SINGAPORE: Not long ago, a warship’s superiority was defined by how powerful the guns on its deck were. Then, as weapons evolved, how far its missiles could go.
Now, with wars increasingly being fought hundreds of kilometres apart, it has become a case of spotting the enemy before it spots you.
“We are reaching a stage where who sees first, who sees fastest, actually wins,” Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) head of naval operations Cheong Kwok Chien told Channel NewsAsia in an exclusive interview on Saturday (Jun 30).
And so the RSN saw an opportunity for change.
The Victory-class missile corvettes, for over two decades the “backbone” of the RSN’s strike capabilities, are entering their twilight years. They will hit the end of their operational life in 2025.
Enter the multi-role combat vessel (MRCV), a type of “mothership” that will work in tandem with unmanned machines to see farther and respond quicker. These mission-configurable warships will be introduced after 2020.
“If we have certain areas we want to watch closely, we can be triggered early to respond,” Rear-Admiral (RADM) Cheong said. “These ships allow us to put eyes forward.”
These “eyes” are actually a network of unmanned drones and vessels that respectively carry cameras and weapons.
“The suite of weapons and sensors that can spread itself over a large area effectively turns the ship from being a point source to an area type of umbrella capability,” RADM Cheong added.
A typical strike package will possibly comprise a pair of MRCVs that each carries three unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), so there’s one in the air at all times, and two unmanned surface vessels.
But the RSN has not laid down specific configurations. There are physical limits to how much the MRCV can carry, and then there’s the cost factor of buying too many unmanned systems.
“Technology is allowing unmanned systems to get smaller, and it helps,” RADM Cheong said. “But there are physical limits to size because out there the wind is quite strong, so you can’t fly a typical hobbyist drone.”
Still, he added that the MRCV will allow the RSN to “bring a CCTV out to sea”. “If you have a whole network of eyes and shooters, you really expand the effective influence of the vessel.”
While current UAVs can extend a ship’s field of vision by 100km because of their range, RADM Cheong said it’s likely that those on the MRCV can go farther.
“In the future, this range will increase because the control capabilities will improve,” he added. “It’s not very far-fetched to say that easily the ship will have awareness of maybe 150km around it.”
The high-definition capability of the UAV’s camera also adds a whole new dimension to surveillance, far beyond beeping blips on traditional radars. “You can see the colour of the hair of the guy you’re looking at 150km away; that’s possible,” RADM Cheong said.
It doesn’t stop there. The RSN wants to hear and recognise him as well.
“The other breakthrough that we will go for is to be able to see different dimensions,” he added. “If you put together facial recognition, voice recognition and sense recognition, not many people can run away from that.”
With information from multiple UAVs and cameras, as well as intelligence from other assets, the RSN intends to put it all together on a single screen.
“More than flying cameras around, it’s quite important for us to stitch together the picture and make sense of it fast,” RADM Cheong said. “No point staring out at beautiful scenery without knowing what you’re looking for.”
“This technology is not earth-shattering,” he continued. “It just takes deliberate effort to make it happen.”
Beyond its superior strike and surveillance capabilities, the MRCV is also more versatile and can go farther than the missile corvette, which was purpose-built for its warfighting capabilities.
For example, the MRCV can undertake counter-terrorism as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) missions, because it can carry mission-specific cargo like counter-terrorism forces and medical aid.
JOINT MULTI MISSION SHIP
But the RSN’s ship of choice when it comes to HADR is the landing ship tank (LST), which has been deployed at several humanitarian assistance operations including the Aceh tsunami in 2004.
This is because the 141m-long, 6,000-tonne LST is the RSN’s largest ship, with the capacity to carry up to 18 tanks, 20 vehicles and bulk cargo. It also has two 25-foot deck cranes for loading and unloading of cargo.
But the RSN wants to go bigger.
“What we have learnt from a lot of disaster relief missions is that our first wave of aid and supplies that go in really make the difference,” RADM Cheong said. “It’s not about building a conveyor belt, the first guy who reaches there, the first box that you open must save lives. That’s why we need to carry more.”
With that, the RSN will replace the LST with a larger joint multi mission ship (JMMS) that can carry twice the amount of cargo and discharge it better. The JMMS will also be introduced after 2020.
“When you reach the area, you must always remember that there’s no beautiful port for you to come alongside and put the staircase down,” he added. “So, the design of the ship is also how you can bring it to an area with no access.”
This extra space and accessibility are also important during counter-piracy operations. In the Gulf of Aden, Singapore regularly deploys the LST for international anti-piracy patrols.
To that end, the JMMS will be able to carry more and bigger boats to transport boarding teams that repel pirates and keep merchant ships safe.
“When the sea is rough, and the boat you carry is so small, you can’t launch your boys and say please carry on,” said RADM Cheong, who has led counter-piracy operations at the Gulf of Aden.
“Even for a big ship which can carry three to four boats, it’s never enough. It’s always the feeling that you want to do more than what you have brought along.”
Besides boats, the JMMS can also carry larger UAVs and unmanned vessels to do surveillance and fend off pirates. Its longer flight deck also means it can carry multiple helicopters, as opposed to the LST which could only carry two.
As RADM Cheong concluded: “It’s more than just a pick-up lorry.”
BETTER AND SHARPER
Along with the Type 218SG submarine, RADM Cheong said the RSN’s three new vessels bode well for Singapore’s future.
“We have built in a confidence and belief in the younger generation to see that with each generation, we modernise the Navy to make it better and sharper,” he said.
Each acquisition is “very deliberate”, he added, with a lot of hard work going into designing, operating and maximising it. “We are always maximising limited resources, and we never back off from any challenge.”