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Conscription: The Missing Perspective

By Benjamin Cheah

When discussing conscription in Singapore, much time has been spent discussing every relevant viewpoint but the most obvious: defence. Having read Mr Cheang’s thoughts on conscription, I found it woefully lacking in military matters. I make no special claim to an understanding of defence science. I have a mere ten years of casual, informal, research experience on the matter, motivated by my fiction writing instead of policy decisions. But I feel it is now time to discuss the most obvious yet missing aspect of conscription, and to share what little I think I know.

While National Service covers the military, police and civil defence, I will be restricting the scope to cover just the military. I am insufficiently aware of the necessities of the other two services to comment. Further, this post is not about patriotism, nationalism, or politics. This essay is about military doctrine and considerations. This post is not a call to rally around the flag. This post is about pointing out certain realities that are often overlooked by pundits in the long-standing debate on conscription, realities that have to inform any policy decisions on the matter. I am not trying to be alarmist by any means, but I do intend to take a realistic look at defence needs.

Is there a threat?

Mr Cheang asked, Is there a threat?

It seems like a wise question to ask. But it is not.

Mr Cheang was asking about conventional military threats to Singapore. But one does not perform threat assessments in times of peace. When the region is peaceful, when neighbours favour cooperation and great powers want to do business, there is no need for threat assessments. There is simply no threat to assess.

Threat assessments are conducted when there is a real possibility of military operations, when there is a real risk of harm and the military may need to be mobilised to meet it. When the political leadership of a neighbouring country starts ranting at Singapore, and openly positions troops within artillery range of Singapore, the state has to decide whether this is just sabre-rattling, a test of political will, or an actual prelude to invasion. This is a time for threat assessments. And this is not a hypothetical case. In 1991, a joint Malaysian-Indonesian exercise, Malindo Darsasa 3AB, involved an airborne assault in southern Johor. That assault, codenamed Pukul Habis (Malay for ‘total wipeout’), was conducted 18 kilometres from Singapore, on National Day. 18 kilometres is well within the operational range of Malaysian and Indonesian artillery systems. Periods of tension like this require threat assessments.

Times of peace need security assessments.

A need for soldiers

The real question is: what are we protecting?

I am not going to harp on the usual friends and family and society shtick. While people are motivated to protect people, aggressors use force to seize material things and impose their will on a target population for their benefit. A security assessment looks what will motivate aggressors to target Singapore, and how to deter them.

Singapore is located at the crossroads of civilisations, lying adjacent to the Straits of Malacca. The Port of Singapore is currently the world’s biggest port in terms of total shipping tonnage. It tranships a fifth of the world’s shipping containers, and half of the world’s supply of crude oil. Possession of the port would bring enormous economic advantages to its owner. The same thinking applies to Singapore’s other strategic installations. These include Changi Airport, a major aviation hub in the region, and Jurong Island, with its petroleum, chemicals and natural gas facilities.

While the current political leadership of the region and notable foreign powers currently favour trade and partnerships with Singapore, it is not prudent to believe that this will remain so forever. And I am only talking about economic motives for war, not political or ideological reasons, which are idiosyncratic to specific aggressors.

A covetous aggressor who decides that force will allow him to reap more benefits than diplomacy would not be likely to listen to diplomats alone. Even if a diplomatic resolution were possible, a prepared, well-trained and fully-equipped military would be necessary to discourage wanton aggression and encourage diplomacy. Even the most ambitious of militant leaders would take pause when faced with a military fully capable of matching — and maybe defeating — his.

A military that can handle conventional threats is the most potent deterrent to aggressors who use conventional military means. The SAF’s existence means that it is unlikely to be needed, especially in an age and place that favours peace, not war. Conventional threats are unlikely, and currently nonexistent, in part because of the SAF.

Unfortunately, unconventional security threats — i.e. terrorism — are much more likely. Singapore’s strategic location, political leanings (i.e. secularism), and willingness to deal with Westerners makes Singapore a target for groups aligned with al-Qaeda’s and Jamaah Islamiyah’s (JI) brand of terrorism. In 2001, JI planned to attack multiple embassies in Singapore, and surveyed other targets, including Changi Airport and the water pipelines at the Johor-Singapore Causeway. Singapore is a target for terrorists, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Earlier, I said there is no need for threat assessments. That is true — but only for conventional threats. We need one for terrorism.

