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Singapore’s Military Modernization

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Singapore’s Military Modernization

Singapore has the most technologically advanced military in ASEAN. But its defense planning needs a rethink.

Earlier this month, Singapore launched the Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence Community, setting another milestone in the city-state’s military modernization program known as the 3rd Generation Singapore Armed Forces project.

Without doubt, Singapore has the most technologically advanced armed forces amongst Association of Southeast Asian Nation states. Aside from its Integrated Knowledge-based Command and Control project, the Singaporean Defense Ministry has made numerous acquisitions over the past decade that indicate a shift towards both amphibious and precision strike capabilities.

These acquisitionsspan the air, ground and naval services of the armed forces, and include: Endurance-class Landing Platform Dock Ships; Formidable-class Stealth Frigates; F-15SG Multirole Fighters; F-16D fighters; the Bionix II Infantry Fighting Vehicleand the Gulfstream 550 Airborne Early Warning aircraft (G550-AEW). Moreover, Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen recently stated that Singapore is currently evaluating the possible procurement of the F-35 fighter.

Yet, despite these impressive force structural developments, at leasttwo glaring problems exist in the country’s armed forces that could cause problems in orientation at the operational and tactical levels.

First, Singapore’s defense planning has been more scenario-based and less threat-based (even though Singapore has often had uneasy relations with Indonesia and Malaysia). That is, Singapore’s security concerns have focused on a wide-range of contingencies within its immediate periphery by state and non-state actors. The Singaporean armed forces have also taken part in multilateral operations such as the Combined Task Force 151 to counter piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Yet the downside of Singapore’s varied roles is that as the number of scenarios multiplies, the scenarios could become increasingly hypothetical, overstretching Singapore’s capacity to prepare effectively.

Second, due to its lack of strategic depth, the armed forces are pegged to consistently maintain a forward-deployed stance with a high-level of operational readiness. The advantage is that the military is disciplined, and is ready to perform at a high level even with very little warning time. Yet questions remain over whether the country has adequate counterstrike capabilities to quickly thwart a threat, and if not, whether it has the stamina to sustain its forces in prolonged contingencies.

In both cases, there’s no perfect remedy, largely because of Singapore’s natural geopolitical characteristics. Yet while these problems are unlikely to bring the armed forces’ defense planning to a screeching halt, mishandling them could slow the benefits of Singapore’s military modernization efforts.

Singapore now needs to focus on how its military’s capabilities are used, rather than what capabilities are used. Without this adequate balance, Singapore’s defense planning could slip into technology-based planning, which not only increases the economic burdens, but also risks creating further strategic uncertainties.

This doesn’t mean that Singapore needs a wholesale overhaul of its defense planning. Rather, it should focus on fine-tuning and balancing the technological innovations in the armed forces. Now that the C4I Community has been put in place, the armed forces will need to perfect procedures and protocols so that the three service branches can mobilize in a cohesive and efficient manner.Additionally, it could also work on fostering a culture in which all branches of the armed services become properly attuned to its 3rd generation capabilities.

Singaporetakes a no-nonsense,corporate approach to military capability management, something that has allowed its armed forces to maintain a high level of operational preparedness. However, it is of the utmost importance that the operational and tactical aspects run in parallel with the impressive structural developments, rather than letting the technological aspects take on a life of their own. Ensuring this balance will be the key toadvancing Singapore’s role in regional security.

Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi is a security affairs analyst affiliated with the FM Bird Entertainment Agency Scholar Project, a Sergeant First Class in the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Reserve Component, and a non-resident SPF Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. The views expressed in this article are entirely the author’s own.