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Archive for April, 2012

Always suspected it … I remember my Master’s supervisor telling me how the famous big hotel in Pyongyang is actually just a facade and literally an empty shell inside. Now, courtesy of the BBC (accessed here) comes an interesting piece about how the North Korean missiles we saw a couple of weeks ago, and which led some scholars to pondering the possibility of a North Korean road-mobile ballistic missile, might actually be fakes.

I mean, come on, is anyone really surprised???

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OK, I will admit that the impetus for this think-piece comes from something that most of us probably would not associate with war; rather, it comes from Chelsea’s heroic resistance against Barcelona a couple of days back. But looking at some of the reactions to this Chelsea success, it got me thinking about a project that a colleague and I once contemplated – to look more carefully at the parallels between sport and war.

The piece that really got me thinking about this was Richard William’s post-match reaction, which can be accessed here. True, Chelsea’s style of play was never quite as aesthetically pleasing as Barcelona’s. But, in the end, Chelsea triumphed, Barcelona did not. So what can be drawn from this analogy into the realm of war?

I am reminded of one of Murphy’s Laws of Combat: If it looks stupid, but it works, it ain’t stupid! And in war, we seek strategic success – victory in war, our opponent finally crumbling his resistance to us, subjecting himself to our will. How we get there, how we attain strategic success, that is something that opens up multiple potential pathways.

One of my favourite vignettes is the conversation between Harry Summers Sr. and his North Vietnamese counterpart in the Paris peace talks that supposedly ended America’s war in Vietnam: Harry Summers insisting that the US never lost a single battle, and his North Vietnamese counterpart’s retort that this was irrelevant. It may be true that we all seek quick and decisive victory – and it is perfectly understandable why we all aspire towards this golden standard: quick and decisive hopefully translates to minimum loss of life. But just because we aspire towards this golden standard does not mean that the golden standard is always achievable.

At the end of the day, maybe the only standard that matters is: does it work? And, if it does, it does not matter how success was attained, just that it was attained.

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An interesting analysis from Jonathan Marcus, the defence correspondent in the BBC, which can be accessed here.

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First of all, my condolences to the family of the late Private Lee Rui Feng Dominique Sarron, for the truly tragic loss of their son. Indeed, my heart goes out to the surviving families of all SAF personnel who have died while in military training. While we all have to accept that as citizen-soldiers, we are called upon to, if necessary, make the ultimate sacrifice in the defence of our country, it seems to me to be particularly tragic when that sacrifice is made while in peace-time training.

But I am also very much angered by the utterly insensitive and facile comment that was made: “Singaporeans getting soft LOL”! Maybe, just maybe, Singaporeans are getting soft (I remain unconvinced about that though); but there is no need for an LOL. If that lady suffered a personal tragedy, would she welcome others making LOL comments about her tragedy???

There is, however, also deeper issues that need to be addressed. There is a puzzle that needs to be studied, answers to this puzzle need to be found. The puzzle is: why do there seem to be so many training-related deaths in the SAF? Is this perception (at least, mine) even reflective of reality?

One, training safety regulations are about as stringent as they can ever be, having to balance carefully between the need to minimise the occurrence of needless injuries or worse, deaths, as a result of military training, with the need for realistic and rigourous military training that adequately prepares soldiers for wars we hope never to fight. I am prepared to be proven wrong, but I do believe that the SAF can go no further in terms of training safety. The training safety regime in the SAF is about as stringent as I think it can get.

Two, the statistics suggest that National Servicemen are entering military service fitter than their predecessors generally were. NAPFA test results in the schools appear to bear this out. I could barely run one kilometer without stopping to catch my breath when I enlisted for National Service. There were quite a few of my platoon mates who were like me then. I suspect I would be a minority in any National Service intake nowadays, however.

So the combination of a stringent training safety regime and increasing levels of physical fitness make the incidents of training-related deaths all the more puzzling.

I wonder, however, if it is the pace and intensity of military training that begins to point to an answer to this puzzle. National Service was, in my own experience, a mind-numbingly boring experience for about half the time, the other half of the time being filled with activities that left me too busy trying to catch my breath to be bored. I sometimes grumbled about the moments of boredom though, wondering why I was wasting my time. In retrospect, maybe there was value to the lull moments, to the times when I was so bored I wondered why I was required to waste my time. The SAF likes to publicise how National Service today is also a much more efficient experience, that those moments of mind-numbing boredom are decreasing, that soldiers can be trained to the same proficiencies as their predecssors in ever-decreasing amounts of time actually allotted to military training. But does that result in soldiers being whipped through their paces, from one to the next, with barely a minute for them to catch their breath?

My experiences in Basic Combat Training, the de riguer preparation for In-Camp Training might serve to illustrate my point. When I first started to perform In-Camp Training, the Basic Combat Training Course was done over three days. It was always physically taxing, being overweight and unfit as a NSman (lets call a spade a spade, reservist). In my third year of In-Camp training, however, the Basic Combat Training Course was reduced from three days to two days, in response to NSmen complaints about time-wasting. The training schedule remained the same, we still had to clear all the stations. But this time, instead of doing it over three days, we now had to clear them in two days. If three days was already physically exhausting for me, two days actually, in hindsight, made it worse. True, I was saving one day, but maybe the hour or so of rest between the various stations served a functional purpose of allowing us to regain our breaths, prepare ourselves mentally for the next station.

Food for thought, I wonder?

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Honestly, was anyone surprised? It is merely a new addition to a lengthening list of other failures.

Courtesy of The Independent, a fascinating report on North Korea, which can be accessed here. It paints a grim picture of pretty much total failure of the regime and the state, and yet somehow keeps stumbling along. This picture is corroborated by other journalist accounts of life inside North Korea: for instance, a CNN report, which can be accessed here. A defector’s story of life in North Korea can be accessed here.

Former Ambassador Christopher Hill, reported by the CNN (accessed here), argues that the rocket failure underlines deep schisms within the country.

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A piece, courtesy of the BBC (accessed here), on the issue of drones, and life in a drone squadron. Some time in the past, I wrote a small think piece (accessed here), focusing on the Singapore Air Force (RSAF), and wondering if its F-15 purchases signaled the end of manned combat aircraft for the RSAF. It is an opinion that I continue to stand by.

Even further back, former colleague Manjeet Singh Pardesi, wrote an article on UAVs and UCAVs. It first appeared as an IDSS Working Paper (accessed here), but was also published subsequently by the Air and Space Power Journal (which can be accessed here).

Whether we like it or not (and I suspect the fighter mafia will always resist this), drones/UAVs/UCAVs are the wave of the not-too-distant future.

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Two pieces revisiting the Falklands War. The first one, which can be accessed here, comes from The Guardian, and discusses declassified US documents spelling out Washington’s concerns that the war might be a close-run affair, and if it had gone badly for the UK, might have spelt the political demise of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The second piece, which can be accessed here, comes from The Independent. It addresses possibly the most controversial issue of the Falklands War, the sinking of the Argentine Navy flagship, The General Belgrano. Conventional wisdom then suggested the British action was based on US-supplied intelligence, but recently declassified documents point towards intelligence coming from Chile.

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