Survival Instinct

This is an article published in our February 2016 Issue.

F-15SG fighter
The Republic of Singapore Air Force is an avid user of the F-15SG fighter, which forms an important part of its fast jet fleet. The country joins Japan as one of the Asia-Pacific’s F-15 operators. (USAF)

From her birth as an independent nation in 1965, Singapore has stressed a strong military as a key to national survival, prosperity and cohesion. Although not a direct party to rising maritime and territorial tensions in the South and East China Seas, the country is taking no chances and investing in military modernisation.

Located at the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, Singapore lacks strategic depth and resides in a challenging regional environment. Bent on developing a capable military as the cornerstone of her sovereignty, sustained economic growth since independence has made it possible for Singapore to deploy powerful capabilities, turning the country into a regional hegemony, while remaining engaged in defence cooperation with a wide range of actors, including Australia, India, Israel and the United States. The country makes an effort to ensure that military procurement benefits domestic industry and helps push forward the domestic high-technology sector.

Singapore is also involved in peacekeeping, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) and collective security endeavours, having deployed some 1500 troops to support US-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2013, and naval forces to the Gulf of Aden to fight piracy since 2009. This latter effort has included three stints commanding the multinational Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151). CTF-151 was established in 2009 as a result of several United Nations Security Council Resolutions adopted to combat piracy in this region.

In 2015, Singapore’s defence budget grew by 5.7 percent to $9.5 billion, equivalent to 3.3 percent of her Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Previously at 3.2 percent, this was the first rise in relative terms since 2009. Population rather than finance is the main concern for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as they are heavily reliant on the two-year male draft. The pool of potential recruits is expected to contract by 30 percent over the next 15 years as the population grows older, and the number of children declines. This is one of the drivers behind Singapore’ emphasis on the adoption of unmanned systems, and has also prompted the setting up of the SAF Volunteer Corps (SAFVC), a reserve with a two-week initial training period which accepts women and men not eligible for national service of up to 45 years of age. The SAFVC accepted its first volunteers in 2015.


Located at a key maritime chokepoint at the southern end of the Strait of Malacca which bisects Malaysia northwest towards the Andaman Sea, Singapore’s history has been tightly connected to the sea and the city is home to the region’s largest naval fair, the International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference (IMDEX), which in May 2015 attracted navy commanders from 24 countries, along with 20 warships from twelve nations.

The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) deploys six ‘Formidable’ class frigates which are armed with Boeing RGM-84 Harpoon Anti-Ship Missiles (AShMs), MBDA Aster-15/30 Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), EuroTorp A244S Mod.3 torpedoes and an OtoMelara 76mm Super Rapid Gun. These ships can also take on a Sikorsky S-70B naval support helicopter, and include a Thales Herakles naval surveillance radar, a STING EO Mk.2 fire control radar from the same company, a Terma SCANTER 2001 navigation radar and Sagem Dagaie optronics. The ‘Formidable’ class ships are reinforced with six ‘Victory’ class corvettes also armed with RGM-84 AShMs, the Israel Aerospace Industries/Rafael Advanced Defence Systems Barak SAM and a 76mm Super Rapid gun. Their sensor package includes a Saab Sea Giraffe-AMB naval surveillance radar, a Kelvin Hughes 1007 navigation radar, Elbit MSIS optronics and a Thomson-CSF/Thales Sintra TSM 2064 variable depth sonar. The navy also contains an amphibious component in the form of four ‘Endurance’ class amphibious assault ships, plus a patrol fleet centred around eleven ‘Fearless’ class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), and a mine countermeasures fleet comprising four ‘Bedok’ class vessels.

RSS Stalwart forms
The RSS Stalwart forms part of the Republic of Singapore Navy’s ‘Formidable’ class of frigates. These vessels form part of the navy’s 185 Squadron and the class has a total strength of six vessels, all of which were procured from French shipbuilder DCNS. (Thomas Withington)

In August 2015 the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) presented its new ST Marine Specialised Marine Craft (SMC) which is designed to perform a range of missions including base defence, force protection and maritime security operations which are expected to enter service in circa 2020, according to media reports. The SMC replaces the RSN’s Fast Boats, withdrawn from service in 2008. The navy’s subsurface fleet includes two ‘Challenger’ class and two ‘Archer’ class conventional hunter-killer (SSK) submarines procured second-hand from the Marinen (Royal Swedish Navy). The RSN, which is replacing its ‘Challenger’ class boats, two having been retired in March 2015, has purchased two new ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems ‘Type 218SG’ class SSKs, the first of which is to be delivered by 2020.

Meanwhile, the RSN has started to gradually replace its ‘Fearless’ class OPVs with eight new locally-built ‘Independence’ class Littoral Mission Vessels (LMV), the first having been launched in July 2015. The LMV has been jointly designed by Saab and ST Marine, and built locally by the latter, with Singapore’s Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) acting as the overall manager and systems integrator for the programme. The LMVs sport both lethal and non-lethal weapons such as an OtoMelara 76mm gun, two OtoMelara Hitrole 12.7 mm remote-controlled heavy machine guns and a Rafael 25mm Typhoon gun system, as well as the MBDA MICA-VL (Vertical Launch) SAM system. Non-lethal weaponry includes two water cannons and two remote-controlled Long-Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) turrets with xenon lights. The LMVs have a flight deck able to accommodate a naval support helicopter and feature a Norwegian Deck Machinery launch-and-recovery system for two Rigid-Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs) or for a Rafael Protector Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV).

