Tag Archives: Singapore

Singapore’s Fleet Modernization: Slow and Steady?

By Paul Pryce

Among the maritime forces of the small Southeast Asian states, the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) stands as one of the most robust. As some regional partners, such as the Indonesian Navy, struggle to acquire a submarine fleet, the RSN is currently well-served by two Challenger-class (formerly Sjöormen-class in the Swedish Navy) and two Archer-class (formerly Västergötland-class in the Swedish Navy) diesel-electric submarines, which Singapore began acquiring at the turn of the century. Yet RSN defence planning and strategic intent is difficult to discern, since Singapore has never released a formal maritime strategy or, for that matter, a comprehensive national security strategy. The closest approximation of such a document was released in 2004, which has not been updated since, and discusses the importance of law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the fight against terrorist organizations like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and al-Qaeda.

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In the absence of a clear road map for the development of the RSN, an excellent analysis is offered by Dr. Swee Lean Collin Koh in the 18-page Naval War College Review articleSeeking Balance: Force Projection, Confidence Building, and the Republic of Singapore Navy,” published in 2012. The author focuses on the evolution of Singapore’s maritime force to date in order to offer some impressions of its future course, detailing how the RSN matured from a “sea-denial” navy to a “sea-control” navy.

With regard to that maturation, Dr. Koh points out three procurement projects that were key to the RSN attaining the capacity for sea control. First, the aforementioned acquisition of a submarine fleet grants the RSN some capacity for force projection and covert intelligence-gathering beyond Singapore’s waters, though this has drawn condemnation from neighbours like Indonesia. It seems the RSN is likely to retain these capabilities in the future, as it was announced in late 2013 that Singapore intends to phase out its two older Challenger-class submarines and replace these vessels with two Type 218 diesel-electric submarines designed by Germany-based ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, the first of which is to be delivered in 2020.

Secondly, the acquisition between 2007 and 2009 of six Formidable-class stealth-capable guided-missile frigates, based on the French La Fayette-class frigate design,

080717-N-8135W-006 PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (July 17, 2008) Republic of Singapore frigate Steadfast (FFS 70) steams off the coast of Hawaii during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2008. RIMPAC is the worldÕs largest multinational exercise and is scheduled biennially by the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Participants include the U.S., Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Netherlands, Peru, Republic of Korea, Singapore and the United Kingdom. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kirk Worley/Released)
Republic of Singapore frigate Steadfast (FFS 70) steams off the coast of Hawaii during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2008. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kirk Worley/Released)

provided the RSN with true blue-water combat capabilities and greatly contribute to the force’s capacity for anti-air and anti-submarine warfare. This was, according to the author, not a procurement ‘out of left field’ but instead built incrementally on existing RSN capabilities, such as the six Victory-class corvettes Singapore acquired from Germany’s Friedrich Lürssen Werft in 1990-1991. In any case, the blue-water capability of the RSN has subsequently been demonstrated by the deployment of Formidable-class frigates RSS Intrepid in 2012 and RSS Tenacious in 2014 in support of Combined Task Force 151 in counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

Republic of Singapore Navy frigate RSS Formidable (68) steams alongside the Indian Navy frigate INS Brahmaputra (F 31) in the Bay of Bengal during exercise Malabar (US Navy photo).
Republic of Singapore Navy frigate RSS Formidable (68) steams alongside the Indian Navy frigate INS Brahmaputra (F 31) in the Bay of Bengal during exercise Malabar (US Navy photo).

Finally, the RSN’s four locally built Endurance-class landing platform docks (LPDs) provide the force with strategic sealift. These are indicative of Singapore’s strategic intent insofar as the past 15 years of defence procurement are concerned – namely that Singapore intends to employ its navy first and foremost in a humanitarian role in multilateral operations. For example, three of the RSN’s four LPDs were deployed in response to the 2004 tsunami and earthquake in Aceh, Indonesia, providing valuable humanitarian assistance. The LPDs have since been deployed in support of reconstruction efforts in Iraq, counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, and on search and rescue missions in the Indian Ocean region. Interestingly, a fifth vessel of this class was produced by Singapore for export to Thailand in 2012.

