Archive for the ‘Operations Other Than War’ Category

Another guest submission, this time courtesy of Sophie Barber. It reflects an area of work that RSIS is particularly strong on, and something that military organisations in the Asian region have actually been spending quite a bit of time working on. Which maybe suggests that at least in Asia, these issues are not very “non-traditional”. I mean, every time the Yangtze River burst its banks in the past, PLA soldiers got to employ a particular skill-set – filling sandbags! On a more serious note, there is an argument that the Royal Thai Navy acquired the helicopter carrier from Spain in the 1990s essentially for disaster relief work. The armed forces of Southeast Asia regularly engage in disaster relief operations. The Singapore Armed Forces actually was instrumental in helping public health authorities get to grips on the SARS crisis when it emerged. The list goes on and on …


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This was a fascinating piece (available here) I found on the BBC, about how even al Qaeda is lowering the bar as far as new recruits is concerned.

For some time now, the US military has been experiencing problems in maintaining recruitment levels – both in terms of the absolute numbers of people joining the military as well as the relative quality of these people). This has been an on-going and fairly long-standing problem (see, for instance this report; or this report). A more detailed study of the problems in US military recruitment patterns is available here. The executive summary of a RAND report on this is also available here.

This problem is not unique to the US mlitary. A report (available here) suggests that the problems that the US military has been facing are replicated in the case of the Chinese military as well. A Canadian report expressed concerns about the declining quality of new recruits into the Canadian military.

So now even terrorist groups are starting to find similar problems in finding enough of good-quality recruits. Is this something of a global trend> Certainly worth further examination.

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A think piece (available here), written by Ron Sargent, and which came out in MIlitary Review in 2005, so it is a bit dated. That being said, much of what Sargent wrote on back then I believe continues to be true.

In Sargent’s words: “There can be no tolerance for the cultural ignorance of media-amplified “strategic cor- porals” (junior officers and soldiers at the forward edge of the battle area) whose words and actions can affect strategic outcomes. The information genie is out of the bottle, and from now and into the future, Army strategic legitimacy will be closely examined. We cannot fall victim to self-inflicted death by a thousand cuts.” All the more so today, when smart phones are ubiquitous, and the concept of citizen journalism no longer considered cutting-edge thinking, but already part of the new norm.

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This is an issue that has been vexing me for the last 10 years: if the security challenges that a state faces are not the traditional inter-state high-intensity armed conflict type, should its armed forces be reconfigured to meet the specific type of threat that the state faces?

In Southeast Asia, it seems pretty much accepted universally that the security challenges that we face will probably fall under the so-called non-traditional security rubric, and as a consequence, Southeast Asia’s armed forces will spend more time conducting so-called operations other than war. In other words, Southeast Asia’s armed forces can expect to conduct disaster relief operations, or participate in UN-mandated peace or humanitarian intervention operations. What Southeast Asia’s armed forces are probably least likely to do is to conduct so-called conventional military operations. By conventional military operations, we usually think of major wars – the mobilisation and deployment of armoured divisions to cut a swath through the enemy’s defences, the application of combat air power to destroy enemy military installations. Basically this is the stuff of movies – A Bridge Too Far, The Battle of Midway, for instance – or TV series such as Band of Brothers or The Pacific.

However, a story from The Washington Post (available here) suggests that the United States Army is changing its training systems to prepare its personnel for the types of military operations that they are more likely to face in the not-too-distant future. If this carries on, in other words, the end result is going to be a United States Army that will basically emphasize certain skill sets over others. As the Washington Post story suggests, “The new army, senior military leaders say, must become more nimble, its officers more savvy, its engagements more nuanced and almost certainly shorter. The lessons of the Arab Spring weigh heavily on war planners, with an array of threats looming in the Middle East and elsewhere. A high premium is being placed on devising the proper use of Special Forces, drones and cyber capabilities.”

