easily be exploited by the global Jihad groupings and as the disrupted plot of 2001/2002 and the case of Mas Selamat bin Kastari demonstrated, the chances of this occurring are not beyond the realms of possibility. Singapore’s unique economic success has been on the back of creating a safe and conducive environment for multinational companies, many of which are Western and from countries which have been victims and opponents of global Jihad. Warships from the west regularly visit for re-supply or repair, the expatriate community is large and Singapore conducts military training with many of these countries. An attack on Singapore, which can disrupt its economic function, would be a huge blow to western nations doing business throughout the Asia/Pacific region and potentially upset the whole balance of the region as other Asian countries seek to gain from Singapore’s misfortune.
The million dollar questions for any nation will always be: what threats are real, what are the priorities in terms of countering them, what means do they have at their disposal, how do they employ those means efficiently, and more importantly, does the will to close with the enemy exist if that enemy, in whatever form, gets inside a country’s defences? This last question is determined by the vital human factors.

Direction and Vision: Fact, Fiction and Theory

As the Singapore Armed Forces ponder their future direction in terms of policy, ethos and hardware, the predictable doctrinal discussions seem to inevitably gravitate to favourites old and new; Carl Von Clausewitz or Jomini, RMA, five pillars or traditional thinking? One or other? Subscriber to all? “War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means”, declared Clausewitz. Never better said, but arguably the Greeks and Romans knew this more than 2000 years before Clausewitz was born. And if Jomini’s great principle was throwing the bulk of one’s forces against the “decisive point” of one’s enemy, well then I doubt there would have been too much dissent from Clausewitz and his Napoleonic era peers. And just what is Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)? Is it really a revolution in how we define warfare, or has the technology available, primarily to the US who invented the term RMA, just made the battlefield a more efficient killing-field than it used to be? Ultimately the purpose of warfare, whichever way it is looked at and in whatever era, is for one group of people to impose its will upon another when it has failed to do so politically, economically or culturally.
Theory is good, but irrelevant if the application of a theory by a commander is faulty, based on false premises and the army and equipment at his disposal incapable of completing the task placed before it. Jomini may have had a valid point, but Napoleon’s (to whom Jomini was aide-de-camp) invasion of Russia demonstrated that the enemy’s decisive point was not it’s flanks or vanguard, but the geography and climate of the country on which the military campaign would be conducted: in modern parlance, Russia had strategic depth to spare, industrial capacity (primitive though it was in the years preceding the Industrial Revolution) and crucially, a large physically and mentally tough population from which to draw manpower. It also gets chilly in winter.
These days, we live in a world of catch phrases, sound bytes and hackneyed clichés – Clausewitz’s quote being sadly one of them – which may detract from sound principles from the past, but the study of history continues to be vital in understanding who we are now and what and where we may be tomorrow. We are surrounded by mind bending technology, much of which was developed with military thinking or application in mind, but the essential, fundamental essence of soldiers who may be users or victims of such technology and the decisions of politicians, it could be argued is much the same as it has ever been, whether we talk about the men in command or the soldier who executes the orders of those who command him. Crucially, a country’s soldiers will always be a product of their culture, upbringing and experience. In an effective, confident army it is arguable that its soldiers’ resilience, motivation and sense of duty is in place before they even join the military. A soldier’s psyche is constructed and woven from a combination of influences and experiences that are both positive and negative and which come from a selection of interactions and reactions with parents, grandparents, friends, wives, lovers, children, work mates, laws of the land, law enforcement agencies, education, political beliefs, cultural affiliations and religions. It is without, or possibly because of such influences that the soldier’s own capability, sense of duty, morality and ethics are on occasion so strictly tested and if the influences have produced individuals who for the most part are self-reliant, tolerant, compassionate and worldly then this will reflect on how a soldier from such a background views his enemies. On the flip side, if a person is raised to be self-centred, fearful, ignorant or disparaging of different countries, races, cultures and religions; then a soldier with such parochial and worrying prejudices or gaps in his knowledge is likely to carry them onto the battlefield. With these things in mind, where is Singapore’s defence force heading? How many options does a small island of no strategic depth, bordered by two much larger potential aggressors actually have? And how effective can a force that draws from a small and largely prosperous office based population actually be in its own defence? On the surface at least, superior technology – or to use the jargon, Force Multipliers – might seem to be the desired option, though it may be argued that Multipliers don’t necessarily mean Equalizers, but human capability is essential because in the words of a not so well known American twentieth Century historian, ultimately, “history is about people, leaders and the led”.