This tendency to participate in multilateral operations and exercises, which has increased dramatically since the 1980s, reflects an important undercurrent of Singapore’s defence planning, according to Dr. Koh. Although the resources and equipment available to the RSN could have been much more rapidly expanded, fleet expansion and modernization has been incremental so as to avoid setting off a regional arms race. As a small state, Singapore has a particularly keen interest in conflict prevention, opting to resolve any disputes in the courts rather than on the battlefield. This strategy has served Singapore well, such as when an ongoing dispute between Singapore and Malaysia over ownership of Pedra Branca, several islets at the eastern entrance to the Singapore Strait, was resolved in 2008 by an International Court of Justice decision in favour of Singapore’s claim. Meanwhile, in order to avoid any future tensions with Malaysia, the RSN has delegated patrols of such waterways to the Police Coast Guard, which acquired a fleet of ten specially designed Shark-class patrol boats from Damen Schelde in 2009. These vessels are in fact armed – specifically with a Mk 23 Rafael Typhoon Weapon System with 25mm Bushmaster chain gun and two CIS 50 12.7mm machine guns – but do not share the overtly militaristic impression that an RSN patrol would likely convey.

This could also explain the lack of a formal maritime strategy, though the author does not explicitly draw this connection. By identifying security threats to be addressed by the RSN, there would be the risk of ratcheting up tensions with one neighbour or another. Beyond interfering with any ongoing negotiations Singapore may have with claimants like Malaysia and Indonesia, including territorial disputes in a strategic guidance document would effectively “securitize” relations within Southeast Asia. First introduced as a theory of international relations in the 1990s by the scholars Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, and Jaap de Wilde, securitization occurs when an issue is presented as a security threat that requires the intervention of state

RSS Persistence
RSS Persistence

authorities and the employment of extraordinary means, such as the use of military force, rather than following the course of political dialogue. Put differently, Singapore’s assertion of ownership over a specific islet or body of water in a kind of ‘National Security Strategy’ would only serve to escalate tensions, prompting neighbours to make equally bold claims and arm themselves to enforce those same claims. Such escalation can be seen in other parts of the Asia-Pacific region due to assertive behaviour from one or more parties; Singapore’s quiet caution has helped to avoid the spread of such conflict and reinforced international legalist norms of behaviour.

A development not anticipated by this article, however, is the emergence of a new, locally-produced ship design to succeed the Fearless-class patrol vessels that have served the RSN for two decades. The Independence-class littoral mission vessel is larger in size, with a displacement of 1,200 tonnes and a length of 80 metres, and will be considerably more adaptable than the previous patrol vessels. In total, eight vessels will be built, the first of which is expected to reach completion by the end of 2016. Given that the LPDs were also built at home, this is very likely an indication that Singapore seeks to develop its domestic shipbuilding industry and it will be worth watching whether this is followed by efforts to promote designs for export. This would not be unprecedented, considering the aforementioned sale of an LPD in 2012 to the Royal Thai Navy. It also leaves some question as to whether Singapore, following the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, may depart from its historically cautious approach and seek a new, more assertive role for the RSN. Until that question is settled, Dr. Koh’s work for the Naval War College Review is the clearest narrative readers may find of RSN fleet modernization and expansion.

Paul Pryce is Political Advisor to the Consul General of Japan in Calgary and a long-time member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He has previously written as the Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program.

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Sea Control 98 – Singapore’s strategic outlook

seacontrol2Dr Tim Huxley, Executive Director of IISS-Asia and author of Defending the Lion City: the armed forces of Singapore, joins Natalie Sambhi, President of Australian Institute of International Affairs ACT and Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, to discuss how Southeast Asia’s most technologically advanced yet modestly sized militaries, Singapore, is coping with some of the strategic shifts in the Asia Pacific and the growing tensions over the South China Sea. They discuss the key pillars and drivers of Singapore’s foreign and defence policy, its defence relationships with the US, China, Australia and the rest of Southeast Asia, and which maritime capabilities it should be developing.

