Doing more with less: The Singaporean armed forces prepare for manpower shortages and evolving regional challenges

PEARL HARBOR (June 25, 2018) The Republic of Singapore navy guided-missile frigate RSS Tenacious (71) enters Pearl Harbor in preparation for the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise 2018. Photo: US Navy

The navy’s launch of its new Type 218SG submarine named ‘Invincible’ in February kickstarted a series of procurement plans by the Singapore Armed Forces as it prepares for future challenges.

By Maegan Liew

On the same day that the ‘Invincible’ was launched in north Germany, Singapore’s Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat opened his Budget 2019 speech with a focus on defence and national security. He would go on to reveal that around 30% of the government’s total expenditure for the year would be allocated to supporting defence, security and diplomacy efforts.

The Singaporean Finance Minister stressed the importance of effective diplomacy and deterrence, the twin pillars of Singapore’s national security strategy, earmarking S$15.5 billion (US$11.4 billion) of the annual budget for the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), a modest increase on the previous year’s defence budget of S$14.8 billion (US$10.9 billion).

According to Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, this 4.8% budgetary increase was necessitated by the maturation of projects and acquisitions.

Singapore’s procurement plans reflect the region’s security environment

In Asia, defence spending increased by more than 60% between 2008 and 2017 to hit US$447 billion, as countries in the region are investing in the modernisation of their armed forces.

Dr Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told ASEAN Today that a general sense of uncertainty over the evolving security landscape has been a major driver behind the modernisation process.

Dr Collin Koh attributed Singapore’s procurement plans to what it “perceives as a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) security environment that’s constantly evolving, considering the confluence of many developments in the region these days.”

Dr Collin Koh elaborated that these developments included “the Great Power rivalries”, including that playing out between China and the United States, “the geopolitical disputes in the region (not least, the South China Sea), a myriad of non-traditional security concerns (transnational terrorism, violent extremism and radicalisation), natural calamities and military modernisation efforts undertaken by other countries in the region.”

Last year, Singapore was also embroiled in a high-profile maritime spat with Malaysia with the latter sending its government vessels into Singapore’s territorial waters off Tuas.

In the wake of these heightened geopolitical threats, the onus is on MINDEF to adequately prepare the Singaporean armed forces to meet evolving challenges and preserve its deterrence capabilities.

Maritime defence is critical for the security of the island nation

For Singapore, maritime challenges cannot be overlooked. Up to one-third of international maritime trade is transported through the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. Threats such as piracy and the shipping of illegal weapons are potent for an island nation that sits astride two of the busiest global sea lines of communication (SLOCs).

The acquisition of the Invincible class submarines by the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) is a manifestation of the city state’s commitment to keeping the SLOCs open and secure and its commitment to protecting its national interests and those of other nations that depend on these maritime routes for their trade and naval operations.

The new submarines acquired by the Singapore navy are unlike the Archer-class and Challenger-class submarines which have been in service for over 20 years. These German-made Type 218SG submarines are custom-built according to the needs of the island nation and are not for sale to any other country.

The RSN’s newly launched Invincible-class submarines.
Photo: Ministry of Defence Singapore

The Invincible-class submarines are designed to suit the shallow and saltier Singapore waters and are also tailored to the body and strength attributes of the average Singaporean sailor. They will feature, among other things, greater weapons-carrying capacity, improved sonar with more accurate location and identification capabilities, and 50% longer underwater endurance than the present fleet of submarines they are set to replace.

Singapore’s ageing demographics necessitate the modernisation of its armed forces

Dr Collin Koh pointed out that an important factor behind the modernisation process that has been underway in Singapore’s armed forces since the 1980s is the nation’s demographic shift. “The declining birth rate of Singapore necessitates a major revamp in the way future military capabilities are conceived of, acquired and infused into service,” he said. “Doing more with less manpower” will be of central importance moving forward.  

A modernised tri-service Next-Generation Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will be cardinal to meeting evolving security challenges in the real and digital worlds of the 21st Century, amidst a growing manpower shortage in Singapore’s ageing society. These modernisation efforts to “keep Singaporeans safe for another generation” require “significant and steady investments”, as reflected by the increase in this year’s defence budget.

As the SAF prepares for a reduction of manpower supply by one-third come 2030, it is positioning itself to meet national security threats with a leaner manpower pool.

For example, advanced automation has been incorporated into the four new Type 218SG submarines to empower the RSN to do more with less. Not only can the submarines operate with a relatively small crew of 28, the crew can be on watch for four hours with eight hours of rest. Previously, the crew could only manage six hours of rest as they were required to be on watch for a corresponding six hours. 

Aside from the submarine acquisitions, the navy is also looking to procure new combat vessels. The advanced multi-role combat vessels (MRCVs) will replace its Victory-class missile corvettes. The MRCVs serve as a mothership for unmanned air and surface vehicles which can be equipped with cameras and weapons, providing greater oversight and slashing response times to threats.

Elsewhere in the SAF, the Singapore Army will be replacing its present fleet of Ultra M113 armoured fighting vehicles that have been in operation since the 1970s with the Hunter. Locally designed and developed, it will be the army’s first fully digitalised vehicle.

The Singapore air force is also looking to buy F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from the United States to replace its existing F-16 fighter jet fleet which has been in service since 1998 and is expected to retire by 2030. Initial plans involve the purchase of four US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, with an option for the acquisition of eight more.

Smart Airbases are also being developed by the Air Force in collaboration with the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) to leverage the power of robotics, data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI). Drones that are fitted with sensors can be flown over the airfield for rapid damage detection and assessment, a traditionally labour-intensive activity involving hundreds of soldiers.

Responding to ASEAN Today, V P Hirubalan, a former Senior Adviser to the Singapore Ministry for Foreign Affairs, noted that: “The Singapore Armed Forces has constantly upgraded its capabilities and platforms replacing ageing equipment with new, advanced and technologically superior ones. The procurement plans and activities announced this year are part of this process, and announcing such plans early facilitates deterrence as well as transparency.”

Beyond modernising its defence assets, Singapore is also beefing up its cybersecurity capabilities to face the threat of hybrid attacks that may target IT networks. The Defence Cyber Organisation (DCO) was set up two years ago, and the SAF has plans to expand its regular force in the Military Domain Experts Scheme and the non-uniformed Defence Cyber Expert, with more than 300 personnel set to be hired within the first phase.

Defending Singapore over the next generation necessitates ambitious investments

Securing the defence of the city-state is no small task, and the government is well aware of the ambitious nature of its plans. In 2014, the Republic’s military expenditure accounted for over a quarter of the total defence spending by ASEAN member states.

Mr V P Hirubalan sees the SAF’s procurement plans and activities as crucial to ensuring Singapore maintains its deterrence credibility and maintain the ability to handle any challenges that threaten Singapore’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He concluded, “the… important point is that Singapore is prepared for all challenges whether present or in the future and is prepared to invest significantly towards this end.”. 

With names like ‘Invincible’, ‘Victory’ and ‘Joint Strike’, the Republic is not shy of making its defence aspirations clear. Joining the ‘Invincible’ in 2022 are three other custom-built Type 218SG submarines christened ‘Impeccable’, ‘Illustrious’ and ‘Inimitable’.

Building the armed forces of tomorrow will require more than ambitious nomenclature. But Singapore has invested early and embraced automation to reduce the human capital required, putting it at the top of the pile to meet the ongoing and future military and humanitarian challenges. 

Correction: A previous version of this article named V P Hirubalan as a Senior Adviser to Singapore’s MFA. His term as senior adviser ended in March, 2019.