SINGAPORE: Tired of turning up for in-camp training (ICT) without knowing what’s in store and then waiting for hours to get your bed sheet from the store?
The Army is trying to change that by using technology to improve experience and productivity, as Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen called for a future Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) that suits Singapore’s next generation of soldiers – digital natives who welcome innovation.
“Because the SAF was made mainly for NSmen (operationally-ready national servicemen), you got to get their buy-in,” he said in an interview on Friday (Jun 29) ahead of SAF Day on Jul 1. “We can’t operate systems which are 2G and expect 3G or 4G soldiers to use that.”
One innovation is a smart ICT app that allows Army NSmen to check packing lists and training programmes six months before reporting to camp, as well as complete surveys and send messages to each other.
The app will be rolled out from 2019.
“What used to be a task that is performed on pen and paper is now digital and allows the NSman to be mobile,” said Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Lennon Tan, head general staff HQ Signals and Command Systems.
“Our NSmen find that the app has greatly shortened some of the time that is needed to perform the administrative task. So, they now can pay more focus to what matters most, and that is the training."
For NSmen who need to defer their ICT due to external commitments, checking the training programme well in advance allows them to plan appointments around the schedule, or take a day off rather than defer the whole week.
Previously, NSmen could only check the programme on the day they report for ICT, which can typically last for up to two weeks.
“Without the app, we had to physically turn to the programme and take time off during non-critical training elements,” said Captain (CPT) (NS) Neo Say Wei, 43, who has served 17 years of ICTs.
During ICT, NSmen can use the app to complete their post ICT-survey on the go, as opposed to gathering in big groups and completing hard copy questionnaires in the past.
“In the past, results were compiled only a few days after ICT,” LTC Tan said. “Now, the commanding officer can get it in near real time, and immediately note some of the key issues the NSmen faced during their ICT and address them in a timelier fashion, which is important for strengthening engagement.”
BENEFITS FOR COMMANDERS
The benefits extend to ICT commanders, who are also NSmen. They are given extra access rights to edit the training schedule on the go, when previously they had to meet with ICT trainers before making the changes.
When the app was trialed during CPT (NS) Neo’s ICT in June, he observed on one occasion that his troops, who were returning from a field exercise, would not make it in time for the next training session.
So CPT (NS) Neo, who is also head of operations and training at the 779th Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment, decided to make adjustments.
While still out in the field, he called the trainers and referred them to the app to consult on the changes. Once agreed, he used the app to update the schedule, and the change was reflected almost immediately.
CPT (NS) Neo then sent a one-line WhatsApp group message asking fellow commanders to check the updated schedule on the app. Previously, the message had to explain the exact change, and as a result was long and clunky.
“In the past, you’d get lost in the whole translation of messages because every day there’s a lot of updates going on in WhatsApp,” he added. “If you didn’t scroll up, you’d miss it.”
CPT (NS) Neo said the quick and seamless change allowed soldiers coming back from the field to ease into a less strenuous session, giving them more time to rest.
“Whenever we receive the training schedule, we can pre-empt where it always spills over and we can adjust,” he said. “So, that basically eliminates (the times) in the past where you have rush to wait, wait to rush.”
Besides updating training schedules, commanders can indicate on the app whether their men have reported to camp, and mark absentees together with the reason and duration. This was done on paper, previously.
The information is also updated in near real time, allowing higher commanders to account for manpower across various sub-units using a single interface. “This is a big improvement to the efficiency of how we compile the daily parade state,” LTC Tan said.
This improved efficiency seems to be the consensus on the ground, with LTC Tan saying he received “very encouraging” feedback from three NS units, comprising more than 1,000 soldiers, that tried the app during their ICTs. The first trial took place in January.
LTC Tan said the app will be rolled out “progressively across the Army starting from 2019”, adding that there are plans to include the Navy and Air Force as well. But he declined to offer a timeline as it depended on when ICTs take place and the number of units coming on board.
“There are certain infrastructural enhancements that we need to build in place. That is more on the back end,” he added.
NSmen will eventually log into the app using their SingPass, LTC Tan said, as he allayed concerns about the app’s security.
“First of all, there is no sensitive information to be put on the app,” he said. “Data is stored on internal server, not on the Internet. Within internal servers, we have adequate security measures to protect the data.”
Most of its features are text-based and not heavy on graphics, LTC Tan said, so the app will not take up a big chunk of anyone’s data plan.
As for NSmen without smartphones, LTC Tan said commanders and buddies can still update them through traditional means like text messages.
When asked about sensitive areas where smartphones are prohibited, LTC Tan stressed that the app is designed to support, not replace, traditional command processes. “Whatever training they are going through, the commanders must update the soldiers on what’s happening,” he added.
Another app that will make things more efficient is the camp companion app, which gives access to camp, unit and training information on the go. These include alerts, unit routine orders, training programmes and medical status.
The app will also come with a digital identification feature that allows servicemen to indent meals, reserve camp facilities and report incidents.
The camp companion is just one of several initiatives that make up a smart camp concept. These initiatives, which cover cookhouses, stores and armskotes, will be trialled at selected camps from the end of this year.
At smart cookhouses, servicemen can indicate their meal preference via the camp companion, while weekend duty personnel can pick up their food from automated dispensers.
Smart stores and armskotes will reduce manpower requirements. At self-service stores, servicemen can draw and return equipment at their convenience, while tracking technology keeps tabs on controlled equipment like weapons.
“I should be able to know who returned arms or whether the arms are clean or not by electronic means,” Dr Ng said, highlighting other examples like facial recognition technology that screens people for malicious intent as they walk through a camp.
Dr Ng said the possibilities are endless.
“The idea is that you really can cut down a lot of daily rituals and waiting time if you use smart technology," he added. “We are currently working on it, and the next-generation SAF must keep pace with the expectations of the next generation of Singaporeans.”