Wednesday, February 27, 2013

NS 2065: NS By Invitation Only

In the light of all the recent attention on the population white paper and how it has become linked to National Service (NS), I thought it might be interesting to share a little story I wrote. Some years back when I was contemplating the twin trends of a falling civilian population and the decline of conscription around the world, I tried to envision what Singapore could do to maintain a defence force in the future. I was also inspired by this essay by Ho Kwong Ping.

To my amazement, the fun little fictional piece I wrote won the COA Essay Competition, probably the only time a short story has won over all the other academic essays submitted. It's probably also the first entry to start life as a Facebook note.

This is a vision of the future, and I ask the reader to contemplate whether we can get there, and how? Ultimately, how can we continue to ensure the security and sovereignty of this little island, in a way that is fair and desirable to those serving to defend it?

XiaoMing Jones could barely contain his excitement at the flashing green man in the corner of the frame. His Oakleys immediately detected the movement of his pupils and the incoming message filled his lens. He had been selected for Military NS!

Within minutes, he was exchanging status updates with friends. Some would be spending the rest of the year in government ministries; some had opted to do social work. Still others would be joining Singapore Volunteers Overseas, helping to project Singapore’s soft power in the mini-Singapores around the world. But only a select few had been invited to serve an extended three years in the SAF. In the year 2065, national service with the SAF is strictly by invitation only. For the lucky few, the skills learned and networks built during these three years were a head start to future success, and would open the doors to practically any university and employer they desired. Even his non-Singaporean friends around the world were full of congratulations – they knew what a privilege it was to be invited to enlist.

But NS had not always been this way. Wai Gong (Grandpa) often spoke of the time, 50 years ago, when Singapore citizens first fell below 50% of the population. There was much discussion about how citizens were giving others a free ride at great personal expense, how it was unnecessary and impractical to have such a large standing Army, and how technology should be used to substitute for manpower in many roles. In response, the government had decided to change its policy of universal conscription to selective conscription. A 75% reduction in headcount had allowed NS salaries to be tripled, while still reducing manpower costs, and was hailed as a win-win for both conscripts and taxpayers. The SAF began positioning itself as a first employer, offering soldiers meaningful opportunities for personal development and work experience with a decent salary. Immediately the number of Permanent Residents taking up citizenship shot up, and increasing numbers of citizens volunteered for NS even if they were not conscripted. For some, it offered a good wage to meet their financial needs and for the more patriotic, it allowed them to fulfil their desire to serve the nation, without too much disadvantage vis-à-vis their peers in future careers.

These changes were also in keeping with global trends around the world, as many other countries were rethinking and reducing conscription, or introducing alternative forms of national service. There were even talks of increasing the size of the regular corps and shortening the NS duration further to a year. And after a while, there was a constant clamour for further increases in wages.

But everything changed with the war of 2021, also known as the Work-Week War. A regional aggressor, jealous of Singapore’s success, had begun sabre-rattling as our new Prime Minister and his cabinet took over office. Over a fateful weekend, Singapore’s entire male population aged 30 and above and 25% of those in their 20’s were mobilised. On Monday morning at 0800, the first planes entered hostile airspace and by Tuesday, land forces had made massed all along the borders. The aggressor’s massive military machine was caught off-balance, and was unable to keep up with the SAF’s IKC2-enabled war-fighters that swept across its territory, occupying key nodes and outflanking or bypassing the strongest defences. After some isolated skirmishes, the SAF scored a definitive swift and decisive victory with little bloodshed. Negotiations were begun, diplomatic and economic concessions were imposed, the aggressor promised never to do it again, and the men were home by the weekend.

Not one enemy soldier intruded into our soil, yet overnight Singapore changed. The emergence and quick disposal of a real military threat awakened an outpouring of nationalistic fervour, as Singaporeans around the world rediscovered a sense of national identity and pride. The soldiers returned as heroes and the videos on the Nets still sing of that great victory today. SAF was no longer the "best Armed Force in the world that had never fought a war"; it had finally cut its teeth. Suddenly young men and women did not wait to be conscripted, they were volunteering to join the military and do their part to secure the future security of the nation.

We are just getting to Wai Gong's favourite part of the story. In 2022, he was a research fellow at the Robotics Institute in Carnegie Mellon University. Like many of his colleagues, he was contemplating a move to Tsinghua, where “all the fun was happening”. Then he received a job offer he could not refuse: the Army wanted to recruit him as a Military Domain Expert. He immediately packed his bags and headed home.

The SAF’s problem was that while they now had no lack of volunteers, everybody wanted to be planners and strategists. The young men and women felt they had a greater capacity to contribute than just crawling around in the mud. They wanted to exert an influence on the battle that went beyond two range sticks and an arc of fire. This was understandable given that almost all citizens were now degree holders, and even foreign talents came in with at least post-secondary education. It was understandable, but it was not practical to fight the next war, because someone still had to hold the ground.

