Archive for the ‘Civil-Military Relations’ Category

For those of us interested in the role of women in the military services, this article from the BBC is a must-read!

For too long now, the issue of women in the military services has been clouded in misconception, misinformation and misogyny. Women can, and do, contribute a valuable service to the defence of their nations. It is about bloody time this was recognised and celebrated.


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Our blog seems to be attracting an increasing number of guest submissions. Here is a submission courtesy of reader and guest writer, Denise Martin on the issue of the management of veteran soldiers. I remember reading some oral histories of soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War, and how difficult it was for some of them to readjust to life “back in the world” as Vietnam veterans apparently used to say. I suspect veteran care these days is probably a whole lot better. Nevertheless, how we value our veterans reflects the moral character of our respective societies.

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A really insightful commentary from colleague, Ho Shu Huang (available here). Shu makes the point that national defence is a mission that goes beyond the narrow confines of the military organisation, but one that incorporates other aspects of national life.

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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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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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This is a story that just won’t quit.

A few days ago, it was reported by several news agencies – Reuters, for instance, Aviation Week for another – that the Singapore government might be very close to making a decision about acquiring the F-35 as a replacement for the RSAF’s F-16s that were first acquired back in the early 1990s. It shouldn’t be news. The Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen had stated during the March 2013 Committee of Supply debate on the defence budget, “I’m telling you we’re now in the final stages of evaluating the F-35. MINDEF will have to be satisfied that this state-of-the-art multi-role fighter meets our long-term needs, is on track to be operationally capable and, most importantly, is a cost-effective platform.”

Colleague Kelvin Wong recently had a commentary on the F-35 decision published in Today. Kelvin is generally positive about the F-35, although he does suggest that the Australian experience with this air combat platform might be an important morality tale for everyone interested in this aircraft.

Here’s the thing about the F-35: it is the SNAFUs and cock-ups in the entire programme that just won’t quit. A recent BBC article chronicles the various problems the programme has had to experience from the very start. As this BBC article ends, “Despite its problems, the F-35 so far appears to have avoided the axe amid the current budget turmoil. The president this week requested $8.4 billion to continue the Joint Strike fighter during the next fiscal year, leaving the aircraft safe – at least for now.” More recently, CNBC called the F-35 the “pricey benchwarming plane”. One study from the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight estimates each aircraft to cost about USD200 million per platform. Even the USAF’s Air Force Magazine editor in chief, Adam Hebert, wrote an editorial in April 2011: “Lies, Damn Lies, and the Trillion-Dollar Plane”. Italy and Norway have either reduced their orders or have temporarily frozen decision-making on this issue. In 2012, Canada announced it was scrapping the F-35. Whichever way you look at it, I just cannot find anything worthwhile about the aircraft.

And this is the aircraft that the Singapore government might be (I stress, might be, not confirmed or definite) buying???

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