Budget debate: SAF to set up fourth service as digital threats mount, says Ng Eng Hen

The Digital and Intelligence Service will be responsible for intelligence, cyber and psychological defence, and advancing the SAF as a networked force. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - A new branch of the military will be set up by the end of the year, as the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) seeks to move decisively to meet growing threats in the digital domain.

The Digital and Intelligence Service (DIS) - the SAF's fourth service after the army, navy, and the air force - will be responsible for intelligence, cyber and psychological defence, as well as advancing the SAF as a networked force.

The service consolidates cyber and C4I (command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence) units that have been formed over the last decade under a unified structure.

Elaborating on the need for DIS in Parliament on Wednesday (March 2), Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said that the digital terrain has become as real as the land, air and sea domains, as he responded to MPs, including Mr Vikram Nair, Mr Shawn Huang, Mr Patrick Tay and Mr Saktiandi Supaat, who asked the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) how it intends to better address emerging threats in the digital domain.

"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," he said during the debate on his ministry's budget.

There have been clear examples of countries or non-state entities, such as terrorist groups, that use a combination of attacks through both domains.

This kind of hybrid warfare campaign has also been seen in the ongoing Ukraine conflict, he said, citing reports of cyber espionage, damage to servers and communications infrastructure that has been part of the playbook used against Ukraine in recent years.

"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 I think we best prepare now with a longer runway.

"For the SAF, a clear cut response is a fourth service," added Dr Ng.

Mindef said the DIS will provide "accurate, relevant and timely early warning and operational intelligence" and advance connectivity for the SAF to operate as a networked force.

It will also be responsible for digital defence of the SAF through cyber defence and electronic protection of its networks and systems, as well as psychological defence to strengthen soldiers' commitment and resilience in operations.

Having a service status will also allow the DIS to grow its digital and intelligence workforce by enhancing professional development, recruitment and career prospects, added Mindef.

"The DIS will have the dedicated focus to realise the full potential of emerging digital technology such as cloud, data science and artificial intelligence," said the ministry. "This will accelerate the SAF's next-generation transformation efforts."

The new service is the culmination of a decade-long journey that began in 2012 when the C4I Community was inaugurated, Mindef noted in a statement on its key milestones released on Wednesday.

This community brought together personnel from across the SAF, including image analysts, unmanned aerial vehicle operators and naval intelligence analysts, although they remained under the command of their respective formation and command headquarters.

The C4I Community was involved in a range of SAF operations over the years, including the deployment of imagery analysis teams to the Middle East as part of a coalition to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2015.

Another milestone was the 2017 inauguration of the C4 Command - comprising two brigade-equivalent groups in the Cyber Defence Group and the C4 Operations Group.

The Defence Cyber Organisation was formed in 2017 to lead and coordinate cyber-security efforts across Singapore's defence sector.

To further bolster efforts to develop a "world-class cyber C4I workforce", the Cyber NSF scheme was introduced in 2018, and the C4 Expert vocation in 2019.

In September 2020, the C4I Wing in Officer Cadet School was inaugurated, along with the establishment of the Cybersecurity Task Force in December that year to conduct cyber-security operations across the defence sector.

Evolving the C4I Community into a dedicated service was the "logical next step", as digital threats against Singapore continue to grow in scale, sophistication and organisation, said Mindef.

Dr Ng said the DIS should not and cannot be just like the army, air force and navy, with similar troops operating in the digital domain.

The nature of the digital domain and its threats require different skill sets and mindsets. The type of soldiers recruited and trained for the DIS will be different, he said, although some traits must be maintained across the four services.

These include an adherence to SAF core values, the operational mindset and resilience that lead to mission success, and a commitment to the shared mission to enhance Singapore's peace and security, he said.

Technology, especially related to information technology and communications will play a big role for the DIS.

But Dr Ng said the new service will also need people who specialise in diverse fields such as data science, psychology, linguistics, anthropology and geography, so as to understand the motivation and means of groups that 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."

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