Friday, November 15, 2013

Bullets or batteries? Which would you choose?

This is the second in a series of blog entries that will lead to something in the coming weeks. Please stay tuned for more...

Given a choice between lugging more bullets or batteries into battle, which would it be?

As the Singaporean warfighter relies ever more on electronic devices to observe the battlespace, exchange information and deal with the nasties, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) must decide how the combat load for its warfighters should be configured for our specific operational requirements.

In past decades, sustaining the combat potential of Singapore Army ground forces involved making tradeoffs between ammunition, water and combat rations (i.e. food).

Working out the combat load
The weight penalty that an average Singaporean soldier can carry is finite. Most medical practitioners would prescribed it as a percentage of one's body weight rather than an absolute figure, which would be less meaningful as soldiers come in all shapes and sizes - though soldiers can be organised into fighting units with approximately the same fitness level.

Furthermore, recommendations for western armies may not apply to the SAF as western soldiers tend to be taller and heavier than Asians. This means Headquarters Medical Corps must spearhead data collection that would help defence planners figure out how much a Singapore soldier can carry into operations.  In this regard, HQMC has had decades of enlistment records to work on, which would indicate how successive cohorts of conscripts have grown in height and weight since National Service began in 1967.[Note: A lead indicator would be the Ministry of Education as the MOE would know how the sizes of desks and chairs and uniform sizes for primary school students have increased in past decades.]

So the rule of thumb of carrying small arms ammunition (i.e. bullets) for 1.5x contact rate applies to most infantry units. Add personal items like the skeleton battle order (SBO) with two water bottles (now replaced by the load bearing vest or LBV), helmet and boots and the weight penalty increases appreciably.

In today's Singapore Army, the infantry section - the smallest tactical unit in the Army - is better connected to higher echelons of command thanks to various electronic devices linked to the Battlefield Management System.

The information furnished - Blue Force Tracking, Call For Fire etc - is noteworthy.

In theory, a Singapore Army infantry section at the very edge of the frontline can call down firepower from an impressive array of shooters, not just  those organic to their unit like the Company Marksman but options provided by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) or Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) should beach landings require naval gunfire support. In other words, the soldier really has the firepower of the SAF in his or her backpack.

The information moves both ways: targets located by the Section can be relayed upstream to be added to the realtime ground situation picture compiled by higher command. The individual soldiers therefore serve as sensors in the sensor to shooter loop.

But such devices must get their juice from somewhere, especially outfield far from the nearest power socket.

The hypothetical choice between bullets and batteries is not as stark in reality as it may seem.

Singaporean defence scientists have looked at using the soldier's locomotion as a source of energy, with power tapped from every step a soldier takes.

Turning to renewable energy by using solar cells would, theoretically, cut down one's reliance on stored energy in the form of batteries.[How one would charge the solar cells during a monsoon or in the shaded sanctuary of a secondary forest is a point to consider.]

Using technology to invent better batteries is another option. This would allow soldiers to carry batteries that provide more power for the same weight penalty.

Wielding Information as a weapon
Even if one assumes that technology will offer a solution, Singaporean full-time National Servicemen (NSFs), Operationally-Ready National Servicemen (NSmen) and Regulars must be soundly convinced that the gadgets they carry into operations are worth the trouble.

If soldiers believe the fancy gadgets are duds, then it is possible they will opt for carrying more bullets as their life insurance.

Soldiers must be convinced, either through background briefings backstopped by realistic war games, how the humble electronic gadgets can act as game changers.

The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF have, thus far, expended no small effort informing and educating Singaporeans on the Third Generation (3G) SAF narrative through exhibitions, open houses and publicity accorded to selected war games. Such conversations are commendable and should continue.

MINDEF/SAF must continue leading the initiative to educate soldiers on the war-winning potential of these electronic devices. In other words, soldiers must be competent in wielding information as a weapon, knowing full well forewarned is forearmed and that decisive overmatch in battlefield information can help define and shape the battlespace to one's advantage.

Past weapons engineering projects have shown lukewarm success in helping soldiers stay connected on the battlefield.

The Bionix 1 infantry fighting vehicle is an example of an award-winning, home-grown war machine that checks all the boxes when it comes to firepower, mobility and protection. Alas, in our view, the Bionix scores poorly in sustaining the soldier's ability to stay plugged into the battlefield network.

The BX1 has no auxiliary power unit, meaning the vehicle must keep its engine running to power up electronic devices within. This is fine during a peacetime exercise when one doesn't have to worry about the supply of diesel or the acoustic or IR signature that the vehicle generates when its engine is kept running. But if we train as we shall fight, how would you rate the BX 1's survivability during a shooting war against a competent adversary?

Add to this the vibration issues that the BX1 was noted for, especially during cross-country driving for long distances (100km or more), and one can understand why the Bionix did not exactly endear itself to our Armoured Infantry.

No model answer
The simplistically phrased "bullets versus batteries" question has no model answer.

Neither is any prescribed solution - you shall carry this many bullets with this number of batteries - an evergreen one that successive cohorts of NSFs will be happy with. This is because the march of technology will offer ever newer and better options for SAF defence planners to plug and play with.

What is certain is that the wave of battlefield experimentation and field trials that we saw at the turn of the century as the SAF publicised its transformation into a 3G fighting force, should continue unabated.

Our SAF needs to continue having the latitude to plan and execute full troop exercises involving firepower and manoeuvre, with live-fire components drawing upon war machines that can literally reshape the battlefield using ordnance of assorted tonnage, range and lethality, to find the best solutions to our unique needs.

You may also like:
RSAF datalinks put through stress test at Exercise Forging Sabre. Click here

Keepers of the peace: Why our Citizens Army needs to be backed by a strong RSAF. Click here


Anonymous said...

I hope that, in their enthusiasm to report up about their position and asking for support, they don't forget to engage the enemy and survive that duration.

Anonymous said...

More importantly, is whether any training has incorporated scenario where unit runs out of battery. Will such unit be able to function under such scenario?

Anonymous said...

the choice bewtween bulltes vs. batteries is not so relevant to standard infantry/manoeuvre forces as oppose to special forces unit. Though it look nice on paper about calling for support fire from arty 155, HIMARS, etc or even CAS (close air support) but in actual fact your standard infantry or even armour units is better off relying on yourself organic support, 120mm mortar platoon. This exotic higher echelon fire support are deem too expensive to be used on cheapo NSF/reservist, more for the SOF covert ops maybe...

so for normal units better to carry more bullets lah.

Anonymous said...

What is the standard load of bullets today versus say up to five years ago? Are we carrying a single mag less?

Delta Whiskey said...

Dear David,

A bit slow, but glad to hear that it wasn't just me that thought the BX 1 had serious vibration issues.

Hopefully our future "A" and "B" vehicle fleet will have support for personal and section electronics via chargers and the like.

Also, it seems like we aren't quite at your characterization of "firepower in a backpack" yet. For one, I'm not sure how deep the knowledge of calling for fire goes in a battalion - is it trained down to company level? All the officers? Section commanders? Worthy to ask.