Asymetric warfare: Plus ca change…

There have always been revolutions in military thinking and technology, which created asymmetry between those more powerful nations that at one time or another throughout history came to dominate others. Were this not the case, the Greeks, Romans, Britons and Americans would not have come to dominate certain periods of human history. At the same time, were not all victims – or in the case of America, becoming victim – of low-tech responses that in some way helped aid their decline? The Greeks had the inventions of Archimedes; the Romans revolutionary war machines and superior tactics, but political turmoil within and barbarians without eventually undid both. Within more modern times, Gandhi’s non-violent civil disobedience undermined the British in India. In doing so; the nation with the most powerful fleet at that time in history, which was key to the creation of the largest empire in human history, was redundant in dealing with this low-tech and in terms of method, revolutionary threat.
In a similar vein; when it all went horribly wrong for Britain against Germany in France in 1940 and Japan in Malaya in 1941, two forces with revolutionary and daring new tactics which combined operations involving naval, ground and air forces using communications as the glue, the British turned to low-tech forces as an initial response. This unconventional response saw the birth of the Long Range Desert Group, Special Air Service (now ironically at the vanguard of modern counter-revolutionary warfare), Resistance groups within occupied countries, commandoes, and in Asia, Chindits, Force 136 and Ivan Lyon’s raiding parties that sank shipping in Singapore harbour. Were these not in essence and response the same as Hamas, PFLP, PIRA and Al Qaeda against more powerful forces? What all of these low-tech responses possessed were individuals full of ingenuity, inspiration, dynamism and the sheer logic defying bloody mindedness and bravery of human beings motivated by an unwavering belief that their cause was right.
In a discussion published in the Straits Times a few years back, Admiral Owen, former vice-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff was quoted contending that emerging technologies and “information dominance” would eliminate the two immutables of war specified by Von Clausewitz: “friction” and the “fog of war”. Owen’s argument being that getting a ‘God’s-eye view of the battlefield would enable American forces to win the war’. With respect to the Admiral, being a sailor; firstly he probably got a bit carried away after the resounding success of US weapons technology in the 1991 Gulf War, and secondly, I doubt he has ever seen a battlefield in any detail, for if he had he might have re-thought his observations. What is also true is that for all of the undoubted superiority that the Americans have possessed in technology since 1945, it did not perform well against low-tech opponents in Vietnam or Somalia and the outcome of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is far from clear.
In defence of Admiral Owen, his comments were made pre-9/11 and it may be argued that he was talking about winning a war against an opponent deploying conventional forces conforming to conventional military norms and the first war with Iraq in 1991 might be held up as a splendid example to prove his point. But It could be argued that the American and allied successes against Iraq will surely inspire any future opponents to deny them a conventional battlefield and opportunity to deploy their superior technology. In the instance of the Iraq war of 1991, there is no doubt that superiority of technology was a factor, but in a conventional doctrinal sense; would the allied commanders really have launched an attack against Iraq had they not also possessed overwhelming superiority in numbers of tanks, troops, artillery and strike aircraft? Even given the sophistication of the allied equipment and technology in these areas, would Iraqi parity in terms of numbers, even though of inferior quality have discouraged an allied attack? Probably, and the point being that it was ultimately an asymmetrical advantage in numbers as much as superior technology that finally gave the allies the confidence to wage war. The fact that Iraqi forces were also so poorly commanded – a hugely important ‘human factor’ – is also knowledge after the fact, but wasn’t so apparent prior to the opening of hostilities and demonstrated a gap in allied high-tech intelligence gathering methods.
