Speech by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the Committee of Supply Debates 2022

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Speech by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the Committee of Supply Debates 2022

Mr Chairman, thank you for allowing me to reply to Members of Parliament's (MPs') cuts. I will try to answer as many questions as they have put, but some of the others may be replied to by the Senior Ministers of State for Defence. Mr Chairman, I state the obvious when I say that battling COVID-19 has been the central preoccupation of governments and their citizens all over the world for the last two years, including Singapore. If you think about it, very few events have had that power and reach. In recent history, I think World War II did, and that shared experience defined that affected generation. If you compare, COVID-19 is not as devastating as World War II, but many years on, I suspect that it will likely linger in the memories of all those who lived through it.

But despite the singular challenge of this century – COVID-19 – there is no respite, no temporary cessation of other challenges that pose security threats to Singapore, as some MPs have observed. My Ministry and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) have remained very focused on the security environment even as we went into the trenches to join the Whole-of-Government in our fight against COVID-19.

The SAF's core purpose, first and foremost, must remain to protect Singapore from all potential external aggressors – Mr Vikram Nair alluded to this and Mr Dennis Tan as well. And because we are a small country, with less space figuratively and literally to react, we need to recognise these threats early. For Singapore's survival and well-being, the SAF not only needs to be always prepared, to plan long term and be well organised, but also nimble to change, if we are to prevent or ward off imminent danger.

Therefore, despite our efforts to fight COVID-19, MINDEF and the SAF have continued to plan in earnest so that we build the next generation SAF that is not only capable of meeting today's security threats, but anticipating tomorrow's too. That must be our approach. There will always be the unexpected threats just like COVID-19. But the better the SAF is structured to deal with the known threats, the more bandwidth it has to deal with the unknown unknowns. I will deal with some of these new initiatives later on which Members have asked for.

But first, let me put MINDEF's budget for this year in context.

This year, my Ministry will increase our spending relative to the past two years – Mr Shawn Huang asked about this – and that increase is due to the resumption of projects, training and exercises which were disrupted by COVID-19 over the past 2 years. I should underscore that we continued to purchase and acquire new platforms despite COVID-19. But suppliers were also affected, causing delays. For example, deliveries of the RSAF's H225M Medium Lift and CH-47F Heavy Lift Helicopters were delayed from end-2020 to March and May 2021, respectively. The delivery of our Invincible-class submarines, initially planned for last year, has also been delayed. For this year and beyond, projects deferred or delayed will resume, as will the acquisition of new platforms.

Members have asked about training – Mr Don Wee, Mr Desmond Choo, Mr Dennis Tan and Mr Shawn Huang. The SAF expects to increase training numbers both locally and overseas to reach pre-COVID levels later this year. Last year, we indeed had fewer overseas exercises and with less troops. For example, Exercise Forging Sabre in the US with 800 personnel, and Exercise Wallaby in Australia with around 580 personnel, much less than pre-COVID levels. At home, NS training has progressively returned to normalcy and In-Camp Training (ICT) call-up rates are on track to reach pre-COVID levels this year.

With the planned resumption of both projects and training to pre-COVID levels in the coming financial year, we are projecting an expenditure of $16.3B. This translates to an increase of 6.5% which is expected to be one-off and a catch up for the reduced spending for FYs 2020 and 2021. COVID-19 resulted in sharp dips and spikes but over the next five years, MINDEF's budget is expected to keep pace with inflation, or 3 to 4% nominal growth each year, which I have assured this House previously.

The reduction in spending over the last two years did not occur at the expense of readiness – Members have asked about this, Mr Vikram Nair, Mr Dennis Tan. Indeed, the SAF was able to operate at a high level of readiness and conduct critical operations amidst the pandemic. Soldiers within units were disciplined and kept to strict health and safety protocols, such as health screening for all recruits and instructors, training in smaller groups when possible, temperature taking, and testing for returning NSmen for their ICTs every seven days. Of our MINDEF/SAF personnel, 99.7% are vaccinated, and 91% have received their booster shot. And I think that has helped us keep our infections at bay.

