SINGAPORE: More than 30m under the waters around Singapore, where light hardly penetrates the murky depths, noise is perhaps the last thing you would expect.
But the Republic of Singapore Navy’s (RSN) latest submarine, the Type 218SG, hears and senses a cacophony of chatter. Not of people, but of the 2,000 ships that sail through the Singapore Strait every day.
“Many of the boats in the world are not designed for such environments: Warm, shallow, noisy, crowded,” RSN’s head of naval operations Cheong Kwok Chien told Channel NewsAsia in an exclusive interview on Saturday (Jun 30).
“The operating environment makes a lot of difference to a submariner, and if you design a boat meant for this type of environment, you can make a lot of difference to whoever you’re up against.”
And so the RSN searched all over the world for a submarine that could replace its ageing Archer-class and Challenger-class predecessors. A submarine that could truly be made for Singapore from scratch.
“We’ve operated second-hands for 20 years,” Rear-Admiral (RADM) Cheong said of the retrofitted Swedish submarines. “Over 20 years, we’ve built up knowledge of what a submarine would be that’s designed for local waters.”
In the end the Germans, masters of the submarine craft, “offered the best deal” in terms of technology, logistics, training and knowledge exchange. It has been reported that the contract for the first two Type 218SGs is worth more than 1 billion euros (S$1.6 billion).
The deal clincher? “The Germans were also very willing to listen to our requirements and change a lot of the original design to suit what we need in our waters,” RADM Cheong said.
The manufacturer, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS), also prepared high-resolution, virtual reality goggles for Singapore officials to put on and “walk” through the submarine, allowing them to tweak even the smallest details.
“We can actually know the ergonomics,” RADM Cheong said. “For a Singaporean’s height, can I reach the top? We could also make the pathways smaller and put more equipment because we are smaller in size.”
The Defence Ministry said Singapore will get four Type 218SGs, with delivery from 2021. The programme is “progressing well”, with the first two and remaining two submarines having commenced construction and steel-cutting, respectively.
LIGHTING UP THE UNDERWATER WORLD
But perhaps the most crucial customisations are in the Type 218SG’s combat system. Its improved sonar, which listens to sounds like propeller noises and water flow, locates enemies faster and identifies them more accurately.
“That’s when digital audio recognition comes in. We will hear frequency, sound wave profiles, and compare to known sounds that we have,” RADM Cheong said. “That basically helps us light up the underwater world.”
With the waters around Singapore so shallow and congested, the Type 218SG can tell whether it’s facing a merchant ship, cruise liner or warship better than RSN’s current submarines.
“It’s like going into a disco and picking up the sweetest voice,” RADM Cheong added. “You need to be quite capable. If not you will be blasted, and in our environment everybody gets blasted.”
Once the target is locked on, then come the torpedoes. A Type 218SG model that TKMS had displayed at an exhibition last year indicated that the submarine will be fitted with eight forward-firing torpedo tubes for heavyweight torpedoes.
The "big improvement", however, lies in the submarine’s electronics and computers that enable fewer crew members to do more with the weapons.
“If you watch the old war movies, it’s a whole bunch of people trying to hear (the enemy) then get the torpedo ready; there’s a whole lot of activity on the boat,” RADM Cheong said. “No, what we are going for now is one guy pressing a button to release the torpedo.”
Another improvement is the Type 218SG’s air-independent propulsion (AIP) system, which RADM Cheong said is more efficient than the one in the Archer-class submarine.
The AIP allows submarines to stay underwater longer before surfacing to recharge the battery that powers its systems. The battery is charged by a diesel engine that needs air to operate.
As such, the Type 218SG can last underwater two times longer than RSN’s current submarines. “That makes the submarine even more stealthy and mysterious because it can be all over the place without coming up,” RADM Cheong said.
This stealth is what makes the Type 218SG so lethal, as RADM Cheong spoke in broad terms about how the submarines fit into RSN’s overall strategy.
“All over the world, submarines are what we call strategic capabilities,” he said. “Because they are stealthy, can go to a lot of places and deliver a very impactful strike. So, most navies will use the submarine to deliver these effects.”
Besides hunting ships, submarines can do surveillance, deliver special forces, unmanned underwater vehicles and high-end weapons like nuclear missiles.
“Sometimes, you have to strike at the Achilles heel of the adversary, somewhere he thinks he’s quite safe and doesn’t expect anybody to come,” RADM Cheong said, highlighting the “psychological threat” a submarine poses.
When RSN’s submariners go for exercises, they typically train in some of these skills.
“It makes all the seagoers, especially people on ships, quite fearful because you don’t know where it is,” RADM Cheong added. “Surface ships dislike submarines a lot, because most egos are broken by submariners.”
In a one-on-one situation with conventional warships, RADM Cheong stated that submarines “always win”. “When the submarine hears you, with the range that it shoots, there’s not much you can do about it.”
INVISIBLE, NOT INVINCIBLE
However, submarines are not invincible. RADM Cheong pointed out that they lack speed and are prone to being spotted when they surface.
"So, these are inherent vulnerabilities,” he added. “Fast things and aircraft hunt submarines. To hunt a submarine, you must operate out of its element. If you operate in water, you must be something that it cannot or doesn’t want to kill."
One example of a low-value target is an unmanned underwater vessel.
Nevertheless, RADM Cheong said a good submariner can remain undetected if he knows where to position the vessel in relation to how sound waves travel underwater.
“If he exploits all these black holes underwater, nobody can hear him and he can hear everybody else,” he added. “He can be quite silent and maybe even invisible.”
For the Type 218SG, RSN’s submariners will train in simulators and abroad with their German counterparts, who RADM Cheong described as some of the best in the world. “They like to have a worthy partner to spar with,” he said. “We also take this opportunity to learn from them.”
BMW FOR SINGAPORE ROADS
RADM Cheong said the Germans were also grateful that the RSN wanted to fully customise its submarine, pointing out that they gained “a lot of interesting insights”. “They said not many customers are so forthcoming in saying that this doesn’t work.”
To that end, RADM Cheong said the Type 218SG answers a lot of challenges.
“German submarines are like BMWs, so we are very glad we decided on this class of submarine,” he added. “This new build is designed for Singapore roads, tailored to our ergonomics, size and driving range. Even the horn sounds better.”
The RSN also ensured that the internal systems, like the engine and electronics, were cost-efficient and maximised the crew’s capabilities.
“On board, every submariner you bring is a huge investment,” RADM Cheong said. “So in terms of combat fighting, you want the submarine to be able to do a lot but not by putting in a lot of people.”
RADM Cheong said this is crucial to tackle the “ever-present” threat of terrorism at sea with an increasingly constrained manpower base. The saying is that one US aircraft carrier carries more people than the number of active personnel the RSN has.
“Almost everything that we wear, eat and the energy that we consume every day comes through the sea,” he added. “So, what the Navy has done is to look at this environment and recognise that we need to defend our lifelines."