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Singapore Keeps Its Spear Tip Sharp

multirole combat aircraft
The Republic of Singapore Air Force operates around 60 F-16C/D and 40 F-15SG multirole combat aircraft. (JR Ng)

The modernisation of Singapore’s armed forces

Singapore’s intent to maintain one of the most modern defence forces in Asia Pacific was once again emphasised when it won US government approval to procure up to 12 short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters.

Singapore’s F-35 programme

The proposed deal is expected to pass congressional scrutiny with ease, given the island state’s longstanding economic and security partnerships, and paving the way for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to develop its first-ever STOVL capability.

The deal comprises an initial batch of four F-35Bs with an option for up to eight more and is expected to be set to contract later in 2020, and includes up to 13 Pratt & Whitney F135 engines (including one initial spare), communications, electronic warfare (EW), and navigation systems, as well as the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) maintenance and logistics planning suite, software development and integration, and training equipment. If fully exercised, the total value of the proposed package is valued at an estimated $2.75 billion.

Singapore’s F-35 programme is aimed at seeking a replacement for the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF’s) upgraded but ageing fourth-generation Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Fighting Falcon multirole combat aircraft delivered in the early-to-mid 1990s, and is just one of several high-profile acquisitions that the SAF is expected to pursue over the next decade to cement its technological advantages over other regional countries to deter aggression and boost its standing on the world stage.

Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen has on several occasions expressed the view that it is imperative that the SAF must exploit cutting-edge technologies including unmanned systems and high-level automation across the board in order to address a projected deficit in manpower, which is projected to lead to a 30 percent reduction in the pool of eligible recruits by 2030.

Sustained defence budget/procurement targets

The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) has generally implemented a long-term approach to financing defence procurement and operations, with funding consistently between 3-4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Singapore announced a defence budget of $10.98 billion (S$15.47 billion) in March 2019, a 4.8 percent increase over the previous year.

“We expect our nominal defence spending over the next decade to grow at three to four percent each year, to at least keep pace with inflation,” said Dr Ng at the Committee of Supply (COS) debate in parliament, noting at the time that the slight uptick in expenditure was due mainly to changes in several acquisitions and projects.

“However, the overall defence expenditure will even out in subsequent years,” he added, noting that MINDEF will continue its approach of steady defence spending and will avoid spikes unless a heightened threat environment calls for increased spending. However, he also stressed that the ministry would avoid sharp decreases that could potentially “undermine our defence capabilities over the medium term”.

Major SAF acquisitions already outlined by Dr Ng through 2030 include the F-35; Airbus A330 Multi-Role Multi Role Tanker Transports (MRTTs) and Airbus H225M medium utility and Boeing CH-47F heavy-lift helicopters. Major naval assets being introduced or earmarked for the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) following the delivery of all eight locally constructed Littoral Mission Vessels (LMVs), include new Type 218SG diesel-electric attack submarines (SSKs), Multirole Combat Vessels (MRCVs) and the Joint Multi-Mission Ship (JMMS), while the Army’s major land combat platforms will include new armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) and wheeled artillery systems.

Littoral Mission Vessels
The Republic of Singapore Navy has received all eight of its latest Littoral Mission Vessels. (JR Ng)

These platforms will be supported by force-multiplying capabilities such as advanced communications networks and navigation systems, cyber capabilities, unmanned systems, as well as an increasing focus on Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous systems.

Spreading its wings

The RSAF’s current air combat capability is centred on a mixed fleet of 60 F-16C and 40 F-16D Block 52+/52+ fighters, which were acquired in the 1990s, and 40 Boeing F-15SG multirole fighters delivered from 2009.

MLU programme

The F-16C/D fleet is undergoing a comprehensive mid-life upgrade (MLU) programme, with key enhancements centred on a new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar – likely the Northrop Grumman’s AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar – and updated avionics including the Link-16 Multifunctional Information Distribution System-Low Volume Terminals (MIDS-LVT) which would enable the F-16s to share and receive data more readily with the newer F-15SG aircraft.

The MLU also includes a range of precision weapons and training munitions, Boeing GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bombs (SDB), KMU-572/B 500lb Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and KMU-556/B 2000lb JDAM tail kits. Of particular note is the SDBs, which would enable the F-16s to carry a greater number of precision munitions and increase their air-to-ground strike potential with their compact size and weight. Upgrade work commenced in 2016 and is expected to be completed by 2023, with the F-16 fleet remaining operational until the 2030s after which it will be replaced by an undisclosed number of F-35s.