The SAF's Next Gen Transformation Journey

I said we are determined to keep building up the Next Gen SAF – and Mr Henry Kwek and Mr Desmond Choo asked for updates. Let me provide some details. The Formidable-class frigates first commissioned in 2007 are now 15 years old and due for their mid-life upgrade – they are our key fighting platforms for maritime strike, anti-air and anti-submarine warfare. But the mid-life upgrade, as we do for all platforms, will be more than just "addition and alteration", if I can use a construction term. Because each time we do a mid-life upgrade, we look at the technology that has evolved – our manpower, the design, and including Artificial Intelligence if we can. After the upgrade, the frigates' combat capabilities will increase and be equipped with better combat management and communications systems, upgraded weapon systems, along with improved maintenance processes. Basically, to use less to achieve more.

The Next Gen SAF, which Mr Desmond Choo asked about too, will also have more unmanned systems across the three services. The RSAF has acquired the Orbiter 4 Close-Range Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. With their smaller size, capable sensors and increased portability, these can be used for a wide range of operations in peace and combat.

This year, our Navy will deploy the first tranche of Maritime Security Unmanned Surface Vessels to patrol local waters. The RSN will also replace its Mine Countermeasure Vessels with a fully unmanned system from 2027 onwards.

We are among the first few navies in the world to operate unmanned maritime systems. These systems were designed and integrated locally by DSO, DSTA, and the RSN. DSO and DSTA are critical enablers. DSO celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. We are immensely proud of and grateful for the men and women of DSO, who for the past five decades have worked hard behind the scenes to provide game-changing defence technologies and solutions that transformed the SAF into today's modern fighting machine.

Some Members remember that at last year's Committee of Supply debate, I spoke about the inauguration of the Army's Headquarters Sense & Strike (HQ SS). The HQ SS was able for the first time to participate in Exercise Forging Sabre late last year. The Army will also operationalise the first HUNTER Armoured Battle Group later this month.

The Next Gen SAF is taking shape – you can already see its new form, now inchoate but with greater definition as each year passes. By 2040, the Army, equipped with Next Gen Infantry Battalions and new armoured tracked carriers and howitzers will be more manoeuvrable, able to strike faster and harder. The Navy, with Multi-Role Combat Vessels, Invincible-class submarines, and unmanned vessels will be able to see and strike further at sea and in the depths to better protect our waters and our Sea Lines of Communication. The Next Gen Air Force, with F-15s, F-35s fighter jets and Next Gen UAVs will be more lethal, versatile, and effective to better protect our skies.

This Next Gen SAF will provide for this and the next generation, our children and theirs, greater confidence in dealing with potential aggressors, to fulfil the SAF's core mission. Many Members have asked how we navigate the increasingly complex geopolitical situation and rivalries. I am afraid that no country has magic formulas or Aladdin's Lamp that we can make wishes from. Our philosophy is a simple one – we make friends with all countries, and seek no enemies. But we are realists too and keen observers of history and events around us, and especially what happens to small vulnerable states. We saw how Kuwait, an oil rich state, was invaded by Iraq in 1990. We observed how Qatar suffered an air, land, and sea blockade imposed by its neighbours in 2017, not so long ago. And at this very moment, we witness Ukrainians deeply troubled as they ponder their futures balanced on a knife edge. The unthinkable and unimaginable has occurred – their cities are under bombardment and with foreign troops. Their way of life, their dreams are shattered. Their independence and freedom are under peril. Ukraine, with a population of over 40 million, is not a small country, but size and might is relative. For them, Kuwaitis and Qataris, these moments are about life and death, freedom or subjugation.

Indeed, we live by the dictum that the stronger the SAF, the easier it is to make friends and have fewer enemies. No one will defend Singapore as robustly if Singaporeans do not or cannot.

The Digital and Intelligence Service

If we are able to build up that kind of SAF that I have just shown by 2040, can we be satisfied that collectively, as leaders in government and members of this House, that we have discharged our duties honourably and with satisfaction to our children's generation? Some here might say yes.

Because that kind of SAF is impressive. I think our founding fathers could not have envisaged that we could have come this far. It will certainly be among the most modern and better equipped militaries in this region. But my honest answer is almost there, but not quite.

Because as good and ambitious as the Next Gen SAF is, there are some gaps in capabilities which recent events and developments warn us against. I am glad that Members of this house have warned us too – Mr Vikram Nair, Mr Shawn Huang, Mr Patrick Tay. And I am talking primarily about threats in the digital domain. To complete that SAF 2040, we will need a fourth service, to complement the existing three services. I will spend some time elaborating on this significant move, as the reasons are important.