The idea that an Armed Forces would train and prepare its soldiers to operate effectively in new security terrain is obviously not something fundamentally new per se. Even for the United States Army, as the report indicates, the training it has conducted over the last decade has prepared its soldiers to conduct operations similar to those that were found in Iraq or Afghanistan. The problem, of course, is that as these operations wind down, what types of operations that will challenge the United States cannot be known. As such, the new training systems will focus on equipping soldiers with the skill sets that hopefully allow them to function effectively in a multiplicity of currently unknown military operational scenarios and environments. The skills being imparted in this new training system are not dissimilar to Charles Krulak’s vision of the Three-Block War. As the Washington Post report indicates, “The soldiers involved in the exercise here are tasked with helping an allied nation push back an invading force, while battling two insurgencies. Special Forces working closely with conventional units and troops have been ordered to show deference to American civilian officials with vast experience in the country.”

That the United States Army wants to equip its soldiers with adaptable skill sets is probably not remarkable in any sense. If anything, such a plan ought to be regarded as merely responsible and sensible. But here is the kick, at least for me – can these adaptable skill sets be given to other soldiers in other armed forces as well?

Here in Singapore, the Singapore Armed Forces maintains a rhetorical doctrine of full spectrum dominance. I say “rhetorical” because the Singapore Armed Forces has never had to demonstrate actual full spectrum dominance. The Singapore Armed Forces has had to mount a counter-terrorist operation (successful, by the way) in response to the 1991 hijacking of SIA flight 117. In 2004, it had to mount a disaster relief operation in very short notice (once again, successful) – Operation Flying Eagle in December 2004 in response to the Boxing Day Tsunami. More recently, the organisation has had to respond to another counter-terrorism mission in support of local law enforcement after Mas Selamat managed to escape from the Whitley Detention Centre (OK, they didn’t manage to catch him, but I think we can all agree it was due to leadership failures at the highest levels, and not the fault of the armed forces or law enforcement).

Notice how the Singapore Armed Forces has never had to mount a major military operation to defend Singapore against another state’s military attacks. It has never had to mount the kind of operation that former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had envisaged in his memoirs. It has never had to fight a war – what General Sir Rupert Smith refers to, “war as cognitively known to most non-combatants, war as battle in a field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs…” Such wars, to paraphrase Rupert Smith, do not exist in the Singapore Armed Forces’ history.

And yet, the Singapore Armed Forces maintains its doctrine of full spectrum dominance, despite an operational history that has featured exclusively in the inter-related domains of non-traditional security and operations other than war. What I have not been able to answer in my head is whether or not full spectrum dominance is something that is within reach of the Singapore Armed Forces. Maybe the United States Army can aspire towards full spectrum dominance; it is after all a full-time volunteer-only organisation, and it presumably has the time to properly train its soldiers to acquire the range of skill sets that allow these soldiers to segue seamlessly from one operational scenario to another. Does the Singapore Armed Forces – a largely conscript-based organisation – have similar amounts of time to train its soldiers equally well???

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The Vietnam analogy is something that, at least it seems to me, all military historians or defence analysts tend to be somewhat uncertain about. I am myself guilty of it. Once, shortly after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when I was asked about the likelihood of another Vietnam for the United States, my answer was shamefully non-committal.

Some time earlier this week, an interesting piece that came via the BBC (available here) about Afghanistan and the parallels with Vietnam. Afghanistan has already been widely considered as the former Soviet Union’s Vietnam. Now, the NATO-led coalition’s efforts in Afghanistan are again being compared to the US experience in the Vietnam war.

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An interesting story, from the BBC (available here) about the current trend of UN peacekeeping operations – deploying forces from the same continent. African peacekeepers deployed in Somalia seem to be working well. One can only hope that this approach will become a genuine solution.

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Stratfor CEO George Friedman pens this commentary on the concept of ‘humanitarian’ wars, which are wars where the combatants claim to be fighting neither for their national interest nor to impose any ideology, but rather to prevent human suffering. In Friedman’s terms, humanitarian wars are ‘immaculate interventions’, which conclude without causing other undesired consequences. He discusses the ethical, moral, and legal complexites inherent in conducting such wars. Looking at past interventions in Somalia and Iraq, he warns that such responses likely fail to achieve favourable endgames for the those involved.

The full commentary can be accessed here: http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20110404-immaculate-intervention-wars-humanitarianism

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