Other recently acquired platforms for the RSAF include Airbus H225M and Boeing CH-47F transport helicopters, as well as a total of six Airbus A330 MRTTs to replace four recently retired Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker refuelling aircraft. Although yet announced, other expected platform procurement targets include a new maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) to replace its Fokker 50 Enforcers which were delivered in the early 1990s as well as a replacement for its 1980-vintage Lockheed Martin C-130H Hercules tactical transport aircraft.

UAV Plans

Plans are also underway to introduce new and more capable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the RSAF, which presently operates the Elbit Systems Hermes 450 tactical and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Heron-1 medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) platforms. These achieved full operational capability (FOC) status in 2015 and 2017 respectively.

Underpinning the RSAF’s air defence capabilities is its recently upgraded Integrated Air Defence System (IADS), which has gained greater reach and lethality thanks to its new MBDA Aster 30 SAMP/T (Sol-Air Moyenne Portée Terrestre) self-propelled surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. According to MINDEF, the Aster 30 missile is equipped with a two-stage effector and has a claimed interception range of around 70km against aircraft-sized targets. The new SAM system is replacing the service’s upgraded but ageing Raytheon MIM-23B Improved Homing All the Way Killer (I-HAWK), which entered service in the early 1980s.

Strengthening sea lines of communication

The RSN is also benefiting from a range of new naval platforms and equipment. At the tip of the service’s refined and sharpened spear will be its four new air-independent propulsion (AIP)-equipped Type 218SG Invincible-class SSKs, which will replace its Swedish-made Archer (Västergötland)-class submarines by 2025. The first of the four Type 218SG submarines was launched in February 2019 by ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) in Kiel and is scheduled to enter service in 2021.

MRCV programme

Following the delivery of the eighth and final LMV – the future RSS Fearless – by local shipbuilder ST Engineering Marine in November 2019, the RSN’s surface warfare capabilities will be further amplified by the introduction of new Multirole Combat Vessels (MRCVs) which are expected in 2025 and will replace its 62m Victory-class missile corvettes that have been in service since 1989.

Dr Ng revealed during the announcement of the MRCV programme in 2018 that these ‘frigate-sized’ vessels will feature high levels of automation for reduced crew manning requirements and will serve as ‘motherships’ for a range of unmanned air, surface, and underwater vehicles.

JMMS programme

In contrast, the Joint Multi Mission Ship (JMMS) programme will replace the RSN’s four Endurance-class amphibious transport ships “after 2020”, although MINDEF remains coy about the specifications and capabilities of the replacement design. Dr Ng earlier noted that it will be expected to serve as a command platform and feature a significant lift capacity to support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations. Details on whether the JMMS will capable of supporting the RSAF’s incoming F-35Bs, which can take-off in distances under 170 metres and land vertically, are being closely watched.

The RSN has emerged as a leading adopter of high-end unmanned capabilities, and is phasing out its fleet of four Bedok-class mine hunters in favour of locally developed unmanned surface vessels (USVs) configured for mine detection and classification as well as mine identification and disposal missions, which are set to be operationalised from 2020.

unmanned surface vessels
Singapore has committed to replacing its mine countermeasures ships with unmanned surface vessels, the first of any Asia Pacific countries to do so. (JR Ng)

Increased firepower and protection

NGAFV programme

The Singapore Army is envisioned to evolve into a more agile, protected, and lethal force with new additions to its combat vehicle fleet in the coming decade. A key highlight is the fully digitalised 29.5 tonne Hunter tracked AFV developed under the service’s Next Generation AFV (NGAFV) programme, which entered service in June 2019 and is intended to replace its hundreds-strong fleet of upgraded but increasingly obsolescent M113A2 Ultra armoured personnel carriers (APCs) in service since the early 1970s.

According to MINDEF, the Hunter AFV is also the Singapore Army’s first mechanised armoured vehicle to be equipped with an anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) capability and a laser warning system. Two Spike ATGMs can be carried in a retractable launcher on the roof of its Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Samson 30 Integrated Remote Weapon System (RWS) for engaging armoured threats at long range, while the Orbital ATK 30mm Mk44 Bushmaster II automatic cannon and a co-axial 7.62mm machine gun provides firepower at closer distances.

These direct fire guns can be traversed 360 degrees and elevated between -10 to 60 degrees to engage threats in confined urban environments. Rafael states that the RWS can carry up to 230 rounds of ammunition for the automatic cannon and 500 rounds for the co-axial machine gun.

