Archive for June, 2013

First of all, to all our readers, many thanks for the overwhelming response to Shu Huang’s think-piece. We had over 700 visitors on 18 March 2013 as a result of this commentary; our previous high-point was in the 300+ range, so yesterday’s number of visitors was humbling, at least to me. We hope to generate more opinion- and think-pieces in the future that continue to generate this level of interest and participation.

Having read the various comments that have come in as a result of Shu’s piece, it seems to me that there are essentially two conversations, not entirely disconnected but also not entirely connected.

Shu’s starting point, at least according to how I read it, is that the policy on conscription is taken at face value. In other words, I believe Shu’s starting point is to accept that conscripted military service in the Singaporean guise of NS is necessary, which then led him to investigate the feasibility of shortening the length of military training. If we accept that NS remains fundamentally necessary to the defence and security of Singapore, then is it feasible to shorten the length of the full-time training phase? Shu clearly concludes that 2 years is about as close as we can get to the ‘bare minimum’. Shortening full-time NS below 2 years will be, in Shu’s view, counterproductive.

Perhaps we can draw an analogy (however imperfect) to sports. The term ‘training’ is used explicitly in the military domain: we are training people to become soldiers. Not ‘educating’, however important that may be (and I personally believe it is increasingly important for SAF soldiers at all levels to be ‘educated’, not just their commissioned officers). ‘Training’ is almost certainly a time-driven phenomenon – you cannot train any person to undertake physical actions in a short period of time. It takes time, and depending on the complexity of the physical activity, it may take a long time. Unless you are naturally gifted, to go into the sporting analogy, you don’t become proficient in a particular sport without putting in the hundreds, even thousands, of hours into conditioning your body, developing muscle memory, working on strength and cardio-vascular fitness.

If this is true for sports, then surely it must be true of the military domain as well. If we want proficient soldiers, we have to expect that the training period is going to be quite long. The military domain is perhaps one of the most complex and complicated of human endeavours, and its outcomes are supposed to lie in the realm of life or death. Proficient soldiers can expect a certain probability of surviving battle; incompetent soldiers must surely expect death rather than survival. Except we are not talking merely of individual survival, important as it is; rather we are also talking about the survival of nations. Proficiency is also not measured solely at the individual level; at its most basic, proficiency is also measured at the team level – whether the squad, platoon, company, battalion. A competent soldier inserted into a poorly trained combat team does not expect a high probability of survival.

This is how I interpreted Shu’s argument, and hopefully I have done justice to his train of thought.

How I interpreted many of the comments that have come in suggests to me that our readers have approached this question from a somewhat different angle, and started out with somewhat different assumptions. And if I have interpreted our readers’ comments accurately, most of you are approaching it from the angle of wondering about the very necessity of the NS edifice in the first place. This was the gist of an earlier commentary I wrote, “Revisiting Military Conscription (aka National Service) in Singapore”, on 23 March 2013. Shu recognises that there is this question: as he wrote at the end, “Until Singapore’s defence policy changes — an important but separate issue for discussion — the length of full-time NS will always be guided by these practical considerations.” It was just an issue that Shu was not prepared to examine in his think-piece.

In terms of questioning the very necessity of NS, as I tried to argue (albeit in a rather muddled and imprecise manner), the very rationale of NS goes back to at least two fundamental questions: one, about the scenarios Singapore’s policy-makers imagine having to resort to the use of force; and two, the theory of war that subsequently shapes how this force is to be used such as to ensure that Singapore achieves what it sets out to achieve in the first place. And both the scenario (or scenarios) and theory of war must surely change over time, as Singapore’s geopolitical circumstances change over time.


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Colleague Ho Shu Huang had a commentary about the above topic published in Today. For our readers who are interested in this topic and how it pertains to Singapore, I strongly encourage you to read it. Shu’s analysis is, as always, spot-on!

The text is reproduced in full (in bold) below.

According to a government poll conducted in 2011, over 90 per cent of those surveyed said National Service (NS) is necessary. Arguments that it can be shortened, however, are regularly made.

These arguments typically rest on two assumptions. The first concerns time. Some argue the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) uses it too inefficiently. “Hurry up to wait”, or “wait to rush, rush to wait” is often used to describe one’s experience in NS. They reason that NS could be shorter if time were more efficiently used.

Others assume NS should be shorter because the advanced military technology that the SAF actively seeks is ostensibly a force multiplier that should reduce the amount of manpower required to maintain a high level of capability, as well as the time required to train individuals.

In fact, it was because of the increased efficiencies achieved through technology and innovation that the length of full-time NS was standardised to two years for all ranks almost a decade ago.

The second assumption is that if other developed countries conscript their citizens for shorter periods of time, surely Singapore can too. Supporters of this argument point to countries such as, inter alia, Finland, Denmark, Austria and Norway where conscription is shorter, often only a few months long.

These assumptions and their related arguments are not intrinsically illogical. They do not, however, sufficiently account for the functional objectives of NS.

NS does not exist for its own sake, but as its first principle states, it “must be to meet critical national need for security and survival”. It does so by providing a large body of highly-trained front-line troops for the SAF, a conventionally structured deterrent force.

