Inside Singapore’s vision for its defence tech future

By Sean Nolan

Interview with Loke Mun Kwong, Director, Advanced Systems, Defence Science and Technology Agency, Singapore.

Rusbal is a Russian company that specialises in hot air balloons, but was commissioned by the Russian military. For what purpose? The creation of tanks…inflatable tanks that is. Their intention is to deceive the enemy for a strategic advantage and are an example of the innovative tools that are created in defence technology.

Loke Mun Kwong, Director Advanced Systems, Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), Singapore, discusses the latest innovations in defence tech and what the future holds for the sector.

Loke was an individual winner of the 2021 Defence Technology Prize, Singapore’s award for contributions to the country’s defence science and technology. He shares the key to making defence technology work in unison.

The future of defence tech 

The advancement of technology will inevitably have implications for defence tech. Autonomous vehicles, drones, and sensors will “play a big role in future warfare” and DSTA is keeping a close eye on emerging areas such as AI, Internet-of-Things, cybersecurity, and Cloud, Loke shares.

Assisting decision-making is one way that AI can be useful to the military, he says. Algorithms can make sense of increasingly complex and large data, helping to recommend and predict possible next steps. It can also detect threats and unusual activity at a rapid pace.

Tackling disinformation is another area where AI can play a role in national security. DSTA is collaborating with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to develop this capability, Mervyn Tan, Chief Executive of DSTA, told GovInsider.

Working with commercial companies to develop tech for military applications is key, Loke shares. Private companies like IBM and ST Engineering are working with DSTA engineers to create new services, such as a health app for armed forces personnel, Tan highlighted.

The younger generation are the future and Loke hasn’t forgotten about their importance. He conducted regular lectures to up-and-coming engineers at the Temasek Defence Systems Institute at the National University of Singapore.

Imparting knowledge to a new generation of defence tech staff is how “we can develop a stronger pipeline of talents”, he shares.

Technology as one 

While DSTA can source defence systems from external organisations, engineers do more than “just buying off-the-shelves and delivering” it to the military, he says. It is key that the technology it buys can be integrated into a common network.

This network of interconnected technologies provides greater capabilities than what the individual systems can do alone, meeting requirements that couldn’t be achieved otherwise, Loke emphasises.

This common network can be compared to a smart home, he explains. While a homeowner can have a virtual assistant device like Alexa, the device can be enhanced when it can control the TV, air conditioner, lights, and front gate. This turns multiple individual devices into a smart home system.

But this process is easier said than done. Integrating large-scale systems can be challenging, which was demonstrated when Loke was tasked with adding new sensors and radars to an existing naval ship mast.

“My team and I analysed various options of locating the systems, considering its trade-offs” while recognising space is a luxury on board on these warships. On top of physical limitations, Loke’s team also faced technical issues, like managing the electromagnetic interference between the ship’s systems.

DSTA’s work during the pandemic 

The pandemic revealed that DSTA “has applications beyond defence”, says Loke. For example, DSTA engineers were able to develop a tech tool to help measure citizens’ temperatures across public spaces when the virus first hit Singapore.

These teams were able to rapidly develop temperature self check systems that are contact-free. This enabled citizens to measure their temperature “quickly and conveniently”, he shares.

The organisation has been investing in building skills across multiple areas for years, enabling it to develop valuable services when crises like Covid-19 strikes, Loke recognises.

The organisation’s recent work has not all been related to Covid-19. Loke has been helping to boost security at Changi Airport by upgrading its ability to detect and disrupt unauthorised drones in nearby airspace.

The UK experienced the impact of these unauthorised drones in 2018. A flying device shut down Gatwick Airport for two days, resulting in more than 1,000 cancelled flights and more than 140,000 passengers affected, the Guardian wrote.

The evolution of defence tech relies upon advancing technology, such as AI, to redefine the battlefield. But this process is not complete without collaborations with the private sector and developing a new generation of engineers.

Photo courtesy of DSTA.