SINGAPORE: There has been an increase in reports of near misses during training in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said, adding that this shows soldiers were taking the issue of safety more seriously.
“Even before an accident happens – the near miss – people are reporting, and that has gone up,” Dr Ng told reporters on Friday (Jun 28) in an interview ahead of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Day.
“So, I think that’s a good sign that we see that people are taking it more seriously as they need to.”
There have been four National Service (NS) training deaths since September 2017, with the most recent being the death of national serviceman (NSman) Aloysius Pang.
The 28-year-old died on Jan 23 this year after sustaining injuries while carrying out repair work on a Singapore Self-Propelled Howitzer as part of his reservist duties.
In February, Dr Ng said that “anybody can stop unsafe training” through commanders on the ground or anonymous safety hotlines, in response to questions in Parliament about parents worried about their sons’ safety during NS.
“We know that we have to win the confidence of soldiers, the parents, the community at large to be able to train effectively but train safely,” Dr Ng said on Friday.
“At the same time, we recognise that you have to raise it to a level beyond training safety regulations for practice, and for a certain standard of awareness and a safety culture.”
Following the deaths, the Inspector-General’s Office (IGO) was set up to ensure a command emphasis on safety across all SAF units, with Dr Ng providing an update on the IGO’s progress.
“The Inspector-General’s Office is doing what exactly what it should: Going down to units, looking at the commanding officers, getting their buy-in, looking at practices and changing it,” he said.
“From time to time, the IGO will present a report on how we have improved or the areas that we need to improve, in many ways similar to our internal or external audience in terms of, let’s say, areas of finance and governance.”
Nevertheless, Dr Ng said the SAF has “good” safety standards, pointing out that incidents sometimes occur due to personal lapses of attention or non-compliance to regulations.
“But we’ve reached a level where you have to reach that last individual,” Dr Ng added, describing this as a day-to-day process that is not just about sending out more training safety regulations.
“So, to effect that change is not going to be done by seminars and lectures, you have to recognise it has to be something which has been internalised.”
In the wide-ranging interview, Dr Ng also touched on the challenges of a leaner SAF, noting that it would need to acquire platforms that can do more with less, deploy more servicemen across all vocations, and develop new training methods.
He also elaborated on measures to better counter threats, including setting up a new Special Operations Command Centre to tackle terrorism in the region, and ramping up capabilities against cyber attacks.
A LEANER SAF
The “greatest challenge” to the SAF is that it will see a one-third reduction in manpower by 2030, Dr Ng said, although he believes it is “well-prepared” for this through years of advance planning.
The SAF’s main approach to the challenge is to design and acquire new platforms that require less manpower but maintain their effectiveness, Dr Ng added.
These include the Hunter, a fully digital armoured fighting vehicle; the new Howitzer, an artillery gun that can be operated by a crew of three instead of the current nine; and the upcoming multi-role combat vessel, a mothership that requires half the number sailors compared to current frigates.
“So these are concrete examples of how we’ve entered a sweet spot of the technology cycle,” Dr Ng said. “Technology that allowed us to thankfully transform the SAF.”
Another measure is to deploy more national servicemen across different vocations, with Dr Ng stressing the need for a “fundamental HR shift”. “We have to change both our recruitment and deployment policies,” he added.
For instance, more national servicemen can now be deployed as combat engineers and tank ammo loaders, jobs that used to require a high level of fitness but now less so with automation.
The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) is also deploying full-time national servicemen (NSF) in more vocations like maritime security and unmanned operations and will in the next few years introduce pre-identified operationally-ready national servicemen (NSmen) roles related to new capabilities.
While Dr Ng said modern platforms and technological advancements have given “significant leverage” in allowing the SAF to deploy more national servicemen, he saw a need to “better match the skills and capabilities of individual national servicemen with their vocations”.
Dr Ng noted that those with nursing or engineering backgrounds have been deployed in medical or technical vocations, while the expertise conversion scheme allows NSmen with relevant skills in fields like medicine, engineering and psychology to continue contributing past their operationally ready NS.
“I think this idea is a powerful one if you can do it well,” he stated. “The HR side is studying very carefully how to do more of it.”
NEW TRAINING METHODS
Dr Ng said these “significant shifts in platforms and deployments” will require new training methods.
For example, the upcoming SAFTI City urban training centre, together with the expanded overseas training area in Queensland, Australia, will provide the SAF with “best-in-class” training facilities.
Technology will be used to handle necessary but mundane tasks, freeing up more time for training.
This includes the Sungei Gedong hub that halves the time needed to repair tracked vehicles by having contractors work in camp, and the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) use of data analytics, artificial intelligence and robotics to automate several maintenance tasks.
The RSAF has also integrated its fleet management system with mobile applications that provide resource and aircraft information required for maintenance work, telling crew what exactly needs to be replaced.
But the mission for a truly next-gen SAF does not end there.
“Even with all that, I think we have to find new ways to operate,” Dr Ng said. “So, we are going to put significant sums, both resources for people and finances, into groups that are fully dedicated to think of future concepts.”
This includes soldiers fighting with a suite of unmanned and automated systems that extend their vision and help take out enemies.
“We no longer think of an infantry soldier going out with one weapon,” Dr Ng added.
“That’s really passé.”
TERRORISM AND CYBER THREATS
What is not passé is the continuing threat of terrorism.
Dr Ng warned that the SAF needed to be prepared for terrorist activities shifting from the Middle East to Southeast Asia, calling Singapore a “hot spot” as foreign and returning fighters bring their operations to the region.
To tackle this, the Special Operations Command Centre (SOCC) in Hendon Camp will act as the main command centre to centrally plan, monitor and manage multiple counter-terrorist and contingency operations.
The centre, to be commissioned by the end of 2019, will have improved command and control systems to support operational planning and provide situational awareness for backend sense-making.
“When required, the SOCC will work closely with relevant agencies in managing incidents,” MINDEF said.
Likewise, Dr Ng said the RSN’s Information Fusion Centre has been updated with a real-time information-sharing system to create a more complete maritime picture and allow quicker collaboration on maritime security.
“That includes increasing our linkages with law enforcement agencies – non-military agencies – such as Interpol,” he added.
Transnational threats can also come from cyberspace, with Dr Ng stressing the need to train more regulars as cyber specialists. This comes after MINDEF said in February that it hopes to recruit about 300 personnel for areas like cyber incident response and monitoring of computer networks.
To meet this, the SAF has been holding major recruitment drives to complement the new cyber training school and current scheme for NSF cyber specialists.
“We’re looking to expand other aspects, even to … revocationalise NSmen if they are interested, where they have professional expertise,” Dr Ng added. “As well as mid-career regulars who want to be employed in cyber vocations.”
When asked when the SAF will step in to deal with a cyber attack in or on Singapore, Dr Ng said the incident must have serious consequences, like causing trains to crash or robbing financial markets of large sums of money.
“We shouldn’t do what others are doing because that’s just duplication of efforts,” Dr Ng said, noting that authorities like the Cyber Security Agency are already looking after the power grid.
“For the SAF, we’ll have to take the lead from other militaries that focus their efforts on protecting key assets or installations, and also monitoring … orchestrated campaigns to weaken Singapore as a preamble to the kinetic phase.”