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Digital and Intelligence Unit — Understanding why the SAF is setting up a 4th service

The announcement by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will be establishing a new Digital and Intelligence Service (DIS) by the fourth quarter of this year is a timely one.

The new Digital and Intelligence Service will be tasked with providing accurate, relevant and timely early warning and operational intelligence, and will also be responsible for digital defence of the Singapore Armed Forces.

The new Digital and Intelligence Service will be tasked with providing accurate, relevant and timely early warning and operational intelligence, and will also be responsible for digital defence of the Singapore Armed Forces.

The announcement by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will be establishing a new Digital and Intelligence Service (DIS) by the fourth quarter of this year is a timely one.

The service will be the SAF's fourth, operating alongside the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Dr Ng explained that the digital terrain has become as real as the more tangible domains of air, land and sea, and that there had been clear examples of state and non-state actors utilising attacks in both the digital and physical domains in recent years.

These forms of threats, which have become known as hybrid warfare, have been driven by a few key factors.

GROWING VULNERABILITIES

The increasing ubiquity of technology in the form of digital, mobile and social platforms has created new vulnerabilities in societies around the world. We are often reminded of this when we see the latest cyber attack or hacking operation targeting government or commercial operations to achieve a broad range of objectives around the world.

At the same time, evolving consumer habits mean that citizens are spending more time on such platforms. This draws bad actors to target them as they are more vulnerable compared to government organisations, military or security forces.

Seeking to influence and impact people directly has become a more cost-efficient and effective method of achieving nefarious objectives, as evidenced by the increasing popularity of cyber and information operations by countries and non-state organisations in recent years.

The use of misinformation or disinformation, more popularly known as “fake news”, as a weapon has become more commonplace since it was deployed by terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State to recruit and mobilise its members to carry out attacks in recent years, and by countries such as Russia to influence the 2016 United States elections, for example.

While pure cyber attacks such as hacking are different from information operations, they share certain characteristics and both function and thrive in the digital world, and as such can and should be addressed collectively.

AN APPROPRIATE RESPONSE

The decision by the SAF to launch a service focused on dealing with such threats comes at a critical juncture. While Singapore itself has not made headlines as a victim of any significant or large-scale attack, it does not mean that we will always be spared.

In 2018, Singapore suffered its worst cyber attack to date, as hackers stole the personal particulars of 1.5 million patients, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other ministers.

While the perpetrator has not been named, the Government has said it was a deliberate, targeted and well-planned attack that was not the work of casual hackers or criminal gangs, stopping short of pointing the finger at a specific state actor. It was a stark reminder about the need for critical infrastructure to be defended against such attacks.

At the same time, there is evidence that misinformation and disinformation can take root and spread in Singapore society, as has been shown by the significant amount of falsehoods that have circulated about Covid-19 during the past two years of the pandemic, among other examples.

The Ministry of Defence (Mindef) said the new DIS will be tasked with providing accurate, relevant and timely early warning and operational intelligence, and will also be responsible for the digital defence of the SAF.

The Defence Minister said that current capabilities would have to be expanded significantly to deal with digital threats, which is what the new service will aim to do in the years ahead.

Some might ask why this capability should reside in the military and not in organisations such as the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which has the broader mandate to protect the domestic population, or the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), which has significant oversight of the digital environment.

The answer may lie in the way recent military conflicts have played out.

Taking the current conflict in Ukraine as an example, it’s possible to see how an elaborate use of hacking operations and information warfare comprising disinformation campaigns and false-flag videos among other tactics, were deployed alongside and in some cases in advance of conventional operations.

In what is becoming a clear modus operandi for Russia, the use of such tactics enables it to shape the battlefield to its advantage.

In Ukraine, digital attacks and the influencing and manipulation of information served as harbingers of invasion, aimed at undermining Ukrainian sovereignty.

Through this influencing and manipulation of information, Russia sought three main effects: Fostering division among Western countries over their support of Ukraine, countering the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s claims against Russia, and to create plausible deniability over potential mass atrocities.

Observing the range of disinformation and misinformation present in pro-Kremlin online propaganda, overlapping disinformation narratives were detected with Russian-linked social media accounts flooding the internet with the Kremlin’s talking points.

These forms of disinformation ranged from elaborately fabricated videos run by Russian state-run news agencies, aimed at painting Ukraine as aggressors in the conflict, to simple sock puppet accounts aimed at fostering distrust and confusion.

Regardless of the medium, the core messaging of these false flags plays a pivotal role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, that of casus belli or the provocation or justification of war.

More recently, cyber attacks have been carried out by both sides of the conflict.

Websites of the Ukrainian government and affiliated organisation sites were hit by distributed-denial-of-service attacks, resulting in the websites becoming unreachable. Additionally, data-wiping malware aimed at the public was reported to have infected hundreds of computers, presumably to sow panic and discord .

In retaliation, Russian major media outlets were subject to cyber attacks as well, with government-related websites, including the Kremlin and Foreign Ministry web portals, throttled by hackers, including non-affiliated groups such as Anonymous.

NEED FOR COLLABORATION

If we consider the Russian playbook, which can potentially be adopted by any state seeking to attack another, it thus makes sense that Mindef and the SAF develop strong capabilities to detect and defend against such threats.

What would be critical is for the new service to collaborate closely with other agencies such as MHA and MCI, given the broad impact and reach of current and future digital threats.

From the MHA perspective, among the key concerns is the risk of radicalisation of individuals, which has been taking place increasingly online in recent years. MCI also expends considerable resources to build resilience and harmony among the local population in an ever-changing digital landscape.

It is thus important for the SAF’s new service to avoid operating in a silo and to integrate into a whole-of-nation approach to combating the growing digital and information threats now and in the years ahead.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Nicholas Fang is a former Nominated Member of Parliament and journalist. He currently runs a strategic communications agency, and a market and social research agency — Black Dot Research — that operates a fact-checking platform. Joel Skadiang is a researcher at Black Dot Research.

Related topics

defence Singapore Army Singapore Armed Forces digital warfare Technology

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