Friday, 8 March 2013

LESSONS FOR S'PORE: M'sian Armed Forces versus Sulu gunmen in Sabah

Friday, 08 March 2013 06:54
LESSONS FOR S'PORE: M'sian Armed Forces versus Sulu gunmen in Sabah
Written by  David Boey

SINGAPORE - A week ago, Malaysia's defence information officers were busy ramping up publicity for the Malaysian Army's 80th Anniversary celebrations - a happy occasion that culminated in a massive show of force by Tentera Darat Malaysia (Malaysian Army) in Port Dickson.
After a weekend on duty, their pace of work increased dramatically with real operations in the East Malaysian state of Sabah. Ongoing operations by Malaysian security forces against Filipino gunmen in Lahad Datu, Sabah, mean that it will be sometime yet before information officers from Cawangan Perhubungan Awam (Public Relations Department) at Kementerian Pertahanan (Kementah, the Malaysian Ministry of Defence) can enjoy a restful weekend.
The exposure to real operations in Sabah will reward Kementah's information officers with firsthand experience managing hearts and minds operations during an unfolding operation that has international dimensions.
Add in the timing of the operation, which was triggered during the run-up to the Malaysian General Elections, and the information officers entrusted to handle media operations will get a chance to learn invaluable lessons in calibrating domestic political considerations during an unfolding operation other than war (OOTW).
While it is early days yet before defence observers can compile a credible blow by blow account of the assault, here are some preliminary thoughts on the situation:
1. Malaysia's mainstream broadcast media, RTM, worked commendably fast in producing the clip with rousing martial music and TV footage aired at the end of Tuesday night's news bulletin that cavassed support for Malaysia's Fallen Heroes.
This is the type of psychological defence response that the Malaysians are good at, having picked up valuable lessons from the British during the Emergency years.
2. The casual attitude to personal protection equipment by Malaysian soldiers and General Operations Force field police has been noted by defence observers.
During the three-week long standoff against a force which claims has 200 gunmen and even after blood was shed, Malaysians deployed for security duty do not seem to care much for their personal protection.
* Body armour is rarely seen. When worn by some officers, the body armour appears to be of the soft body armour type which is not designed to withstand full metal jacket projectiles discharged from firearms or mortar rounds.
* Headgear in the form of ballistic helmets is almost never worn. And let's not even go into protective eyewear like goggles.
This apparently cavalier attitude during live operations is baffling when measured against mountains of defence science literature which underline how lives can have been saved from ballistic protection.
If the officers are content to deploy for operations unaware of the life-saving potential of ballistic protection, then this indicates a failure of the curriculum in Malaysia's military education system.
If the officers are aware but sent their men into action ill-equipped, then the After Action Review (AAR) should perhaps look at how to address the shortfall in such equipment.
Medical reports on the Malaysian security forces killed in action should indicate the cause of death, whether by penetrations from firearm projectiles (if so, the estimated calibre), shrapnel or non-penetrating trauma caused by blast damage.
A frank report would reveal the possible root causes of casualties during the Sabah operation and could suggest the type of protection needed to reduce casualties during the next operation.

3. Concomitant with the above observation is the poor quality of firearms used by the Police General Operations Force.
Their M-16 5.56mm rifles are aimed using iron sights. There appears to be no option for optical sights (for example, a Picatinny rail) that can improve marksmanship or, more importantly, allow Malaysian police officers a rudimentary night-fighting capability.
4. Even after a deadly ambush, it is noteworthy that armoured vehicles appear to be in short supply in Sabah. Vehicle patrols by the police there continue to be mounted in unarmoured Land Rovers and trucks. Again, this begs the question what happened to lessons learned during the Emergency?
5. The tit-for-tat cyber attacks, said to have been the work of computer hackers from Manila and Kuala Lumpur, are a sign of things to come during a Period of Tension (POT) or OOTW (which is what the Sabah operation has evolved into).
Singapore must therefore prepare itself for such a virtual world onslaught as part of its business continuity plan. It should perhaps also study options to pay back with interests anyone who opens an account with Singapore using cyber attacks.
6. At a more basic level of security preparedness, it would be ill-advised for the Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defence and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to display the level of tolerance shown by the Malaysians during this episode.
A three-week standoff against armed intruders said to have conducted active operations on home ground and shed blood is a trigger point Singapore's government should never de-sensitise itself to.
Our circuit breaker must be designed to trip much faster so that a swift and decisive response can be unleashed.

The writer, a former defence correspondent for the Straits Times, maintains Senang Diri , a blog about Singapore defence matters (