What gives S’pore’s defence the technological edge? Hint: It’s what you can’t see

Not all about the hardware but the ‘heartware’ as well.

| Candice Cai | Sponsored | April 24, 2023, 06:02 PM

Without advancements in defence technology, we might not have the internet today.

This little-known fact was shared by Roy Chan, Chairman of the organising committee of the recently concluded Singapore Defence Technology Summit.

Chan is also the Deputy Chief Executive (Operations) of Singapore’s Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA).

Roy Chan.

The internet may have been officially invented in 1983, but few may know that billions of us enjoy access to the information superhighway today thanks to research by defence technologists.

Giving Mothership some additional insight, Chan shares: “The internet that we all know and love today actually first came about as the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network – better known as ARPANET – which was created by the US Department of Defense in 1969 to enable resource sharing among remote computers.”

And it’s not just the internet that we have to be thankful to defence technologists for.

Says Chan: “Likewise, today’s hobbyist drones are successors to the military’s unmanned aerial vehicles that were used for surveillance.”

But one of the most important uses of defence tech, of course, lies in its original intent — the protection of sovereign states against potential aggressors.

Peace can disappear in the blink of an eye

Chan cites the recent war in Ukraine as an example of why Singaporeans should not take its safety and security for granted.

“As the recent war in Ukraine has shown, peace can disappear in the blink of an eye. A small nation like Singapore is especially vulnerable. With a lack of strategic depth and limited resources such as land and manpower, coupled with an ever-changing security landscape, we have to leverage technology as a force multiplier to overcome these challenges,” Chan states.

What this means is that Singapore has to place a strong emphasis on technology and innovation, so that “we can do more with less” and build a strong and credible Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). “We should not and cannot take Singapore’s continued peace for granted,” he emphasises.

The relative stability that Singapore enjoys, however, has unfortunately had some unintended consequences, according to Chan.

“We are fortunate that Singapore has enjoyed peace for many decades. This may have had an unexpected side effect of causing the younger generation to feel that defence technology is a very distant topic,” he says.

For many, their only exposure to the topic could be through National Service, the mobile columns during National Day Parades, or open houses held by the SAF and outreach programmes organised by local defence technology agencies, including DSTA.

Through DSTA’s Young Defence Scientists Programme, students can explore technologies such as the Internet of Things, among others.

Chan hopes that more people, especially the younger generation, will realise the importance of defence technology and its development.

“For Singaporeans, knowing the strength of our defence forces and the technologies used will provide a deeper understanding of our capabilities to defend ourselves. We hope that this knowledge will spur deeper discussions about what every Singaporean can do to protect our home, and encourage them to join the local Defence Technology Community to reach that goal.”

“DSTA does our best to play a part in this regard,” says Chan.

“For instance, the next generation of defence technologists will be able to join our annual learning fest BrainHack held in June 2023 – where students are able to get hands-on experience in the latest technologies – as well as take on internships, and participate in other DSTA student engagement programmes.”

BrainHack 2022 saw over 3,000 students from 83 schools come together to try their hands at various technologies, including artificial intelligence and machine learning.

‘The most impressive technologies are those you don’t see’

With such a challenging landscape, it is no wonder that Singapore has taken pains to build up its defence technology capabilities over many years, to give the SAF the technological edge.

But Chan shares that it’s not all about the hardware either. The defence sector’s value and potential also lies in its “heartware” — its team of defence technologists.

“Their efforts are what help Singaporeans sleep peacefully at night, even if their work is often not visible. After all, the most impressive technologies are those you don’t see,” Chan quips.

And with Singapore’s strong defence system being the bedrock of its continued peace and prosperity, Chan shares that DSTA “places a heavy emphasis on people development to ensure that our defence technologists maximise their potential and are ever-ready to take on any challenges”.

Chan cites how one of the greatest strengths of Singapore’s defence technologists is their ability to integrate the best defence systems across the global market with indigenous systems in a “seamless and cost-effective manner”.

“DSTA’s role as a smart integrator gives the SAF the secret edge, while at the same time ensuring value for money,” he remarks.

“For instance, when Singapore was looking to bolster its air defence, we did not choose to buy existing integrated systems off the shelf because doing that would mean limiting ourselves to a single supplier’s products. Instead, we decided to integrate the best and most suitable sensor and shooter systems with an in-house developed command, control and communication system, which was essentially its brain,” Chan explains.

What this means is that the technologists were able to “provide better island-wide air defence coverage with less manpower and better resilience”, by incorporating algorithms, powered by artificial intelligence and other decision-making tools, into the system.

DSTA’s defence technologists with the ASTER-30 Missile System, one of the many systems that make up Singapore’s Island Air Defence system.

Another example Chan gives of Singapore’s technological prowess in defence is the Littoral Mission Vessels (LMVs). Designed by DSTA and the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), the LMV outperforms its predecessor – not only is it smarter, faster, and mission-flexible, it is also bigger and more complex, but yet operates with less crew.

The LMV comes with increased capabilities and endurance to undertake a wider spectrum of operations.

Singapore has also revved up its efforts to harness a whole host of emerging, digital, and cyber technologies, he adds.

