Singapore Navy personnel stand in front of the newly commissioned RSS Independence during a parade at Changi Naval Base in Singapore on May 5, 2017. Photo: AFP/Toh Ting Wei

The world understands Singapore largely from the perspective of the country’s economy: a tiny, yet wealthy, city-state and an important Asian financial hub. But besides this moneyed image, there’s another side. The Singaporean armed forces are strong regionally, and in particular its navy is counted among the best in the region. Many are unaware of this.

A highly sophisticated and well-trained maritime force, Singapore’s is ranked among the top five Asian navies, according to The National Interest. When comparing the navies of India and Singapore, the article argues that the Republic of Singapore Navy is a superior to the Indian Navy in terms of quality, operation and policymaking, though the RSN lacks the experience, manpower and size of its Indian counterpart.

Singapore intends to build a navy capable of protecting its territories and economic interests from the hostility by any larger neighbor and, more important, one that could battle alongside other regional and extra-regional navies against a greater and more powerful maritime force.

Singaporean leaders understands that the navy alone cannot defend the city-state from any threat from a powerful navy like China’s. So the only option is to build a navy that could become lethal when combined with other regional and extra-regional navies, such as those of Australia, India, Indonesia and the US.

In the process, Singapore’s armed forces will evolve into an entity that can withstand any military aggression from any small or medium-sized potential regional adversary, such as the Malaysian navy.

Singapore, therefore, plans to acquire more advanced capabilities for its navy, including renewing its submarine fleet, acquiring new vessels with potential to serve as aircraft carriers, and adding unmanned platforms to its defense machinery.

Ambitious procurement plans

With the intention to boost the operational and combat capabilities of its submarine fleet, the RSN is acquiring four German-made Type 218SG submarines. These new submarines will have far more capabilities and durability – and are designed to stay submerged about 50% longer – than those of the existing ones.

It’s worth mentioning here that submarines, unlike surface warships that have both peacetime and wartime functions, are built to destroy targets as well as to conduct surveillance, even surveilling foreign coasts to gather vital intelligence. The very fact that a small city-state like Singapore has submarines in operation and is now renewing its fleet with even more capable ones shows how ambitious the RSN has become about increasing its power.

Because of the larger capacity of these new submarines, there is potential for future upgrades. Therefore, if and when required, these submarines could be upgraded to accommodate weapon systems such as long-range missiles to carry out an offensive strike.

There is more to Singapore’s ambitious procurement plans. With full-length flight decks, the upcoming Joint Multi-Mission Ships (JMMSs) would be almost 165 meters long with an estimated displacement of around 14,500 tons, and are expected to carry five medium and two heavy helicopters on the flight deck.

What’s more, with some modifications, these vessels could potentially support limited operations of fixed-wing aircraft, including the F-35B warplanes the air force is expected to purchase from the US some time in the near future. Therefore, these vessels could potentially serve as aircraft carriers.

The RSN is also very well aware of the fact that wars these days are fought from a distance with the help of unmanned drones and unmanned vessels that carry cameras and weapons in order to see further and respond more quickly than manned machines. Hence the RSN plans to procure new vessels that will have multiple unmanned air and surface vehicles to extend their reach and flexibility against potential threats.

Take the eight new Littoral Mission Vessels for example. Each of these LMVs will have a helicopter landing pad that will be able to carry an unmanned aerial vehicle. The aforesaid JMMSs and the new Multi-Role Combat Vessels (MRCVs) too will have unmanned air and surface vehicles.

Being wealthy helps

As an Asian financial hub, the city-state of Singapore has a lot of wealth. The tiny landmass of the state and the already developed infrastructures allow the Singaporean government to allocate comparatively little wealth on infrastructure and other conventional sectors and to invest more on innovation and technology as well as defense and security. This is how the tiny state can afford quality defense procurements.

Singapore has been Southeast Asia’s largest military spender for several years now. It was the top regional military spender in 2018 with an expenditure of US$10.8 billion, and the Southeast Asian neighbor with the closest figures was Indonesia with an expenditure of US$7.4 billion. For 2019, Singapore has allocated US$11.4 billion for defense, or about 19% of total government expenditures and around 3.3% of national gross domestic product.

Procurement plan not disproportionate

There is rising naval competition in the overlapping Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific mega-regions, where other navies too are acquiring or upgrading submarine fleets and aircraft carriers and adding unmanned platforms to their defense machinery.

Although the aforesaid naval-procurement plans may seem way too ambitious for a tiny city-state like Singapore, the planned procurement cannot be said to be disproportionate and unnecessary at a time when the naval competition in the region is intensifying.

Bahauddin Foizee

Bahauddin Foizee is a threat/risk intelligence analyst focusing on the assessment of investment, legal, security, political and geopolitical threat/risk. His articles on these areas as well as on social, environmental, financial and military affairs in the Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific and Middle East regions have been widely published.

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