On the subject of asymmetrical warfare, it is fashionable to describe terrorism, insurgency and guerilla wars as asymmetrical, but as in the case of Gulf War 1, retired British General Rupert Smith, argues convincingly that every commander in every conflict in which he has an influence or choice, seeks asymmetry in terms of numbers of men, quantity of stores and quality of troops in order to gain an advantage when the battle begins. The word is fashionable and trendy, but the true meaning of it is something all commanders all through history have sought to attain before confronting the enemy. Clearly, asymmetry was not in favour of the Japanese when they invaded Malaya in 1941 (they were outnumbered by approximately three to one, thus reversing the accepted ratio for an attacking force), however, there clearly was an asymmetry when comparisons are made of tactics, leadership, training, experience, motivation and morale.
Superior technology can of course be a huge advantage on the battlefield if it aids a force to detect and observe the enemy before destroying him with sophisticated munitions that are then delivered by tanks, artillery, ships or aircraft. But what is also true is that every generational revolution in technology or tactics has always eventually been countered.
The industrial carnage of WW1 saw a shift in tactics to counter the killing power of modern weaponry that rendered soldiers advancing to contact with the enemy line-a-breast as nothing more than tragically brave group suicide. The French response in the inter-war years was a series of in-depth static defences that guaranteed a total inflexibility of tactics if the threat did not materialize in the manner imagined by the military planners. It also reflected what effect on the military and national psyche that the loss of 1.3 million (or about a third of all men aged 18-30) twenty years previously had had and this is a key point when assessing a nation’s willingness to wage war; is it prepared to suffer the casualties? The threat was indeed Germany, but the Blitzkrieg tactics the Germans developed rendered French military thinking redundant before a shot was fired. For the first time in warfare the German army in the attack on France broke from the tradition that all other tools of war (artillery, air force, tanks) should support, and therefore travel, at the speed of the marching man and placed the tank as the driving force around which all other forces would act in support of and at the same speed. Radio communications were the critical element that made it all possible for the German forces to finally show the inadequacy of the tactics of the European allies in 1940.
In the jungles of Malaya, the Japanese applied similar tactics to Blitzkrieg, but on a much narrower front, defying some major British assumptions about the ground, the means, the tactics, the Japanese themselves and unequivocally demonstrating that assumption truly is the mother of all disasters. The Japanese success wasn’t as clear cut and inevitable as the speed of the outcome suggests; they took a calculated, but ultimately accurate gamble on the limited abilities of their opponents, not only on the ground, but also in the command post and were proved right. Like Guderian in Europe, Japanese commander General Yamashita, managed to blend the army, air force and navy together to make the landings in Kota Bharu, Pattani and Singora (Songkhla) possible in the first place (though before the final assault on Singapore, he fell out with the chiefs of the air force and was forced to conduct the attack with little or no air cover). He then proved that small, highly mobile light tanks (even though they were of an inferior quality), supported by artillery, infantry and aircraft could be used against an opposition unfamiliar with the tactics of the enemy they would be facing, on ground with which they were neither familiar nor acclimatized and without the effective means to counter the threat of armour because the British high command had dismissed armour as a serious threat in the first place. Their defective thinking was further compounded and unforgivable given that the year before, the