Singapore’s approach to defence dictates its function and therefore its form. As such, arguments that full-time NS should be shortened cannot be merely guided by internal logic alone, anecdotal observations or the experiences of other countries. They must fully recognise what full-time NS is expected to deliver.


Singapore’s defence policy rests on the twin pillars of defence and deterrence. The SAF provides the means to achieve the latter.

More than half of the active-duty Singapore Army, the biggest service in the SAF, is made up of full-time NSmen (NSFs). Few countries, even the aforementioned ones with long traditions of conscription, have such a high conscript-to-regular ratio.

NSFs fill a wide variety of vocations and appointments across the SAF and are trained to the same exacting standards as their regular counterparts. The high quality of NSFs was amply demonstrated in 2009 when a Leopard tank crew of three NSFs led by a young regular, having only trained with the vehicle for six months, beat seasoned regulars from Australia and the United States in a friendly tri-nation competition.

It is more often witnessed in the complex, high-tempo overseas exercises, such as Forging Sabre or Wallaby, that the SAF regularly conducts.

Such standards are typically not expected of conscripts in other countries because of the different doctrinal structure and lower technological sophistication of the militaries they serve in. In many instances, conscripts operate in a more evenly mixed military manpower system and augment the regular core of the military, rather than form it, as is the case in Singapore.

The training they consequently receive reflects this. Given the difference in what is expected of each country’s conscripts, it is unfair to suggest full-time NS can be shortened simply because other countries have shorter periods of conscription.

NS cannot be benchmarked against conscription elsewhere as each system is fit for its own specific purpose.

The skills conscripts are expected to acquire dictate the time needed to train them well and, more importantly, train them safely. This in turn determines the length of full-time NS.


Training to such a high standard cannot be rushed. While technology can indeed be a force multiplier in allowing more to be done with fewer men, it can also be a double-edged sword as its complexity also demands more extensive training.

Technology-assisted training can mitigate this, but a learning curve still remains because of the technological sophistication of the equipment used. There are often multiple levels of instruction before overall proficiency is attained. Furthermore, these skills have to be applied in cooperation with others — within the unit, and the unit itself with others in a larger formation.

Acquiring group — in addition to individual — competency takes time. Rushing through the different phases of training may result in the boxes being ticked on paper but an ineffectively trained soldier, as well as unit, in reality.

Training also needs to be sequential and incremental for reasons of safety. Often a new experience unlike any other, military service can be emotionally and physically challenging. Assuming a soldier can transit seamlessly between roles without allowing sufficient time for the transition to take place can be dangerous.

Full-time NS is therefore intentionally incrementally structured, even if this requires more time. For example, the Physical Training Phase to help recruits meet the fitness standards of military service is almost as long as Basic Military Training itself.


While the SAF should investigate if there is any basis to the claim that NS training is excessively inefficient, a certain amount of inefficiency in NS might actually be desirable.

An apparent inefficient use of time can, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, provide opportunities for camaraderie to be built. Esprit de corps is developed through shared experiences; war or intense physical action typically comes to mind. But a common refrain heard, at least since the World War I, is that war, and by extension military service, is actually mainly boredom punctuated by brief moments of sheer terror.

This reality of military service suggests unit cohesion is not generally built during the intensity of action, for this is limited — but in the boredom of daily routine when soldiers interact and bond with one another while engaged in the mundane, or while awaiting orders.

Arguably, it is precisely because men are not busy with demanding tasks that they can afford the time and attention to actually get to know one another at a deeper level. These “wasteful” pockets of time also allow individuals to decompress during the intensity of training.

The value of periods of idle time must be appreciated. What may appear to be a waste of time may not actually be so.

The regularity of calls for full-time NS to be shortened suggests their supporting arguments and assumptions have not been adequately addressed. Engaging them is important because ensuring that there is common agreement on — or at the very least, understanding of — why full-time NS cannot be shorter is crucial to securing commitment to it.

It is crucial that this discussion acknowledges the practical objectives of NS and the constraints it faces in achieving them. Until Singapore’s defence policy changes — an important but separate issue for discussion — the length of full-time NS will always be guided by these practical considerations.

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Two publications purporting to explain the recently-introduced concept of Air-Sea Battle (ASB for short). The first, a policy brief by RSIS colleagues Richard Bitzinger and Michael Raska, came out some time back. The second, courtesy of breakingdefense.com, is a more recent analysis of what is still a fairly vague concept.

I love the language of the breakingdefense.com article: “‘cross-domain’ ‘attack in depth’ using ‘both kinetic and non-kinetic means.’ In plain English, this means we won’t just sit back and defend ourselves. We won’t just try to shoot down enemy missiles after they launch, block cyberattacks once they’re already underway, or jam sensors that are already scanning us, although all those defensive activities are certainly necessary. Nor will we just respond tit-for-tat, with our airplanes shooting down the airplanes that attack us, our ships shooting at their ships, our cyberwarriors hacking theirs, although such ‘symmetrical’ forms of fighting remain important, too.”

