Parliament: SAF to restructure to deal with cyber, terrorism, maritime threats

A view of the Singapore Strait on July 26, 2019. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - A high-level committee will be formed to build an integrated cyber force to defend Singapore against cyber threats, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Monday (March 2).

This committee - led by the permanent secretary for defence development and the Chief of Defence Force (CDF) - will be examining ways to "recruit soldiers of the right aptitude, their training and deployments", he added.

Said Dr Ng: "In the SAF's history, this is as important as raising another service, just like the army, navy and air force, namely to build an integrated cyber command and force to defend our digital borders, especially against foreign cyber actors, both state and non-state who seek to undermine our stability and/or pose a threat to national security."

This Singapore Armed Forces cyber command will have to provide threat assessments and early warning against cyber attacks, and respond accordingly, he added.

Threats in the cyber domain was among three "clear and present" security threats that Dr Ng highlighted in his speech during the debate on his ministry's annual spending plans, along with maritime threats and terrorism.

He noted that Singapore has succeeded in building a strong SAF that is recognised as a modern and professional military force capable of defending the national interest, because of the steadfast commitment by successive governments and overwhelming support from MPs across party lines for each defence budget.

"Even so, to respond to a new environment of security challenges, the SAF must again restructure decisively to meet new challenges, to remain relevant, responsive, and effective for our national defence," Dr Ng added.

He made the point that in many aspects, it is more difficult to plan and execute plans in the cyber domain than in the air, land and sea, and different types of units and force configuration may be required.

After the restructuring, which Dr Ng said will take "some years" to accomplish, the CDF will continue to be in charge of mission outcomes for the new cyber command.

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The Chief C4I (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence) will lead this force and report directly to the CDF.

"The universe of cyber threats and activists is large and the cyber command will have to prioritise its efforts and focus on key threats so as to not dissipate resources," he added.


Besides this new cyber command, Dr Ng said the Singapore navy's Maritime Security Task Force will acquire new purpose-built platforms that can enhance its capabilities to deal with threats such as the recent spike in sea robberies and intrusions into its waters.

For a start, four refurbished patrol vessels will be dedicated and deployed for "greater persistence" to protect Singapore's territorial waters, he added.

The Republic of Singapore Navy's Fearless-class patrol vessels had been in service for about 20 years before they were gradually replaced by eight littoral mission vessels, which have all been commissioned.

At the same time, given the transnational nature of maritime threats, Singapore has reached out to Malaysia and Indonesia to propose that the Malacca Straits Patrol initiative be extended to other areas in addition to tackling piracy, Dr Ng said. Discussions are ongoing.

The SAF is also restructuring its own military intelligence outfits so that counter-terrorism intelligence to detect, forewarn, and respond to terrorist plots are now part and parcel of its core missions to protect Singapore, he said.

Mindef on Monday said one area of focus for the military intelligence restructuring is in building capabilities - to work with defence technology partners to acquire systems that can uncover, investigate and monitor threat concerns.

Another area is in strengthening partnerships, by working closely with other national agencies as well as foreign military intelligence partners, it added.


These efforts at restructuring come as Singapore enters a different phase in geopolitics, Dr Ng said - one that is messier, less predictable, and with, therefore, more unseen events.

The post-World War II era of 70 years, championed and spearheaded by a hyper-dominant United States with its Western allies is no longer the main and only narrative, he noted.

China is a rising global power, and regional powers such as Japan, India, and Australia are also gaining strength.

"And it is not just Asia that is fast changing. In Europe, the transatlantic alliance is evolving," he said, pointing to how the US wants the European Union to liberalise its trade policies to buy more American goods and spend more to defend themselves.

In response, some EU leaders do indeed want to reduce their dependence on the US, he said. "Europe is far away from Singapore, but the changes there will invariably impact our part of the world."

The US Department of Defence has made it clear that the Indo-Pacific - the region Singapore is in - is now its priority theatre because of China, whom the US deems a "strategic competitor" and "rival power".

It is putting that policy in practice, Dr Ng noted, by moving more ships, planes, other equipment and troops to its bases in Japan and South Korea, on top of the 78,000 troops already stationed there.

Meanwhile, the expansion of China's People's Liberation Army has gained momentum, and its navy is now the world's largest in terms of number of ships, he said.

European powers too, want to position themselves in Asia.

Asian countries have beefed up their militaries as well, with military spending in Asia growing more than 50 per cent in the last decade, he noted.

"These events, conflated, have resulted in the Asia arena becoming more militarised and contested... The South China Sea dispute adds grist to the mill but the motivations go much deeper - that of time-old dominance in an evolving world order."

Singapore watches these developments closely, Dr Ng said, trying to preserve space for itself, to maintain its sovereignty and pursue its own interest.

"We have no desire to take sides or be caught in the crossfire. So far, we have maintained independence and space for ourselves, but as contestation increases in this region, it will be increasingly difficult to do so."

Despite the challenges, Singapore managed to forge even stronger defence relations with the US, China and key partners, he added.

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