Singapore looks to better arm itself with cyberdefence unit, skills

Defence Ministry will set up a new 24 by 7 cybersecurity command unit, comprising top-ranking military and armed officers, to monitor potential threats and intrusions.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Singapore will set up a new cybersecurity command centre to combat increasing threats and ensure there are adequate skillsets in cyberdefence.

Running 24 by 7, the new facility would encompass four key groups and comprise top-ranking military and armed officers, according to the country's defence minister Ng Eng Hen. The new Defence Cyber Organisation (DCO) would be manned by some 2,600 soldiers operating within divisions overseeing cybersecurity operations, policy and planning, vulnerability assessment, and cyberdefence.

The command unit would run under the purview of the defence ministry and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), and the four key units would be led by a colonel, general, or admiral from the two organisations. It also would be supported by scientists and engineers from Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA).

The move came after Singapore's Ministry of Defence (Mindef) suffered a recent security breach that compromised the personal data of 850 national servicemen and employees. The breach involved the ministry's I-net system, which supported web-connected computer terminals its employees and national servicemen used for personal online communications or internet browsing.

Pointing to the breach, Ng said: "Modern militaries can no longer choose to ignore these external threats through the digital front. We would be silly to do so and derelict in our responsibility. [The Mindef breach] is not a surprise, it is no revelation...we can expect more such cyberattacks in the future. The potential of the cyberthreat was recognised early, which is why even from inception, for the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces), our classified and operational networks were separated from the internet since we had those systems.

"But the threat is now material and even greater," the minister said, adding that skillsets in cyberdefence also would be built up. Such training efforts would include national servicemen, male citizens of Singapore who were required to undergo mandatory uniformed services such as military or police.

Elaborating, Second Minister for Defence Ong Ye Kung said a new cyber vocation would be established in August, enabling the SAF to enrol national servicemen for cyber defence. "Our cyber defenders will need to possess a high level of skill given the increasing frequency and complexity of cyberattacks.

"They will be entering a very selective and demanding vocation," Ong said, noting that these men would be identified likely through local cyber competitions, camps, and selection tests. He added that they also would support the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore.

According to Ng, there were further plans to drive efforts in artificial intelligence and robotics, with the government setting aside an initial S$45 million (US$31.84 million) annually in seed grant to support two new labs. The national defence research agency DSO National Laboratories (DSO), for instance, would set up a robotics lab, while the DSTA would establish a research facility to tap artificial intelligence and data analytics. The latter would assess mass volumes of real-time data from Internet of Things (IoT) and various platforms, such as in maritime where valuable data insights could be gleaned from some 1,500 commercial ships that crossed Singapore waters daily.

The $45 million fund would help support "more experimentation and innovation", Ng said, noting that the Singapore Infantry Regiment already had begun testing unmanned aerial and ground vehicles to carry out missions. The Navy also was tapping unmanned surface vehicles in its operations.

He added the SAF, alongside the Ministry of Home Affairs, had developed countermeasures to combat potential drone attacks. "We recognise this threat. This is a real threat. We are monitoring these developments in Iraq and Syria...we are not taking it lightly."

Pointing to the maritime data, he said artificial intelligence tools had led to the detection of a possible ISIS supporter on board a tanker in 2015, who was barred from disembarking in Singapore. "Finding this needle in a big haystack is only possible through modern means," he said.

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