Archive for the ‘Security Sector Reforms’ Category

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 commentary by Conrad Crane, appearing in the latest issue of Parameters (and available here). The first line of the commentary, which is the title of this entry, says it all.

As Crane notes, “Decisionmakers must be careful to maintain enough military power to handle all contingencies, even those involving major ground forces.” These actors, he argues, have to resist the apparent allure of “easy results” by utilising “standoff technology [that] might again lead to an unintended complex conflict in an unexpected place.” Otherwise, the end result will be the loss of “blood and treasure, and perhaps even strategic failure. Those are the costs of an unbalanced force structure and a lack of the full range of military capabilities.”

Wise words!

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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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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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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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