Unlike conventional threats, terrorists are less keen on seizing strategic installations as they are on blowing them up. Unlike conventional threats, JI-type terrorists view civilian casualties as desirable, and plan their attacks to maximise civilian deaths. Finally, unlike conventional threats, terrorists have no armies to mobilise train to blend in with civilians as far as possible, making it far more difficult to detect a terrorist threat. These considerations significantly change the strategic calculus, and require an ongoing threat assessment.

It is easy to say that Singapore should invest in police and intelligence apparatuses to counter terrorists. To a large extent, this makes sense. But these measures are designed to deter and detect terrorists — not defeat them while they are in the act. This makes sense, as preventing terrorist activity is far more desirable to stopping it while it is underway. However, should a terrorist slip through the net, the only person who can stop him will be a man with a gun.

Specifically, a man trained to use that gun to kill threats hell-bent on killing innocents.

In Singapore, that role is currently delegated to the military, and to police tactical units. Terrorists are finding and exploiting gaps in security and intelligence nets. The ghosts of Moscow, Beslan, and Mumbai, among uncounted others, will attest to that. Their killers were not stopped by crisis negotiators, politicians, or diplomats. They were stopped by commandos. There is still a need for warriors to take up the final line of defence.

Whether conscripts, as opposed to regulars, will man this thin line is rightfully a matter for debate — and outside the scope of this essay. But I will say that I do not have any arguments. The simple fact is that I do not know how many regulars in Singapore can take on such a task, and how much manpower is needed. All I do know is that the Singapore Armed Forces believes that NSFs should be employed for force protection and routine duties in critical areas, freeing regulars for special duties elsewhere. Whether or not these NSFs can be replaced by regulars is not a question I can answer.

How many soldiers?

The next question, inevitably, will be how many soldiers we need.

It is easy to say that Singapore needs a smaller army. Preferably a volunteer one too. In truth, answering this question is extremely difficult. I will not be surprised if this is a subject of many a heated debate in local military circles. The simple answer is: it depends.

It depends on current military strategy. It depends on technology and force multipliers. It depends on the number of regular soldiers who can take the place of National Servicemen. It depends on whether the general population is willing to support the military. It depends on recruitment figures. It depends on security and threat assessments. It depends on so many variables I am confident I am missing a great number of them. Different nations have different considerations; comparing the Singapore Armed Forces to those of other countries are useful only to the extent their needs are similar to ours.

But I will say this: there is no substitute for manpower.

While Mr Cheang did not make it explicit, it seems to me that he would prefer a smaller force, composed of volunteers, as opposed to a large one made of conscripts. While I share his sentiments, I’m not nearly as idealistic. The state still requires a body of men to serve as its protectors. The question is how many.

Mr Cheang claims that “individuals voluntarily offer their services in return for a market wage, and thus there isn’t any shortage. Coupled with monetary compensation at market wage, there are definitely scores of individuals who will gladly volunteer their life to defend Singapore, without government coercion.”

I challenge him to prove his assertion. Earning these ‘market wages’ requires longer working hours than civilians, demands much more commitment to work — and comes with the not-so-occasional risk of injury and death. In a modern society, it will take more than money alone to motivate a large number of people to put their lives and relationships at risk, especially if they can make at least as much money in the private sector. The military is a calling for that reason — and right now, I am unsure if there are enough people who see the military as a calling to replace Singapore’s current conscript military. Until I see fully-manned brigades staffed entirely by regulars, I am not going to hold my breath.

Mr Cheang makes the point about the use of force multipliers to increase the combat ability of soldiers. To that, I will add that force multipliers multiply existing force; they do not substitute it. They are a be-all and end-all solution. Mr Cheang’s advanced bombers, ballistic missiles and unmanned vehicles are only effective in certain contexts, and there are counters to every force multiplier. The history of modern warfare is also the history of less-equipped forces trying to overcome the force multipliers of better-equipped professional militaries. And sometimes they succeed.

To name just one example, in Operation Phantom Fury — the second battle of Fallujah — the Americans brought the full might and fury of their military machine to bear on the insurgents. The autobiography House to House describes the insurgents’ tactics. They defeated force multipliers through booby traps, ambushes, and close range engagements in the living rooms and hallways of the houses of Fallujah. At such close ranges, calling on artillery, air strikes or even armour support would mean eating the same ordnance deployed against the enemy. Such tactics limited or eliminated the use of force multipliers in Fallujah. The battle boiled down to infantrymen going from house to house, flushing out the insurgents.

