Note to Reader: This interview was posted out of chronological order due to a previous error. The date on this interview is correct.
INTERVIEW: SOH KONG PHENG, CEO, Singapore’s Defence Science and Technology Agency
The Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) fills many needs for Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). In addition to being the city-state’s defense acquisition agency, it is an engineering house capable of research-and-development management, large-scale systems design and development, technology and systems management, and procurement. The agency also manages defense technology research and development, working closely with local defense companies, universities and research institutes. In 2000, Soh Kong Pheng joined DSTA as deputy chief executive of operations and led all major defense acquisition programs. Soh became the agency’s chief executive in January.
Q. What is DSTA’s main role?
A. We acquire, develop, integrate and upgrade platforms and weapons, and provide support for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). DSTA is also the design and development house in areas of C4I and specialized infrastructure.
These areas require indigenous design and development capabilities and are critical to build up and sustain key capabilities. We provide engineering support to ensure that the readiness level of systems is sustained throughout its life cycle. We undertake the responsibility to upgrade and modify the systems, when possible. We manage technology plans, foster partnerships and invest in R&D important to Singapore’s defense science and technology needs — things that will make a difference.
Q. What challenges has the agency faced in the past five years?
A. The SAF is in the midst of a major transformation where platforms, weapons and sensors will be fully networked, and operated seamlessly as an integrated fighting system. We have to align ourselves to facilitate, support and enable the realization of the third generation SAF. The key feature is networking of complex systems.
Q. How has DSTA handled those issues?
A. Complexity of highly networked systems means that more planning must be done at the front end. When new requirements are presented, we have to think how these systems will behave in the future, without any compromise in system reliability and safety.
Whether it’s an operational or technological change, it’s going to have effects not just on the specific system, but the entire network.
Everything is multiplied.
We therefore need high-quality engineers to design, develop and integrate these networked systems. Networked systems require us to have different competencies that are not just technically deeper, but broader.
Another aspect is how to keep the maintenance and upgrading of networked systems affordable. In an integrated system, when one system is affected, the upgrades or modifications will need to extend beyond the individual system.
Network systems are complex; it requires a longer time to field because programs take a longer time to plan and implement. But operational demand does not allow that, hence we adopt the spiral development concept. But that raises other issues. We have to establish very strong and robust management, tight configuration control, effective program management across spirals and understand the costs of doing each.
Q. What is DSTA’s five- to 10-year plan for facilitating new tech development?
A. To better support the SAF’s transformation and to tackle new defense and security challenges, we have built up a robust defense technology ecosystem, something we coined several years ago. Our ecosystem has the SAF in the core, and DSTA as the acquisition agency and integrator of complex systems, as well as DSO National Laboratories as the MINDEF’s R&D arm. Local defense industry provides sustenance, maintenance and other support.
On the next ring, we try to exploit the capabilities and capacities available in the market. So we foster partnerships with leading research institutes in the world that are not just defense-related.
In the next five to 10 years, we will continue to nurture and grow the defense technology ecosystem. We will deepen our cooperation, especially in R&D, with our local and overseas partners. By leveraging expertise from these partners through technology research and collaboration, we will be able to create capacity to do more for MINDEF and the SAF.
Q. What new products has DSTA recently unveiled?
A. Almost every major weapon system or capability that the SAF unveils, DSTA has a part in it, either as a developer or an acquisition manager. Our work includes managing programs to ensure schedules and performance expectations are met, to ensure training is done and to facilitate transfer of technology as contracted.
We contracted 12 F-15SGs from Boeing in 2005 and exercised the option for more in late 2007. Delivery should begin in 2009.
Our frigate program is also progressing well, despite the integration complexities of the platform and combat systems. We are delivering six frigates — one built by DCN in France and the other five locally by ST Marine. This program is one of the most complex naval programs DSTA has undertaken.
The frigate has more than 10 different systems from different manufacturers, ranging from radars to missile systems. It is designed by the French with input from DSTA.
DSTA is the systems integrator, which means we are responsible for choosing the combat systems and integrating them as a system of systems. The combat management system is indigenously developed by DSTA and DSO engineers. We commissioned one ship last year and three more on Feb. 5.
Q. What is DSTA’s role in developing military infrastructure?
A. We develop master plans and engineer state-of-the-art operational facilities for the SAF. Our air and naval bases and modern camp complexes are efficient in the use of space and equipped with user friendly facilities.
Our roles in developing defense infrastructure include master-planning, project management, architecture and engineering design, and construction supervision. Specialized construction for protection and security is a critical component in the design of many of our critical defense facilities. We also undertake technology development and testing in the area of protective technology to support such specialized designs.
Q. How does DSTA foster an environment of creativity and innovation?
A. Innovation and creativity come with having a lot of good people.
We recruit and we compete to get the best talent locally. We try to get in there early in schools to enthuse the young into a science-and-technology career. We give out scholarships for undergraduate programs overseas in all the best universities. We do that very aggressively. When they come back, there are a lot of opportunities within the ecosystem — project or technology management, development work, software coding and everything else.
Internally, we established a DSTA college in 2004 to ensure that sound systems-engineering practices and knowledge we have gained over the last 30, 40 years are passed on to the younger staff.
Q. What procurement challenges does DSTA face?
A. Affordability. We are continually looking at how we can get the most cost-effective, best-value-for money solutions for our defense requirements. We have started to do private-public partnerships [PPP] in certain areas, and we’ve been successful in a couple. We started small. We are now embarking on a couple of quite large ones.
Q. What are they?
A. Last year, we contracted the basic wings course, the Air Force’s basic training for pilots. We decided we should try out the concept, which allows us not to own the aircraft but just buy the services.
We have contracted a company to sell the training hours to the Singapore Air Force. We just signed the contract last year; it will take a couple of years before it starts flying. The training will be conducted in Australia.
We are now running a competition for the fighter wings course. We are trying to adopt the PPP approach for that, too.
Q. What’s your most recent success in establishing a new partnership?
A. We have many memoranda of understanding, many agreements, with foreign as well as local partners. Locally we have established two laboratories, Temasek Laboratories with two local universities, the Nanyang Technological University and the National University of Singapore. These have given us high returns because we are able to use the universities’ resources. They have capacity, interest in research, a wider pool of people to conduct basic research.
We also have collaborations with many government and private agencies abroad. In the U.S, we worked with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Defense Threat Reduction Agency and Sandia National Laboratories.
We have established SONDRA, the joint Supelec-ONERA-NUS-DSTA Research Alliance, in France.
The key to successful collaboration, especially in technology, lies in mutual benefits, bringing capabilities and expertise to the table, and trust. We engage anyone who has common interest and expertise to offer. Our Defence Technology Offices in Washington and Paris give us an extended arm to look out for potential partners.
Their role is to meet people, make the initial assessment and establish contacts and help manage the joint projects. ■
By Wendell Minnick in Singapore.