Archive for March, 2013

For our readers who might be focusing on the Korean peninsula security dynamic as it continues to unravel (or at least appear to unravel), a series of analyses from a variety of sources of North Korea’s threat to the region:

From the BBC:
Andrea Berger from RUSI (available here), and her recent analysis of what drives North Korea’s military threats to South Korea, the United States, and indeed just about ANYBODY Pyongyang does not like;
The threat that North Korea’s missile programmes and nuclear programme poses to the Asia-Pacific region (available here), and possibly to the United States (although the article pretty much rules that out as technologically impossible for North Korea); and
North Korea’s missile programmes analysed in detail (here).

From The Washington Post:
North Korea’s declaration of war (delivered very recently ), the analysis (available here);
But declaring war is one thing, being able to wage is a completely different thing for North Korea, so what kind of military plans can Pyongyang scrape together? A possibility is outlined here;
And if North Korea possesses no capacity to wage war, does this mean the current rhetoric is all just one huge strategic bluff? An answer can be found here.
And if all this was not enough, a suggestion (here) that the pictures circulated by North Korean official news agencies may have been doctored (gasp!)

My own take: its all bluff and bluster. North Korean policy makers aren’t that dumb, they know they cannot afford to piss off their Chinese backers, and doing anything to piss the United States off will consequently piss the Chinese off as well.


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My thanks to colleague and friend Greg Dalziel for this (link here), a visual representation of the military balance between the United States and China. As the infographic demonstrates, there remains a vast gulf in terms of military spending and military power (or at least, potential military power) between the two states. And it is worth noting that the military expenditures of China and the US look by and large fiscally very prudent.

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A very interesting read, courtesy of The Washington Post (available here). For readers interested in North Korea, definitely worth your time reading this piece.

It suggests that the million-man armed forces that North Korea possesses may be less threatening than it appears. This is something that I had, in a previous life, argued consistently, that there are very likely serious technological and qualitative shortcomings in the Korean People’s Army.

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Unless you are not Singaporean, you will not have missed how the institution of National Service (military conscription as it is called in Singapore) has been discussed quite a fair bit in recent months. The following lines are my own, highly unstructured and rambling, thoughts on this subject.


It seems like a silly question – because the obvious (or as we say in Singapore English, or Singlish, ahbutthen!) answer is to defend the state against external threats. I am certainly not about to question that rationale, although how the SAF thereafter is structured to actually defend Singapore is going to be an issue I want to return to later in this post. But what specifically are the scenarios in which we can envisage the SAF being called to fulfill its national mission? I think this question is something that really needs to be seriously discussed before any subsequent discussion on the existence of National Service can be undertaken meaningfully.

Lee Kuan Yew outlined in his memoirs the scenario in which he would, as Prime Minister, would have had to activate the SAF – and it had to do with a scenario in which Singapore’s water supplies, which were in the past heavily dependent on Malaysian sources, had been severed by unknown third parties. Clearly, in his scenario, it would not have been the Malaysian government that severed water supplies, but for a number of reasons too complicated to go into here, the Malaysian government would have been unable or unwilling to re-establish water supplies thereafter. At this point, Lee Kuan Yew admits, he would have no choice but to use the SAF as a leverage to compel the Malaysian government to honour the international agreement between the two states.

In other words, if the SAF needed to go to war to protect Singapore, the casus belli or cause of war would have been the severance of water supplies. In this scenario, the structure of the SAF begins to make sense – a land force component comprising 2PDF whose function is island defence, and 4 manoeuvre combined arms divisions, an air force comprising both air combat as well as heavy air lift capabilities, and a naval force component that included heavy sea lift. If you think through the strategic logic of Lee Kuan Yew’s scenario, therefore, I suspect you would come to the conclusion that the SAF would have had to practice a limited military offensive against Malaysia, impose a temporary military occupation of parts of Malaysian territory, and subsequently use that temporary occupation as a political leverage to compel Malaysia’s government to honour the water agreements.

Here’s the thing, therefore – the first of the two water agreements between Singapore and Malaysia lapsed a few years back, without any angst from the Singapore government. The simple point is that Singapore is moving increasingly towards a self-sufficient potable water policy, utilising desalination and recycling technologies. Water, in other words, is no longer the casus belli of the hypothetical war that the SAF might need to fight!


I am not going to suggest that the SAF is no longer needed to defend Singapore in the event that Singapore becomes embroiled in a war with another state. Nevertheless, I suggest that it is fundamentally important for us to think through what that imagined war is going to be about, against whom Singapore will be going to war, and thereafter, how that war can be fought with what type of SAF.

So, if this is true, then what is the scenario in which Singapore has to go to war? What is the politics of this imagined war? What is the likely casus belli? Clausewitzian strategic logic tells us that the politics that underpins any war will shape not only the political objectives of the war, but also shape the military instrument that is used to fulfill those political objectives.

