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Interview: Ng Eng Hen, Singapore Defense Minister

Apr. 9, 2012 - 08:32AM   |  
(Gannett Government Media)
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In his first official visit to the U.S., Ng Eng Hen, Singapore’s defense minister, called for more military-to-military exercises between the U.S. and Asia-Pacific nations, using the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a key facilitator.

During his visit last week, Ng met with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and discussed this and other cooperative initiatives between the countries, including hosting U.S. Navy littoral combat ships in Singapore.

In addition, Ng met with other senior U.S. defense officials and visited a Singapore F-15 air detachment at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho.

Q. Can you talk about your visit here?

A. We had a good meeting with Secretary Panetta. Our relationship with the U.S. has been a long-standing one and a very close one. We’ve characterized it as a major strategic partner. [The relationship is] based on a shared perspective that U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific is a critical force of stability and progress. We’ve facilitated the use of U.S. ships and aircraft for our facilities in Singapore in light of that belief. I think that over the last half century the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific has added stability and the region has grown economically, as well as socially.

It’s also a time of changing dynamics in the region. China is growing, Asia is growing, ASEAN is growing, and we welcome the reaffirmation of the U.S. presence in the region. Secretary Panetta made a request for deployment of four littoral combat ships. We are studying what it means. We have already agreed for deployment of one to two [ships]. We’ll see how we can accommodate this new request.

We had a meeting of minds in terms of how the regional framework, the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus [ADMM-Plus], can be a key anchor in terms of building up, enhancing military-to-military relations and increasing confidence and capacity building among the stakeholders.

Q. What type of future military training engagements do you envision?

A. The goal is to build up military-to-military relations and that’s not a new concept. We recognize that there are different comfort levels among different militaries [and] that [there] are operational considerations. The key is: How do you create a platform that accommodates these different levels? And in reality, the relations among the stakeholders might change over time.

We think that the ADMM-Plus is a useful platform because it already exists, number one. Two, there are practical working groups that have already been involved. It’s a very practical way forward. Five areas have been chosen, [which are] fairly accommodating, like humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, military peacekeeping operations, maritime security, counterterrorism — they meet the needs of current operational goals and missions, and yet they are areas in which they’re quite expansive platforms for countries to be involved.

As a start, what we’ve done is to partner the Plus partners, so for instance, the U.S. and Indonesia are counterterrorism and they’re having tabletop exercises here in Washington. We’ll build on that, getting more people involved as well as trying to move from tabletop exercises to where there are troops involved. When militaries meet and are involved in joint activities, the confidence increases, the understanding increases.

Q. Do all of the Plus nations need to participate in order for it to be successful?

A. That would be ideal, but there could be configurations of subsets. To be inclusive, I think it would be good to invite everyone to participate. Whether they can or want to obviously depends on other factors.

Q. Senior U.S. officials have said that America’s debt is its greatest national security threat. How do you see the U.S. debt impacting its influence?

A. Not just debt alone, but economic vitality. The greatest thing the U.S. can do from a security point of view is to grow economically. All of us realize that resources come from a vibrant economy; that’s stating the obvious. I’ve always been struck by the U.S.’ ability to bounce back. I believe that the U.S. will surmount current issues, including its debt [and] budget constraints. That needs to be a focus in terms of regaining its economic vitality.

Q. How can the U.S. and Singapore broaden their military-to-military relationship?

A. It starts from shared perspectives in terms of how we can add to the overall configuration. But at the same time, we are looking at ways in which we can have mutually beneficial [partnerships]. Littoral combat ships is one way we can lean forward to facilitate the presence.

We are also looking at opportunities for bilateral cooperation in training. There are some facilities in Singapore that could be used to enhance capabilities on both sides. This is in the context that, for example, in the U.S. we have four aircraft detachments, F-15s, F-16s, Chinooks [and Apaches].

There’s quite a wide envelope of things that we can do. We’re working out the details. We’re not quite ready to announce discrete programs but we’re trying to see, based on the strategic framework agreement, what else the U.S. and Singapore can do together.

