On 16 Jun, the Republic of Singapore Navy's (RSN) submarine capabilities received a significant boost with the launch of the RSS Archer, the first of two Vastergotland-class boats purchased four years ago from Swedish company Kockums AB.
PIONEER travels to the small coastal town of Karlskrona in Southern Sweden and hunts down the crew of the RSS Archer, who have been training in the cold and windy Baltic region for the past two years, to find out more about their new vessel, as well as to learn what life has been like under and over the seas.
Adding Depth to Capabilities
Retrofitted with a modern suite of advanced systems, the new boats were dubbed Archer-class submarines. These boast longer endurance, better stealth, as well as greater firepower compared to their Challenger-class predecessors, which are also of Swedish origin and were acquired by the RSN in 1995.
These new capabilities have greatly extended the range, reach and survivability of the submarines, which will allow the crew to "bring back a wider range of operational options to the 3rd Generation Navy", shared Lieutenant-Colonel (LTC) Jack Nyeo, Commanding Officer of the RSS Archer.
Most diesel-electric submarines need to regularly "snort" for air. This means the vessel has to come up to periscope depth (about 15m below the water surface) in order to recharge its batteries, thereby exposing its masts to aircraft overhead and ship radars.
However, having an Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system significantly enhances the Archer-class submarine's stealth capabilities by enabling it to stay submerged for twice as long as the Challenger-class submarine.
"A scuba diver can remain underwater longer because he carries his own oxygen tank. Similarly, we can remain submerged longer in a submarine with the AIP, thus preventing us from being detected on the surface so easily," explained Chief Engineer, 2nd Warrant Officer (2WO) Elangkanan Ramasamy.
Besides the AIP, other improvements include the upgraded sonar system, which has doubled its detection range, as well as a combat system that can acquire, track and engage targets twice as far away as the Challenger-class submarine. Armed with a bigger weapon load of nine torpedo tubes, the Archer-class boat also packs a stronger punch against potential adversaries.
As the submarines were originally designed to operate in the cold waters of the Baltic Sea, the RSN worked closely with the Defence Science & Technology Agency to refurbish the vessels for the higher temperature and salinity of Singapore's tropical waters.
A Steeper Learning Curve
Comprising a mix of personnel who are freshly trained submariners as well as experienced ones who had previously served on the Challenger-class submarines, the 28-man crew of the RSS Archer found themselves better prepared and able to adapt to this new class of submarines with greater speed and ease.
Thanks to the intensive training and sea sorties they underwent back home with the Challenger-class submarines, their overseas training stint this time was reduced from the previous duration of three years to two - despite the higher training tempo and greater complexity of systems on board the RSS Archer.
"In the past, we had no prior knowledge of submarine systems, so we had to learn and understand the purpose and configuration of every system from scratch," explained 2WO Elangkanan.
"Now, having built up our fundamental skills and knowledge with the Challenger-class submarines, we are able to focus on gaining more in-depth knowledge about this new class of highly automated submarines which have more complicated and interconnected systems."
LTC Nyeo also credited the quick progress of their training to the quality of his dedicated and professional crew, as well as the strong rapport between the RSN and their Swedish counterparts.
The Swedish Connection
With more than 100 years of experience in submarine operations, the Royal Swedish Navy (RSwN) shared its expertise as it trained the pioneer batches of submariners from Singapore in 1996. The two countries have cooperated closely in exchange programmes and collaborative projects that stretch back to the 1970s.
Captain Jonas Haggren, commander of the 1st Submarine Flotilla of the RSwN, who oversaw the training of the RSN servicemen, said: "They learn very quickly, and many of them have previous experience in operating submarines, so everything went at a quicker tempo.
"They have also learnt about the new capabilities of this class of submarines, and picked up more challenging skills in advanced submarine warfare this time round."
Sound, Space Discipline
Explaining the critical need for stealth, LTC Nyeo said: "Even dropping something the size of a five-cent coin can be deadly because that's all it takes to give you away. We have to be very careful when opening and closing a door or hatch, and to mind our step because it can be very loud if you accidentally kick something."
Sound discipline is thus a crucial aspect of life on board the vessel. Whenever the crew is carrying out a mission or exercise drill, non-critical machinery like the waste grinder, toilet pumps and the water-making plant are all shut down.
This means prudent management of water consumption, with a shower roster that typically allows the men a two-minute shower once every two to three days, shared Sonar Specialist Staff Sergeant (SSG) Logesh Socklalingam.
