SINGAPORE - Full-time national servicemen (NSFs) have been operating unmanned aerial vehicles on board Singapore's naval vessels, a role previously undertaken only by regulars.
With improvements in technology, soldiers of other Physical Employment Standards (PES) have also been deployed at an operations centre for naval base defence, a post previously manned only by combat-fit servicemen, usually referring to those of PES A and B.
Selected operationally ready national servicemen (NSmen) with specialised expertise, such as in the areas of cyber security, law and maritime operations, have also been deployed to matching roles in the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) when they are called up for duty.
These are examples of initiatives by the RSN in deploying servicemen more meaningfully, which mirror larger efforts within the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to tackle the expected one-third reduction in the pool of national servicemen by 2030, due to Singapore's falling birth rates.
It is the greatest internal challenge that the SAF faces, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in his annual interview ahead of SAF Day on Monday (July 1).
"I think the greatest internal challenge is the decline in numbers of servicemen… Planning experts will call it a potential disruptive change if you don't respond to it," he said last Friday at Murai Camp.
Other than designing or choosing platforms across all services with reduced manpower needs but greater combat power, the skills and deployment of national servicemen and regulars have to change, he said.
"The SAF is not alone in this; all militaries are facing this, so they are also doing it and even those with large countries find that they have limited manpower.
"For us, what it means is that there has to be a fundamental HR (human resource) shift. Business gurus will say that we have to change both our recruitment and deployment policies," he said.
Dr Ng said that the SAF used to have the concept of combat fit and non-combat fit. "That binary classification is passe, it's no longer applicable across the SAF. And we've stopped using it, because it means much less," he added.
Citing examples, he said the driver, gunner and loader of the Leopard 2SG Main Battle Tanks all used to required to be combat fit, which means PES A or B. Other PES include C and E.
"That is no longer the case because there are different requirements. Loading of ammunition is automated... So we'll fit the job to the task," he said.
The SAF is also studying the greater matching of national servicemen's skills and aptitudes to their roles in national service, said Dr Ng.
Currently, some NSFs are given roles that match what they do in their civilian life, such as those with nursing diplomas being deployed as combat medics.
"We think that this model maximises potential, so we're going to do more… Cyber is a clear example, but there are other examples and we will do more of it," he said.
Colonel Ong Chee Wei, 46, head of the Naval Personnel Department, told reporters during a briefing at Tuas Naval Base on June 20 that national servicemen form the core of an operationally ready SAF.
"In the navy, everybody matters - doesn't matter whether you are an NSF or NSman. So we want to make sure they are gainfully and meaningfully employed when they are with us in service," he said.
Third Sergeant (3SG) Ryan John Ang, 19, is in the third batch of NSFs that was trained to operate UAVs as part of a team of four, with three regulars. Among his duties are launching and recovering the ScanEagle UAV, used for surveillance operations.
Since November 2016, NSFs have been operating the ScanEagle on board the Victory-class missile corvettes, a role previously undertaken only by regulars.
3SG Ang said: "When they told me NSFs are able to join such teams, I immediately looked it up and I was quite intrigued. It's a very big opportunity to be part of something that not many NSFs in the navy, let alone the SAF, get to handle all these unmanned systems, alongside regulars on a daily basis."
National servicemen such as 3SG Ang could become UAV co-pilots in the future. Although there is no set timeline yet on when that will happen, those who perform well can expect to progress in rank and responsibility, said Col Ong.
Roles have also been pre-identified for national servicemen in the development of new capabilities, such as unmanned surface vessels.
For the RSN, since 2017, soldiers other than those from PES A or B have been deployed for base defence.
3SG Lionel Loo, 20, who is a sea soldier by vocation, said that with soldiers of other PES coming in to help, his platoon now gets more rest.
Part of his platoon's duties include patrols, monitoring surveillance systems and manning personnel and vehicle access control points.
The navy has also increased the deployment of NSmen in maritime security operations, alongside NSFs and regulars, after they have completed a refresher programme.
For instance, NSmen from the 180 Squadron were deployed to conduct compliant boarding as part of the Accompanying Sea Security Teams during the 33rd Asean Summit in November last year.
Giving other examples, Dr Ng said in the interview that combat engineers in the army had to physically move bridges in the past, but now, the M3G bridging vehicle is able to deploy itself across water obstacles.
"It's heavy duty, but most servicemen will be able to perform the task," he said.