In that regard, the SAF’s current structure reflects a different war scenario, a different politics, and a different set of political objectives. The SAF reflects the Lee Kuan Yew scenario, which may no longer apply in 21st Century Singapore. In other words, the 4 manoeuvre combined arms divisions, the heavy air and sea lift capabilities, were necessary in Lee Kuan Yew’s scenario because the SAF would have had to invade and occupy a limited portion of Malaysian territory. But what cause of war today would require the SAF to still invade and impose a limited and temporary occupation of Malaysian territory?

Because the Lee Kuan Yew scenario involved the severance of then-absolutely essential water supplies, it was probably possible to portray an SAF invading and occupying limited portions of Malaysian territory as politically and strategically defensive in nature, even if the type of military operations would have been inherently offensive. Presumably, Singapore could have then justified to the United Nations that this hypothetical war was consonant with UN principles of just war – war as self-defence and last measure.

Maybe, jut maybe, the SAF can envisage other war scenarios today that still compel Singapore to adopt this limited operational offensive capability. Certainly one could use the strategic geography argument – that Singapore lacks strategic depth – to begin to justify such a limited operational offensive capability. But with an air force that is widely regarded as the most modern, most well-equipped and most well-trained in the Southeast Asian region, surely this air power, augmented by an increasingly professional and well-trained naval force component, could have imposed a cordon sanitaire of sorts around Singapore that would have prevented ay enemy forces from being able to bring deadly force to bear on any part of this densely populated and over-crowded island! In other words, surely an artificial and temporary strategic depth can be acquired without the need of ground forces to occupy another country’s territory?


Thus far, the Singapore discussions on National Service do not appear to have addressed the need for military conscription to be continued. It has addressed another issue, namely, how National Service can be made more meaningful.

This second issue, about making National Service more meaningful, is an important issue. And it was heartening, at least to me, that much of the on-line chatter response to Hri Kumar’s suggestion of a defence and security tax on non-citizen residents was pretty dismissive of this suggestion. I remembered one particular response: “Don’t cheapen my service to my nation” was how one netizen responded. I do like some of the ideas that have since been forwarded – in particular the idea that the SAF could do more to match civilian skill-sets with military vocations (although I would also think that this can only be done up to a point!). I am less certain about some of the other suggestions – like giving NSmen priority access to a number of government services, in particular health care, housing and education.

I personally think that the best way to make National Service more meaningful is to not insult the commitment and intelligence of National Servicemen, whether in full-time or reservist (the SAF calls this ‘operationally ready’). The SAF can do better to relate specific activities to broader strategic objectives. I remember one particular month during my National Service where I was over a 3-week period deployed to support three different military exercises, and because the exercises were conducted in the same training area albeit with different companies, it was for me utterly meaningless; by week 2, I was merely going through the motions, doing the barest minimum to not piss off the captain I was attached to for the duration of the exercise. Many years later, I found out that that three week period coincided with a major military exercise involving pretty much all of the Singapore Army. I wondered then if my motivation during the three-week period would have been better had I been told that those three weeks, as painful as they were, were part of a much larger strategic enterprise. Would I have been more committed to training seriously?

My suspicion is that I probably would have been more committed, I would have taken the training a little more seriously. Which brings me back to my point about not insulting the intelligence of the SAF’s NSmen. I think the best way to make National Service a more meaningful experience is to be up front with the NSmen, tell them specifically what they are doing and more importantly why they are doing it, and to avoid the banal platitudes of “defending Singapore”. When a battalion is going out for what appears to the soldiers as just another bog-standard training exercise, tell them instead that this is not a normal bog-standard exercise, but that it is part of a larger exercise involving other component elements of the SAF. Maybe this makes the specific exercise thereafter more meaningful for the soldiers.


But I also want to come back to this point about the need to maintain conscription. If my preceding analysis is correct, then maybe Singapore no longer needs National Service. If the wars the SAF is likely to fight in no longer require the temporary occupation of another country’s territory, then maybe the SAF no longer needs to maintain such a large land force component. Maybe the Singapore Army no longer needs 4 manoeuvre combined arms divisions. Maybe all the Singapore Army hereafter needs is sufficient soldiers (volunteers) to perform island defence against potential enemy invasion. As my friend and colleague, Professor Paul Mitchell of the Canadian Forces College has argued, the SAF will need to maintain a seriously professional and well-trained air force and navy, but guess what, it seems like the current air force and navy are already professional and well-trained!

There is another argument to support the abandonment of conscription. It is an argument that taps into the Revolutions in Military Affairs thesis that was so popular in the late 1990s through to the early 2000s. The RMA, as most scholars argued, was never going to be easy: it demanded very high technological competencies and technical skill-sets of soldiers, it was doctrinally sophisticated which therefore demanded soldiers who were very well-trained and well-educated (and this, by the way, was why these scholars concluded that conscript-based armed forces would not be able to do the RMA).

