SINGAPORE: The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is overhauling its arsenal, adding new warplanes, submarines and warships as it gears up for a future with fewer soldiers.
High on the agenda is the replacement for the ageing F-16 fighter jets, with Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen saying on Friday (Jun 29) that a decision will be made in the coming months.
“F-16s would face obsolescence beyond 2030,” Dr Ng said of the 30-year-old jets. “To plan for a replacement is not as if you are going to buy a new car, you actually need a lead time of eight to 10 years.”
For the past few years, speculation has swirled around potential replacements, with Lockheed Martin’s fifth-generation F-35 fighter emerging as top contender. As early as 2013, Dr Ng had told Parliament that the F-35 was one option.
But Singapore has consistently maintained that it would not be rushed into a decision.
“You need to know first of all what platform, what your needs are, how you are going to maintain. You also need to know how you are going to train your pilots, where you are going to train pilots, especially on such a small island,” Dr Ng said.
“We thought long and hard about it, taken our time to choose a replacement, and we would be making a definitive decision likely in the next few months.”
However, Dr Ng would not be drawn into details, saying only that the new jet should be cost-effective, easy to maintain and capable of working with other platforms across the SAF.
“In the market you can only choose what is out there,” he added. “When air forces are choosing replacements, the usual suspects come up: Whether it’s the (European) Typhoons, F-35s, (Russian) Sukhois or Chinese-made stealth fighters.”
In addition to the fighter jets, Dr Ng announced various hardware replacements across the services, as the SAF prepares for a one-third manpower reduction by 2030. “For the SAF to be able to protect another generation, you have to do more with less,” he said, calling the manpower challenges a “significant disruptor”.
The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) will replace its heavy and medium lift helicopters with similar models that can carry more, fly farther and require less manpower. Starting 2020, the Chinook and Super Puma helicopters will be replaced by the CH-47F heavy lift and H225M medium lift helicopters, respectively.
The RSAF has also started replacing its KC-135R tanker aircraft with the A330 multi-role tanker transport, which carries 20 per cent more refuelling capacity. “It’s a petrol kiosk in the sky,” Dr Ng said of the plane, which will make its first public appearance at the RSAF50 parade on Sep 1.
On the ground, the RSAF has begun switching out its I-HAWK surface-to-air missile system with the ASTER-30, which has both anti-aircraft and anti-missile capabilities. (The I-HAWK could only deal with aircraft.) The ASTER-30 also has a longer range of up to 70km.
“The fact that you have bigger planes, planes with longer endurance and ground defence systems with longer range also means that when you exercise, you actually need a bigger training area,” Dr Ng said. “That’s not possible for Singapore.”
To that end, Dr Ng revealed that the RSAF will launch next month a new facility to experiment, test, validate and operationalise new warfare concepts in a single set-up. The Air Warfare Centre will allow the RSAF to do all these “without the physical need for that space”, Dr Ng said. “That is a more important addition.”
Moving on to the Army, Dr Ng said the proportion of manoeuvre units operating on track and on wheels will double by 2030. “The next-generation Army would be faster, heavier, more deadly,” he added.
The next-gen armoured fighting vehicle, to replace the ageing M113 vehicles starting next year, will certainly be deadlier. It requires 20 per cent less manpower and can fire on the move. “I think this would be the centrepiece of the next-generation Army,” Dr Ng said.
The next-gen Howitzer 155mm gun, to replace the current FH-2000 variant beyond 2020, will also cut manpower requirements by a third. The gun is fully automated, mounted on a vehicle and has a higher rate of fire. “Shoot and scoot, so you don’t face counter battery fire,” Dr Ng mused.
And then comes the soldiers themselves. While Dr Ng said he was not quite ready to announce how a next-gen infantry battalion would be like, he offered a description that would not look out of place in a science-fiction movie.
Beyond 2020, troops will fight in tandem with robots, using weaponised unmanned ground vehicles and palm-sized unmanned aerial vehicles that detect threats, clear rooms and follow like slaves.
“You can give voice activations: Move right, move left, tell me my danger; being able to communicate and see what other soldiers see,” Dr Ng said. “I think this is the next germination of the SAF. I don’t want to spell out programmes that are too experimental, but I would tell you that they are going on.”
At sea, the SAF is ringing the changes too. From 2021, the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) will get four German-made Type 218SG submarines to replace its Archer-class and Challenger-class submarines, which have been in operation for two decades.
It is the first time the RSN is acquiring new-build submarines, which means they would not have entered the water prior to launch. “Our new submarines would represent a quantum jump in subsurface capabilities,” Dr Ng said, pointing out that they have an increased endurance of 50 per cent.
Besides that, the submarines come with improved capabilities like modern combat systems and air independent propulsion systems. They can also carry a wider range of mission-specific equipment.
In addition to crew training in Germany, the RSN will develop a submarine trainer suite to train and qualify submariners in realistic and simulated operations at sea.
Beyond 2030, the RSN is also replacing its Victory-class missile corvettes and Endurance-class tank landing ships with multi-role combat vessels and joint multi mission ships, respectively.
The multi-role combat vessel will act as a mothership for smaller, unmanned ships that can be equipped with weapons or modular payloads for different missions. “You can send out unmanned slaves on air, on surface or even sub-surface, to deal with mines for instance,” Dr Ng said. “It’s not a theoretical concept. We tested various modules.”
The joint multi mission ship will be even bigger than the current Landing Ship Tank, which is already the RSN’s largest ship. It also has two times more lift capacity and better command platform capabilities.
In addition, the joint multi mission ship will allow the RSN to conduct more types of operations, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts and counter-piracy operations.
PLANNING, SPENDING AND MAKING FRIENDS
Before deciding on these purchases, Dr Ng reiterated that the SAF had considered whether they would contribute to a leaner fighting force post-2030. “Because we are able to plan long term, we start with the planning perimeter that you have to either maintain the same capability or do more but with less,” he said.
As for the costs, Dr Ng said even with these new acquisitions, defence spending will be kept steady for the next decade, in line with the budget assessment he made earlier this year. “If we have to provide security coverage – as we did for the Trump-Kim meeting – every week, all bets are off,” he joked.
And Dr Ng was asked if these new platforms would require the SAF to look for more overseas training opportunities given the constraints of space in Singapore.
“We have good friends who allow us to train in their countries,” Dr Ng said, pointing out that the expansion of training areas in Queensland, Australia, where Singapore troops frequently train in a space at least four times the size of Singapore, is “progressing well”.
Even then, Dr Ng added that Singapore is always on the lookout for more partnerships and training opportunities. “We are very thankful because we keep receiving offers. That spells a lot for the friendships we cultivated.”