Hunter armoured fighting vehicles
The Singapore Army will gain a significant boost in firepower with the new Hunter armoured fighting vehicles, which can be armed with anti-tank guided munitions. (JR Ng)

ARTEMIS

The Hunter AFV represents a step change in terms of combat potential and survivability compared with the tracked combat platforms that are presently in Singapore Army service, offering not only a credible anti-armour capability thanks to its ATGM-equipped RWS, but also a newly developed battlefield command and control (C2) operating system known as the Army Tactical Engagement and Information System (ARTEMIS).

ARTEMIS is designed to manage most of the Hunter’s critical mission equipment – including its weapons, sensors, and communications systems – and perform real-time mission planning. The suite is also capable of exploiting the data collected by the vehicle’s sensors and share it wirelessly with other vehicles and units using the army’s tactical network radios and wide area communication networks. The Hunter will also be capable of controlling unmanned aerial and ground vehicle, using ARTEMIS to share intelligence and targeting data with friendly units to improve their ability to perform co-ordinated manoeuvres and fires.

“The Hunter is born locally through the collaboration between the army, Defence Science and Technology Agency, and ST Engineering,” Dr Ng announced during the vehicle’s commissioning ceremony.

“The [vehicle] replaces the M113 APCs [and] represents a significant step-up in all areas: better firepower, mobility, and protection,” he added.

The Hunter family is expected to comprise five variants: combat, bridge, command, engineer, and recovery, with initial deliveries of combat vehicles already in progress.

Next Generation Howitzer

The army’s long-range firepower will also be boosted by the Next Generation Howitzer: a wheeled self-propelled 155mm/52-calibre weapon system that will offer a higher rate of firepower and reduced manpower requirements over the army’s current towed Field Howitzer 2000 (FH2000) introduced in the 1990s. The new weapon will complement the service’s existing Primus tracked 155mm/52-calibre self-propelled howitzer and High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS).

According to MINDEF, the Next Generation Howitzer will be a fully automated system replacing the Singapore Army’s towed Field Howitzer 2000 (FH2000), which was introduced in the early 1990s. The self-propelled Next Generation Howitzer will have a 155 mm/52-calibre gun offering a higher rate of firepower and reduced manpower requirements compared to the FH2000.

Although the MINDEF has yet to release detailed specifications about the Next Generation Howitzer, ST Engineering Land Systems’ 8×8 Advanced Mobile Gun System (AMGS) design is widely seen as the leading contender, with silhouette graphics released by the ministry depicting a vehicle that appears to visually match the company’s offering.

The proposed design has a proposed gross vehicle weight of 28 tonnes that is expected to offer a maximum road speed of 80km/h and a cross-country speed of 30km/h. It will feature a high level of automation with automatic projectile and charge loading capabilities, while its gun laying system is integrated to an on-board fire control system to enable the crew to perform fire missions without leaving the safety of its armoured crew cabin.

ST Engineering claims that the AMGS can fire six rounds every three minutes with an effective maximum range of 40km with extended range full bore (ERFB) ammunition.

Vehicles

Other modernisation priorities for the Singapore Army over the next decade include a new armoured all-terrain tracked carrier (ATTC) to enhance battlefield logistics and combat support operations. The proposed design of this vehicle also appears to match the ST Engineering Land Systems Bronco 3 vehicle, which it claims to offer a 30% increase in volume and performance over the first-generation Bronco.

The army also unveiled two new combat support vehicles in August 2019: the Satellite Communications Very-Small-Aperture Terminal Subscriber Detachment (Satcom VSD) and the Wheeled Recovery Vehicle (WRV).

The Satcom VSD is based on the URO Vehículos Especiales SA (UROVESA) 4×4 Vehículo de Alta Movilidad Táctico (VAMTAC) ST5 high-mobility tactical vehicle and entered service in 2016. The vehicle features a rear-mounted cabin that contains a retractable AvL Technologies satcom reflector antenna, which appears to be the company’s 1.5m Premium SNG/MIL antenna optimised for Ku- and Ka-band communications. It also features an integrated GPS and stabilised fluxgate compass to increase positioning accuracy.

8x8 Terrex infantry carrier
Existing army vehicles such as this 8×8 Terrex infantry carrier will benefit from new combat support and recovery vehicles. (JR Ng)

Another recently unveiled army asset is the Wheeled Recovery Vehicle (WRV), which is based on the Rheinmetall MAN Military Vehicles (RMMV) 8×8 SX45 chassis. MINDEF stated that the WRV has been specifically designed to enhance recovery operations for the army’s entire range of motorised combat and support vehicles. It is equipped with a rotator crane that enables it to tow and suspend disabled vehicles weighing up to 35 tonnes in urban and cross-country terrain. An armoured cabin protects the crew from small arms fire and shrapnel.

by Jr Ng

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