Let's characterise the digital threat first in broad general terms, to know what countries including Singapore are up against. The digital terrain has become as real as the land, air and sea domains for which we have raised the Army, the Air Force and the Navy. I think no one here doubts that. In fact, some would argue that for the next generations, the digital domain is the dominant domain – so much so that a new word "metaverse" has been coined for that virtual universe.

Threats that emanate in the digital domain can readily impact events in the real physical world. That divide between virtual and physical, in security terms is a false one as the two are in fact intricately interwoven. Again, I do not think anyone here would gainsay this. We already have real life examples that exemplify this truth and Members have quoted it. Fuel shortages across the US east coast last May due to a ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline. Similarly, Iranians could not top up gas in the petrol stations last October because the payment system was hacked.

There have also been clear examples of countries or non-state entities like terrorist groups that use a combination of attacks through both the digital and physical domains. I first spoke about this type of hybrid warfare, seven years ago, in my 2015 COS speech. Over the past few years, there have been many more examples of this type of campaigns.

Even now, we are witnessing with our own eyes that kind of campaign in Ukraine. The Financial Times reported it with the headline "Ukraine shores up cyber defences" on February 14. Some relevant quotes provide vividly what to expect in this kind of attack:

  1. "The country has been under constant attack since 2014. Cyber espionage, damage to databases and servers, disruption to power and communications and disinformation are all part of the playbook."

  2. "The (Ukraine) government and independent experts expect hostile cyber activity to increase in an effort to destabilise the country before or during any (physical) attack".

  3. "There are bound to have been many, many more attacks over the years that we don't know about and that have left malware embedded in systems ready to be activated," said V S Subrahmaniam, Professor of Computer Science at Northwestern University in the US, "It's a bit like a bomb being planted in your house – it's benign until someone sets it off."

  4. "Ukraine, meanwhile suffers from a deficit of public sector cyber security expertise, weak regulation, limited response capability and a lack of coordination between various agencies."

I think all Members here would agree with me that we can learn from this unfortunate situation. And far better to learn and adjust now because if we wait to change only after an attack on ourselves, the cost is going to be very high.

When we look at all these incidents in the digital domain, what then should our response be? Fortunately, our intelligence sources have not identified such orchestrated attempts to subvert or subjugate Singapore using hybrid means. But that does not mean the threat will never come, so we best prepare now with a longer runway. For the SAF, a clear cut response is a fourth service.

Internally, over the past decade, MINDEF/SAF has progressively built up what we call the C4I – Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence. We built up that community to enhance the resilience of the SAF's networks and systems. We also set up the Defence Cyber Organisation (DCO) in 2017 to coordinate cyber security across the defence sector. In response to questions MPs have filed, I have periodically updated this House about these developments in the cyber domain.

The C4I community and its predecessors, the Military Intelligence Organisation (MIO) and Joint C4, have been supporting elements to the three other services for over 20 years. However, the demands and direct responsibilities on the intelligence community for both threats in the digital and physical world have risen sharply. If we take terrorism for example, the role of the C4I community is not only supportive but a direct responsibility. You would remember that when 9/11 occurred, it was characterised as a failure in intelligence. Shortly thereafter, Members might recall that decisive actions by ISD, based on good intelligence, foiled a Jemaah Islamiyah plot to launch terrorist attacks in Singapore.

The formation of a new service for the C4I community will greatly facilitate their mission focus, sharpen direct responsibility and accountability, and capability development. The human resource is particularly important for the intelligence services, and having a Service status, just like Army, Navy and Air Force, will enhance recruitment and career prospects considerably.

The evolution of the C4I community into a new fourth service will integrate and expand our capabilities in the digital domain. But we will need more than that to deal effectively with digital threats from external aggressors that we expect will grow in numbers, sophistication, and organisation. To achieve this, we will need not only an intelligence force but a dedicated digital force. The current DCO is building up such a force but it is insufficient for the SAF's expanding needs. Figuratively, if the digital force is now a battalion force, we actually need a few brigades, perhaps even a Division-size force.

MINDEF and the SAF have been considering these changes for some time now, exploring various options to better prepare for threats in the digital domain. Our conclusion is that a new fourth service – the Digital and Intelligence Service, or DIS, best encapsulates this fourth arm of the SAF.

