SAF's new Digital & Intelligence Service necessary as cyberspace has become a 'battleground'

Keyboard warriors are now officially a thing.

Matthias Ang | Ashley Tan | August 03, 2022, 09:45 AM

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The Ministry of Defence (Mindef) previously announced the establishment of a fourth service to the Singapore Armed Force (SAF), the Digital and Intelligence Service (DIS), earlier in 2022.

On Aug. 2, the Bill to establish this new service was passed in Parliament following a debate.

In his speech, Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen shared that the amendments proposed for this Bill "represent a significant change militarily".

Since the SAF was incepted 57 years ago in 1965, Ng said that the military has been continuously improving and transforming, and the DIS is just one among the continuum of improvements thus far.

Why the need for the DIS?

The DIS primarily affects the intelligence community, also known as the C4I community (which stands for command, control, communications, computers and intelligence).

The C4I community has grown alongside the three more "visible" services, the Navy, Army and Air Force, and has been key in aiding in counterterrorism efforts and in local operations such as the National Day Parades, as well as other high security events such as the Trump-Kim Summit in Singapore in 2018.

However, the role of the C4I community has mostly been that of a supporting agency to the three other services, Ng said.

Although the responsibilities of the C4I will taken up by the DIS, the need for the DIS to be a fully-fledged military service is due to a change in the "battleground".

"The digital domain, just like air, land and sea has become a battle terrain, which if left unguarded, can impact the security and sovereignty of any country."

The "face of warfare" is changing, considering the rising prevalence of cyber threats and use of disinformation.

Ng said that these digital threats "can only grow and have a very real physical impact on any country that is unprepared".

What does the DIS do?

The DIS will thus be a dedicated service to raise, train and sustain cyber troops and capabilities to defend Singapore's "digital borders" in the digital domain.

Although Singapore has not faced any such digital threat, building up the DIS now will serve as a deterrent, Ng highlighted.

"As with the mission of the three existing services, the DIS will insure Singapore is defended against the full spectrum of threats, against potential aggressors. The digital environment is more porous than the physical one, but the DIS will be responsible to guard against these aggressors in that domain."

For the SAF, the DIS will provide accurate and timely intelligence to support its operations.

It will also work closely with the HomeTeam, CSA and other agencies to protect Singapore's digital networks and provide a strong digital defence, Ng said.

What are some of the concerns regarding the DIS?

In response to Ng's speech, Member of Parliament (MP) Alex Yam asked how the DIS will ensure that its personnel will be security conscious and not flout secrecy laws.

Yam noted that instances of information leaks by experienced civil servants had occurred at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

He also asked if MINDEF, in light of certain NSmen or NSF having access to sensitive data, would consider a moratorium on them becoming employees of foreign governments or organisations when they leave the DIS.

Yam also highlighted:

"There's also some misplaced concern that new vocations within the DIS may be seen or regarded as a more comfortable vocation to serve NS obligations compared to the other services.

This is a potentially damaging mindset to have as it would adversely affect the morale of our soldiers within the wider SAF. All NS vocations come with high amount of responsibilities and stress, and should be respected and regarded seriously as such."

Separately, MP Don Wee pointed to the limited resources on manpower, as a result of a rapidly ageing society and a total fertility rate of 1.1, "well" below the replacement rate of 2.1.

Wee then questioned how MINDEF intended to recruit and retain the necessary talents for DIS.

He said:

"There is (a) sharp shortage of talent in the IT sector, not just in Singapore, but all over the world. What strategies does Mindef have to beat the competition, particularly the private sector and hire the right talent to join this service?"

Ng: DIS will be a formal force on par with the Army, Navy and Air Force

In response, Ng acknowledged that the manpower issue for the DIS is a "serious challenge" and said that forming the DIS as a formal force on par with the Army, Navy and Air Force is the best way to attract the people who are needed.

Ng clarified that this means the DIS will provide career progression and pathways similar to those of the other three forces, including the chance to become Chief of Service or even Chief of Defence Force, if a person displays the aptitude.

In addition, recruitment for the DIS will also be boosted once it is officially formed, with a SAF scholar already selected to join the DIS.

The onus will also be on the DIS leaders to fight for the share of talent that they need.

Ng also acknowledged that as the DIS serves a higher calling, it must bring in people with the right values.

With the C4I community reconfigured into the DIS, this means that it is now "directly responsible and accountable" to protect the cyber domain against external aggressors.

"As cyber warriors they are the frontline troops. This mindset shift is crucial for the SAF as it builds the DIS," he said.

This also means that Singaporeans will form the core of the DIS as it requires military men with a military mindset, the minister added. It will also be open to women who can join as regulars.

DIS will have to fight for talent

As for soldiers who join the DIS, there will be a dedicated digital vocation, which will develop experts in competencies such as software engineering, app development, data science, AI, and cloud architecting among others.

Talents in these fields will also be eligible for top tier SAF scholarships, while compensation will be benchmarked against the tech industry and regularly reviewed, Ng elaborated.

"I completely agree with members of this house that indeed there is a global demand for these types of skills. But this is healthy competition between the services (DIS, Army, Navy and Air Force) first, and then for the SAF to compete with the rest of (the) organisations that need that kind of talent."

When Workers' Party MP Gerald Giam asked if such competition will exacerbate the talent crunch in the private sector, and if there were any other plans to increase the pipeline feeding tech talent to DIS, Ng replied that the DIS will have a budget to work with and have to be attractive.

Ng added that he "completely agreed" with Giam that Singapore has an acute shortage of tech talent and that the government will therefore work with other agencies to help grow the overall pie in bringing more people in, or find ways of being efficient.

Top image via Clint Patterson/Unsplash