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Building Next Gen Singapore Armed Forces: Cyber defence, Analytics, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics

Image credit: MINDEF

In a speech to the Singapore Parliament on 3rd March, Minister for Defence, Dr. Ng Eng Hen, outlined the threats faced by Singapore in an uncertain world. He touched upon hybrid warfare, the Russian military’s cyber warfare doctrine, attacks on Ukraine’s power grid (mentioning an attack in December 2015 that cut off power to an area about 20 times the size of Singapore) and Estonian government systems, the hacking of the Democratic National Committee servers and the perils of fake news.

He said, “The Estonian government plans to make a digital copy of the entire nation - everything from birth records, property deeds, bank data, all government records. They want to do this and store it in another location, a secure location in UK or Luxembourg! Why do they want to do this? Just imagine. We have 850 (people's) personal information stolen. Suppose somebody burrows (into) Central Provident Fund records, death and registry records, housing records, and demolishes them, there will be utter chaos for any nation.”

Minister Ng went on to talk about how the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) are preparing for these threats, leveraging technology through research and innovation and building a deep talent pool of scientists and engineers.

A new Cyber Command

The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) will establish the Defence Cyber Organisation (DCO) to deal with the growing risk of cyber threats. The DCO will lead and coordinate cyber security across the Defence Cluster, including the SAF's military networks, MINDEF/SAF's corporate IT systems, Defence Science and Technology Agency, DSO National Laboratories, MINDEF-Related Organisations and defence industry partners.

Image credit: MINDEF

DCO will oversee policies, capability development and implementation to monitor and defend the Defence Custer networks 24/7, assess vulnerabilities and detect attempted intrusions and breaches in the system. DCO will co-ordinate capability development for cyber defence and support the Cybersecurity Agency of Singapore (CSA) in ensuring Singapore's cybersecurity when required and defend critical information infrastructure that support Singapore's power grid, transportation and telecommunications network..

National Servicemen with the relevant cyber skills, experience and academic background will be identified and selected for a new cyber defence vocation. Cyber defenders will be deployed to monitor critical networks and systems for anomalies and flag out potential attacks. In the event of an incident, they would be expected to respond rapidly to contain the incident and minimise its impact. They will be trained to analyse the data and recognise patterns, strengthening future defence.

The Headquarters Signals and Command Systems, which includes the SAF training institute for cyber defence, will sign a cyber defence training Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Singapore Technologies Electronics (Info-Security) and Nanyang Polytechnic in March 2017 to strengthen SAF’s cyber defence training.

The DCO will be led by a Deputy Secretary. It will comprise four major formations, each commanded by at least a Colonel or flag officer (General or Admiral) within MINDEF and the SAF.

Analytics, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics

A new Analytics and Artificial Intelligence laboratory has been set up under the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), while DSO will set up a robotics laboratory for prototyping, integration, simulation and testing. Both laboratories will receive a seed grant of $45 million annually as a start.

The Analytics and Artificial Intelligence Lab will use massive volumes of real time information derived from the Internet of Things and platforms.

         Giving an example of the potential of data analytics, Minister Ng said, “Every single day, there are about 1,500 commercial ships that ply our waters. And the Singapore Maritime Crisis Centre uses a particular programme with Artificial Intelligence embedded to generate unique signatures for each of these vessels in our waters. These individual signatures are collated from multiple sources, which include social media, and other specific information. They are collated, scanned, made sense of, fused to give one picture. It then detects deviations from this signature. This AI-embedded method detected a possible ISIS supporter on board a tanker that was in our waters in 2015. So among all the ships, among the tens and hundreds of thousands of occupants, cargo, they detected a possible ISIS supporter. That person was barred from disembarking in Singapore. Finding this needle in a big haystack is only possible through modern means.”                              

Significant progress has been made in robotics, with the Singapore Infantry Regiment soldiers currently experimenting with unmanned aerial and ground vehicles and the Navy putting autonomous Unmanned Surface Vehicles into operations. DSO engineers and scientists are exploring unmanned ground-to-air teaming capability or how to make Unmanned Ground Vehicles and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles work seamlessly as a team, without heavy reliance on human operators.

The SAF working with the Ministry of Home Affairs, has already developed countermeasures to potential drone attacks. Minister Ng revelaed that at the last National Day Parade these systems were already deployed to detect dangers and deliver counter-measures.

A range of other initiatives

The inaugural Singapore Defence Technology Summit will be held in 2018, hosted by DSTA, together with Singapore’s national universities, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR),Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech ), CSA, National Research Foundation, the Singapore Economic Development Board and other government agencies. It will likely be held on a biennial basis. 

Singapore currently has a 5,000-strong community of defence engineers and scientists. Scholarships and awards will be increased by 40% by 2025 from 120 today. The pinnacle Public Service Commission (PSC) Scholarship (Engineering) within MINDEF will be awarded this year.

Technology will also play an important role in the new SAFTI city for SAF training. Battlefield Instrumentation and video cameras in SAFTI city will provide real-time tracking of the servicemen's and unit's combat actions. Results from the data analytics will be packaged into learning materials to conduct effective training debriefs. SAFTI City will also be equipped with battlefield effects simulators to create an immersive training environment for more realistic and engaging training.

Senior Minister of State For Defence, Dr Mohamad Maliki, talked about the responsibilities of individual citizens by acting as the first line of defence by guarding against phishing and hacking attempts through simple actions, such as using strong passwords for our personal devices and online accounts. Businesses can also play an important role by putting in place necessary cyber security measures and training their staff to respond to potential risks.

         Minister Maliki exhorted citizens to be careful about fake news saying, “In the area of fake news, again each individual is the first line of defence – we need to be discerning and responsible with what we read and decide to share online. When you see a shocking article for example, a good first step is to Google it and see if it is being reported on reputable news sites such as BBC, Reuters or Channel NewsAsia. If you find fake news, it could be as simple as reporting a post to Facebook or commenting to expose the falsehood.”                              

Read the transcript of the speech by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen at the Committee of Supply Debate 2017 here

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