SAF may outsource training functions

Civilians could some day manage soldiers' training and oversee areas they train in - leaving uniformed servicemen to focus on core operational tasks.

In what would be one of the most extensive outsourcing efforts by the Singapore army, staff of private companies could take over the planning of training programmes, arranging ammunition inventory and keeping count of test scores, according to recently released documents.

While the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has already outsourced administrative tasks like cooking and cleaning, this would be the first time it is looking to hire companies to take over key areas such as the management of training facilities.

Details of the plan were contained in the "request for information" issued last month by the agency that manages defence contracts for the Ministry of Defence (Mindef).

The document said the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) asked companies for quotes on how much it would cost and how many people are needed to:

Run the administrative services of the training management offices in 15 army training institutes and schools like the Commando Training Institute and Basic Military Training Centre;

Review the curriculum in the army's training schools like the Specialist Cadet School and Officer Cadet School; and

Manage the army's training areas islandwide. These grounds include 20 live-firing ranges that cover 2 million sq m and outdoor bushland that cover about 60 million sq m.

The SAF will, however, not give up the teaching of combat skills and the issuing of ammunition.

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, Mindef confirmed on Thursday that it is "exploring the feasibility of outsourcing administrative services, curriculum development and training facilities management" for the army.

Mindef spokesman Desmond Tan said: "Outsourcing non-core functions will enable the SAF to focus on operational skills training."

Although Mindef did not say how many jobs would be turned over to civilians, The Straits Times understands that it would be in the hundreds.

Letting go of non-core jobs is something the SAF began doing in the 1970s. It has allowed the SAF to free up its combat-fit servicemen to focus on combat training. This is even more crucial when national service stints are now shorter and enlistment rates start to fall in the coming years.

Companies such as Singapore Food Industries and ST Engineering have been hired for tasks ranging from cookhouse operations to aircraft maintenance. 

Civilian fitness instructors are training recruits at the Basic Military Training Centre on Pulau Tekong.

Such outsourcing of non-core services to civilians is a common practice for advanced militaries. Huge numbers of US private contractors are in Afghanistan and Iraq - many perform logistics functions and provide security for the troops.

Government agencies here, such as the police, civil defence force and even the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, also do some outsourcing.

The practice saves the SAF millions of dollars a year. In 2004, Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean described outsourcing as a key cost-saving measure.

Outsourcing accounted for about 10 per cent of annual defence spending then - more than $800 million - with aircraft maintenance and food catering making up the largest chunk.

The practice to get more civilian entities on board could also open up new business opportunities for former soldiers. In its request for information, DSTA said it preferred former or retired regulars, or operationally ready national servicemen for the jobs.

That the SAF is doing so suggests that it wants to "retain the institutional knowledge of the former servicemen it has lost", said Dr Bernard Loo, a defence analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"With a looming manpower crunch and a fairly young leadership, the SAF has to get whatever expertise these former officers can offer while the existing servicemen can concentrate on honing their skills to deal with the increasingly complex operations that the SAF embarks on," Dr Loo said.


Cookhouse operations

Aircraft maintenance

Fitness instruction: Civilian fitness instructors are training recruits at the Basic Military Training Centre on Pulau Tekong


Administrative services of training management offices

Reviews of the training curriculum

Management of the army's training areas islandwide

This article was first published on Jan 8, 2011.
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