In the final analysis, I recognise that these thoughts are potentially very controversial, and that I am possibly stirring up a hornet’s nest. But I believe these are issues that ought to be discussed alongside the existing discussion about the meaningfulness of National Service.

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From the BBC (available here), comes an interesting piece on the apparent elusiveness of victory in contemporary wars and conflicts. This was (ahem!) the focus of a Journal of Strategic Studies article I published some time back (“Decisive Battle, Victory, and the Revolution in Military Affairs”, Journal of Strategic Studies, April 2009, Vol. 32, No. 2, pp.189-211).

In this BBC piece, the correspondent Jonathan Marcus suggests that the era of decisive victories – Gettysburg, for instance, turned the tide of the American Civil War and ensured that the Confederacy would not be able to attain its strategic objectives – is over; if you follow the logic to its conclusion, then maybe policy-makers ought to be more circumspect before authorising the use of military force.

However, as reported, Anthony Cordesman also makes the point that “There was never a time when governments or the public understood the implications of war even when they were fighting them. If they could have predicted the outcomes they either would have avoided the wars or certainly have changed the strategic objectives… One of the dangers here is in talking about the uses of force, it’s a little like talking about the uses of economic aid. You can’t control the outcome in many cases, you can’t predict it.” Part of the problem may also lie in the unrealistic expectations of policy-makers as to the efficacy of the use of force. As Cordesman notes, “When you look at the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq there were certainly military difficulties, choices that probably should not have been made from the military campaign side, but the primary failures in these two cases came from the civilian side, from the assumption that you could change governments, that you could develop an economy quickly and easily, that you could teach governance or alter the basic values of ethnic and sectarian groups or ignore their differences.”

It was interesting also that a US Marine Corps general, Lieutenant General Richard Mills, head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, noted that “In past wars – the historical wars we have all studied – it was government against government. Their aims were clear and the ability to defeat them was also clear. But with the instigation of war against non-state actors, where their intentions are less clear, where their centre of gravity is difficult to find and where the endgame is a little less clear-cut – that becomes very difficult for the military men.”

My own sense, and it was something that I suggested in my Journal of Strategic Studies article, maybe the very idea of decisive victory was in the first place something of a historical oddity. The history of strategic thought is basically an attempt to develop predictable outcomes from the use of military force, but if Carl von Clausewitz is correct, then fog, friction, uncertainty and unpredictability is EVER-PRESENT throughout any war, irrespective of time, geographic and cultural contexts.

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First of all, apologies to our readers for having neglected this blog for quite some time. It is not as if there are no issues worth discussing, it is just that my colleagues and I have been very busy with our other responsibilities.

Now on to the issue at hand …

The issue of robotics and the ethics of war is something this blog has maintained a watching interest in. Some of our previous posts, including articles we have found from other sources include:

“From NYT: The moral case for drones” (15 July 2012)
“More on drone strikes” (22 June 2012)
“More on drones, UAVs, UCAVs …” (7 April 2012)
“A Nuclear-powered drone” (3 April 2012)
“The future of humans in warfare” (12 July 2011)

Now, via the BBC (and available in full here), is another story for our readers’ consideration.

The point the article makes is that the increasing ubiquity of drones (both armed and unarmed), and the increasing reliance on drone strikes against enemy combatants (whether terrorist leaders, militiamen, or even old-school soldiers of a state), makes the imperative of thinking on legality and ethical issues all the more important. Peter Singer, author of Wired for War, argues: robotics technologies are a game-changer, meaning “it affects everything from the tactics that people use on the ground, to the doctrine, how we organise our forces, to bigger questions of politics, law, ethics, when and where we go to war.” Indeed, Singer points out that at least 76 countries already deploy military robotics.

But the ethics and legality of drone strikes is the central issue that has yet to be resolved. Opinions are divided. The 1997 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jody Williams, maintains that drones ought to be understood as “killer robots … weapons that are lethal, weapons that on their own can kill, and there would be no human being involved in the decision-making process.” In her words, “the mere thought that human beings would set about creating machines that they can set loose to kill other human beings, I find repulsive.”

On the other hand, Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Ronald Arkin argues that as long as these machines are controlled by an “ethical governor”, not “a human being physically pulling the trigger but … programmed to comply with the international laws of war and rules of engagement”, he does not see the difference with human soldiers prosecuting the act of killing. Human killers (even in war) have in the past, and will continue in the future, committed atrocities. Rather, robotics technologies can be used to “address the issues of reducing non-combatant casualties in the battle-space”.

All weighty issues, both perspectives having been thought through with some care. Not an issue that will go away any time soon, and the sooner we can begin to think this issue of robotics clearly and carefully, the sooner we can begin to resolve this problem.

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