Reducing defence spending while minimizing the impact on capability development

June 18, 2013
Singapore Democrats

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Jeremy Chen

I would like to add to Bryan Lim’s Perspectives piece  Do we need to spend so much on arms?

Having been in the defence industry, I am reasonably familiar with what we call “defence development”. Singapore has very well structured defence development plans. Adopting a project management perspective, our plans are intricate, well-structured and each milestone builds on previous milestones.

Given this, we cannot simply “not buy” certain equipment or sometimes even “buy less”, because that might hamstring capability development.

This is because of the inherent dependencies in defence development. However, this is not to say that defence spending must proceed apace. In fact, it is precisely the pace which can be altered.

Let me give an analogy — buying a high-powered gaming PC. Suppose one usually buys a new PC with all the latest and greatest computer parts every three years. Now consider lengthening the interval to 4 years. Since the prices remain roughly the same (after inflation), one realizes 25% cost savings. The loss might be that in the additional one year, one might be playing the latest games at less than the “maximal” graphics settings.

Because the graphics settings one typically plays with are of high quality, lowering them a little would be hardly noticeable. Perhaps, one might not even have to lower the graphics settings because the frame rate at “maximum settings” goes down from 35-45 frames per second (fps) to 30 fps for the “newest games”. (TV broadcast formats are typically 25 fps to 30 fps. So unless one has hyper-perceptual capabilities 30 fps is jitter-free.)

It is important to note that lengthening the buying interval does not mean an increasing lag in the acquired technology. This is because one has access to the state of the art at the point of purchase. So after 4 cycles, one’s most recent purchase is not based on parts released 4 years ago. Rather, at the point of purchase, one is still buying state-of-the-art technology.

So, if we reduce the pace of defence spending, the savings will be extremely high but the capability build up implications will be minor. This is clear given that system life-cyles are very long (conservatively, 10 to 20 years), Acquisition time-gaps of a year or so have a minor impact.

This will, of course, not be true if we are at war. During such times, even the smallest capability edge can mean the difference between victory or defeat. But we are not at war. As Bryan suggested in his piece, one of the best forms of security is regional friendship and solidarity

Careful and substantial planning work will have to be done to slow down the pace of arms acquisition, but it is not insurmountable. In other words, we can reduce defence spending without affecting capability development. We just have to be intelligent about it.

Jeremy Chen is pursuing his PhD in Decision Science at the NUS and is a member of the SDP’s housing policy panel.