DOWNLOAD: Singapore’s strategic outlook

Music: Sam LaGrone

Production: Natalie Sambhi

An ASEAN Maritime Alliance?

The year 2014 brought new tensions to the South China Sea, particularly as Chinese authorities sought to establish a series of island-like structures in the midst of the disputed Spratly Islands. Such provocative actions, however, are unlikely to generate sufficient political will among the other countries of the region to establish a Political-Security Community under the auspices of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) by the 2015 deadline. But were this collection of ten countries to pool their resources into a security community or even a security alliance, it would be an impressive force and a potential deterrent to aggression in the South China Sea.

In particular, it is worthwhile noting the relative strength of ASEAN coastal defence forces. Some member states, such as Indonesia, possess respectable ‘blue water’ navies, that is to say, they have larger vessels capable of operating in deep waters and engaging in long-range standing battles. Other ASEAN countries, such as the Philippines, have considerable ‘brown water’ navies,  forces consisting of small patrol boats which can cruise inland waterways and the shallow waters that weave between tight-knit island chains. But the varied nature of the waters disputed in the South China Sea particularly requires the flexibility offered by corvettes.

Generally, corvettes fall between the Royal Canadian Navy’s Halifax-class frigates and Kingston-class coastal defence vessels in size. But there is much debate as to what constitutes a contemporary corvette. For example, the Royal Omani Navy calls its Khareef-class vessels ‘corvettes’ even though the displacement of each vessel in the class is approximately 2,660 tons. Recent advancements in shipbuilding have also allowed the US Navy to introduce new vessels with substantial displacement but with shallower drafts, meaning the new USS Liberty can approach closer to coastlines than the similarly sized but older Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates.

For the purposes of this analysis, only those vessels with a displacement greater than 100 tons but less than 1,700 tons will be considered corvettes. China’s maritime forces, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN),  has a substantial number of vessels in this range deployed to Hong Kong and a network of naval bases off the South China Sea. 12 Jiangdao-class corvettes (1,440 tons) are the workhorses of this maritime presence in the region and China may possibly add 3 more vessels of this class by the end of 2015. Beyond the Jiangdao-class corvettes, PLAN’s southern presence includes six Houjian-class missile boats (520 tons) and approximately 80 other missile boats and gunboats of various classes and ranging in displacement from 200 to 480 tons each. This vastly exceeds the quantity and quality of vessels any individual Southeast Asian country could bring to bear in a conflict. But ASEAN’s combined maritime forces could meet the challenge presented by a limited PLAN offensive.

Brunei in particular has emerged as a promising new maritime actor in the region, even actively participating in the 2014 edition of the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC). The Royal Brunei Navy acquired four specially built Darussalam-class offshore patrol ships (1,625 tonnes) from the German shipbuilder Luerssen-Werft, which replaced Brunei’s previous coastal defence workhorse, the Waspada-class fast attack craft (200 tonnes). The Waspada-class vessels have since been decommissioned and donated to Indonesia to be used for training purposes. The introduction of the Darussalam-class greatly upgrades Brunei’s defence capabilities and it will be of interest for Southeast Asian observers to see how Brunei further pursues the modernization of its forces.

The Republic of Singapore Navy has much in the way of heavier frigates and submarines to defend its unique position by the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most significant shipping routes. Its corvette-like vessels are also impressive, six Victory-class corvettes (600 tonnes) and 12 Fearless-class offshore patrol ships (500 tonnes), but they are certainly not as new as some of the vessels boasted by Singapore’s neighbours. The Victory-class was acquired in 1990-1991 while the Fearless-class was introduced between 1996 and 1998. Therefore, it will also be of interest to see whether Singapore seeks to obtain any newer vessels which can serve as a bridge in capabilities between the Victory-class corvettes and the heavier Formidable-class frigates.

