By Gunslinger, Guest Columnist
The need for deterrence against potential aggressors is indisputable for this city state. In fact, there is a very strong case for deterrence and there is historical precedence that small states in the correct context with the right capabilities can achieve this. During World War 2, land locked Switzerland avoided Nazi Germany’s invasion through its difficult mountainous terrain, its citizen army, sheer grit and pride and without doubt a little complicity.
Yet, it would be interesting to see how the SAF might attempt to achieve a swift and decisive victory should deterrence fail. A military victory is usually defined as meeting military objectives that would fulfil political objectives. Thus, we would need to estimate what might be the SAF’s military objectives.
For this, Tim Huxley’s “Defending the Lion City” is revealing. Singapore’s leaders evidently believe that the best defence is offence and this is reflected in the order of battle of the SAF: amphibious landing ship tanks; heavy troop lift helicopters; F-16s and F-15s with conformal fuel tanks (increased striking range), the latter being F-15E Strike Eagles on steroids; air refuelling tankers; main battle tanks etc. The concept of “forward defence” described by Tim Huxley is therefore quite apt. With such offensive and power projection capabilities, she is probably more keen on punishing an aggressor, hitting where it really hurts and causing some long term damage rather than just beating off an attack.
This concept becomes even more credible when the nature of the national service is considered. Previously two and a half years of service for most young men, it was shortened a few years ago to two years. However, this should be considered a very lengthy period for a country outside a war zone or hot spot. Taiwan has only a 1 year conscription period and are considering a fully professional military force by 2014. Furthermore, the conscripts are not only trained in basic warfare but probably go through at least one exercise at the brigade or even divisional level.
On the MINDEF website, you would find information on overseas training exercises such as Wallaby in Australia resembling major combat operations. With emphasis on combined arms and integrated air force army operations, it is not unfathomable that the SAF’s defensive doctrine involve invading an aggressor. After all, Singapore’s urban areas are hardly the best places to run divisional level combined arms, with air force support.
The necessity of a short and brutal war is obviously not lost on Singapore’s Ivy League leaders. This is reflected in the SAF’s mission, doctrine and composition. It is unlikely that the SAF would or could persecute a protracted war. After all, mobilising her entire reserve forces would grind her economy to an abrupt halt. The composition of the RSAF’s offensive capabilities is also probably scaled to inflict maximum damage in the shortest time possible.
Geopolitics have immense influence in this region where one of the world’s most important shipping lanes passes through. Today, an estimated 80% and 90% of China’s and Japan’s energy supplies respectively pass through the Malacca Straits. Singapore is also a vital port and transit point for American forces between the Indian and Pacific oceans. Any armed conflict will certainly invite “international” condemnation, swift economic sanctions, international pressure and even military intervention.
MINDEF constantly reminds the Singapore public (through their website) about the British failure to defend Singapore during WW2, and that the SAF is the only guarantor for security. While there is some truth in it, they also conveniently avoid mentioning that Singapore would probably have been a much easier target without the British. They also forget to add that all countries will dash headlong to protect their own vital interests. The international community will not allow the Malacca straits to be turned into a war zone as too much is at stake for them. International action against piracy at the Horn of Africa and Japanese proactive participation in keeping the Malacca straits free of pirates are further proof. Numerous factors converge to limit the scale of a armed conflict that would threaten trade through the Malacca Straits.
Using Israel’s latest experience in Gaza and in Lebanon in 2006, the SAF would have no more than about 3 weeks to 1 month to achieve her objectives before being forced to the negotiating table for a ceasefire. This is an optimistic estimate given that Singapore does not have much leverage over the major powers nor does she have the powerful congressional lobbies that Israel possesses and uses to great effect.
Given the need to achieve a “swift and decisive victory” in this short time frame, the SAF faces a nearly impossible task although this article does not intend to cast doubt on her doubtlessly impressive operational capabilities. In fact, we shall assume that the SAF would face little opposition in a conventional face off with the Malaysia armed forces.
Yet, the ultra urbanisation of Singapore and to a lesser extent southern Johor poses immense problems to any invading army. Civilian casualties and collateral damage are almost impossible to avoid, resulting in loss of legitimacy and increased pressure to end hostilities. Case in point, the Israelis had to stop their operations in Lebanon in 2006 due to international pressure although they had international support at the beginning of the war.
Armies also advance at a snail’s pace in urban areas. The Pakistani army took more than 6 months to rout the Taliban in the tribal controlled areas which are dotted with little villages, unlike the dense cities in Singapore and southern Johor. In the process, they also had to bulldoze most of the villages. The SAF is therefore faced with a quagmire : avoid the urban zones and risk artillery and rocket attacks fired from these areas or enter the zones and fight protracted bloody battles.
Neither option is pretty. While the attacks may not do serious physical damage, the psychological damage could be severe, demonstrating the inefficacy of the SAF in defending against primitive rocket or artillery attacks. So in fact, the SAF would be forced to enter these zones to attempt to control them and stop the attacks. However, the recent Israeli wars have shown that it is impossible to stop them, despite the fact that the Israelis possessed one of the most effective armies in the world as well as the most technologically advanced weaponry available. They fared better recently in Gaza but at immense cost in terms of collateral damage and legitimacy of their cause. The ensuing international outrage is now threatening their trade status with the European Union.
A conventional conflict also assumes that both parties are intent on pitting their conventional forces against each other. An opponent can choose to prolong the conflict while preserving her forces. Such a strategy will bear down on Singapore’s weaknesses, wearing down her forces and economy while rallying for a strategic attack at the right time.
This strategy (not tactic) is in fact employed throughout the world by terrorist organisations. The Malaysian armed forces already appears to understand the concept of preserving forces, placing her most valued military assets out of easy reach from Singapore. Their newest Sukhoi-30MKM will be based in northern West Malaysia, yet they still have the range to strike the city state. Their new state of the art Scorpene submarines will be based in Sepanggar Bay in Sabah.
Even in the unlikely case where Singapore does achieve a “swift and decisive victory”, the effects of a war will have far greater and longer lasting effects on her than on any of her neighbours even after a cease fire. Wanting to avenge themselves, an intelligent adversary will bleed Singapore slowly to economic disaster with occasional skirmishes and plenty of rhetoric.
Without a hinterland or natural resources, she will be forced to look further afield to import her daily needs. The increased cost of doing business would drive away investors. Local SMEs already deprived of an adequate domestic market will be put out of business. Increased security measures needed to guard against ex-enemies will strain resources. In this context, war is not the best way to bring down Singapore. Bleeding her to death would be much easier and cheaper. This has not yet happened because it is much more profitable to cooperate with her.
This does not mean that Singapore is not defendable. It is certainly defendable. As an island, invading forces need to possess a significant amphibious or bridging capability since trying to dash the causeway or the second link, which might be blown up, under fire is suicidal.
The urban environment is a huge booby trap and makes it difficult for an invader to control the terrain and progress quickly to key objectives. These are “natural” obstacles that are extremely difficult to overcome even without significant participation of armed resistance. But this article is long enough, and I will present an alternative defence policy later and an alternative NS policy. For now, it suffice to say that MINDEF’s policies are misguided, do not take into account today’s realities and will not bring “swift and decisive victory”. Taxpayer’s money has been wasted in pursuing this current defence strategy and our youths do not need to go through a 2 year NS period.