Germans had defied French thinking and driven panzers through the ‘impenetrable’ Ardennes forest, thus out-flanking the Maginot line and executing an outrageous pincer movement which condemned the British Expeditionary Force to ignominious evacuation at Dunkirk. As an aside; it is interesting that within the shortest period of time this most ignominious of defeats came to be the embodiment of British doggedness and resistance in what became known as the Dunkirk Spirit, though it’s questionable how full of this spirit the 30,000 men who were left behind on the beaches felt, particularly over their next five years of captivity. If nothing else, this is another classic case of seeing things how we want to see them, not seeing them how they really were.
In order to support the armoured thrust effectively, the Japanese infantry had to advance at the same speed as the tanks, but initially lacked the capacity to bring into theatre enough motorized vehicles with which to transport both troops and supplies. This relatively high-tech problem was solved with an effective low-tech solution – bicycles. Fortune then favoured the brave and the hastily retreating Empire forces abandoned more vehicles, fuel and supplies than the Japanese needed and this profligacy effectively guaranteed the success of the Malaya campaign.
What these initial successes of the Axis powers again demonstrated was the Human Factors: inspiration, insight, intelligence, instinct, flexibility of mind, morale and belief are things that cannot be factored accurately into tactical thinking or programmed into a war gaming computer. In a modern context it is possible that the importance of these factors is sometimes diminished by an over-reliance on superior technology. In the case of the early successes of the Germans and Japanese, their victories contrasted the tactical brilliance of their commanders against what was for the most part, the blundering limitation of their opponents. They demonstrated the bravery and motivation of their soldiers against the inadequately trained, equipped and prepared opponents who were badly led and as a consequence of all of these factors, were low in morale and had an inclination to disengage before the going got tough.
Ultimately, the defence of a nation is based upon an interlocking weave of factors: possessing political will and leadership that is defined by capable and credible politicians: a professional armed forces that is well led, trained and equipped, high in morale based upon a feeling that it is valued by its political leadership and respected by the civilian population it exists to protect: a civilian population that trusts both its politicians and security forces and is willing to withstand the hardships of warfare when it is waged among them, can absorb the casualties of its sons in uniform and can work together for the good of the whole country, putting aside personal loss and self-interest.
The experiences of the British in 1940 and 1941 all suggested a nation ready to fold in the way that the French had, but it did not. Perhaps it was those human factors again. Politically, Churchill was a man of deep conviction and huge charisma who inspired both the military and civilian population. It probably helped that he was also a former soldier. The civilian population had learned how to deal with loss in battle as a result of the experience of the Great War and were physically and mentally capable of dealing with the privations caused by the German sea blockade. The majority of the population had just lived through the lean years of the Great Depression and so hunger and thrift were not alien concepts. And whatever the set-backs the military faced, Britain still had a depth of experience and a deep tradition within its armed forces which led them to believe that losing was not an option and that failing to win would be betraying those traditions. As a point to note; during the disastrous Malaya campaign, the 2nd Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a Scottish infantry regiment with a long and proud history with roots in the eighteenth century, were one of the very few Empire units to distinguish themselves. They were well led, well prepared for jungle warfare and despite being constantly on the line throughout the campaign and suffering massive casualties, they never broke and ran.

