by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) has traditionally relied heavily upon European-designed vessels, either built specifically for Singapore or purchased following a period of service for its originating state. For example, Singapore’s six Formidable-class frigates were built through a collaboration between France-based DCNS and Singapore Technologies Engineering (STE) while the design was based entirely on the French Navy’s La Fayette-class frigates, an example of Singapore’s move to purchasing off-the-shelf defence technology in the early to mid-2000’s. Meanwhile, the RSN acquired four previously decommissioned Swedish Sjöormen-class submarines and restored them to service in the mid-1990’s, reflecting another chapter in Singaporean defence procurement characterized by second hand purchases.
However, a new era seems to have recently begun in Singaporean defence procurement. From 1998 to 2001, Benoi Shipyard produced four Endurance-class landing platform dock (LPD) ships, designed by STE to replace several aging amphibious assault ships previously acquired from the United States. These vessels, fairly standard in their capabilities, seemed to be an initial foray into military shipbuilding, with all design and construction completed in Singapore. In 2012, Singapore produced a fifth vessel of this class for export to Thailand. At the 2014 Singapore Airshow, it was also revealed that Singapore had taken this design a step further, producing a model of a multirole support ship complete with a helicopter landing pad based largely on the design of the Endurance-class (see photo of a model below).
Perhaps the most impressive revelation regarding the RSN’s future capabilities and the development of a domestic shipbuilding industry, though, is the Independence-class littoral mission vessel. These vessels are intended to replace the RSN’s existing complement of Fearless-class patrol vessels but is larger in size, with a displacement of 1,200 tonnes and a length of 80 metres, and will be considerably more adaptable than their predecessors. In total, eight vessels will be built, the first of which is expected to reach completion by the end of 2016. Following a modular design, the littoral mission vessel also attempts to increase efficiency through increased levels of automation and remote monitoring, reducing the manned crew from 30 to 23 officers and sailors.It is important to note, though, that the advent of the Independence-class and the recent flurry of procurement projects could be cause for concern in the region. Historically, the RSN has pursued a very gradual program of fleet modernization and expansion, careful not to spark tensions with neighbours or inspire a regional arms race. China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea may be prompting Singapore’s leadership to throw caution to the wind. When the RSN obtained its aforementioned Swedish-built submarine fleet, it drew condemnation from Indonesia, which interpreted this as an effort by Singapore to obtain a strategic advantage in ongoing disputes over islands littering the Strait of Singapore. Given that the Independence-class is substantially more heavily armed that the Shark-class patrol boats currently employed by the Singapore Police Coast Guard to patrol these waters, there certainly is a risk that Malaysian and Indonesian authorities will take issue.
Obtaining the capacity to design and build state-of-the-art vessels for both domestic use and export, Singapore has entrenched its status as a leader in Southeast Asian maritime security. From 2021, the RSN also expects to acquire a domestically produced light aircraft carrier. Singapore would not be the first Southeast Asian state to obtain carrier capabilities — the Royal Thai Navy has operated HTMS Chakri Naruebet since 1997, though it is in a bad state of repair. But the apparent seriousness with which Singapore is approaching its carrier project, its plans to acquire the F-35B Lightning II in its short-takeoff and vertical landing (STVOL) variant, coupled with the RSN’s submarine fleet and amphibious assault ships will secure Singapore impressive force projection.
This is not to say that Singapore is positioning itself to become an aggressor state. Rather, these procurement projects reflect two goals. The first is to create jobs and promote Singaporean industry by expanding into shipbuilding. The second objective is to enhance Singapore’s international prestige by playing an increasingly active part in disaster assistance and humanitarian relief missions throughout Southeast Asia and beyond. 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. The Formidable-class frigates RSS Intrepid and RSS Tenacious were also deployed in 2012 and 2014 respectively in support of Combined Task Force 151 to engage in counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
In short, for the coming years, Singapore will be the most exciting state in Southeast Asia to watch regarding fleet expansion and modernization. Singaporean policymakers and diplomats will be careful, however, not to suggest that these acquisitions will alter the balance of power in ongoing South China Sea disputes. Singapore has carefully cultivated for itself a measure of soft power in the region. After all, it is Singapore which plays host each year to the Shangri-La Dialogue, organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies to allow for an exchange of views among the Asia-Pacific region’s defence ministers. Without soft power, Singapore would not have been the venue for 2015’s historic meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s then President Ma Ying-jeou.
To this end, Singapore must offer more information to its regional partners about the strategic intentions behind current and upcoming procurements. A light aircraft carrier could further contribute to Singapore’s soft power in the region, providing a launching platform for humanitarian missions or even multilateral interventions into conflict zones. Badly marketed, however, the carrier could be regarded as threatening by neighbours and used as a tool by rivals to undermine Singapore’s reputation as a peaceful, pragmatic partner.
Paul Pryce, “Singapore’s Fleet Modernization: Slow and Steady?“, Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), 09.03.2016.