Strategic weapons such as cruise missiles and long-range nuclear bombers are monitored and curtailed by international treaty, though no defence planner has any illusions their world will ever be rid of such threats.
Tactical weapons, strategic effect
For a tiny city state like Singapore, just about 40km long and 20km wide at its widest point, the deployment of tactical weapons can exert the same frightful strategic effect once our tiny island comes within the range ring of such war machines.
Examples of tactical weapons that can unleash destructive firepower to pulverise Singapore city include long-range heavy artillery (52km when firing extended range full-bore base bleed rounds), rocket artillery, tactical fighters loaded wall-to-wall bombs (these go a long way with aerial refuelling) or a man-of-war primed for shore bombardment.
Arms treaties alone offer no security. Tactical weapons are treaty-compliant as their modest range, when measured against the standards of European battlefields or trans-continent warfare envisaged by the United States, make them immune to non-proliferation talks scribed for western nations.
For us, our insurance against such destructive firepower comes from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).
The SAF's firepower alone counts for nothing if not for drawer plans that prescribe the swift and decisive application of force. We must know the strategic centres of gravity that can destabilise, degrade or de-fang the enemy's war fighting potential. We must have a menu of options for our smart munitions; a list of objectives and enemy units for manoeuvre forces to gun for, encircle and destroy.
Above all, we must be able to tell false starts from the real thing, and have the collective will to do the necessary if and when the balloon goes up.
Beyond national hubris and jingoistic statements, strategic thinkers abroad must have no doubt as to the SAF's capacity to execute its mission resolutely, if our national survival is ever at stake.
Herein lies the strategic conundrum facing the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF defence planners: How to build a credible military deterrent without alarming the neighbours. This is especially so during halcyon times (like now) when diplomats are all smiles and courtesy.
For MINDEF/SAF, the approach to long-term defence planning should continue to be grounded on a capability-based and not a threat-based approach. This approach isn't mere word play.
A capability-based approach focuses our strategic narrative on the wherewithal that the SAF should acquire so that it can deal with a host of situations, present-day and emerging, within the means provided by a Defence Budget capped at six per cent of our Gross Domestic Product.
Spread across a growing MINDEF/SAF wish-list that is multi-spectrum, the sum allocated to our Services will never be enough to cover all our bases.
So we have to prioritise and allocate resources on a best-effort basis, reduce wastage through better productivity and find smarter ways of doing things.
Even so, as regional economies thrive, we can expect them to increase their defence spending. Concomitant with the rise in defence dollars is the enlargement of their respective arsenals. And the bigger stable of war machines means more things MINDEF/SAF needs to ponder over.
Money can solve most woes as there are counter measures and counter-counter measures you can buy to deal with conventional arms.
Negating the threat(s)
With foresight, one could conceivably introduce a network of capabilities that negate the destructiveness of hostile firepower.
With the right technology, you could look above and beyond your border for a better sense of over-the-horizon threats. A more frequent update rate from indigenous overhead assets would be a game changer for defence planners. In time to come, they can scrutinise overhead imagery within hours, rather than wait for two days for another satellite pass. This means we can decide and act more decisively and prudently, filtering signals from the noise, discerning false alarms from emerging danger.
This can be complemented with active defence systems which can knock down artillery projectiles, thereby providing a measure of active defences to protect the island during the vulnerable phase when the full force potential of the SAF is mobilised for action.
This active defence shield, a sort of iron dome if you will *wink*, can be integrated with the sharp end of the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and the Singapore Army's counter-battery radars to find, fix and finish off any tube or rocket artillery fired towards the island. Installed at strategic approaches to Singapore, the active defence can provide
Present-day active defences are never 100 per cent full-proof. This is why continuing efforts at hardening our island nation through the home shelter programme adds more resilience to our ability to soak up attacks, then strike back decisively.
As surveillance technology matures, the addition of gap-filler radars, aerostats and better algorithms that guide active defence batteries should further negate the ability of enemy commanders to simply target the little red dot and get away with it.
The Lion City's firepower must be matched by defence diplomacy that helps regional players understand our strategy of deterrence better.
We also need to spend more time pondering the impact on deterrence should neighbouring countries attempt to densensitise us with regular yet benign deployments of their new toys.
In doing so, regional planners tasked with drafting their own drawer plans must realise how far we will allow military posturing to unfold before decisive action is taken.
At the same time, the authors of the doomsday scenarios need to understand one another better for a better sense of what qualifies as theatrics and a clear, no-BS understanding of what constitutes a threat. These points of view are two sides of the same coin.
In the coming year, as new capabilities are unveiled, we should hopefully see more brisk activity in this continuing education process at understanding the SAF's value as our defensive shield for peace.
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