The dangers of assumption

Just as conflicts will never be a computer game, weapon simulators will never be a credible substitute for the body jolting, shoulder bruising recoil of a high velocity rifle, or the deafening noise and acrid smell of its discharge. This high-tech computer game can never recreate the feeling of firing a weapon in the driving rain of Northern Ireland, ice and snow of the North German Plain, or stifling heat and dust of Iraq. Similarly, overwhelming superiority in technology will never guarantee success on the battlefield. In perhaps the most terrifying example of superior technology being deployed in war, the use of the atom bomb brought a swift end to the war with Japan, but tactically the destruction of cities and the butchering of their civilian populations was hardly a new and revolutionary concept and hadn’t advanced much from the time that Ghengis Khan’s warriors sacked Beijing or the Imperial Japanese Army’s visit to Nanking in 1937. The methods may have varied, but the intent and carnage were much the same. Ultimately, the development of nuclear technology has failed to pacify the world since 1945 and condemn warfare to the history books, which really would have been revolutionary. Whatever caution the safety umbrella of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) forced upon the Superpowers; in military terms, the nuclear age will never be described as utopian and game ending. But the real fears the world has looking into the future are not nuclear exchanges between the Super Powers, but of this frightening technology getting into the hands of human beings with low-tech agendas who are being driven by seventh century supernatural dogma. When it comes right down to it, there is a strong argument for suggesting that low-tech terrorism has made the dubious nuclear safety net redundant.
Just as the human factors affecting politicians, military and civilians were critical to the UK’s survival in 1941, so did the Vietnamese demonstrate all the human X factors that eventually allowed them to overcome the most militarily advanced nation the world has ever seen. Militarily, and on paper at least, the Americans, like the French before them, should have overcome a badly equipped peasant army, but didn’t. However, the American and French woven meshes of critical factors disintegrated and failed them: the politicians didn’t believe and therefore hindered the generals on the ground by failing to provide them with clear political goals and thus the men and resources to wage the right war. Poor political decisions therefore caused the generals to deploy the wrong forces, employed in the wrong way based upon incorrect assumptions about the enemy that they faced. The battle of Dien Bien Phu and the resultant humiliation of French colonial forces in 1954 was a stark reminder of these points. Critically, the civilian populations of both France and America lost faith in their politicians to represent them and opposed the wars, but in doing so, left their soldiers isolated and full of doubts.
Gulf War 1 achieved the aim of expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait, but surely failed politically because Gulf War 2 was fought barely ten years later and despite the proclamation by George W Bush that the war was won in May 2003, the war goes on and the result is far from clear against low-tech insurgents fortified with religious zeal and nationalistic verve.
Whilst natural that defence issues are discussed and pondered by politicians, senior defence staff and intellectualized by well informed academics, what should not be ignored is trying to understand the type of individual who may one day come to be the embodiment of the perceived potential threat. This individual will without doubt see you in a different way and the way that he acts will very likely be defined by different experiences and belief systems. Similarly, the ordinary foot soldier within any national army does not think about the military wisdom of men such as Sun Tzu, Clausawitz, Jomini, Napoleon or Eisenhower; instead, he tries to assess his opposite number on a more personal and human level. Before opposing forces close in battle, threats are assessed and assumptions are made and here in lies an ever-present danger.
In Northern Ireland, the British security forces dominated technology, military hardware and manpower, but did not monopolize cause, motivation and belief. Whilst undergoing training and selection to become an undercover soldier, a volunteer would fire approximately 15,000 rounds of ammunition, purely to become familiarized and competent with the Sig Sauer automatic pistol and group of Heckler and Koch weapons, which were to become his personal protection weapons once deployed. Throughout the following years he would fire tens of thousands of rounds in order to maintain a competence and confidence far exceeding a level any terrorist could hope to achieve. He knew that the weapons he carried were cleaned every day, fired every week, zeroed to his eye and were serviced and checked regularly by qualified armourers, and would not fail him at the critical moment he had to draw and discharge them.
