19 Juni 2009

Singapore’s Blue Water Aspirations (2)

18 Juni 2009
RSS Steadfast (photo : FYJS)

These Formidable vessels carry a formidable array of sensors and armaments. MBDA Aster-15 and Aster-30 15-km (8-nm) and 30-km Thales Herakles multi-function radar, a Terma Scanter E/F and I/J-band navigation and surveillance radar, and a ITT Corporation Model 997 Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) sonar. Amazingly, thanks to the utilisation of technology, these ships have a complement of 60 crew compared to the 141 crew on the French La Fayette vessels. The low staffing levels are an important consideration given the manpower pressures that the RSN suffers due to the country's small population.

RSS Steadfast (photo : FYJS)

The frigates will bolster the RSN's surface fleet which also includes the six Victory class corvettes which entered RSN service from 1990 and which comprise the navy's 188 Squadron. The RSN's Victory and Formidable-class vessels are also joined by the twelve Fearless-class patrol vessels designed for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) which comprise 182/189 Squadron.

The RSN's amphibious assets fall under the responsibility of the service's 191 Squadron. By the mid-1990s the force had been reoriented away from its erstwhile mission of assisting Army training deployments abroard, and for the provision of Midshipman Sea training, to become a naval rapid reaction force. To this end, the RSN received the RSS Perseverance; a former Royal Navy ‘Sir Lancelot’-class Landing Ship Logistics in 1994. Two years' after the Perseverance's arrival two new Enduranceclass LSTs were ordered from ST Marine. These are the largest ships ever operated by the RSN. A total of four ships; Endurance, Resolution, Persistence and Endeavour comprise the class, and their entry into service has allowed the ex- US Navy ‘County’ class LSTs, acquired in the early 1970s, to be decommissioned. The lead ship in the Endurance-class, RSS Endurance, made history in 2000 as the first RSS vessel to circumnavigate the globe. Endurance class vessels have also assisted humanitarian operations during the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia.

RSS Victory (photo : Keypublishing)

Moreover, the RSN's mine warfare capability has experienced a substantial modernisation. In 1995, the Navy acquired the first of its four ‘Landsort’ class mine countermeasures vessels which form 194 Squadron. The Landsort ships were acquired to replace the two ex-US Navy ‘Bluebird’ class minesweepers which had been acquired in 1975. All four of the ships of the Landsort class were acquired by the RSN by 1996, and were deployed with COSCOM. These vessels are equipped with a Northrop Grumman MAINS mine countermeasures and navigation command and control system, along with Remotely-Operated Vehicles (ROVs) for mine disposal. These ships are instrumental in ensuring that the country's SLOCs remain clear of any mines.

Looking towards the future, over the next year, the RSN's Formidable class frigates will be enhanced with the arrival of six Sikorsky S- 70B naval helicopters. The RSN has no organic naval aviation and these aircraft will be operated by Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) personnel. The helicopters will be equipped to perform anti-surface and ASW, while also acting as an over-the-horizon reconnaissance and surveillance platform for the ships. All six of the helicopters are expected to be delivered to the RSAF by the end of this year.

Protector unmanned surface vehicle (photo : Mindef)

In recent years, the RSN has been a trailblazer in the use of Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USVs) Along with the Heil HaYam HaYisraeli (Israeli Sea Corps), the RSN has acquired Protector USVs. In 2003, a number of Protector craft were despatched to the Persian Gulf, along with the RSS Endurance, to assist multinational peacekeeping efforts in the Persian Gulf. These small, but able, craft demonstrated their abilities to perform up to eight hours of surveillance per day. The RSN is now reportedly interested in acquiring a rotary-wing Unmanned Air Vehice (UAV). No acquisition programme has been publicly announced, although the navy is said to be interested in the Schiebel S-100 Camcopter as a possible solution. In terms of surface craft, one capability that the RSN currently lacks is underway replenishment. The procurement of vessels that could fulfil this function would give the RSN a valuable means of enhancing its self-sufficiency, and also of projecting its power further east into the South China Sea. However, the acquisition of such a capability is not without risks, and could be seen by some of Singapore's neighbours as the RSN adopting a more aggressive posture. The country's acquisition of its Challenger class submarines was said to have provoked a mini-arms race in the south east Asian region with Malaysia deciding to acquire its ‘Scorpene’ class boats in 2006, and Indonesia also in the market for submarines. On the other hand, these two countries also have important maritime security concerns visa- vis piracy; arms and drug trafficking, and the security of their SLOCs. The submarine acquisitions could be as much about addressing these concerns, as responding to Singapore's naval modernisation.

In terms of amphibious capabilities, the procurement of the Endurance class LSTs could receive a further enhancement with the acquisition of hovercraft to support amphibious operations. The RSN performed some experiments with a locally-built ST Engineering Tiger-40 hovercraft in the early 1990s. The RSN may decide to acquire a large Landing Craft Air Cushioned (LCAC) style hovercraft of a similar design to the Textron Marine vehicles used by the United States Marine Corps to move heavy equipment, and large numbers of troops, from ship to shore.

Endurance class LPD (photo : Mindef)

As the RSN looks to the future, it will have several maritime security challenges to address. Arguably the most important is the security of its port facilities. The country has the world’s biggest port in terms of total shipping tonnage, and is also home to the world’s busiest container port. Any attempt to close the port by terrorism or by an act of war, even for a day, could have a serious effect on Singapore's economy.

Acts of sabotage below the waves around Singapore's locale could also play havoc for the island. A dark portent of possible disaster was shown in December 2000 when a trunk cable carrying electronic communications under the Strait of Malacca was damaged. The result was massive disruption to internet services in Singapore, Indonesia and Australia. Along with its port, Singapore's other big earner is financial services. A similar loss of internet connectivity in the future caused by the sub-sea sabotage of such a cable could cause expensive disruption to the country's financial services industry, and also a loss in confidence in the security of the country as a base from where such business can be conducted.

Naval UAV (photo : Militaryphotos)

China's maritime claims will also continue to be a cause of concern for the RSN. Since 1995, the government in Beijing has claimed the Spratly, Paracel and Senkaku archipelagos in the South China Sea; claims contested by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan. China's claims on the South China Sea region is a cause for concern given that around 25 percent of the world's total shipping trade travels through this area each year. As well as being heavily reliant on the security of its port. Any disruption to either the island's port facilities or its shipping by military action in the South China Sea related to territorial claims or counter-claims could have a serious economic impact on the island.

Closer to home, the RSN also has to contend with the regional menace of maritime piracy. Singapore is positioned at the south east tip of the notorious Strait of Malacca. Any increase in pirate attacks on merchant shipping in the Strait could have a serious impact on Singapore's port business. There is arguably no other areas of modern military operations so tightly connected with the flow of trade and commerce than naval affairs. Like every country with a coastline (and many without) Singapore's economic prospects and inextricably linked to her maritime security, and any disruption to this security could have a major impact on Asia’s eighth biggest economy. A point driven home by Shanmugam Jayakumar, the country's former Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law, who stated that; “freedom of navigation through the Malacca and Singapore Straits as well as the South China Sea is fundamental to the continued survival and prosperity of Singapore.” (Tom Withington)

(Asian Military Review)

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