The latest episode of outsourcing by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has again led to some hand-wringing - mostly among those who completed their national service some years ago and are now wondering if the training of the modern soldier has become slack.
These critics tend to cast a nostalgic eye over their own hot, sweaty days in the army - days which included being dressed down by stern physical training instructors (PTIs) and endless hours on rifle ranges - and then conclude that recent outsourcing moves, such as turning fitness training and maintenance of firing ranges to civilian outfits, will make today's full-time national servicemen (NSFs) go soft.
They argue that what is being sacrificed is the character building that allegedly comes from being drilled by tough PTIs instead of gentler civilians and the discipline which comes from cleaning up after yourself once live-firing practice is done.
Such folk are missing the big picture.
Letting go of non-core functions like logistics and physical fitness allows the SAF to tighten its grip on its primary mission - which is to fight increasingly complicated and difficult enemies.
The less time the third generation or 3G fighting force spends on peripheral chores, the more time it will have to actually train for the business at hand - deterring potential aggressors and if that fails, knocking the stuffing out of them.
Critics forget that M-16s and bayonets are just one part of the modern NSman's arsenal. As Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean has noted, the soldier of today essentially carries the SAF in his backpack. He is trained to operate drones to seek out the enemy, use computers to alert supporting units to them and call on F-15s or thundering Apache helicopters to destroy them.
Getting plugged into this defensive network takes some training. And with national service stints now shortened - to not more than two years, from 21/2 in the past - time is of the essence. For operationally-ready national servicemen (NSmen), the in-camp training period has been cut too, from 13 years to 10.
More focused quality training - sans the chores - can produce better warriors. Besides, farming out non-core services to civilians is old-hat for advanced militaries.
United States-based defence analyst Peter Singer notes that private contractors for the military are probably at their most prevalent since the 18th century.
The SAF has outsourced functions such as cookhouse operations, some aircraft maintenance and logistics services and even naval training in navigation and weaponry for nearly 40 years. Contractors for these services include Singapore Food Industries and ST Engineering.
Taking away servicemen from such areas means they can be sent to focus on the business end of military operations: combat training. When manpower crunches hit because of falling birth rates - manpower shortages began in the 1980s, and will become severe again in a few years - it will be critical to have as many troops as possible trained in the fine art of wielding the sharp end of a stick.
For example, handing over SAF cookhouses to contractors freed up more than 750 soldiers. Outsourcing aircraft maintenance in the 1990s freed up about 1,600 air force personnel.
Likewise, the latest firing range contract will mean staff of private commercial companies will take over repairing the SAF's 14 outdoor firing ranges, keeping count of the scores and retrieving the spent cartridges - jobs that have, until now, been done by 22 soldiers deployed by each unit using the range.
By year's end, soldiers will just clock in at the firing ranges, spend all day honing their marksmanship, then clock out. No time that could be better used for perfecting combat skills need be wasted on picking up cartridges.
The practice of outsourcing also saves the SAF millions of dollars a year. In 2004, DPM Teo described outsourcing as a key cost-saving measure.
Outsourcing accounted for about 10 per cent of annual defence spending then, or more than $800 million, with aircraft maintenance and food catering making up the largest contracts.
Some critics, however, have rightly pointed out that too much outsourcing is a bad thing. Take the US military. Huge numbers of US private contractors are in Afghanistan and Iraq. While many perform logistics functions, large numbers have been tasked with duties such as providing security.
Such contractors are beyond the control of military commanders and have detracted from the mission. Worse, some have developed a gung-ho reputation and have alienated Afghans and Iraqis with their tactics.
The SAF should guard against falling into a similar trap.That being said, it can and should do more in the outsourcing arena.
Management of the military detention barracks, other camp buildings and facilities and certain administrative jobs, among others, could be handed to private contractors.
Defence planners are now enjoying a 10 per cent to 15 per cent surge in the annual intake of full-time national servicemen, thanks to the mini baby boom from the 1988 Dragon Year till around 1997. But that boom will last only till 2016. After that, enlistment will fall by some 5,000 to about 20,000.
With fewer boots on the ground, the SAF can ill-afford to have soldiers fiddling with chores when they could be honing combat skills. When enlistment rates fall, what would you rather have NSFs and NSmen skilled in?
Putting round after round on target from 300m away, or picking up expended cartridges?
This article was first published on May 28, 2010. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.