Wednesday, July 6, 2016

SAF 2030 faces key challenges in managing manpower shortfall

Without a shot fired, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will see its manpower down by a third from 2030 as a result of dwindling birth rates.

This quantum - permanent and significant - sits at the threshold at which defence professionals would consider tagging the "combat ineffective" label to military units that suffer a loss of such magnitude (typically, if estab strength falls below 69%).

To stay ready, respected and relevant, the SAF must shrug off this impression.

It is a tall order and time is of the essence.

Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF must not squander the coming years in making sure this shortfall does not compromise the SAF's bench strength. Fifteen years is not a long time. If you lived through the tumult of the 11 September 2001 aftermath, didn't those intervening years since 9/11 go by in a flash? That same time frame till present-day (15 years), projected forward would bring you to 2030.

New defence platforms and systems can take years to acquire and be phased through the progression charts that lead from Initial Operational Capability to Full Operational Capability (FOC). For example, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Hermes 450 unmanned aerial vehicles achieved FOC on 30 March 2015, some eight years years after the UAVs were delivered in 2007.

For the Singapore Army, the new Armoured Fighting Vehicle (AFV) mentioned by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen at his SAF Day interview this year was conceptualised in 2006. But the new AFV is due to be rolled-out around 2019.

Defence capabilities take years to nurture. Such assets can be bought off the shelf at any time, but the backend processes needed to ensure MINDEF/SAF maximises the war-winning potential of new assets will take years to raise, train and sustain.

If nothing is done to adjust how the SAF conducts its business, that 30% manpower shortfall will exact a deleterious effect on the SAF's order of battle. Combat and combat support units will struggle to perform their mission with vacant positions. The orbat, if left unchanged from present-day, will have under-strength units that cannot deliver their full potential due to insufficient manpower.

The 2030 timeframe is significant for another reason.

It marks the juncture at which the RSAF is due to vacate Paya Lebar Air Base - the RSAF's largest airbase by land area - for a greenfield site on reclaimed land in Changi.

When that move takes place, it will mark the first time the RSAF will swap a dedicated air base for one co-located with a civilian airport. Not just any airport, mind you, but Changi Airport - one of the busiest air hubs in Southeast Asia.

Future MINDEF/SAF policy leaders and communications professionals will have to convince stakeholders in Singapore and abroad that this confluence of factors - a permanent and sizeable shortfall in defence manpower, loss of a dedicated airbase to a co-share arrangement with a civilian airport - does not translate to any erosion in defence readiness and deterrence value.

Since independence and with the introduction of National Service in 1967, the SAF has grown steadily year after year. A downsized SAF would put Singapore in uncharted territory as neighbouring countries would see their military strengths maintained at current levels or enlarged in 2030. It is an open question whether the smaller SAF would be seen as weakness, not just by regional players but also by foreign investors who will need assurance that their investments in Singapore will be safeguarded.

Against this backdrop, Singapore's main source of energy - the Natuna gas fields in Indonesia - are expected to run dry. This means Singapore's search for a viable and economic source of alternative energy will compete for the public's attention even as the SAF redraws its structure and organisation.

At the same time, present-day irritants in the South China Sea, threats from global extremism and regional power tussles could still hang over our heads in 2030.

Add to that the changing political landscape in Singapore three election cycles from now and one cannot assume support for defence policies and programmes will be evergreen.

Dr Ng's prognosis that the SAF of the future will have cutting edge assets that compensate for the fall in manpower hinges on continued support for the SAF in hearts and minds and from government coffers. Alas, none of these are guaranteed.

The manpower challenge is not easy to overcome. But MINDEF/SAF planners who examine live birth records have a 18-year headstart to do what's responsible and necessary. The more perplexing problem is whether Singaporeans will understand the changing strategic landscape and pull together as one to give MINDEF/SAF the groundswell of support it needs to sustain a citizen's armed forces.

Populists arguments to spend limited funds on other concerns may erode support for defence programmes at a time when the SAF is changing its shell.

There are many ways to offset the 30% drop in manpower.

First, by leveraging on defence technology as a force multiplier. This narrative is a tried-and-tested one. Ever since the Lardon gun allowed HQ Singapore Artillery to downsize its 155mm gun-howitzer crews as the FH-88's self-propelled, first round self-embedding capability and flick rammer feature reduced manpower demands, we have heard how the SAF has worked to optimise manpower using defence science and technology.

Second, introducing more women to defence roles. In this regard, the mindset change from MINDEF/SAF is welcome. SAF women pioneers, particularly pilots, would have experienced firsthand early prejudices and misgivings that placed a glass ceiling on the roles women could serve. Spurious arguments were made that placed bureaucratic roadblocks to having women sit in RSAF fast jet cockpits. We must thank our female SAF pioneers for persevering in their respective formations despite misogynistic remarks and mindsets that were hurtful and damaging to the career prospects of dozens of talented and capable women.