dsc_5220It is Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia that boast the largest complements of corvettes in the region, however. The Royal Thai Navy’s coastal defence is led by two Tapi-class corvettes (1,200 tons) and two Pattani-class offshore patrol ships (1,460 tons), which are joined by two Ratanakosin-class corvettes (960 tons), three Khamrosin-class corvettes (630 tons), three Hua Hin-class patrol boats (600 tons), six PSMM Mark 5-class patrol boats (300 tons), and 18 smaller patrol boats and fast attack boats of varying capabilities but all rather aged. The Philippines and Indonesia both have vast island chains within their respective territories, requiring corvettes and smaller patrol vessels just as much for counter-trafficking and counter-piracy operations as for countering conventional maritime forces. The Philippine Navy possesses one Pohang-class corvette (1,200 tons), two Rizal-class corvettes (1,250 tons), nine Miguel Malvar-class corvettes (900 tons), and three Emilio Jacinto-class corvettes (700 tons). Indonesia tops out ASEAN’s array of corvettes with three Fatahillah-class corvettes (1,450 tons), 16 Kapitan Patimura-class corvettes (950 tons), and 65 other missile boats and gunboats with a displacement of approximately 100-250 tons.

Yet it is unclear how much of their forces Indonesia or the Philippines would be able to deploy in the midst of a South China Sea conflict. As mentioned previously, many of these vessels have been used practically as inland patrol vessels. There are also some potential weak links in the chain should ASEAN establish some form of formalized maritime alliance. The Royal Malaysian Navy only offers four Laksamana-class corvettes (675 tons) and an array of 16 smaller missile boats and gun boats that could generally only be used to harass Chinese forces. Burma certainly has an impressive force in its own right – consisting of three domestically produced Anawratha-class corvettes (1,100 tons), six Houxin-class missile boats (500 tons), 10 5 Series-class missile boats (500 tons), and 15 Hainan-class gunboats (450 tons), but the military junta has already demonstrated that it will remain aloof from territorial disputes in the South China Sea and generally supports China’s policy toward Southeast Asia.

The Royal Cambodian Navy is in shambles, consisting solely of five outdated Turya-class torpedo boats (250 tons), five Stenka-class patrol boats (250 tons), and a lone Shershen-class fast attack boat (175 tons). But Cambodian authorities would be just as disinclined to engage in defence sharing as their Burmese counterparts. During Cambodia’s 2012 ASEAN chairmanship, Cambodian officials consistently interfered in efforts by other ASEAN member states to reach a common position on the South China Sea’s territorial disputes. Given the understanding on security issues shared between Cambodian and Chinese officials, as well as China’s status as Cambodia’s largest source of foreign investment and aid, it is apparent that Cambodia has relatively no need for the security guarantees ASEAN could provide as a regional counter-balance to China.

Vietnam is the unpredictable factor in the region. The Vietnam People’s Navy has a few corvettes of its own, including a Pauk-class corvette (580 tons), eight Tarantul-class corvettes (540 tons), and 23 patrol ships with displacements ranging from 200 to 375 tons. The Vietnamese government has also ordered two more TT-400TP gunboats (450 tons) from domestic shipbuilders with delivery expected in late 2015 or early 2016. This leaves Vietnam with a force perhaps not as sizable as that of Indonesia or the Philippines but with greater capacity to intervene should China seek to settle territorial disputes with Vietnam by force.

As Malaysia will hold the 2015 Chairmanship of ASEAN, the prospects for a maritime force in support of the bloc’s proposed Political-Security Community will depend to some degree on whether Malaysian officials will be willing to show leadership. If Malaysia looks to acquire new vessels and insists on placing maritime security on the agenda of upcoming ASEAN meetings, some arrangement could be struck by the end of the year. But this will require artful diplomacy, especially in the face of Burmese and Cambodian opposition. With Malaysian officials speaking predominantly about the need for a single market in the region and promoting a conclusion to negotiations regarding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, such a drive for maritime security may not be forthcoming.

Paul Pryce is a Research Analyst at the Atlantic Council of Canada. His research interests are diverse and include maritime security, NATO affairs, and African regional integration.

This article can be found in its original form at the  
NATO Council of Canada and was republished by permission.