For instance, the LMV Simulation Centre (LMV SIMCEN) uses modelling and simulation technologies and even virtual reality to provide the RSN crew with realistic yet safe training. Even though training is conducted on land, the crew is still able to experience various weather and at-sea conditions to sharpen their skills in operating the ship. The LMV SIMCEN has reduced the total training time required for each ship by up to 60 per cent.

The LMV SIMCEN features an innovative 360-degree screen display wrapped around a mock-up of the ship to depict what crew would see when they look out of the ship under various weather and sea conditions.

He adds that the fully digitalised Hunter Armoured Fighting Vehicle is not just better than its predecessor – its onboard systems also report health, utilisation, faults and events data to alert operators to any faults and provide guidance on how to fix them. Together with its Health and Utilisation Monitoring System, the vehicle’s collected data can be analysed for fault trends and enable condition-based maintenance.

The Hunter provides greater firepower, superior protection, increased mobility, and expanded situation awareness compared to its predecessor.

On the digital front, DSTA has developed systems such as the Cyber Security Operations Centre 2.0, which leverages advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to enhance Singapore’s cyber defence.

On the other hand, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) is able to use the MINDEF Commercial Cloud (MCC) to explore new operational capabilities, thanks to on-demand resource availability made possible by the MCC.

The establishment of DevSecOps – short for development, security, and operations – pipelines to automate software build and release processes also allow applications to be delivered at higher tempos, with security and quality.

The MCC helps the MINDEF to double up on digitalisation and data exploitation capabilities.

DSTA is also looking into green and sustainable tech, in line with the Singapore Green Plan 2030, says Chan.

He proudly shares that DSTA has already delivered the SAF’s first net positive energy building – a hangar for the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport for the Republic of Singapore Air Force, which generates more power than it consumes.

“In fact, it generates 30 per cent more electricity, and the excess energy is used to meet other needs in the air base,” says Chan of the building, which has received the Green Mark Platinum (Positive Energy) Award given by the Building and Construction Authority – the highest accolade possible.

With its solar photovoltaics panels, the MRTT Hangar is able to produce around 1,225 MWh of electricity every year – enough to power 273 four-room HDB flats.

Chan additionally divulges one key feature that is built into all the systems — interconnectivity. “We make sure that they don’t just work in silos, but also network them together so they can function as one integrated fighting force.”

Achievements ‘no mean feat’

That Singapore has made such strides in defence technology is an achievement in itself, considering its relatively late start.

“Compared to many nations’ military and defence technology agencies, which have long histories behind them, the SAF was only established in 1965,” Chan explains.

Singapore’s very first defence technology agency – the Test, Evaluation and Acceptance Section of the SAF’s Logistics Division – only came about in 1966.

Providing a little history lesson, Chan shares that back then, the aim was simply to “deliver whatever the SAF – which focused on operations – requested for”.

That is no longer the case today.

“As envisaged capabilities become increasingly complex, it is important for the defence tech community to understand operations, and conversely, for the operators to also know the technologies available,” he states.

The strong collaboration allows defence technologists to anticipate the SAF’s needs and deliver the right capability.

He also stresses that Singapore’s achievements and the respect it commands in the global arena was by no means an easy feat.

“Our continued investment in our defence technologists have enabled us to contribute to and be respected at the international stage,” he says.

“For instance, during the development of Singapore’s first Underground Ammunition Facility, which led to land savings equivalent to 400 football fields, DSTA also created new safety standards for the development and operation of such facilities. The standards have since received international endorsement, including that from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),” Chan illustrates.

Singapore’s extensive use of technology is also what allows us “to punch above our weight”, says Chan, enabling Singapore to better see the value of international collaborations.

“As a small nation with limited resources, Singapore has to work with international partners to identify new and refine existing methodologies and technologies constantly, to ensure that we’re always ahead of the tech curve,” he adds.

The Singapore Defence Technology Summit provides a platform for senior leaders and key players from the industry to engage in dynamic conversations for defence tech.

This also formed part of the impetus for organising and hosting the global Singapore Defence Technology Summit (Tech Summit) from March 22 to 24 this year, the fourth edition since 2018.

The Tech Summit brings together leaders from governments, militaries, industry, academia as well as think tanks around the world to network, share ideas, and spur collaboration.

To heighten awareness among the young of the importance of defence tech, the Tech Summit also included various programmes for students, such as an artificial intelligence and machine learning workshop and competition, a cyber hackathon, as well as engagement sessions with industry leaders.

The event attracted over 600 participants in person and more than 800 participants online.

The Tech Summit featured various plenary sessions and fireside chats focused on the topic ‘Digital and Dual-Use Technologies – Opportunities and Threats’. Some speakers were even beamed in live via holograms.

Chan shares that at the sidelines of this year’s Tech Summit, DSTA signed more than nine partnerships with military partners, commercial companies and the academia, in various areas ranging from cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, green technology, and data analytics.

“Singapore has come a long way from being just a small nation, and pooled together everyone’s efforts to get to where we are today. It is no mean feat, and it is only through many years of hard work and perseverance that we have gotten so far,” he added.

One thing’s for sure, is that the efforts don’t stop there.

Chan states: “We will continue to strive to be even better. We will also continue to attract and nurture the best talents to ensure that Singapore will always have access to the best technologies for the safety and security of our nation.”

This is a sponsored article by DSTA.

All images courtesy of DSTA.