On a strategic level, by choosing urban warfare, the insurgents used American political considerations against them. Americans are politically sensitive to collateral damage, so by choosing terrain that would cause collateral damage should force multipliers be employed, the insurgents took away some of the Americans’ force multipliers before the battle. A crafty enemy will do the same to the SAF, if given a chance.

There is no substitute for a large enough body of trained personnel. If there are insufficient regulars to provide for the defence of the nation in spite of recruitment efforts, the state will have to choose between undermanned security or conscription, and the costs and benefits thereof. Singapore’s choice is conscription. The debate on National Service is the byproduct of that choice.

Training time and National Service length

Opponents to National Service have argued at length about how Singaporean males have to give up 2 years of their lives. The critics will question the need for such a lengthy period of service, and draw comparisons to other nations with shorter training times. They have valid points worth considering. But I will raise the one military reality they have overlooked. That is training time.

Modern warfare is inherently complex. The modern soldier must be able to use and maintain his equipment, assess and react to enemy tactics, and act decisively and ethically under pressure. This means specialist education for his specific gear and battlefield tasks. He must be able to move tactically, shoot accurately, and communicate with his comrades while taking heavy fire. That requires un-training the human instinct to curl up into a ball, and train the survival mechanism of getting up and pressing the attack. To succeed at modern war, a soldier must be a specialist at war. That requires a lengthy period of training. Since the pundits I have seen do not talk about such things, I will elaborate on this at length.

The first phase of military training is basic military training. In Singapore, Basic Military Training for a combat-fit recruit is 9 weeks. BMT instils in soldiers aggression, attention to detail, discipline, physical fitness, teamwork, and the military mindset. The result is a soldier who is fit enough for additional training. For soldiers in combat vocations, he can reasonably be trusted to safely handle a weapon without accidentally killing his buddy. But he is not combat-ready. He has not ingrained the tactics and habits that will keep him alive. He does not even know how to use anything more advanced that his basic kit. Deploy him on the modern battlefield, and he will be nothing more than cannon fodder.

The next phase can be termed advanced training. Here, soldiers receive training specific to their vocation. Commanders go on to receive leadership training, followed by training specific to their formation. Enlistees undergo trades courses, where they learn the basic skills of their vocation. Advanced training differs from vocation to vocation, but a general ballpark figure is in the realm of six to nine months of training before a combat soldier is trained for his job, and maybe three months for service personnel. At the end of advanced training is a soldier who is fit for day-to-day operations. But he is not ready for war.

To be ready for combat, he must know what his unit demands of him. The days of plug-and-play soldiers are long gone. Advanced training only covers what is generally expected of someone in a certain vocation. Individual commanders may have different interpretations of SAF doctrine, and therefore have different requirements of their men. An armour officer who likes to deploy his tanks independently will want to develop independent thought in his tankers, while another armour officer who deploys his tanks alongside IFVs will want his tankers to develop the art of coordinating with the IFVs. The soldier would not know what he needs to do until he arrives at his unit.

In addition, individual soldiers have different military talents, and will be deployed to make use of those talents to the fullest. For instance, an infantryman who is trained in all infantry weapons but is best with a machinegun will be deployed as a machinegunner. While a rifleman and a machinegunner are both infantrymen, the former is supposed to close with and destroy the enemy, while the latter’s job is to hang back and suppress the enemy. They belong to the same vocation, but they have different different tactical considerations and therefore different training requirements. At the same time, everybody in a section would need to know how to do everybody else’s job in case of casualties, requiring even more training time.

Further, being emplaced in a certain vocation does not always guarantee that a soldier will do what he is trained to do. An officer trained for logistics may arrive at his unit only to discover he will be deployed for planning, rendering his previous training useless. (This is based on a true story.) In such an event, the soldier has to adapt quickly and learn on the joy. Mistakes will happen, lessons will be learned from those mistakes — but they take time.

Commanders have a special set of requirements. Graduation from leadership school gives them the right and the training to command a group of men. But this is not enough. Commanders need to know how to interact with their men, how to motivate them to do their best, how to embody the values they were taught. This spells the difference between confident leadership, which means victory, and indecisiveness and friction, which brings death. This requires hands-on interaction with the men, which only occurs when the commanders finally arrive at their unit.

