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Singapore navy's 'eureka' moment

The navy needed to develop a clear strategic mission vital to the country's survival and security

In the early 1980s, resources were tight, even for the Ministry of Defence (Mindef), which commanded a large chunk of the Government's budget.

In those days, defence took the largest slice at about 6.5 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

But Singapore's economy was much smaller than what it is today.

So with a budget that was modest relative to the need to build up the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) into a capable deterrent force, Minister for Defence Howe Yoon Chong decided that absolute priority must be given to building the air force. The army and the navy would mop up the leftovers.

The navy, straining under the burden of operations to look out for Vietnamese "boat people", felt it was amply justified to get more funds to acquire more and new ships.

Then a staff officer in the navy's headquarters, I recall the navy trying to argue for three more missile gunboats - which were upgraded versions of the existing 45m Lurssen-Werft missile gunboats - and to equip them with Harpoon missiles, which would be new to the Republic of Singapore Navy inventory. Initiated in 1978 and codenamed Albatross, the project progressed through the system slowly.

Mr Howe was resolute. He dismissed the need for Project Albatross, because the money would be better spent on getting the air force a squadron of F-16s, which would be able to perform more strategic roles than the missile gunboats could ever hope to do.

And when the navy persisted, his dismissive response was that he was prepared to buy a few barges, mount 20mm Oerlikon guns on them, and hire a few tug boats to tow them around to patrol Singapore's waters.

This period saw a very demoralised navy. That was the mood when I became Head of Naval Plans Department in 1983.

When you are in that situation, you either mope or you start to think hard, as I did.

It did seem to me then that one of the reasons for the failure of Project Albatross was the lack of a clear strategic mission for the navy, and as a result, it had been relegated to a default role of patrolling Singapore's waters.

I was already dimly beginning to acknowledge what Mr Howe must have seen with blinding clarity - that the navy, in just conducting patrols and transporting equipment for the SAF to overseas training areas, was neither strategic nor critical in the defence of Singapore.

The "eureka" moment came one day when I was looking at Singapore's trade statistics. I discovered its trade-dependency ratio in the 1980s was about four. In other words, the value of its trade was four times the size of its GDP.

Obviously, as it is an island nation, most of its trade would come by sea. The shipping routes carried not just Singapore's trade, but equally important, its energy needs and food.

These sea lines of communication were literally Singapore's lifelines, and so, the navy's strategic mission should be protecting them. With this insight, we started working on a total strategic makeover of the navy.

The first step was to write a paper that laid out the arguments for the navy's new strategic role in the protection of the sea lines of communication. This transformed the navy, because for the first time, there was clarity of its strategic role, one that was recognised as vital to Singapore's survival and security.

Mindef accepted - even embraced - this role. As a consequence, it soon allocated a larger budget to the navy.

In December 1984, a decision was made to upgrade the entire 185 Squadron of missile gunboats by including a full electronic warfare suite, and installing Harpoon missiles in addition to the existing Gabriel missile system. Five months later, approval came through for a new squadron of 62m-long missile corvettes, which would even have an anti-submarine capability.

What did I learn from this?

First, never give up, even in the face of apparently insuperable odds, like when the minister says "no". I learnt that persistence is an essential quality of any planner and policymaker.

I also learnt that decision-makers - at least here - do keep an open mind.

Second, it is worthwhile to spend time thinking, especially strategically. When you can align plans and policies within a larger national strategic framework, then their odds of passing muster improve.

I also took away a lesson from this period that I have never forgotten. I learnt to eschew the inclination to equal misery, which is a cop-out from taking hard decisions.

Mr Howe was right to establish priorities for the defence of Singapore.

When resources were limited, he decided the air force should get the priority and the lion's share of the defence budget.

I am now persuaded that if he had succumbed to the ideology of equal misery, and instead pursued an approach of trying to make each service happy, we would not have the 3rd Generation SAF we have today.

Peter Ho was head of civil service and permanent secretary for foreign affairs. This commentary appears in the RSN50 commemorative book, A Maritime Force For A Maritime Nation: Celebrating 50 Years Of The Navy. It will be given to in-service personnel, national servicemen, pioneers and the SAF Volunteer Corp.

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