Q. Do you have concerns about the number of submarines and crowding in the South China Sea?

A. It would be embarrassing if submarines keep bumping into each other, but the South China Sea is a fairly wide area. I think it’s understandable that as ASEAN grows, as China and India grow, many of these countries will want to modernize their militaries. We don’t want to escalate an arms race, but once a country grows and invests n building up its infrastructure, that includes the military. I think we will see a little bit more of that.

For Singapore, we spend consistently in our defense and we invest prudently to have [a Singapore armed forces] that is modernized and capable, able to respond to a wide spectrum of challenges.

Q. What are some of Singapore’s top modernization priorities right now?

A. We have a phrase which we’ve used in terms of [third-generation] transformation. The idea is not a new one, it’s what other modern militaries are doing, and that’s a networking of systems and jointness, whether it’s through your sensors, your shooters or your command, control, communications, computer systems. I think the transformation is ongoing and is fairly successful from a network capability. Now there is certainly more jointness among the three services in terms of doctrine, in terms of training, in terms of sensor platforms, in terms of responses to threats. I would characterize our [third-generation] transformation as fairly smooth and effective.

Q. How do you see the F-35 factoring into your modernization plans?

A. We are characterized as a security cooperative partner. We’re still evaluating it. We won’t be seen as a major procurer. We have modest defense needs, relatively. We have now F-15 and F-16 fleets, which are quite current and meet our capability. F-35s are obviously being seriously evaluated, but we haven’t finished the evaluation.

Q. How far off is that decision?

A. Fifth-generation aircraft always have to be seriously considered because of their significant capabilities. We have a number [of] parameters that need to be met before we finish our evaluation. We’re just taking our time with it.

Q. How are you preparing for the littoral combat ship?

A. The littoral combat ships are not huge in a sense, 100 meters, 75 [personnel per ship], so I don’t think there’s significant large infrastructure development required for that. It’s a matter of just looking at the logistics involved. We’ll be happy to seat a U.S. request if we find we can accommodate it.

Q. How effective have the regional anti-piracy efforts been?

A. Fairly effective. Here was where the Shangri-La dialogue played quite a useful platform, along the lines of mil-to-mil and regional relations. The defense ministers concurred on a practical step to have joint maritime patrols, as well as sea patrols and maritime air patrols. All three countries that are littoral states, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, would participate in either the sea patrols or the air patrols. As a result of those measures, piracy significantly dropped. I think the problem is controlled.

We’ve not been complacent because we’ve continued to push for information sharing, because an effective response to piracy is really an issue of information and you need a land-based response. We have a command-and-control center which provides that information fusion center for a maritime picture. We’ve offered that [to] different players. That’s coming along fairly well.

Q. Does the U.S. misinterpret China’s military expansion? What would you like to see Washington policymakers do before reacting to this?

A. I would not want to comment or teach the U.S. how to assess the modernization efforts of other countries. As countries grow, it’s usual for them to modernize their militaries. While that’s to be expected, I think China has articulated and assured others that it wants to play a constructive role and continues to want to seek stability in the Asia-Pacific. That’s welcome and that’s what we need to aim for.

But we want to go beyond just words, and that’s where Singapore feels, along with the other ASEAN defense ministers, that we have to work toward building mutual understanding, capacity and confidence through mil-to-mil relations. Because if you don’t, there’s always a risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation, especially when there’s a perception that countries are spending more, investing larger amounts than usual, in terms of their military modernization. Modernization is expected, but it would be wise for individual countries to work toward enhancing military-to-military relations as a form of assurance.

Q. How is the new U.S. defense strategy being received in Asia?

A. Singapore welcomes the renewed commitment of the U.S. to be engaged in Asia. It flows on from our belief that the U.S. presence in the region has been a critical force of stability. We would encourage the U.S. and other stakeholders to work within the security architecture, the ADMM-Plus, to build confidence and to improve military-to-military relations.

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