Two articles were published on TOC in June, Conscription: Necessary Or Outdated? (Bryan Cheang, 20 June 2012) and Rethinking Singapore’s Defence Needs (Rajiv Chaudhry, 25 June 2012), which I found to be rather off the mark. Thankfully, soon after, another article which had, I feel, a more realistic perspective on things, Conscription: The Missing Perspective (Benjamin Cheah, 3 July 2012), was posted. I would like to comment on what has been said and add, what I hope is, a little more to the discussion.
A "New Normal"??
It is naive to think that "in this age of moderation" a "new normal" has emerged characterized by all manner of warm and fuzzy sounding buzz words. Rajiv Chaudhry and, to a lesser extent, Bryan Cheang seem to think that everyone else is good and just today. But look at the way children act when unsupervised, how often do you see bigger kids taking things away from the smaller ones. Similarly, big dogs steal food from smaller dogs. In fact, for most living X's, big X's steal food from small X's unless the small X's are able to secure protection for themselves. Similarly, defence solutions have to give tangible security guarantees.
It is notable that the United States has been rather consistent in offering assistance to victims of aggression only when its interests are at stake. Certainly, Singapore has substantial strategic value as a friend to the United States, however this value to the USA is positional and is the same even is Singapore becomes an island of bombed out ruins. In the grand scheme of things, our economy is of little value to the USA, and we should remember that. More generally, military alliances and pacts to offer assistance can be breached if they are not in the counter-party's interests to honour the terms. We have to be aware that military intervention involves real costs that have to be justified from the point of view of others.
Lee Kuan Yew has one thing right: the truth about inter-country relations is that we can be friends only if we respect each others' strength. If friendships between sentimental human beings can be ephemeral, how much more fleeting can "friendships" between unfeeling nations be? Presently, deterrence is the only real way to be sure that military capabilities that can otherwise be used as a means to expropriate our property and sovereignty are not.
The Need to Intelligently Provision for Defence
I am no big fan of the SAF and its (often sycophantic) "high potentials", but let us not kid ourselves. The SAF must be sufficiently provisioned to, at least, give the semblance of being a credible force with considerable sting. The sting must be sufficiently strong to skew the cost-benefit analysis of whether or not to infringe on our sovereignty towards a "no". However, this sting comes at a cost, and we have to obtain and sustain military capabilities cost effectively. Thus, it is important that senior officers in the SAF do not adopt a "don't ask me about money, I only train" attitude or a "I only need to manage my multi-year acquisition over my tenure of two years and look good before I post out" attitude. This is not a casual swipe at career soldiers, these attitudes are not uncommon and are highly costly to Singapore. Management of those managing the acquisition and operation of military systems needs to account for the prevailing incentives and structure remuneration and advancement in a manner that promotes military strength and cost effectiveness.
On the matter of manpower, I would argue that cutting the NS and reservist liabilities based on "what others are doing", as Rajiv Chaudhry suggests, is unthinking and silly. There are ways to do so intelligently but incrementally. Let me provide a simple example:
- Consider having only 7 compulsory ICTs, the last of which is an ATEC assessment. If the reservist battalion passes, they are done with their reservist liability and will transition into the MINDEF Reserve. Otherwise they will come back for the 8th, 9th and perhaps 10th re-test sessions. This gives the incentive to build competence and also cuts the effective liability.
In the longer term, force structuring is the way forward to reducing ("right-sizing") the defence foot print. The ORBAT (Order of Battle) must be fluid, allowing reductions in some areas and increases in others. Capabilities will have to match the threat landscape, and capabilities that are less relevant have to be phased. Opposition to any reduction in command positions would reflect ego problems and rather than any substantive defence issue.
The Ability to Use Capabilities
The ability to effectively use equipment is crucial. The best soccer boots on an amateur team will not help them beat a barefoot Germany (because to use Brazil would simply be unfair). The man is more important than the machine.
During periods of tension, the best that can be done is to call men back for re-orientation with their equipment. How can it be expected that we will be able to use our equipment well. If technology is a force-multiplier, the lack of expertise in the use of that equipment is a force-divider. The natural question that arises is whether that number resolves to something greater or lesser than unity. Having this as the best option available to us seems to reflect a lack of foresight on the part of senior MINDEF/SAF officials/officers.
As equipment requires increasing amounts of practice and knowledge of its workings to use properly, the dictum that we do not want to have too many Singaporeans of working age tied up in the regular force has to be called into question. Economic output may suffer somewhat, but more soldiers will have the time required to build up their ability in the use of our high-tech equipment. This old assumption will have to be re-examined.
As Benjamin Cheah notes, the geography of the region puts us at a distinct strategic and tactical disadvantage. We have to be smart about how we handle defence. We must provision intelligently and ensure that our men have the ability to leverage our expensively obtained capabilities.
If we were to return to the issue of NS which started all this, in my mind, it would be appropriate to have a larger regular force for skill-development along with variable length NSF and reservist periods (based on demonstrated effectiveness). It might well turn out, that increased economic participation and longer economic life of Singapore males due to effective reductions in their NS liabilities more than pays for the increase in the size of the regular force.