Dor chef SSG Derick Koh, the challenge comes in carefully planning and preparing his menu to match the exercise schedule. During silent routines, his cooking is restricted to baking, steaming and boiling so as to minimise noise. Deep frying is limited due to the smoke and sizzle it produces.
Commenting on living in the confined submarine environment, Chief Sonar Specialist Master Sergeant (MSG) Eric Chua noted: "Unlike the surface platforms, we don't have the option of going up to take a breath of fresh air or enjoy the sunset."
Open space is a luxury that the crew has to sacrifice. With narrow passageways and barely half a metre of headroom, claustrophobia is definitely not an option for any potential submariner.
Optimising the use of every inch of space also means that each four-bed bunk is shared by eight crew members.
'“The beds are only about half the size of those on a surface ship, and I remember banging my head in the beginning when I slept on the upper bed, but you get used to it pretty quickly," said SSG Logesh.
One for All, All for One
Flooding and fires are especially deadly in the enclosed environment on board a submarine. The RSN crew must be able to don their fire suits and get ready for action within three minutes during an emergency. (photo : Mindef)
This physical proximity has strengthened the bond among the crew members who know one another inside-out from living and working so closely together.
Explaining the importance of keeping morale high and being considerate of a fellow submariner's quirks, SSG Logesh said: "When you're underwater, you can't afford to quarrel or make any mistakes. Each of us depends on the other for survivability, so it's natural for us to help and look out for each other, be it a simple task like preparing the tables for breakfast or during work."
Indeed, a strong sense of interdependence and teamwork can be seen in the way the whole crew is cross-trained in the basics of all the different systems on board the vessel. Aside from their own field of specialisation, each member must be able to take over another colleague's job when needed.
This is because speed is of the essence during emergency situations in an enclosed environment deep beneath the waves. A leak the size of a 20-cent coin could sink the boat in minutes, while smoke from a fire "spreads faster than you can ever run", shared LTC Nyeo.
As such, the crew are trained to do the "blind man's walk", where they have to find and operate every necessary knob, valve, lever or button in the dark.
"Down here, time is an especially vital factor. When something goes wrong, whoever is closest to the problem must be able to fix it immediately, and to do that, you have to know all the systems well," said 2WO Elangkanan.
Keeping up Momentum in Home Stretch
Playing multiple roles is the norm for submariners, who must have basic knowledge of every system on board. Not only does chef SSG Koh cook for the crew, he also monitors and regulates the oxygen levels within the submarine. (photo : Mindef)
With the launch of the RSS Archer, the crew is looking forward to operationalising the submarine. This is expected to be completed in 2010.
"Moving ahead, the challenge is to continue with the pace of progress, with the crew playing a more significant role getting the submarine ready for sea trials," said LTC Nyeo.
MSG Chua shared the same sentiments, saying: "To us, training is never over, even more so now that RSS Archer has been launched.
"We have to constantly keep ourselves in line with the changes and new upgrades, to ensure the smooth conduct and completion of sea trials so as to deliver the submarine back to Singapore on time."
A Home Away from Home
The submariners' close bond extends to the tightly knit group of families who accompanied them to Sweden.
Since April 2007, 63 Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) servicemen, together with 98 family members including spouses, children and parents, have moved to Karlskrona, a town just off the coast of the Baltic Sea.
Most of the Singaporean community reside in Polhemsgatan, an estate near the Swedish naval base aptly nicknamed "Little Singapore", and food sessions or play dates for the kids are regular activities organised by the families.
"Being so far away from home, we're like a second family to one another, so we make it a point to be there for each other," said Chief Engineer, 2nd Warrant Officer (2WO) Elangkanan Ramasamy's wife, Shailasri Nair.
While making the transition from working full-time to being a homemaker was not easy initially, Jenny Tay, wife of Chief Sonar Specialist, Master Sergeant (MSG) Eric Chua, shared that she enjoyed the opportunity to experience the Swedish culture and cool climate.
"Most importantly, I'm glad I had the chance to come here and support my husband during his training," she said.
Indeed, many of the RSN crew, who cannot be contacted during long training sorties, expressed their appreciation for the understanding and strong support of their loved ones.
Life in Sweden has also been a time of family expansion for the submariners, with nine babies born over the past two years, and three more on the way.
Ms Nair, who is due to deliver her second child in September, told PIONEER she will miss Sweden when the time comes to leave.
"My daughter attended school for the first time here when she turned four last year. She has even picked up Swedish and speaks it fluently to her teachers and friends," she said.
"No doubt I'll be happy to return to Singapore, but there will always be a special place in my heart for Sweden."