The ‘Victory’ class corvette
The ‘Victory’ class corvette forms a key part of Singapore’s navy. Like the ‘Formidable’ class frigates, seen here in the rear of this picture, the ‘Victory’ class vessels are an important component of the force’s surface fleet. (US Navy)

Naval cooperation with the United States includes the basing of US Navy ‘Freedom’ and ‘Independence’ class Littoral Combat Ships at Changi naval base, with one already present, two planned for deployment in 2016 and four to be deployed from 2017. On 7 December 2015 the US secretary of state for defence, Ash Carter and visiting Singapore defence minister Ng Eng Hen issued a joint statement confirming that US Navy Boeing P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) would operate regularly from Singapore to “promote greater interoperability with regional militaries through participation in bilateral and multilateral exercises, while providing timely support for regional HADR and maritime security efforts.” According to an official statement regarding this announcement, William Choong, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank, told AMR that “this (the basing of P-8As in Singapore) is the ‘Lion City’ way, there’s method (in signalling to the PRC), but it’s always measured,” stressing that both countries “have framed the deployment as coming under the ambit of the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and 2005 Strategic Framework Agreement involving the United States and Singapore” and that, should the aircraft conduct Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercises—which challenge territorial claims to the areas of oceans and airspace which are considered excessive by Washington-DC—Singapore would likely pre-empt Chinese criticism by saying that “Singapore has no claim to (territory in the South China Sea), but the Republic supports the assertion of FON as a right and principle under international law.” Another example from Dr. Choong of Singapore’s “incremental approach to defence relations and involvements” is Afghanistan, where “what was a mission delivering medical services went up to training the Afghan National Security Forces in the use of weapons locating radar.”

One of the big questions for the RSN is whether to acquire a Short Take-Off/Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft carrier in the future, in the form of larger Joint Multi Mission Ships (JMMS) built locally, adding to the capabilities of existing ‘Endeavour’ class amphibious assault ships. The JMMS ships could accommodate the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning-II STOVL fighter variant should Singapore decide to procure the F-35A/B/C in the future (see below). The JMMS programme seems to be going ahead, but the number of ships to be procured has not been made public and may not yet have been decided. Given the limited airspace available for air operations in Singapore, and the resulting vulnerability of aircraft given the little room for dispersal across the country, the acquisition of an aircraft carrier may improve survivability of air assets in any future war. 

Air Force

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) is among the most advanced in the region, equipped with modern hardware and a sophisticated command and control network. With air defence, air superiority and conventional deterrence as its core missions, the RSAF also provides a pre-emptive strike capability. Its fighter fleet comprises 30 Lockheed-Martin F-16C/D Block-50/52+ Fighting Falcon, 15 Northrop Grumman F-5E/F Tiger-II and 24 McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F15SG Eagle fast jets. Singapore is a Security Cooperative Participant (SCP) in the US F-35A/B/C programme, although she has not yet formally placed an order for the aircraft. While awaiting a decision on the F-35A/B/C procurement, Singapore is modernising her existing F-16C/D fleet. According to the Defence Ministry the programme’s goals include providing the aircraft with “an all-weather, ground-attack capability, enabling it to strike targets with more capable precision munitions such as the Boeing GBU-54B Joint Direct Attack Munition.” In December 2015 the Pentagon announced that Lockheed Martin had been awarded a $914 million contract to upgrade the SAF’s F-16C/Ds, with work expected to be completed by mid-2023.

F-15SG fighter
The Republic of Singapore Air Force is an avid user of the F-15SG fighter, which forms an important part of its fast jet fleet. The country joins Japan as one of the Asia-Pacific’s F-15 operators. (USAF)

The RSAF relies on the Lockheed Martin C-130H Hercules turboprop freighter, operating five, deploys four Gulfstream G550 Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft and nine Fokker F-50 MPAs, which also serve as utility planes and can carry the Boeing AGM-84 Harpoon AShM and the EuroTorp A244 torpedo. Due to be replaced, possible contenders include the Boeing P-8A Poseidon, the Bombardier CL-605 MPA, the Saab 340 Maritime Surveillance Aircraft, the Saab Swordfish-MR MPA, and the Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) ELTA Systems Division Q400. There is no indication at present as to when the F-50 replacement could take place, or how many airframes could be acquired to this end.

With regards to tankers, the RSAF operates four Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers plus one KC-130H and four KC-130Bs. This fleet was augmented in 2014 with six Airbus A330-200 turbofan tanker/transports, the first being delivered by Airbus from its factory in Toulouse, southwest France to Getafe in central Spain for conversion in November 2015. The company will incorporate some improvements to these six aircraft, including upgraded avionics and better aerodynamics.