Wai Gong joined and eventually led the team that was developing the world’s first autonomous anti-personnel micro-UAV. Nicknamed the SWARM, each inexpensive UAV was no larger than a dragonfly, and capable of securing wide swaths of terrain by incapacitating any enemy personnel within. SWARM came in surveillance, communications and the most common stinger configuration, which employed a non-lethal nerve agent developed by famed Singaporean scientist Nguyen Tan in the Biopolis (Halong Bay). By combining cells from the Rafflesia flower with a potent extract from expired SAF combat rations dating back to the 1990’s, Nguyen developed a non-lethal nerve agent called Crie Palin that caused muscular paralysis of the entire body for 12-24 hours. SWARM allowed the targeted delivery of this nerve agent to strike enemy combatants, thus avoiding the complications of civilian casualties.

Combat rations could incapacitate you ... who knew?

Wai Gong's invention effectively made the infantryman obsolete, and greatly reduced the need for a long logistics tail. It had been hailed as the start of a minor revolution in military affairs because it fundamentally changed the way war was fought. Many other countries had sought to acquire these technologies because of the wide-ranging applications for both conventional war and low-intensity conflict. In fact, Nguyen had been nominated for the Nobel Peace prize because of the immense potential of Crie Palin to reduce the lethality of warfare. This had also made ST (Entobotics) one of the largest defence contractors in the world.

CIA's Insectothopter (2011)

For Singapore, this had allowed another fundamental change to national service, by removing the need for boots on the ground. NS was now by invitation only, because the complexity of the modern battlefield could only be handled by the sharpest minds, and the depth of expertise required entailed three full years of training, compared with other forms of NS that only lasted a year. Both male and female were equally represented because while men had a greater affinity for warfare, women had some mysterious ability to multi-task better. And they were no less patriotic. Many of these men and women eventually chose to join the SAF for a full career, but others would leave to become leaders in the public sector, or MNCs and NGOs around the world.

XiaoMing ended his reminiscing and began to contemplate the future. He had always dreamed of being a Ranger, like his father before him. But even the Special Forces had evolved dramatically. If he made it past the gruelling physical training, he would still need to pass the aptitude test for the SAF-NTU programme in Electromagnetic and Molecular Warfare. The days of waving machetes in the jungle were long gone, and he would need special skills to circumvent the plethora of sensors, shooters and shields behind enemy lines in both urban and vegetated terrain.

Given his slight physical frame and good grades, it was more likely that XiaoMing would join the more mainstream cyberwarriors. He smiled to himself at the prospect of being issues a pair of cutting-edge Panda Eyes; finally he could put his antique Oakleys away. Panda Eyes went far beyond visualisation into the 3D realm. And with the Panda Claw (militarised version of the popular Panda Paw game controllers), his hand movements could be digitised in high resolution as they interacted with the magnetic field around him. This allowed NSmen to perform almost any function remotely, from playing their role in the command post, to overriding the controls of any of the unmanned vehicles or platforms throughout the battlespace.

Google Glass (2012)

The cyberwarrior concept had originally evolved in the 40's, as a solution to distributing the command post to make it less vulnerable to physical attack. But when Wai Gong's colleague invented the Synapse, which eliminated transmission lag and enabled instantaneous end-to-end communication, the true potential of cyberwarriors was unleashed. Like many of the world's great inventions, this was an answer to one of SAF's evolving challenges. With almost 70% of the population living around the world, and less than 10% of knowledge workers working from any fixed country, the archaic concept of In-Camp-Training (ICT) had been replaced by Anywhere Training (AWT). All NSmen now carried a keychain that encapsulated SAF's terabit encryption as well as whatever VR modules the cyberwarrior needed to effectively execute his role. It connected seamlessly to the Panda Claw through the wireless personal area network (PAN). 

When the green men flashed, most of them would be operationally ready within 30 minute, tapping on to the ubiquitous Nets for a secured link back to the Cloud, without undue disruption to their lives. Most NSmen would be analysts and planners, each playing an essential role in the distributed decision process. It had long been recognised that computers were incapable of handling the complexity of the fog of war, unknown unknowns and n-space problems. Even ten year old children with the right training now routinely beat the best computers at Weiqi, the traditional Chinese strategy game. Hence the SAF now tapped on its global pool of brilliant minds to derive dynamic strategies in parallel.

The hoverbus came to a smooth stop and it was time to get off. Two friends were already sitting inside KFC, and beckoned him to hurry. They couldn’t wait to shake his hand and congratulate him in person. Like his father and grandfather before him, XiaoMing Jones was a big fan of KFC. The simple pleasures in life never change.

This is not an essay about how technology changes NS. It is about how the world is changing, how NS will be forced to change and in some cases, how technology can help. It may seem far-fetched; but 2065 is still very far away. Dare you say any of this is impossible?

Beyond the technology, perhaps the first question to ask in the current context is whether it is possible to have an NS system that is voluntary? (Especially if there is no war.) Could we build a system in which the recruits choose to join, not only because they want to protect their country, but also because they value the developmental opportunities, and of course with decent remuneration?

What would it take to make you volunteer to serve your country?

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are entirely my own and do not represent the views of any other person or organisation.