Instead, as the breakingdefense.com piece notes, “we’ll throw all sorts of wrenches into the enemy war machine at every possible point, what the top officers of the Air Force and Navy, Gen. Mark Welsh and Adm. Jonathan Greenert, called … ‘breaking the kill chain.'” Rather than attempting to shoot an incoming missile down, ASB asserts that “it’s much better to blow up the launcher before it actually launches, or to blind the radar that’s trying to find you, or, best of all, crash the enemy communications network that is orchestrating the attack in the first place, whether by blowing up their headquarters, jamming their wireless datalinks, or hacking their computers… Instead of fighting fire with fire, in other words, throw water on it, or sand.” In other words, as the report said, “‘cyber or undersea operations can be used to defeat air defense systems, air forces can be used to eliminate submarine or mine maritime threats, or space assets can be used to disrupt adversary command and control.'”

Maybe it is just me, maybe I am a cynical b@£$%rd, but, erm, people, surely that is precisely what the entire history of warfare has been about, finding out the best way to deny your adversary the capacity to interfere with your ability to realise your own objectives. And finding out the most creative, cost- and strategically effective way of achieving this outcome, so as to gain at least tactical surprise on your adversary.

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an interesting read from Tom Ricks’ blog, The Best Defense.

By A. A. Cohen

Best Defense intellectual pugilistics correspondent

Warrior-profs Gian Gentile and John Nagl, the two best-known heavyweight contenders in the national security debate surrounding irregular warfare, squared off a few weeks ago at Grinnell College in the wilds of Iowa on the merits of counterinsurgency and the future of Afghanistan.

The moderated 60-minute debate was kicked off with a three-word question: “Is COIN dead?”

In this corner, Gentile, who has for years passionately opposed the very notion that counterinsurgency worked in Iraq (the “Surge,” along with Petraeusism, seem to be his two pet peeves), let alone in Afghanistan, fired at his rival from the position: “The idea that nation-building can be achieved at a reasonable cost of blood and treasure is dead.” Translation: COIN is not feasible for America — ergo, COIN is dead.

Gentile propped up his argument by attacking what he describes as the “COIN narrative” of the past decade, about which many “gripping tales” have been written, but without any of these amounting to true, objective, “good history.” Gentile charged that there was no significant change in generalship or strategy between George Casey and David Petraeus in Iraq, and that the level of violence there was bound to drop when it did, regardless of the change of command and of the deployment of some 30,000 additional troops. Nagl parried by citing RAND and other research that concludes the contrary. Recall as well that General Casey was intent on drawing down U.S. forces, not surging them as Petraeus sought to do in order to establish a semblance of order and security prior to withdrawing from Iraq.

Nagl’s first response to the moderator’s question was an expected zinger: Counter-insurgency cannot be dead for as long as insurgency is alive and well. Obvious perhaps, but this full-body slam was a good reminder that shedding the capability would not make future needs for it disappear. Alas, what I wish he had mentioned, too, was that in this debate again, military doctrine was being deliberately confounded with matters of foreign policy. The United States has not conducted a nuclear (atomic) strike since Nagasaki, and the intention to strike again in such a fashion is absent, but the United States continues to maintain a nuclear capability and doctrine.

Gentile scored his few real points, I believe, on the issue that counterinsurgency operations on their own do not yield lasting strategic results. True, but those operations constitute an important piece of the puzzle. It is the role of statecraft to bring about stabilizing watersheds. And what Gentile may wish to acknowledge is that counterinsurgency operations, costly as they may be, will often be required to afford the time, the space, and the conditions that are needed to enable statecraft to run its course.

While Gentile and Nagl disagreed on many points of evidence, ultimately, their conclusions did not appear to be altogether different. Both contenders agreed that the invasion of Iraq was a strategic error, and that the price of a fully resourced counterinsurgency campaign will rarely (Gentile: will never) justify the unsatisfying prize. Nagl takes the match on style and substance… and of course, because he cited Galula.

Gentile’s obsession with naysaying is certainly understandable; we can all relate to his fear that should the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq go down in history as a victory, it will be tempting for our elected leaders and their advisors to wish to repeat similar adventures again. But the point is moot; history indicates that engaging in counterinsurgency warfare is seldom a predetermined choice.

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This is a theme that we have visited on occasions in the past, and certainly a theme in my own writings elsewhere.

Now comes an interesting piece, written by Harlan Ullman (of Ullman and Wade, the shock and awe guys), courtesy of Defense News.

As Ullman puts it in his first paragraph, “If there is one strategic weakness or Achilles’ heel in American geostrategic thinking, it is a fixation on winning battles and not winning wars.” This was a point I once made at an ARF HDUCIM (Heads of Defence Universities, Colleges and Institutions Meeting) conference organised in Singapore quite a few years back, where I made the somewhat controversial point that military organisations like to think tactically, they do not like to think strategically.

Ullman argues, “Killing one’s way to victory rarely works.” This was in reference to America’s war in Vietnam. I agree with him that annihilating the enemy in the case of the Vietnam War was strategically oxymoronic, but under other conditions, I would imagine annihilation being the pathway to strategic success.

The problem, I suggest, is that every war neccessarily comes with its own conditions, and its own strategic logic thereafter. Clausewitz, after all, taught us that!

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