Sunday, 4 March 2018

Singapore's defence spending: A case of too much or not enough?

By Graham Ong-Webb, Published The Straits Times, 3 Mar 2018

Singapore's public spending is under increasing pressure as its population and infrastructure age. An ageing society means higher health and social spending, while infrastructure needs require the nation to set aside vast sums to maintain and upgrade old systems and build new ones.

Naturally, other sectors of the national Budget will come under increasing scrutiny. One such sector is defence.

In some quarters, there is a nascent perception that Singapore's defence spending - in the current absence of external military aggression - has not only ballooned, but is also excessive. The rising query has become, "Are we spending too much on our defence?"

Interestingly, as a proportion of total government expenditure, defence spending is going down, not up. At its height around the mid-to late 2000s, spending by the Ministry of Defence accounted for nearly a third of total government expenditure.

With the modernisation of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), defence spending as a proportion of government spending has fallen to around 19 per cent from 2015 to last year.

At the same time, social spending increased from 35 per cent of total government expenditure in 2006 to 40 per cent in 2016.

Questioning if too much is spent on defence is not unique to Singapore. European countries belonging to Nato caved in to public pressure to slash defence spending in the 1990s, after the demise of the Soviet Union that threatened them with military aggression. It is only very recently that European countries such as Germany, facing rising threats including an increasingly belligerent Russia, are increasing spending to meet their defence and security requirements.

The evolving threat landscape also requires countries to devote more to defence. Traditionally, countries have militaries to protect their countries' sovereignty and territorial integrity. Today, militaries are increasingly called upon to deal with "non-traditional" threats such as terrorism, cyber security, counter-proliferation, biological pandemics and natural disasters. Taking on more of these additional missions raises operational costs for the military, but their contributions to security are significant.

For example, the SAF Army boosts the coverage of the Home Team's ground patrols by deploying soldiers alongside our police officers. More costs are incurred to train soldiers to respond to terror threats, and to procure equipment to deal specifically with terrorism incidents (rather than conventional warfare).

In addition to terrorism, the SAF must deter and respond to cyber threats that may be posed against it. The SAF depends on computer networks to perform its operations, without which it is unable to defend Singapore. Protecting these networks requires additional resources and skills that will cost more money.

As threats evolve, defence spending has to keep up with needs. In any case, spending on national defence is essential to create a stable social and economic environment for economic development.

Singapore's tiny geographic size means that deterrence is its best defence. The most credible deterrence requires strong military capabilities. Ironically, the outcome of credible deterrence is that a country will have a military force that is very unlikely to be deployed in traditional hostile action.

Thus, observers who ask why Singapore acquires significant numbers of advanced tanks, ships and aircraft - when there are no wars to fight - are missing the plot. In a deterrence context, an adequate acquisition of arms is actually inversely proportional to their use.

Singapore is also prudent in its defence spending. Where possible, existing capabilities are enhanced rather than replaced by new ones. Even new acquisitions tend to be purchased second-hand and refurbished by our defence industry. Its approach to defence procurement has been lauded for being cost-effective and stringent on procedures. In 2004, the Aviation Week publication described MINDEF and the SAF as a "model of cost-effectiveness".

MINDEF also successfully realised almost $200 million worth of savings by reducing waste in the last financial year, the highest in four years.

It is also making further investments in leading-edge capabilities by exploiting a range of powerful technologies. Examples just announced include artificial intelligence and data analytics (in creating the Unmanned Watch Tower, Unmanned Surface Vessel and Smart Airbase), and robotics (using drones to assess runway damage for Smart Airbases). The lean approach helps develop a "Next Gen SAF" that maintains Singapore's edge in countering clear and present threats.

Finally, Singapore's defence spending has to be understood in the light of regional trends. In the last three decades, defence spending in Asia has increased over four times. In ASEAN, spending over the same period trebled.

Experts have observed that current regional defence spending is not reflective of an arms race. Still, neighbouring countries are clearly hedging against greater geopolitical uncertainty. No matter how buoyant regional relations may be, states are not letting their (defence) guard down. For Singapore, there are enduring realities concerning small and larger states that warrant us to maintain an edge to preserve our ability to deter.

In that vein, the narrowing defence gap does matter, and given the evolving security landscape that necessitates increased spending in security, the actual question Singaporeans may want to ask is, "Are we spending enough?"

Dr Graham Ong-Webb is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

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