RIMPAC 2014 – The Ins and Outs

On June 26th, one of the world’s largest and most significant naval exercises began in and around Hawaii. Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) is a biannual event led by the United States Navy and usually involves maritime forces from more than n Pacific countries, including Canada. Although the exercises have been held consistently since 1971, this year’s edition promises to have an unprecedented impact on military and strategic affairs in the Asia-Pacific region.

Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) destroyer Haikou (171) at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii
Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) destroyer Haikou (171) at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii

Of particular note, 2014 marks the first time China participates in RIMPAC. Previous editions have involved regional neighbours, like Japan and South Korea, but curiously excluded the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Early this year, as planning was underway for the upcoming edition of RIMPAC, the US extended an invitation to China for the first time. However, the fallout from the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on May 31-June 1 left considerable doubt that China would accept the invitation. It therefore came as a surprise when China formally accepted the invitation one week after the heated debate in Singapore. In a move that could help reduce regional tensions, four PLAN vessels have participated in the exercise, serving alongside ships from other participating countries, like Japan, the Philippines, and Canada.

This is also the first RIMPAC exercise for the small Southeast Asian state of Brunei. The Royal Brunei Navy is a rather small force, especially in comparison to the impressive naval might of nearby Singapore, but it has contributed two off-shore patrol vessels. These smaller ships, the KDB Darussalam and KDB Darulaman, are also Brunei’s newest acquisitions and so RIMPAC is viewed as an opportunity to test out their capabilities in simulations of large-scale maritime combat operations.

With Brunei, participation in RIMPAC increases among Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members to six out of ten, indicating a willingness by the bloc to become more actively involved in Pacific security. The four member states not participating in 2014 either lack the capacity to participate, such as landlocked Laos, or they were not invited to participate, such as the despotic regime in Burma.

While China and Brunei are in this year, Russia is out. In 2012, Russian maritime forces joined RIMPAC for the first time. Three vessels took part, led by the destroyer RFS Panteleyev, which had previously served alongside NATO forces as part of Operation Ocean Shield. But with tensions rising over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, no invitation was extended to join RIMPAC in 2014.

In May 2014, Russia and China held a large-scale joint naval exercise of their own in the East China Sea, but Russia has otherwise been left isolated in Pacific military affairs since the Crimean crisis. Aside from supplying Vietnam with new submarines and other vessels, Russia has scant opportunities to build security ties with the countries of Southeast Asia, stalling any effort by Vladimir Putin to pivot eastward. This suggests that any ‘soft power’ influence Russia may have had is now in severe decline, with many governments in the region reluctant to trust or engage with Putin.

HMCS Calgary (FFH 335)
HMCS Calgary (FFH 335)

RIMPAC 2014 is also a significant opportunity for Canada to demonstrate its capacity to become a major player in the Pacific. This has clearly not been lost on Canadian defence officials as there is a considerably increased contribution from Canada as compared to 2012, despite the fact that many Royal Canadian Navy vessels are either undergoing repairs or are being retrofitted. This time, Canada’s fleet is led by the HMCS Calgary, a Halifax-class frigate, joined by a Victoria-class submarine and two Kingston-class patrol vessels. As RIMPAC is a combined arms exercise, Canada has also sent an infantry company from the Third Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry to act as marines, while a Royal Canadian Air Force component will be deployed that includes eight CF-18 Hornets.

By involving all three elements of the Canadian Forces, it will be possible to demonstrate Canada’s ability to participate meaningfully in a multilateral intervention in the Pacific. As tensions between countries in the Asia-Pacific region are enflamed, discussion surrounding the potential for a Pacific equivalent to NATO occasionally surfaces. By showing leadership through RIMPAC and developing interoperability with countries ranging from Brunei to China, Canada secures a place at the table for itself in case those discussions ever turn serious.

Paul Pryce is a Research Analyst at the NATO Council of Canada and CIMSEC’s Director of Social Media. With degrees in political science from universities in both Canada and Estonia, he has previously worked as a Research Fellow at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. His research interests are diverse and include maritime security, NATO affairs, and African regional integration.



Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and the news agencies and do not necessarily represent those of the NATO Council of Canada. This article is published for information purposes only.

This post appeared at the NATO Council of Canada in its original form and was cross-posted by permission.