Full-time national servicemen (NSFs) have been operating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) 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, mirroring 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 the SAF faces, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in his annual interview ahead of SAF Day today.
"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.
"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 "That binary classification is passe, it's no longer applicable across the SAF.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 be 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.
Third Sergeant (3SG) Ryan John Ang, 19, is in the third batch of NSFs 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... alongside regulars on a daily basis."
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.
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.