I contributed an article to SingaporeAngle last Thursday. Further comments on this topic are most welcome.
The Israeli Defense Force (IDF)’s fearsome reputation in the Middle East suffered an embarrassing blow after its failed attempt to clear out terrorist strongholds in southern Lebanon and secure the release of its two soldiers captured by Hezbollah militants on July 12. On the Palestinian front, the fate of the captured IDF corporal still remains unknown, and in recent days there have been reports that Israel was making preparations to swap between 800 and 1,400 Palestinian prisoners for that one soldier.
Analysts have attributed Israel’s recent military shortcomings to a number of factors, including political leaders with little military experience, indecisive military commanders, an over-reliance on air power, and poor intelligence. However, probably the most shocking revelation for many observers around the world was the lack of preparedness of the IDF to fight the war, particularly among its reservists who form the backbone of the military.
Israel had recalled thousands of reservists to fight in its month-long war in Lebanon. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in August that many reservist units had complained of a lack of supplies and combat equipment. Some troops returning from Lebanon even had to pass their weapons to soldiers heading for the frontlines. Insufficient training was also cited as a problem. Many reservist units had to undergo last minute refresher courses just before being sent into battle.
Perhaps the most significant factor could have been sociological. There has been a significant shift in the demographics of the Israeli population in the last few decades. Many young Israelis now work in professional jobs in the service and technology industries, and are likely to be more comfortable sitting in front of a computer than engaging in fire fights with trained guerrillas. In its past wars, the Israel could count on its tough, strapping kibbutzim (collective farmers) to fight fiercely on the frontlines. However, kibbutzim now represent less than two per cent of the population.
Despite the two Palestinian Intifadas over the last 20 years, Israel has enjoyed a relatively secure position since the 1973 Yom Kippur war. This is in large part due to a significant increase in American protection and support. The US has provided far more economic and military assistance to Israel than any other state in the world — to the tune of US$140 billion since 1976. These factors may have lulled the new generation of Israelis into a sense of complacency that their parents and grandparents could ill afford.
Given the similarity between Singapore’s and Israel’s conscript army and geo-strategic constraints, Israel’s military lapses may unveil some useful lessons for our defence policymakers and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) commanders to consider.
Singapore’s population has undergone a similar sea of change in demographics in the last 30 years. Like Israel, most young people who form the Third Generation (3G) SAF lead much more sedentary lives than their parents did. Many reservists (“Operationally Ready NSmen” in SAF’s terminology) lament about their struggles to pass their annual Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT). More significantly, an entire generation of Singaporeans has grown up not having experienced any national strife or threat of invasion. It is therefore not easy for them to appreciate the significance of training for an unlikely war. For many, National Service (NS) is just a phase in life to get over and done with. There is usually little ideological motivation for 3G NSmen to train for war, compared to their predecessors in the 1960s and 70s who witnessed our painful expulsion from Malaysia, the Indonesian Confrontation and the withdrawal of British troops from Singapore.
Singapore has the most technologically-advanced and arguably the most powerful military in Southeast Asia. The SAF’s top units never fail to impress foreign military generals during bilateral exercises. However, we hear very little, if at all, about the fighting prowess of our reservist units. If Singapore were to be attacked, would our people be able to rely on these 300,000 or so reservists to defend them?
In recent years, lots of resources have been poured into recognising reservists’ contributions to “Total Defence”, including larger Progress Packages, NS tax relief, SAFRA recreational facilities and even a new golf course. While most reservists probably appreciate these measures, no amount of “welfare” will address the more critical need for a mindset change among many of our citizen-soldiers. There is a common joke that many reservists go into “excused (from) thinking” mode the moment they don their camouflage uniforms. Perhaps this is due to the rigid military culture that they are not used to at their workplaces in the corporate world.
The SAF needs to find more engaging and innovative ways to explain to all reservists — from officers down to enlisted men — the geo-strategic realities that compel us to maintain a strong defence capability. Reservists (and for that matter, all soldiers) should be given more in-depth briefings on our vulnerabilities as a little red dot in a potentially hostile region. These insights should go beyond the typical National Education lessons taught to secondary school students. Soldiers should be given more privileged information and analyses regarding the latest threats facing Singapore, of course without compromising state secrets. By doing so, the SAF will help our soldiers to better appreciate how they contribute individually to national defence.
Although the threat of war in our region remains low for the foreseeable future, Singapore must not wait for the real battle to come before discovering the gaps in our military’s operational readiness. Imbuing in our soldiers the psychological resilience and motivation to defend our nation will be key in order to prepare them for the worse case scenario where they will be called on to fulfil their pledge to “protect the honour and independence of our country with our lives”.