Contrast that with his terrorist opponent who had probably never fired more than a few hundred rounds in total and received the most rudimentary training on weapons he would never see again. The weapons he would expect to use on an attack would generally be stored in damp and dirty locations, irregularly cleaned and never test fired or serviced. And yet, though there was never a sense that British forces would ever be defeated, neither was there a sense that the British were likely to win a decisive victory. Similarly, poorly trained, but highly motivated terrorists constantly dared to confront some of the most competent, aggressive and at times ruthless counter-terrorist forces anywhere in the world. It defied logic, but what is true is that at the height of the Northern Ireland troubles, at any one time, probably fewer than three hundred hands-on terrorists tied down over twenty thousand well-trained, professional police and soldiers. It is probably true to say that although British and Irish history were so closely intertwined for 800 years, the British never really understood the Irish. They constantly seemed to forget that killing terrorists was never going to extinguish their cause and an ingrained belief within a marginalized minority community – who it would be fair to say, probably hadn’t read much written by Mao or Ho Chi Min – that their grievances were real and the cause therefore just. In Vietnam, both the French and Americans ignored historical precedent, the strength of cultural identity and motivation and suffered as a result; hadn’t the Vietnamese prevailed against the Chinese after a 700 year long struggle?
In a regional context, Singapore faces some of these same issues as it tries to define its military’s role, which can only be molded by recognising and being able to realistically react to threats to its security. It boasts one of the most high-tech and well resourced militaries in South East Asia, yet for reasons outside of their control can never hope to win a war against either of the two countries that are in a position to confront it in conventional terms. The critical factors are that it has no strategic depth, possesses a population that is small, culturally divided and that as a consequence of its young age as an independent nation and relative stability in a regional context has never faced conflict as a nation. The riots of 1969 were a result of the underlying divisions between the races that still exist and demonstrate that the same issues that continue to cause problems in Malaysia will always be in danger of being mirrored in Singapore.
Singapore possesses sophisticated F15 and F16 fighter aircraft and has recently acquired German Leopard main battle tanks, both formidable weapons systems if they can be employed effectively against an enemy. However, the reality of inter-state conflict is that wars seldom spring up and catch a country unawares, there are always periods of tension, political divergence and breakdown before any transition to war and within this transition period, sabotage and pre-emptive strikes will likely ensure that aircraft won’t leave the ground and that tanks won’t reach any proposed laager areas. Singapore’s lack of land mass guarantees that men and machines can’t be effectively dispersed and in the unlikely event that its aircraft ever took off, GPS guided artillery and Special Forces will ensure that they have nowhere to land. Similarly, how can Singapore hope to effectively employ MBTs in a homeland defence role? These tanks were developed for service in Europe on the wide-open spaces of the North German Plains to counter the Soviet threat. The British and American experience of using similar armoured vehicles in the Middle East has been that they are devastating in their proper role, but in the towns and cities, though they provide a comforting presence to friendly troops, actually they are of limited use for low-tech insurgency conflict. With this in mind, how could Leopard tanks be of use in a conventional conflict with Malaysia without the space to effectively deploy them? If not being considered for a thrust into Johore Bharu with all the tactical and political dangers inherent in such a plan; at best they could only be a poor value for money, low trajectory, self-propelled gun. It must also be assumed that Malaysia has already acquired an effective anti-tank weapons system to counter Singapore’s Leopards and evolved a strategy to use them; perhaps involving drawing them across the causeway and then blocking their re-supply and possible retreat. More worrying than that would be the perception of a largely non-Muslim Singapore army invading what is more commonly being perceived by fundamentalist Muslims as an Islamic country. This is surely a recipe containing all of the necessary ingredients for a retaliatory Jihad and a conflict that long outlives any conventional clash.