Concerning rotary wing aircraft, the RSAF operates 32 Airbus Helicopters AS-332/532 Super Puma/Cougar medium-lift utility rotorcraft. After 30 years in service, in March 2015, Dr. Ng announced that they would be replaced within a decade. The Bell-Boeing CV/MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor was demonstrated during 2014 Singapore air show, and Rich Harris, Bell Helicopter’s vice president of international military business development, told AMR that “the distinct performance envelope of the rapid-response Osprey can provide a pivotal advantage to countries like Singapore, with an ideal solution for when the need arises to get troops, supplies, medical evacuation, or relief to any location in the country or region immediately,” adding that “an aircraft which does not have to rely on runways or prepared terrain could provide the RSAF with amazing flexibility and capability, enhancing their ability to rapidly reach any of the islands that make up their nation and provide access for any military or humanitarian requirements for their citizens.” The RSAF also has 16 Boeing CH-47SD Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, and deployed one to Indonesia in October 2015 to assist in the fight against forest fires raging there. Its attack helicopter of choice is the Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow, of which it operates 20.

Alongside its inhabited aircraft, the RSAF is a user of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles including the Elbit Systems Hermes-450, declared operational in March 2015 and able to fly for up to 14 hours, and the IAI Heron-1, which debuted at the RSAF’s Exercise FORGING SABRE held in Arizona in December 2015. The RSAF operated the Hermes-450’s predecessor, the Elbit Searcher, in Afghanistan. Among domestic UAV manufacturers AETOS Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary of Temasek, has a range of products spanning the civilian, security and defence markets, some developed in partnership with Germany’s Multirotor.

Stephen Greene, Textron’s unmanned systems vice president of business development told AMR that “based on Singapore’s geography, we would expect UAVs and unmanned surface vehicles to take a greater role in surveillance and security operations” in the future, adding that his company’s “Small Unmanned Aircraft System and Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle” are “flexible and ideal for a variety of land and sea-based military and commercial operations.” Meanwhile, Textron’s Aerosonde, which has logged over 100,000 flight hours in some of the most difficult environments, is actively supporting reconnaissance, infrastructure security and environmental missions extending 76 nautical miles (140 kilometres) across Singapore’s territory and Exclusive Economic Zone and beyond that when using the UAV’s portable ground control station.

Indian and Singaporean air forces
Bilateral exercises form an important part of the RSAF’s activities. The force frequently performs exercises with other regional actors, such as the Indian Air Force, with aircraft and personnel from both the Indian and Singaporean air forces seen in this picture. (RSAF)


Israel played a key role in helping Singapore establish her army, and the imprint of this early cooperation is still visible, both in terms of bilateral defence relations and doctrine. Singapore’s Army operates some 200 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs), 2200 Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFV), 50 Self-Propelled Howitzers, and 250 towed artillery pieces, as well as Multiple-Launch Rocket Systems (MLRSs). 

Singapore’s army
Singapore’s army is one of the best equipped and most sophisticated such forces in the Asia-Pacific. Sourcing equipment domestically and internationally, it has developed into a force capable of performing a wide range of operations. (Singapore Army)

The 2015 National Day parade featured two recent additions to the army’s order of battle, an engineer vehicle and an ambulance. The former is the Rheinmetall/RUAG Leopard-2AEV (Armoured Engineer Vehicle) and was developed from the Krauss Maffei Wegmann Leopard 2-MBT chassis. With a three-person crew, it is equipped with a full-width mine plough and mechanical grab and can be used for assault breaching and mine clearance, as well as obstacle clearance by attaching a dozer blade or an excavator bucket. The combat ambulance is based on a customised Ford 550 civilian four-wheel drive chassis, and its reconfigurable rear cabin can carry up to four stretchers or eight seated casualties.

Singapore’s army
Much as in the air domain, Singapore’s army frequently performs exercises with other armies both within and without the Asia-Pacific region, one of the most important of these being the United States Army. (Singapore Army)

Also on display during the parade were new variants of the Singapore Technologies Kinetics Bronco All Terrain Tracked Carrier (ATTC), including one equipped with a mine-clearing line charge module, and another one with a retractable communications antenna array. The United Kingdom bought a “modified and better protected” version (according to the British Army’s website) of these vehicles for use during its deployment in Afghanistan which largely concluded in 2014, known as the Warthog.


Singapore, traditionally boasting one of the most advanced militaries in the region, faces a shrinking pool of recruits and an increasingly complex regional scenario, with a rising PRC exerting territorial and maritime claims in the nearby South China Sea and an ensuing arms race threatening her relative conventional power. The city state’s reaction is to increasingly rely on automated weapons, demanding less personnel, while preparing for so-called ‘hybrid warfare’, which includes conventional, counter-insurgency and cyber warfare, and fostering a wide and pragmatic range of partnerships with India, Israel, the PRC and the US, among others. It is clear in the minds of Singapore’s civilian and military leadership that the country’s continued prosperity and independence can only be guaranteed by retaining an advanced military providing not only a conventional edge over possible rivals, but a nation-building tool contributing to the cohesion of a diverse nation.

by Alex Calvo