Thankfully, the situation has changed for the better. Those in positions of responsibility must ensure MINDEF/SAF never regresses to the dark days of the 70s and 80s.

Third, opening more roles to the SAF Volunteer Corps. The number of SAFVCs is modest today. But it is growing at a steady clip. More to the point, every volunteer who commits time and energy to serving the SAF releases one full-time National Serviceman (NSF) for other roles. Looking ahead, this effort must be sustained. In time to come, the handful of SAF volunteers will grow into hundreds. Within the next few years, we can expect to see the SAFVC headcount surpass the 1,000th volunteer. The pioneer SAFVC cohorts will serve as mentors to future batches of volunteers. Their feedback and experience will refine and reshape the training curricula adopted by all three Services who host volunteers, thereby contributing to an even more enriching and meaningful experience for future cohorts.

Fourth, the national service cycle could be lengthened or women could be enlisted for NS. You need not be politically-savvy to realise these will be hot potato issues. The climbdown from a full-time NS window of 2.5 years to two years, operationalised in late 2004, cannot be reversed without exacting political cost. And the ground may not be sweet for expanding NS to women.

These facts of life underpin Defence Minister Dr Ng's point this year about doing more with less.

We better take heed because the MINDEF/SAF community does not have the luxury of time.

15 comments:

Relac 1234 said...

Agree in theory to SAFVC as one method to improve the manpower situation.

However, in practice, SAFVC would need to have stringent screening process as the volunteer nature of SAFVC can lead to a self-selection bias of a higher proportion of those who may not be the most stable of personalities, and who see SAFVC as a channel to satisfy their fantasies of being macho and respected.

There is a also an issue of their feeling of being Singaporeans and helping Singapore causes for those who have not lived in Spore long enough to build substantial roots.

Hence, a screening process similar to that used for police officers is probably required and also care in the types of assignments given to the SAFVC - e.g. patrolling Changi airport with loaded rifles (as was reported in the press) is probably not one of them.

Chew said...

"You can keep all of your planes, tanks and bombs. In the end, some poor bastard with a rifle and a bayonet will have to winkle some other poor bastard into signing any peace treaty" --- Gen. George S. Patton.

It seems to be Singapore's mantra that advanced weaponry would be the force multiplier and savior for the SAF. However, that seems to ignore the lessons of modern wars such as the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Wars which the most military advanced country in the world, USA, took on 3rd World countries and won all the battles, and yet still lost the wars. With the present anarchy in Iraq, I doubt anybody would agree with the statement "Mission Accomplished"!

As a first world country in a region surrounded by third world countries, Singapore has the ability to field some of the most advanced weaponry in the world, coupled with some of the best trained soldiers in the region. However, that is in theory only. The lack of combat and peacekeeping experience may count against the actual fighting ability of SAF. Further, even if SAF has the combat experience, can it afford the manpower to sustain casualties?

Take Malaysia for instance, it has sufficient manpower to throw in its Army Reserves into the front line to soften up any attack as well as to determine the capability of any attacking forces. It can hold back its regular forces for counter attacks or even to exploit any gaps. The important thing is that even if such forces suffer heavy losses, as a country, it can afford them. The regulars are full time professionals and the reserves are mainly drawn from the civil service (which has the dubious reputation of being very bloated due to national policies regarding "bumiputras"). To be frank, any losses therein would not affect the country much.

However, Singapore with its National Servicemen army faces the manpower quandary. Any loss of a NS soldier means one less cog in the economic machine for Singapore. Be he a white collar or blue collar worker, that loss would be felt. For example, USA lost about 4,500 military personnel during the whole of the Iraq war and occupation. For the Vietnam war, it lost almost 60,000 military personnel. Can Singapore afford to loose 4,500 NS, let alone 60,000 NS? Singapore might be able to win all the battles in any war (as the US did during the Vietnam war) but can it with the war with every NS casualty degrading any future that Singapore may have after a war?

TThe Spirit of Malay said...

Can you still sustain as a nation in 2030? or can you maintain your current position in SEA in 2030?

That is a big qusetion that should be answered now ... what will happen to your country if Indonesia take over your ATC in 2019 and then to tight their control in South China Sea .. (to create no flying zone for your RSAF)..

No body can't answer that ... but in the next 15 years ... you will see a new map in Asia adnd South East Asia ... China will the number one, India number two, USA is number three and Indonesia will be number four in the world .. and will be number one this region ..

