SINGAPORE: The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the delivery of Singapore’s first of four new submarines, although the plan to get an initial four F-35 fighter jets in 2026 remains on track, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday (Jun 25) in conjunction with Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Day, Dr Ng said the first German-made Invincible-class submarine will now be delivered in 2022 instead of 2021.
Dr Ng said the pandemic has affected manpower and supply chains globally and in Germany, but that the delay will not affect SAF operationally as it still operates an existing fleet of submarines.
The Invincible-class submarines, custom-made to operate in Singapore’s shallow and busy waters, will replace the ageing Archer-class and Challenger-class submarines. These second-hand vessels were made in Sweden.
READ: Made for Singapore: First of four custom-built RSN submarines launched in Germany
Dr Ng said the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) new helicopters will also be delayed. The CH-47F heavy lift and H225M medium lift helicopters will now be delivered from 2021 instead of 2020, he said.
Boeing's CH-47F and Airbus' H225M helicopters can carry more, fly farther and require less manpower. They will replace the current Chinook and Super Puma helicopters, respectively.
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The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) said the construction of SAFTI City was suspended during the “circuit breaker” and will be delayed by six to nine months, with expected completion pushed from 2023 to 2024.
SAFTI City, the size of 100 football fields, will use technology and have realistic buildings for homeland security and urban operations training.
However, the RSAF’s premier acquisition of four F-35B fighter jets, with the option of buying eight more, remains on schedule, Dr Ng said. These fifth-generation stealth fighters can take off from shorter runways and land vertically, making them suitable for land-scarce Singapore.
READ: US gives green light for sale of F-35B fighter jets to Singapore, pending Congress approval
READ: Most of F-35 fighter jet cost and design issues have been resolved: RSAF chief
Dr Ng said the package includes the “whole gamut” of training, maintenance and sustainability, adding that RSAF’s pilots will first train on the jets in continental US.
“So far the acquisition seems to be moving along, and the US agencies have been quite responsive, so we want to thank them for that,” he added.
Also on track is the Republic of Singapore Navy’s (RSN) new multi-role combat vessel (MRCV), which will replace its missile corvettes, which will hit the end of operational life in 2025. Dr Ng revealed that six MRCVs will be delivered by 2030.
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The MRCV has been touted as a mothership that will work in tandem with unmanned drones and vessels to see further and respond quicker, although Dr Ng said he did not have more details to share for now.
“But when it’s due, there are exciting concepts,” he said, adding that the RSN has learnt from its missile corvette and frigate programmes. “It has given us the confidence to actually try even very new ideas and those are coming to shape as we discuss them with our defence vendors.”
READ: Significant and steady investments’ in defence required to keep Singapore’s future secure: Ng Eng Hen
While Dr Ng acknowledged that MINDEF and SAF will cut costs where possible amid COVID-19 strains on the economy, he said this will be done without compromising critical operations as well as medium- and long-term capabilities.
When asked if economic pressures will affect the plan to buy up to 12 F-35Bs, Dr Ng said the Government and the people have been strong supporters who ensure “consistent resourcing” for Singapore’s defence needs.
Dr Ng said it is also more cost-effective to be consistent in spending on medium- and long-term acquisitions. “I hope we will continue to have that strong support,” he added. “But on strategic capabilities, I believe that we will not compromise on those acquisitions.”
MARITIME SECURITY TASK FORCE
Dr Ng also gave updates on the restructuring of RSN’s Maritime Security Task Force (MSTF), first announced during MINDEF’s Committee of Supply debate speech in March.
READ: SAF to restructure intelligence and cyber defence units, acquire new ships for maritime security amid evolving threats
The MSTF, which works with other SAF task forces, national agencies and international partners, will be restructured to better respond to the increasing maritime security threat in the Singapore Strait, Dr Ng had said then. This includes adding new purpose-built ships and refurbishing existing patrol vessels.
“Recently there was an uptick in piracy and sea robberies, now more on the eastern side and an expanded spectrum of threats that the RSN had to deal with,” he said.
Data from a maritime information sharing centre showed that sea robbers boarded ships sailing through the Singapore Strait in 12 incidents from January to April. This is a three-fold increase from the four incidents in the same period last year.
MINDEF said the RSN will add new purpose-built vessels, auxiliary vessels and boarding teams, and in the interim, operate four refurbished patrol vessels equipped less-lethal capabilities to provide more calibrated options against a range of threats. The latter will be operational in the next few months.
Dr Ng gave some idea of what the new ships will be like, stating that the RSN’s current ships are configured in a way that sometimes trades off between speed, weight and firepower.
“But if you have to chase a faster boat, you have to find some means and so on and so forth,” he said. “You may even have (an) unmanned system.”
MINDEF said the restructured MSTF will have two operational groups to oversee the control and execution of maritime security operations: the Sea Security Group and the Force Protection Group.
The Sea Security Group is responsible for maritime security operations in waters around Singapore. This includes daily patrols, boarding and escort operations in the Singapore Strait and surveillance over waters. In the event of a maritime incident, it will coordinate operations with other national agencies.
READ: Navy personnel keep up inspection of foreign ships to secure Singapore waters despite COVID-19 risk
The Force Protection Group defends against seaward threats and is responsible for defending and enforcing security at naval bases and installations. In the event of a sea intrusion, it will deploy a “quick reaction force” to protect Singapore’s waters against intrusion and other maritime threats.
MARITIME SECURITY COMMAND
MINDEF also announced that it will restructure the RSN’s Maritime Security (MARSEC) Command, which builds up, trains and maintains the capabilities of RSN platforms deployed primarily for maritime security operations.
The MARSEC Command will be reorganised into three flotillas.
The 2nd Flotilla maintains the operational readiness of Littoral Mission Vessels and its crew. The 6th Flotilla leads the development of unmanned surface and underwater vessels to counter mines and defend the coast. The 9th Flotilla trains and deploys security troopers, sea soldiers and system operators.
6th Flotilla commander Senior Lieutenant-Colonel Chng Tong Wong said it is developing guidelines for the operations of unmanned vessels in Singapore waters.
“Unmanned vessels will increase operational capabilities, improve manpower capabilities and more importantly, enhance our operational safety,” he said.