The DIS should not and cannot be just like the Army, Air Force and Navy with similar troops operating in the digital domain instead of the physical domain. The nature of the digital domain and the threats therein require different skill sets, mindsets, what we call Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures. I think that is intuitive to most. The SAF envisages that the type of soldiers you recruit for the DIS, their training, their force structure will be different. But some traits must be maintained for soldiers across the four services – the adherence to SAF core values, the operational mindset, the resilience that lead to mission success, and above all, a commitment to the shared mission to enhance Singapore's peace and security.

Technology, especially related to IT and communications will play a big role for the DIS. But it will also require a force with specialisations not only in core IT areas and comms but in diverse areas including data science, psychology, linguistics, anthropology and geography, that will help them understand the motivation and means in which orchestrated state and non-state groups aim to harm Singapore.

The addition of this fourth service, the DIS, will allow the SAF to better train and fight as a networked, integrated, and expanded force to deal with the spectrum of threats that we know exist today, but also the digital domain that we know will increase in the future. Other countries have also come to the same conclusion and added a digital force to their tri-services. Germany, for example, has established the Cyber and Information Domain Service, consolidating its Communication and Information Systems Command, and Geoinformation Centre.

There are many procedures and processes to undertake to set up this DIS. Notwithstanding this, we expect to set it up by the last quarter of this year.

Celebrating 55 Years of National Service

NSmen form the backbone of the SAF, on land, sea, and air and in the future, also our digital domain. Whatever our plans, ultimately it is the quality and commitment of our NSmen that will determine whether the SAF can succeed.

This year marks the 55th anniversary of NS, and as we have previously done, we will have a number of events to recognise their contributions. We will put out more details on this in the coming months.

We also want to make improvements to our NS system. These new initiatives are from the NS Review Committee, which some Members have asked about and I announced at the COS in 2020, chaired by the Deputy Secretary (Administration) of MINDEF and the Chief of Army. Three key changes are proposed.

First, to optimise our precious manpower resource, we will now use functional assessments as part of pre-enlistment medical screening. Mr Lim Biow Chuan and Mr Mohd Fahmi asked about this. Compared to general physical assessments, functional assessments are a more precise gauge of whether the servicemen can perform specific vocations. At the same time, we have also re-designed 1,000 jobs so that more servicemen can contribute in areas they were not previously eligible for.

Second, Make-Up Pay. And this has been a long standing issue. I am happy to announce that better data management across government agencies will now allow claims of Make-Up Pay to be streamlined and automated. There will be a default base NS pay which NSmen can claim for ICT. This will be especially useful for those in informal employment and training. The base NS pay is set at $1,600 per month and pro-rated for the duration of NS call ups. Over 100,000 NSmen and 25,000 employers will benefit from the automated Make-Up Pay claims and base NS Pay.

Third, we will increase the NS HOME awards, with higher cash components – an extra $2,000 in cash to each national serviceman.

SMS Heng will provide more details on these changes, as well as several others.

This four-service Next Gen SAF, with committed and capable NSmen, will better position Singapore to deal with both conventional and emerging threats. Our deterrence depends on a strong Next Gen SAF. That is the main prong. But another prong is good relations, which many Members have talked about, particularly defence relations with like-minded partners.

Strengthening Bilateral and Multilateral Partnerships

Mr Ang Wei Neng and Mr Saktiandi asked about our approach. As a small country, Singapore needs as many friends as we can have. Having a strong network of defence partners has allowed us to build up our defence capabilities, train overseas, and cooperate on strategic issues critical to Singapore's security.

In the past year, we maintained high-level defence engagements. For example, the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made his introductory visit to Singapore in July and we concluded a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Concerning Cooperation in Cyberspace with the US Department of Defense in August. With China, I met Minister for National Defense GEN Wei Fenghe virtually in June. The RSN held joint naval exercises with the Chinese People's Liberation Army via a "contactless" modality twice last year.

We renewed the Singapore-Vietnam Defence Cooperation Agreement in February. We have also concluded new defence cooperation agreements with a few Baltic States, to institutionalise our professional exchanges.