If you want to survive as nation in 2030 .. you must change your superiority.. and must learn to understand your neighbors .. Stop to treat them as your "cow and slave" for your interest only ...

Mas Bengbeng said...

Lack of manpower yeah sure, that was problem of small country, can your government increase the birth rate so their will be enough manpower in the future? Sure it can but still you have small territory, even you government must stationed some of your weapons outside your homeland, LoL. Are the reclamation project will help solved that problem?

Locust said...

^ Everytime we get such jealous comments is tantamount to an indirect praise for Singapore. Singapore is not going any where. Until you reach Singapore's stage of competence and development, only then we can take your comments seriously. Very foolish to discount Singapores ability to reinvent and compete.

Locust said...

I guess it is unfortunate that Singapores population growth tapers as it is now a developed nation. Has anyone actually given a figure to that 30%? The current conscript reserve force plausibly stands at around 450000 to 500000.Add active standing forces of about 72000. Take away 30%. Not including para military forces from police and cd. But i admit. We should use this rationale to reveal some of our silver bullets and not be so coy.

Benjamin Ong said...

An Indonesian minister says big country should not bully smaller cointries.In this case refering to China.I find it a hypocrite phrase and i hope that our neighbour will too not bully smaller countries.

Benjamin Ong said...

This issue is unfortunate we have no choice

Benjamin Ong said...

Why we are small thats a fact?Well we possibly will sation some at Australia with the new partnership.Closer to home and perhaps a good strategy if ever anyone attacks us we can deploy them from Australia at down under:)

Benjamin Ong said...

Good point there.

kingkongbundyboo said...

Is a falling birthrate the only reason for the 30% decline in military manpower or is the NS system too easily gamed by the country's residents? The number of Singapore citizens / residents isn't declining; by 2030 the population is projected to hit 6.9million, and that's not because everyone is living longer.

So we have a rather curious state of affairs - a lot more residents in Singapore, but less people available to defend the country. I agree with most readers of this blog that a strong military is vital to Singapore's continued existence but let's not conflate that with how we should be paying to guarantee our security. Transport and healthcare are bread and butter issues and it would be lovely if they're free or heavily subsidised, but that's not realistic is it? Yet the cost of defence, a public good, is largely privatised with only a small % of the population paying a heavy price for it. Yes, I am aware of the argument that the strength of Singapore's military lies with its reserves and the only way to achieve this is through a system of conscription. Should we be rethinking this system? Would new citizens / eligible PRs be willing to serve if there are sufficient economic incentives? Would Singaporean males who have served and sacrificed their time resist any notions of change and insist on extracting their pound of flesh from future generations?

We can continue down the path of privatising the cost of a public good on grounds that to do otherwise is economically unfeasible (gotta raise taxes, etc). Or we can recognise that if defence is vital to our survival, then everyone has to pay for it, ,through our noses, if necessary. Singapore is a much more cosmopolitan place than 48 years ago and we need to keep up with the times when it comes to staffing our military.

Mas Bengbeng said...

Who's jealous? They just give their personal opinion thought, as long as not racist comment it should not be a problem. Looks like you're anti critism just like your government do, hahaa

Chew said...

I note with interest the reference to "silver bullets". I don't think that they are a panacea to Singapore's lack of military manpower. Yes, such silver bullets may give any potential enemies pause for thought but as Mr Boey has commented many times, there is an arms race going on in S.E. Asia at present to level up. Further, if history is a mirror to the future, than the Iraqis and Vietnamese should have rolled over permanently to the Americans' shock and awe tactics. But they did not, and a decade later, it was the Americans who withdrew in ignominy from those countries, after losing countless lives and wasting billions.

What would really give a country food for thought would be to face a battle hardened military with the numbers and equipment to match. That was what SE Asia faced against the threat of Vietnam after the Vietnam war. To give an example, Malaysia expanded its conventional warfare capability in the 1980s and 1990s to face a threat of Vietnam steamrolling through Thailand down to Singapore. That was a very real threat from a country that had defeated 3 world powers (France, USA and China) in the space of 3 decades! They were battle hardened with some of the latest USA weaponry (captured from the South Vietnamese – 4 decades later IS did the same in Iraq) and a doctrine to match which threatened Asean. Luckily, saner minds prevailed.

I don’t think that the SAFVC amounts to much. It’s nothing more than window dressing for political purposes. Can anybody trained for only 2 weeks, just sufficient to use a rifle, be trusted to guard a facility? If any attack were to be launched at such a facility, military logic would be to insert Special Forces or at the very least, paras. They would probably go through them like if they were not there. Further, if they were to be used only for low level facilities, that would beg the question whether they are able to retain their interest. They are volunteers, not conscripts. Any units which rely on volunteers on a part time basis has always to contend with drop outs as their interest dwindle due to insufficient challenges. One only has to look at the British or Malaysian Territorial Army to see that they place a premium on intensive and challenging training and duties in order to obtain and retain volunteer part time soldiers.