The Real Threat

For all the chest beating slogans on posters at bus stops informing passengers of the ‘Steel Within’ or ‘Faces of Steel, Stories of Courage’ that its military possesses, Singapore’s security has always been guaranteed by its alliances with more powerful countries, whether they be military or more especially, economic. The very fact that so many foreigners from these countries work and live on the island will always be an effective human shield. Having a small US naval base at Sembawang and buying American aircraft does no harm either. Given this and given that the only two conventional enemies could be Indonesia and Malaysia, then Singapore’s expensive and high tech ground forces will continue to be just a regional status symbol and it’s aircraft no more than very expensive red and white smoke dispensers on National Day even though their pilots, according to the posters, have a mysterious ‘Higher Purpose’. Were this not true, NS would be served by Singapore’s women too. Just as a comparison, when Israel fought its Arab neighbours during the Yom Kippur war in 1973 its population was in the region of 3.5 million (about Singapore’s population minus foreign workers); the combined populations of Egypt, Jordan and Syria was approximately 45 million. The wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973 were always wars of survival fought by people who had been forged in the flames of WW11 and whose forces and population have a deep experience of survival and hardship, but also a crucial sense of identity and common cause. Israel has always mobilised its women because it has needed to; the fact that Singapore doesn’t either indicates a cultural misogyny or gives a clue to Singapore’s real sense of threat. The real threat lies within and has done since Singapore’s independence and a realistic trigger is potentially the international Jihad movement. If underlying racial and cultural tensions exist, particularly between Muslim Malays and non-Muslim Chinese and it is accepted that there is a global threat from Jihad, then the enemy is potentially, already behind the wire and MBTs and fighter aircraft are not the answer and are condemned to be Singapore’s version of the Maginot Line. They are a fine expression of wealth and independence, but nothing more. Jihad has already demonstrated that it has the economic strength, technological ability, patience and ruthlessness to cause mayhem and 9/11, 7/7, Madrid, Bombay and Jakarta starkly demonstrate the Jihadists ability to strike major cities.
technology exists that can make smuggling of weapons and explosives across borders difficult, though not impossible and it will only take 250 grammes of Semtex detonated in the right place at the right time to cause mayhem on the MRT system, but no technology can counter the importation of ideologies and a low tech motivation to kill that is contained within a human being’s head. The university educated may declare wars, but poorly educated young men will always largely fight them, and every country with an army reflects this. Young men, through naivety, demeanour and genetics will always possess a primal instinct to kill and those that are de-motivated and excluded will always pose a threat to any society; Northern Ireland, Gaza, Taliban and now countries throughout the Middle East are just a few examples. If an organisation, be it pro-state or anti-state, can give these young men direction, discipline, motivation and cause, then the end product can be dangerous: Provo or Paratrooper, Hamas or Marine, Jihadi or SAS trooper? All of them are young, motivated and lethal.
In Singapore the racial grouping that struggles in a socio/economic sense are the Malays. Malay youngsters have a higher drop-out rate at school and proportionately fewer go on to tertiary education than from the Chinese and Indian communities with the result that the best and higher paid jobs go to the Chinese and Indians and the Malays fall further behind. This also impacts Singapore’s high-tech armed forces that require young men of a certain educational level to fill certain roles. If Malays fail educationally, they will necessarily be excluded from certain positions and will further fuel the belief that they are excluded because they are Malay and not trusted. True or not, sometimes a perception or rumour is all that is needed to fuel discontent as the British discovered in the lead up to the Indian Mutiny in 1857. If this is the case and the divide gets wider, what will it take to turn young, poorly educated, economically disadvantaged Singaporean Muslims into extremists? What will be the psychological impact on Singapore if some of its radicalized young men are involved in a successful attack on their country of birth? And if this is happening now; just how well is the Singapore defence budget being spent?

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RSIS Senior Fellow Richard Bitzinger and Professor Paul Mitchell of the Canadian Forces College comment on the implications of China’s seemingly imminent deployment of its first aircraft carrier. The former Soviet ship Varyag, undergoing reconstruction at China’s Dalian shipyard since 2005, is likely to be a research and training ship for future indigenously-built vessels. The authors assert that should such a carrier-based fleet materialise, it is likely to alter the power balance in the Asia Pacific.

The commetary can be downloaded here: http://www.rsis.edu.sg/publications/Perspective/RSIS0742011.pdf

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Senior Fellow Richard Bitzinger discusses the possibility of a decline in the traditionally Western dominance of the global military jet industry, and Asia’s rise. He argues that reduced funding, coupled with maturing aircraft programmes in the West, is losing its position as the global centre of military jet product. In Asia, however, aircraft producers are ramping up new and advanced jet designs.

The commentary can be assessed here: http://www.rsis.edu.sg/publications/Perspective/RSIS0592011.pdf

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Samuel Chan explores the recent departures of prominent Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) leaders and their successors in this RSIS Commentary. Among these are former Chief of Army, Major-General Chan Chun Sing and his colleague Major-General Tan Chuan Jin, both of whom entered the political arena under the People’s Action Party ticket.

The commentary can be accessed here: http://www.rsis.edu.sg/publications/Perspective/RSIS0552011.pdf

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