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Archive for July, 2013

We expect that the armed forces of a state is a rational instrument of national policy. That is after all a key take-away from Clausewitz’s teachings on strategy and war. But what does it mean: the military instrument as rational?

A friend, TX Hammes (of The Sling and Stone fame) has contributed an interesting piece to Warontherocks.com, which can be accessed here. In this piece looking at the United States’ national military strategy, Hammes argues, “Strategists are keenly aware of the necessity to match ends, ways, and means in times of war. Unfortunately, in peacetime, strategy is often subordinated to the politics of defense dollars going to Congressional districts or the inertia of programs of record. Yet it is equally important to consider strategy in peacetime – particularly since it should drive force structure and procurement decisions.” He further notes that “the key is to build a flexible force with capabilities across a wide range of possible conflicts within the limited means provided.”

In concluding, Hammes argues, “Strategy is not just about aligning ends, ways, and means in wartime. Just as critical, and perhaps even more difficult, is aligning ends, ways, and means in peacetime (emphasis mine). The strategist must ensure that the military structure the population is willing to pay for (emphasis mine) is well aligned with the likely contingencies while remaining flexible enough to deal with the inevitable surprises. In times of austerity, such strategies must start with limited means and devise different ways to achieve the strategic goals.”

The Singapore Armed Forces has enjoyed relative largesse throughout its history, relative, that is, to the entire national budget of Singapore in any given year. I am not about to suggest that this defence budget, as a percentage of the national budget, ought to change. Nevertheless, changing the share that defence maintains of the national budget ought to be something that the electorate of Singapore ought to be thinking about in a serious and considered manner.

It goes beyond the citizens’ gripes about conscription/National Service, although the institution of National Service ought to be considered. What it really goes to is the theory of war and victory that Singapore’s policy makers hold, which ought to shape and structure the character and make-up of the SAF. Is the SAF a rational instrument of Singapore’s national policy? I am prepared to accept that it CAN BE, but ONLY IF IT FITS THE NATIONAL THEORY OF WAR AND VICTORY. Which means, by the way, that if the SAF does not fit this national theory of war and victory, Singapore’s policy makers ought to seriously consider the possibility of realigning the SAF to return it to its rational moorings.

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This piece, courtesy of the BBC, written by Malcolm Gladstone, is truly fascinating.

As Gladstone observes, “Listening well is a gift. The ability to hear what someone says and not filter it through your own biases is an instinctive ability similar to having a photographic memory. And I think we have a great deal of trouble with people who have this gift. There is something about all of us that likes the fact that what we hear is filtered through someone’s biases.”

What does this have to do with this blog, apart from the fact that the story is about how America’s war in Vietnam could have ended sooner, if only policy makers had listened to Kellen instead of Goure? It relates to something that I have studied for a long time, namely intelligence failures in the face of otherwise overwhelming ‘evidence’ to the contrary.

More often than not, intelligence failures do not point to the lack of information and evidence, rather it points to cognitive closure and our inability to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ beyond our subliminal intellectual and cognitive biases. It is kind of like an old TV advertisement for a radio station in Singapore called Gold 90FM (available here, or here). And in the world of intelligence, these kinds of cognitive biases are potentially very dangerous, if not outright catastrophic for the survival of the state.

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Tanks have been the king of the battlefield for much of the 20th Century, and, to badly paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of its demise have thus far been grossly exaggerated. The emergence of precision-guided anti-tank weapons in the early 1970s led to quite a few expectations of the impending demise of the tank, especially after the initial shocks of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when Israeli tank forces were shown to be vulnerable to Egyptian anti-tank guided weapons. That being said, a return to simple combined arms operations soon rectified that problem for the IDF.

Now comes this BBC report, which re-examines the role of tank forces, especially in terms of the tank-on-tank battles that were witnessed in Kursk in World War Two and in the Sinai in the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

A pertinent observation made in this BBC report is that in a sense, an armoured knight on horseback, charging in a dense pack towards a another dense pack of heavy infantry, is the historical precursor to today’s armoured forces. It is no accident that some armies refer to their tank forces as cavalry.

My own take: warfare will always exhibit a pendulum swing between offensive and defensive capabilities. World War One witnessed the dominance of defensive capabilities, but once the ‘principles’ of cavalry were adapted into tanks, offensive capabilities regained their lustre. I don’t see any reason why this pendulum swing should ever end.

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Our thanks to reader, Katherine Rose, for this infographic. My own take: it would have been helpful if China’s defence budget growth were compared against China’s economic growth – that might give us a clearer picture as to the extent to which China’s defence growth is a potential problem. Simply put, if the growth of China’s defence budgets have been comparable to China’s economic growth rates, I might be less inclined to be alarmed. If, however, China’s defence budget is growing beyond the Chinese economy, then I might be inclined to be concerned, of not outright alarmed.

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