One possible and realistic avenue to resolve Singapore’s military manpower quandary would be to conscript female NS. However, one only has to read military forums in Singapore to note that there seems to be resistance to that solution. Mostly citing from overseas experience and studies. Yet, one only has to examine the British and Malaysian Territorial Armies (part time volunteer soldiers) to find out that they are a mixed gender army and are to be used and have been used (by the British in Afghanistan) without regard to gender.

Singaporeans only have to look to their history to find out how female combatants are as deadly as their male counterparts. In fighting the communist insurgency during the Emergency, Commonwealth troops faced female communist terrorists (“CT”) who were often more deadly than their male counterparts. A veteran officer told me once that they could usually turn or crack a male CT but that it was almost impossible to do the same to a female CT. He said that it was almost like that they were married to the communist party and would gladly die for it.

As to how effective they can be, that same veteran told me of an occasion when he let a patrol to ambush a CT group. Amongst them was a heavily pregnant woman armed with only a parang. Yet, she charged a soldier who froze at the sight of a heavily pregnant woman charging at him. The veteran managed to let off a shot which knocked her down but she managed to get up and charged again. He finally managed to finish her off with a shot at close range! And if you ask any Americans about their experience with female VCs during the Vietnam war, they can probably testify to the same.

Joseph said...

@Chew, let me reorganise what you've written, just very slightly.

Singapore, with its National Servicemen army, faces the manpower quandary. Any loss of an NS soldier means one less cog in the economic machine for Singapore. Be he a white collar or blue collar worker, that loss would be felt. For example, USA lost about 4,500 military personnel during the whole of the Iraq war and occupation. For the Vietnam war, it lost almost 60,000 military personnel. Can Singapore afford to loose 4,500 NS, let alone 60,000 NS? Singapore might be able to win all the battles in any war (as the US did during the Vietnam war) but can it with the war with every NS casualty degrading any future that Singapore may have after a war?

As a first world country in a region surrounded by third world countries, Singapore has the ability to field some of the most advanced weaponry in the world, coupled with some of the best-trained soldiers in the region. However, that is in theory only. The lack of combat and peacekeeping experience may count against the actual fighting ability of SAF. Further, even if SAF has the combat experience, can it afford the manpower to sustain casualties?

Take Malaysia for instance, it has sufficient manpower to throw in its Army Reserves into the front line to soften up any attack as well as to determine the capability of any attacking forces. It can hold back its regular forces for counter-attacks or even to exploit any gaps. The important thing is that even if such forces suffer heavy losses, as a country, it can afford them. The regulars are full-time professionals and the reserves are mainly drawn from the civil service (which has the dubious reputation of being very bloated due to national policies regarding "bumiputras"). To be frank, any losses therein would not affect the country much.

It seems to be Singapore's mantra that advanced weaponry would be the force multiplier and saviour for the SAF. However, it must not ignore the lessons of modern wars such as the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Wars which the most military advanced country in the world, USA, took on 3rd World countries and won all the battles, and yet still lost the wars. With the present anarchy in Iraq, I doubt anybody would agree with the statement "Mission Accomplished"!

You see the difference in logical flow? A lack of manpower is the invariant condition. The SAF is not choosing advanced technology OVER manpower; it has not choice, but to substitute manpower with technology.



Chew said...

I do not disagree with your comments or conclusion. My argument was that the SAF was relying too much on advanced weaponry and not trying enough to address the issue of its manpower. The lack of manpower would certainly hurt Singapore in any war of attrition, as well as the combat ability of the SAF as it lacks any real combat experience.

Training is one thing but experience is another. If SAF were to come up against a well trained military force coupled with advanced weaponry, with some experience in combat, it would be an interesting scenario for the SAF. Take Malaysia, its armed forces are in an arms race with Singapore, regulars are well trained with combat experience, losing some 30 soldiers in various peace-keeping missions around the world including saving American Rangers and Special Forces during the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 (Blackhawk Down) where the Malaysians lost 1 KIA and 7 WIA.

In my later post, I argue that it is very important that SAF do not dumb down the training for its NS, especially when it is quite clear that the training that they received nowadays do not match the intensity of those in the late 1960s-1980s. Further, as a solution to the manpower problem, I had suggested that female NS is a highly probable solution, and I quoted some examples of Communist Terrorists during the Malayan Emergency and female VCs during the Vietnam War.