A more complex and uncertain international environment has inevitably led to a re-thinking of military capabilities around the world, in order to expand the spectrum of operations. Making this observation was Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen at the 13th Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior Military Officers (APPSMO) held on Sentosa island on 4 Aug.

Citing developments in the past year – such as the popular uprising in the Arab states to the recent tension between competing territorial claims in the South China Sea – which have impacted the global and regional security landscape, Dr Ng said: “Post 9/11, (with) Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, Libya, piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the continuing export of WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction), the hard reality is that the security landscape today is marked by threats which are increasingly transnational and complex.”

He added: “By their very nature, transnational security challenges – spanning from terror networks to pandemics, natural disasters and cyber-security – thwart attempts by individual states to contain or manage them.”

In order to adequately deal with these uncertainties, Dr Ng said that “the role of the military must clearly evolve in tandem with the security landscape”.

“For the commanders here, the ideal configuration would be a flexible force structure that can both optimally meet conventional threats as well as ‘operations other than war’ scenarios. But as all of us know, life is seldom ideal and trade-offs are inherent. Difficult decisions and assumptions will have to be made in reality. No single country, no matter how large and well-resourced, can shoulder the burden of extreme events. We have therefore explored new modes of multilateral security cooperation,” said Dr Ng.

For instance, maritime threats – which have likewise become increasingly trans-boundary and multi-dimensional in nature – have led countries to explore new ways of sharing information to achieve early warning and comprehensive awareness.

In the region, this need translated into the set-up of the Information Fusion Centre (IFC) in 2009. Housed within the Changi Command and Control Centre, the IFC puts together information shared by partner navies and agencies to generate useful knowledge which can be shared across a network of users. To date, 10 countries have deployed liaison officers at the IFC where they work together to fuse, analyse and disseminate the sea situation picture.

In the same year, the Singapore restructured its Navy Coastal Command into the Maritime Security Task Force to bring together the Singapore Armed Forces and other national maritime agencies such as Police Coast Guard, Maritime Port Authority, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority and Singapore Customs to better respond to maritime challenges.

In his speech, Dr Ng also mentioned the work of ASEAN in bolstering peace and security in the region and beyond. Today, the security architecture among ASEAN member states comprises a web of bilateral and multilateral relationships which fulfil various roles.

There are large fora such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus and informal meetings such as the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) and functional groupings such as the Malacca Strait Patrols which address specific challenges.

“Woven together, these layers strengthen the overall architecture and help move it forward… it is also heartening to note that the scope of participants in such fora has broadened over the years,” noted Dr Ng. The most recent SLD was well-attended by over 30 ministerial delegates from the region and beyond.

Dr Ng also pointed out the emergence of social media which has had an impact on military forces. “Any single issue from disparate sources can bring groups together to achieve mass collaboration,: he said. This feature of social media posed new challenges to military organisations, he added.

“This new milieu is anathema to many traditional organisations based on hierarchical structures, including and especially military organisations. Military practitioners eschew sharing information openly so that operational security is not compromised,” Dr Ng elaborated.

Dr Ng then advocated for military forces to explore how to use this to their advantage. “We have to grapple with this dilemma in order to better engage a younger, tech-savvy generation of servicemen, who are used to it as a way of life.”

He noted that the Singapore Armed Forces has established an online presence with channels on popular sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. In particular, the Every Singaporean Son reality series – an in-house initiative by the Ministry of Defence – had garnered many positive reviews and even made it to the National Geographic Channel, on which it was broadcast to 39 other countries in Asia and the Middle East.

“This open, inclusive and bottom-up approach has proved to be extremely useful in helping us build stronger commitment to the defence of Singapore, and has helped make Singapore a more resilient nation,” said Dr Ng.

Organised by the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS) at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the annual APPSMO brings together participants from all over the world. This year, 59 delegates from 28 countries are taking part in the week-long event. One of the key objectives of the programme is to facilitate a more informed exchange of ideas and discussions among senior military officers in the region and beyond.

In his speech, Ambassador Barry Desker, Dean of the RSIS and Director of the ISIS, proudly announced the increasing number of APPSMO participants since its inauguration in 1999. It has also grown to cover a range of issues in the realms of traditional and non-traditional security. “Through lectures and debates, APPSMO offers the opportunity for participants to consider policy from both practical and theoretical perspectives,” he said.

Over the next week, distinguished local and foreign speakers will share their views on various security-related issues that affect military forces. One of the main topics for this edition of APPSMO is the global shift of power represented by the end of United States dominance and the rise of China.