Soldiers need to form working relationships and understand their fellows to be effective in operations. Dropping an Indian sergeant who is a Junior College graduate and speaks with an American accent into a section staffed by Chinese ‘N’-level holders and speak mainly in Hokkien is hilarious only in television and low-key peacetime training. Soldiers need to be able to understand, respect and communicate with each other to succeed in peacetime training and wartime operations. This is the difference between a storeman telling a sergeant he hates that there are no batteries available, and that same soldier working around the clock to scrounge up more batteries for a sergeant he respects. It is the same factor that propels an infantryman into a hail of machinegun fire, because he knows his commander and his friends are beside him.

A soldier, airman or sailor is combat-ready only when he knows what he needs to do, and is ready to go the distance for his comrades. How long before a soldier is combat ready? I would hazard a year and a half, at least. But I am not conversant in the ins and outs of psychology, training and doctrine; I don’t expect this guess to be taken seriously. But I can state confidently that it will take some time to produce combat effective soldiers. It is a reality unaffected by well-intentioned arguments.

Ethics of Conscription

Mr Cheang opines that conscription is unethical and akin to slavery, and that a professional military is preferable to a conscript one. I am with him in his call for a military of well-trained and well-supported volunteers. As for his equating National Service with slavery, I will just point out that slaves do not usually receive income or legal protections from their owners. Neither do kidnap victims from their captors. National Servicemen receive both, guaranteed by the state — though more can definitely be done in both fields. I will also add that slaves and kidnap victims generally are not entitled to medical benefits, leave, and subsidies. Conscription is forced labour, but conscripts in Singapore have more rights than slaves — and conscription actually ends after a set time period.

Mr Cheang’s sentiments are principled, at least. But principles must be grounded in reality. Mr Cheang wrote about how non-aggression and being a small nation would not encourage aggression, and consequently undermine the need for National Service. He should note that Kuwait is a small, non-aggressive nation, and was invaded by Iraq in 1990. Talk of rights and principles flew over Saddam Hussein’s head; it took violence, naked force, to set things right.

 Most people respect each other. But there are some who will not respect the rights of others. Such people listen only to the language of pointed guns, or thunderous gunfire. We can choose to be peaceful, but we cannot control the actions of others. The flipside of Mr Cheang’s insistence on individual freedom is that individuals are free to choose aggression — and some of them, like Saddam Hussein, head militaries and countries. If they choose violence, we need to respond in kind or suffer the consequences.

Mr Cheang argues that individuals should be absolutely free of state coercion, specifically National Service. I would mostly agree with him. But he is wrong in saying that this is akin to him and his next-door neighbour forcing someone else to defend them. This is the state compelling them to learn how to defend themselves and their loved ones — and the state by extension — and putting them in an organisation whose ethical philosophy is based on protecting each other against threats. This is not about getting someone else to go your dirty work; it’s about being obligated to do it, which is arguably lower than the former on any scale of moral reasoning.

Mr Cheang seems to see individual freedom as absolute, and liberty preferable to security. I see liberty and security as intertwined, and the individual and the state as reflections of the other. Think, if you will, of a yin-yang.

Discussions on the ethics of security are the privilege of free peoples. They are free because they are secure. Mr Cheang’s right to criticise National Security, free from foreign interference and criminal and terrorist activity, is protected by the SAF and the police. Likewise, Singapore is secure because we are (somewhat) free to choose and discuss policies that protect the rights of the individual and of society. It is an unassailable fact that the bedrock of Singapore’s security is conscription, and there currently exist no better options Singapore can immediately transition to. In this sense, the yin of liberty is outweighed by the yang of security.

I would like the state to shift towards an all-v/lunteer force as quickly as possible. But this can only happen in a sovereign, secure state that is free to pursue policies independent of foreign masters and free from all threats. Until and unless the time comes when an all-volunteer force is feasible, I will keep supporting National Service to maintain Singapore’s security — maintaining yang — and keep supporting policies to shift away from conscription to enhance Singapore’s liberty — enhancing yin. This is not a choice between security and liberty; it is choosing both.

Mr Cheang argues that National Service as social engineering policy is friendship by fiat. I do not completely disagree with him, but I will point out that social engineering iska useful side effect of National Service. It is not the primary purpose of military training. The point is to strip away differences and create a shared environment and experience for bonding, leading to the useful relationships as discussed above.

The point is not to make ‘friends’. The point is greater exposure at close proximities, to better understand the persons you are working with, in order to work together more effectively. Along the way, you also learn more about that person’s culture and religion. Friendship, like racial and religious tolerance, is a useful outcome of NS but not the main point. NS may not be the primary factor of the success of Singapore’s racial and religious harmony policies. But it is a component of it, and cannot be dismissed so quickly.

