Militaries can gain from tech, 'but must overcome resistance'

A suspected supporter of terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was barred from entering Singapore two years ago, after an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system used by the Singapore Maritime Crisis Centre flagged him as suspicious and alerted the authorities.

The person had been on board an oil tanker off Singapore in 2015 when the AI-embedded system that flagged him detected "anomalies" after scanning information from open sources, commercial data, intelligence sources and social media.

When security agencies checked, it was confirmed that the person was a suspected sympathiser of the terror group.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue yesterday, the Ministry of Defence's deputy secretary of technology David Koh highlighted the case as an example of how emerging technologies like AI and data analytics can be used to fight terrorism and transform the military.

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Mr Koh, who is also chief executive of the Cyber Security Agency and defence cyber chief, was at a panel discussion on emerging technologies and their implications on defence.

"Militaries all around the world must be able to innovate and experiment with these emerging technologies in order to find the best way to integrate them. We need to nurture a culture where it is safe to experiment, safe to fail," he said.

He added that Singapore has been adjusting procurement processes to experiment with new technologies.

The session was moderated by Dr Bastian Giegerich, director of defence and military analysis of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

Also on the panel were the United Kingdom's chief of defence staff, Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach; Mr Mac Thornberry, chair of the US House of Representatives' Committee on Armed Services; and Colonel Zhu Qichao, a professor at the People's Liberation Army's National University of Defence Technology.

Sir Stuart and Mr Thornberry also raised the need for militaries to change the way they procure and use new technologies to keep up with the rate of technological advancement.

Mr Koh pointed out that one area that Singapore finds challenging is fighting the resistance to new technologies and change.

He recounted that when the Defence Ministry wanted to introduce unmanned aerial vehicles into the air force, there was significant resistance from the "fighter pilots who were running the air force".

The ministry's Permanent Secretary had no choice but to build its drone capabilities in the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF) Joint Staff, he said.

"It was only when a more enlightened chief of air force took over that he took back the entire set-up that had been built in the Joint Staff," he added.

Similarly, while Singapore is now trying to build up its Defence Cyber Organisation - Mindef's cyber command that develops cyber defence policies and strategies - it is facing resistance in getting skilled full-time national servicemen (NSFs), said Mr Koh.

"We raised the question - if (an NSF) is the next Steve Jobs, should he spend his two years of conscript life as a rifleman or should we better employ him in cyber?

"The answer said: If he is combat fit, he should be a rifleman in the foxhole, and that's the way it should be," he said.

These were "non-trivial" challenges to overcome, he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 04, 2017, with the headline 'Militaries can gain from tech, 'but must overcome resistance''. Print Edition | Subscribe