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Improved methodology and equipment is better than just outsourcing

mindef outsource st

The Straits Times has recently reported that through the tender documents it acquired, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) is looking for civilian companies to take over the cleaning of the armoured vehicles from reservist soldiers, to further enhance National Service (NS) training efficiency.

These tasks are currently carried out by armoured infantry troops or tank crews before and after an outfield training exercise.

The outsourcing to civilian contractors is said to free up operationally ready National Servicemen (NSmen) to focus on honing their combat skills.

According to the documents obtained by The Straits Times, the civilian contractors will be expected to handle an average of 510 tracked vehicles a year, and will be responsible for mounting and dismantling equipment from the vehicles and washing them.

Staff from private commercial companies will then take over these tasks for selected major exercises for NSmen.

"These efforts allow for a faster turnover of vehicles required to support NS training," Colonel Lam Sheau Kai, commander of the Combat Service Support Command, was reported as saying.

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is also increasingly handing over the management and warehousing of combat equipment or stores in training institutes to civilian contractors.

SAF began outsourcing non-core jobs as early as the 1970s, with tasks such as fitness instruction, cookhouse operations, maintenance for radio/communications, vehicular, aircraft and many other equipment are now carried out by civilian contractors.

The  idea behind out-sourcing was to allow servicemen to focus on combat training.

However, for all of us who have or are still serving our NS cycle, the key question should really be whether this out-sourcing would really lead to more effectiveness for our troops.

Anyone who has served NS would be familiar with the term "rush to wait, wait to rush", a long-standing joke to describe the needless time servicemen spent waiting for things to happen. Perhaps time is better saved re-looking internal processes to minimise waiting, if combat efficiency is the key concern.

For the bulk of us what have completed our two-year stint, the greater time-waster - which we would feel more once we hit the workforce - would be the fact that NSmen are required to clock a set number of days in order to fulfil the number of  High Key and Low Key exercises, before we reach our run-out date (ROD) and are deemed to have fulfilled our NS obligation.

No doubt, the out-sourcing of certain functions would help NSmen use their time more effectively. No one would complaining that the army has the interest of NSmen by saving their time during their in-camp training.

But is this really the best option the army can adopt to save time for the NSmen? Would out-sourcing be money well spent for defense, given that Mindef takes up the highest percentage in government spending, and set to increase this budget every year?

To share a personal experience, I was a regular serviceman and was attached to Exercise Wallaby in Australia to support the troops. Before we left for Australia, we had to prepare the tanks to be sent over and we had to clean the tanks, right down to their gears, for inspection.

The army had contractors to help us with the cleaning. However, the helpers were Polytechnic students doing a part time job with the contracting company. Long story short, we had to chip in to make sure the tanks were cleaned in time. It was in effect a double job.

The other issue is the method the army uses to clean tanks, which has not changed since decades. While it is necessary and relatively simple to use a high pressure jet to clean the exterior of a tank, it is more difficult to clean the interior of mud and grease.

If you use a high pressure jet on the insides of the tank, the communication system inside the vehicle will be damaged. It is then necessary to first remove the system, which is a time-consuming task and, as Mindef has noted in the article by The Straits Times, can take up to nine men and four hours to complete for each vehicle.

Did Mindef instead consider the use of technology to help with this process - for instance, a steam cleaner?

Using steam, stubborn stains can be removed without the need for high pressurised jets of water. Potentially, the equipment can remain in the vehicle while cleaning and save servicemen time and effort in dismantling and installing it back. (To note, military radio equipment are required to pass submerged or water proofing test at normal pressure but not set to withstand high pressure.)

There are certain radio equipment which are hard to remove and sometimes will fail due to indiscriminate spraying of water. And there are places in a vehicle where you cannot reach with a jet spray.

If the army wishes to help NSmen, it should be providing better methodology in cleaning or better equipment to save time and effort in doing so.

There is a limit to what you can outsource, and being soldiers ourselves, we need to be proficient in our jobs, be it cleaning, cooking, maintaining our weapons and, in Singapore's case, get that done quickly so that we can get back to our day jobs.

This is the best way to be operational ready  - to be there not just in body, but in mind as well. Surely Mindef is aware that in times of war, there are no contractors we can outsource thinking-on-the-job to?