Singapore's hybrid warfare strategy is lacking

The media reported that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is adapting to new threats posed by hybrid warfare, defending against conventional and unconventional threats from state and non-state actors. Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Han described hybrid warfare as the “exact antagonist” of Singapore’s total defence strategy, seeking to undermine the target’s defences in civil, economic, social, psychological and military spheres.  To meet this threat, the Navy will replace its Patrol Vessels with Littoral Mission Vessels, while the Army will phase out its fleet of V-200 armoured cars with new Protected Response Vehicles. The SAF will also raise new units for cyber defence, and explore other technologies.

This round of upgrades would likely enable the SAF to keep pace with military developments. It is also unlikely to matter in the event of hybrid warfare.

Dr Ng’s description of hybrid warfare is not wrong. He was framing it in terms relevant to Singapore’s Total Defence strategy. However, hybrid warfare isn’t solely, or even predominantly, military. Hybrid warfare is fought predominantly in non-military spheres.

The terrorists of the world have pointed the way. Palestinian terrorist groups made their mark by choosing strategies to provoke Israel into repeated overreaction, making the latter appear to be the oppressor in the conflict. Insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan fight from villages and cities, forcing Western forces to choose between mass collateral damage or dramatically reduced fire support. Islamist propaganda consistently paints the West as the Dar al-Harb, the House of War, by playing up immoral Western activities and portraying them as aggressors. Terrorists and their sympathisers use social media to amplify these actions, portraying their cause as just.

And yet, what is clear is that state actors have consistently been playing to the tune of non-state actors. Islamist terrorist groups want Israel to engage in widespread destruction; the Israelis obliged through collective punishments, bombing terrorists in dense urban areas, and further isolating Palestine. The Americans continue their policy of launching Hellfires at terrorists from UAVs, blowing up more civilians than combatants in the process. They have done everything to make themselves look like the bad guys, and every little to correct that perception.

When state actors embrace the tools of subversion, their access to greater resources and population bases leave them more tools. The Russians in the Ukraine began their campaign by infiltrating large numbers of masked, deniable gunmen into the Crimea, paving the way for the main forces. In the early days of the conflict, the Ukrainian military failed to respond decisively to the militia in their midst, and the Western European powers had no strategic impetus to intervene. This made it extremely difficult to eject the Russians when they came in force.

But the principal tool here is not military power. The first wave of irregulars were largely unopposed. That was because the Russians had succeeded in swaying the Russian-ethnic majority of the Crimea to their side. Moscow painted the Ukrainian government as Western puppets, and appealed to their shared cultural history to win their support. The people of the Crimea elected their own pro-Russian government, repudiated the state of Ukraine and acceded to the Russians. Because of this popular support, the Russians secured their campaign objectives with minimal bloodshed and without triggering World War III.

The Chinese Assassin’s Mace concept took hybrid warfare several steps further, discussing the use of economic warfare, propaganda, and asymmetric warfare. For instance, suppose the Chinese decide to invade Taiwan. The United States threatens to intervene. In response, Chinese hackers black out the West Coast and inserts a virus that knocks out the New York Stock Exchange. If the US makes a move, the Chinese promise to cut power to the rest of the nation. A blackout is not, strictly speaking, an act of war, nor is crashing a stock exchange, but these moves would undercut any appetite for intervention without firing a shot. If the Chinese wish to fight at the moral level, they would precede the invasion by engineering a crisis in Taiwan, perhaps a false flag operation that paints the mainland Chinese community at risk of deportation or oppression by an aggressively nationalist government.

Singapore’s hybrid warfare strategy focuses on countering military threats, and in the future cyberwarfare threats. While periodic modernisation upgrades are almost always useful, Singapore’s obsession with technology mirrors that of the Americans — and despite American technological supremacy they have not won the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Military strategist William S. Lind repeatedly pointed out that fourth generation warfare, the open source warfare embraced by non-state actors, is fought principally on the moral level. The opening moves are designed to secure the moral high ground, and follow-up moves to keep the target from wresting that position away. In doing so, the target loses the support of the people and the world, and eventually loses the will to fight. This is seen in the battlefields of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. Hybrid warfare, as embodied by the Russians, began and continued the same way, with the Russians communicating the same consistent message undermining the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government and affirming their common ground with the Crimea. While there will nevertheless be military operations at the physical level, these operations are subordinate to, and superceded by, combat at the moral level. Case in point, the US military won nearly every battle in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, but by failing to win the hearts and minds of the people they failed to win the wars.

With hybrid warfare fought at the moral level, what is the SAF’s response?

Trick question. The SAF is optimised for military conflicts. Hybrid warfare is a moral confrontation. The SAF does not have much of a role to play in fields that do not concern external aggression, disaster/terrorist response, foreign aid, or incidents that require military deployment.

The real question is: what is the government’s response?

Hybrid warfare attacks the foundations of the state. The state’s first move must be to shore up its foundations and occupy the moral high ground before the threat approaches. The state must show that it represents the will of the people, that has the good of the people at heart, that its power is legitimate and non-state actors simply wish to destroy everything the state stands for.

Now consider this: Alex Au was fined $8000 for contempt of court. Lawyer M Ravi, famous for being of the few (or only) lawyers who will take on political and human rights cases, was suspended from the bar while he was representing politically-charged cases in court. The government continues to sue people for defamation, with Roy Ngerng the latest. The PAP Internet Brigade is still active. The White Paper on Population became policy even in the face of mass opposition. Thaipusam celebrations were slammed for being “too noisy”, and Parliament recently passed a bill prohibiting alcohol consumption in public without public consultation. As for the mainstream media, regardless of its failings it is safe to say that it will always publish the government’s point of view.

With its penchant for dropping the hammer on dissidents and bloggers, passing laws without warning or public consultation, and a sympathetic ‘nation-building’ press, can the government say it has the moral high ground?

Singapore's hybrid warfare strategy is lacking
Scroll to top