Closer to home, we conducted Exercise Safkar Indopura with the Indonesian Army in November, the first physical exercise between our Army and a foreign counterpart since the onset of the pandemic. In January, Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto and I signed a Joint Statement on our agreement to bring into force the 2007 Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) and its Implementing Arrangement between the SAF and the Indonesian Armed Forces for the Military Training Area in Indonesia. Mr Henry Kwek asked what the implication of this is. The DCA will strengthen the strategic relationship between our defence establishments, and promote closer interaction and cooperation between our armed forces.

Mr Zhulkarnain asked about our approach to the ADMM and the ADMM-Plus. It is indeed the de facto multilateral defence grouping in Asia. MINDEF has taken the lead on tackling threats in the cyber and information domains by establishing the ADMM Cybersecurity and Information Centre of Excellence, which now provides monthly reports for all ASEAN Member States. Similarly, the SAF's Counter Terrorism Information Facility (CTIF) has been in operation since 2020, and 11 foreign liaison officers are stationed there. The CTIF produces timely and actionable counter terrorism intelligence.

I am also pleased that this year, the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) will resume physically in June, after a two-year hiatus.

Commitment to Environmental Sustainability

Mr Chairman, let me also update members on MINDEF/SAF's major green initiatives, which Mr Don Wee asked about and I announced at the last COS, to reduce the growth of overall emissions by two-thirds by 2030.

The SAF Sustainability Office led by the SAF's Chief of Staff-Joint Staff, has convened an external panel comprising experts to provide insights on implementation plans to meet our sustainability targets.

By end 2022, about a quarter of SAF camps will have solar panels installed to deliver 20 mega-watt peak of electricity, equivalent to the consumption of around 5,000 four-room households. By 2025, we aim to have two-thirds of our camps generate 50 mega-watt peak of electricity. Smart Metering Systems will also be installed to track electricity and water consumption automatically, starting with Jurong Camp, Paya Lebar Airbase, and Changi Naval Base.

The RSAF has commenced trials for the use of green fuel for its F-16 Fighting Falcons. These efforts and others will help us meet our emission targets by 2030.

Supporting the Fight Against COVID-19

I am thankful that Members of this House have supported our budget each year. On MINDEF and the SAF's part, our responsibility is to spend prudently and effectively to build a strong national defence, as I have detailed. But it is gratifying to me, and to Members here too, that the SAF is a national asset to deploy in situations like the current COVID-19 pandemic. When Singapore experienced a resurgence of cases due to the Delta and Omicron variants, MINDEF and SAF personnel were called upon to assist MOH to provide operations planning capabilities and staff contact tracing, call centres or to man emergency departments. The SAF also stood up the Home Recovery Task Group to better manage the home recovery programme for COVID-19 patients, and NSmen also helped as Home Vaccination Teams and Mobile Vaccination Teams. Our defence scientists and engineers contributed a variety of support systems.

Members have asked how we helped overseas, and indeed we did, beyond Singapore's shores. Last year, the SAF's Changi Regional Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Coordination Centre coordinated the transfer of medical equipment and supplies to regional countries worst hit by COVID-19, including the shipment of over 500 tonnes of oxygen at Indonesia's request as part of an 'Oxygen Shuttle' programme.

Conclusion

Mr Chairman, let me thank members of this House for their steadfast commitment and support for a robust national defence through a strong SAF. This year, particularly because of the events in Ukraine, I think Singaporeans need less convincing that it is our collective responsibility to keep Singapore safe and secure for ourselves and successive generations. Salutary lessons have sunk in, and some Singaporeans sent me emails. Let me quote just two of them:

One is from Mr Tee KH: "I used to take my in-camp training as a 'holiday' camp till I realised how important it is to defend Singapore when Iraq invaded tiny Kuwait. Now a retiree and from the Merdeka Generation, I reminded my son who is serving NS to take his training seriously. The greater the force of dutiful citizens who are actively serving their country, defending the weak, fighting for freedom, and doing what is right, the better chance that wars will end quickly and the less chance wars will even begin."

The second is from Mr Cheng CF: "If Singaporeans don't defend our country, nobody will help us. I am 67, a retired NSman. But as long as I am fit, I will not hesitate to don my uniform again to help my fellow Singaporeans to defend our country. This is my country, my home and soil. "

As long as we have Singaporeans who share the deep resolve and conviction that Mr Tee and Mr Cheng share, then I say, our future remains secure.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

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