Mr Cheang’s last substantive point is conscription is “only legitimate during wartime, when there is an imminent danger posed”. This is a noble sentiment, but woefully disconnected with reality. There is the old fable of the warthog who keeps his tusks sharp in case he needs them, because if he needs them he won’t have time to sharpen them. This holds true especially in modern war. A full discussion of this is outside the scope of this essay, but I will attempt to discuss the scenario of conventional warfare.

Modern warfare is a high-tempo 24/7 affair, ending only when the war is over. The objective is to win the war as quickly as possible, ideally in days, weeks, or months. Current military thinking favours manoeuvre warfare strategy. Manoeuvre warfare is based on rapidly bypassing or smashing through enemy defences to capture or destroy strategic locations. This involves rapid movement, and even more rapid application of precision firepower. The idea is to keep the enemy off-balance until he can no longer resist because your tanks are parked outside of his headquarters and your infantrymen inside his palaces.

The classic counter is defence in depth. The objective is to delay the enemy and force him to overextend himself. This means emplacing bunkers, fortifications, and obstacles along the enemy’s projected axes of advance. The goal is to trade space for time enough to rally one’s defences, marshal a counterattack — and then employ manoeuvre warfare on the enemy.

Such a strategy is the luxury of nations with space to spare. Singapore, unfortunately, does not. Singapore needs to find a different means to enforce national sovereignty and defend itself. Singapore took its cue from the Israelis and the Swiss, developing its defence posture accordingly. The ‘siege mentality’ Mr Cheang bemoans is, in fact, the defence strategy that one employs when one does not have the ability to conduct defence in depth. It means being able to conduct a vigorous and aggressive counteroffensive when you notice the aggressor is about to employ the tools of manoeuvre warfare. The idea is to prevent the aggressor from making significant incursions into your territory — or neutralising his ability to act altogether — because you really can’t afford to have him in your homeland

As described above, it would take about a year and a half before a soldier is ready for combat. Military planners cannot assume that a war will last long enough for a fresh batch of troops to be combat-effective. In a conventional conflict, both sides will employ the full scope of modern war doctrine, leading to victory and defeat in days, weeks, or months. Nobody will know how long wars will last. Nobody can fight wars on their terms; states at war must fight with what battle-ready troops they have. Not last-minute conscripts who do not understand what they are being thrown into.

Consider also that potential aggressors are keenly aware of Singapore’s NS policies. Conscription in wartime would require mass mobilisation of large numbers of men and the preparation of facilities. Such movements cannot be masked, especially in a tiny city-state like Singapore. Wartime conscription in Singapore would mean conscription taking place alongside mobilisation of reservists and full-time forces. This leads to mass traffic jams, confusion and large masses of military targets. There is no way to disperse the troops the way a large state can. A particularly vicious enemy will take the opportunity to direct artillery and air strikes on mobilisation and training areas, claiming that these fresh recruits are legitimate military targets. Or employ weapons of mass destruction. Even if Singapore survives the conflict, the end result will be the death of a generation. It will be extremely unlikely for Singapore in its current form to survive that kind of blow. From a strategic standpoint, conscription in wartime for Singapore is akin to wearing a bullseye and challenging the enemy to turn his biggest guns on you.

Conscription during wartime is a disservice to everybody. It is a disservice to the state, which needs effective soldiers for survival. It is a disservice to warriors, who need personnel who can do the job and do not need hand-holding. It is a disservice to the families of the conscripts, because their loved ones have a much lower chance of survival than others. It is a disservice to the conscripts, because they are being sent off to die. Conscription in wartime is marginally less wasteful than feeding men to the enemy’s guns — and bullets can be replaced much faster than men.

Missing voices

Much has been said about National Service. We have seen arguments from politicians, bloggers, pundits and government officials. We have seen no end of quarrels over how long NS should last, what NSmen can do, and the ethics of NS. But there are missing voices in this debate, voices that are necessary to resolving this issue.

We are missing the voices of the scholars who study military science and apply policy. We are missing the voices of the military personnel who work on training and doctrine. We are missing the voices of the military chiefs who understand the capability of the modern-day military, whose penultimate role is to send Singapore’s children in defence of the homeland.

The debate is missing the voices of those who will be affected the most by changes to Singapore’s National Service policy, and those who will have to use what legal powers the state gives them to defend the nation. Until they emerge from the woodwork and participate openly and actively in the discussion, this debate will go on forever.