IN FOCUS: Singapore steps up deterrent capabilities

Singapore
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This month's Singapore air show falls on the 70th anniversary of the fall of Singapore to Japan in the Second World War. While Asia is an unimaginably different place now, Singapore's leaders have never forgotten the speed with which Singapore fell - or the three years of brutal occupation that followed.

Memories of the war have played no small part in the development of Singapore's world-class military, backed with what is unquestionably southeast Asia's most powerful air force. While Singapore will never have the strategic depth of a larger nation, its advanced military will create a "poison shrimp" dynamic to give any aggressor pause.

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) is unique in southeast Asia. Apart from being the region's largest, it is also the best trained, led, and equipped. It places a high priority on maintaining its equipment to ensure both readiness and safety. While political concerns are inevitably a part of acquisition decisions, it chooses aircraft and weapons systems based mainly on their utility in combat - something that is not always the primary consideration in other countries.

rsaf f-16 & ah-64d, billypix

 © Billypix

Tim Huxley is an analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and has written a book about Singapore's armed forces. "Over the last forty years, Singapore's air force has evolved incrementally toward having an extremely powerful capability by regional standards," he says.

"This is not just in terms of modernity and weapons, but in the way equipment integrates to form an overall air capability. It is an integrated and well-balanced force, and careful thought has been given to logistics."

For the time being, Singapore appears content with its fighter fleet. The RSAF has yet to reveal its future fighter procurement plans, and there is no major competition under way to obtain new fighters. Indeed, the last of Singapore's Boeing F-15SGs - a variant of the F-15E - have yet to be delivered. Nonetheless, Singapore will eventually need to make decisions about its future force structure.

Analysts and industry experts interviewed for this article are all but unanimous that Singapore will one day obtain Lockheed Martin's F-35. Like Israel, Singapore is a tier four "security co-operation participant" in the programme. While it cannot influence the design of the aircraft, it has access to programme information and can request special studies. Sources say Singapore could also be interested in the F-35B, the type's short take-off and vertical landing variant.

Huxley says Singapore's tier four status is appropriate because the eventual size of any Singapore F-35 buy would not have justified the country being a founding partner in the programme. "In all military areas Singapore tries, where possible, to acquire a qualitative edge over possible contenders, and other countries feel that only the F-35 offers this qualitative edge in the future. There is no other similar equipment in the pipeline, and it's effectively the only potential in terms of a new airframe."

Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow of the Military Transformations programme at Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Studies, thinks Singapore could eventually buy up to 100 F-35s. "Delays in the F-35 programme are not a problem for Singapore because they probably won't place an order for several more years anyway," he says. "In 2015, I could see them upgrading some of their [Lockheed Martin] F-16s, and also ordering 40-odd F-35s, with an additional F-35 order perhaps in 2020."

Given Singapore's long history with the F-16. it is a leading candidate to upgrade these aircraft. In this it would follow Taiwan and South Korea, which in 2011 disclosed plans to upgrade their F-16 fleets. The salient element of these upgrades is the addition of an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. The contenders are Northrop Grumman's Scalable Agile Beam Radar and Raytheon's Advanced Combat Radar. Industry sources say the first AESA to win an order will be all but assured to hold the entire F-16 AESA upgrade market and, by default, ascertain the eventual radar modification for Singapore's F-16s.

Bitzinger says an F-16 upgrade could also see Singapore retire the last of its venerable Northrop F-5s, which have been in service since the 1970s.

A likely beneficiary of any RSAF F-16 upgrade programme would be domestic maintenance, repair and overhaul provider ST Aerospace. The company has an intimate relationship with the air force, which includes dispatching technicians in RSAF uniform to provide support for aircraft on overseas deployments. It also has a long history of complex upgrades, including a programme in the 1980s to install a non-afterburning version of the General Electric F404 engine on the McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, which resulted in a lighter aircraft with 500lb (2.2kN) more thrust. The company also routinely performs upgrades to Lockheed C-130 transports, a niche in which it claims to be "a centre of excellence".

rsaf kc-135 tanker, airteamimages.com

 © AirTeamImages.com

Nonetheless, ST Aerospace president Chang Cheow Teck is tight-lipped about the prospect of upgrading RSAF F-16s. He will only say that, historically, the company's military upgrade capabilities have been driven by the air force's needs.

Eventually, Singapore will also need to replace its Fokker 50s. The decision facing the RSAF is whether to acquire a newer aircraft of similar capability, such as the Ruag DO228NG, which will be attending the Singapore air show for the first time, or a larger platform, such as surplus US Navy Lockheed P-3C Orions or even a variant of the Boeing P-8A Poseidon.

In 2010, Lockheed revealed Singapore had issued a letter of request to look at the P-3. Mark Jarvis, Lockheed's director, design and production for P-3 programmes, says Singapore's interest could be for about four or five aircraft, possibly drawing on the configuration of the 12 secondhand Orions due to be delivered to Taiwan starting this year.

Given Singapore's limited economic exclusion zone, and that the majority of its patrols take place close to home, experts feel the P-8A is an unlikely choice.

"If they really think they will conduct long-range maritime patrol as a permanent mission they might [buy the P-8A], but on the other hand they might just keep flying around the region," says Bitzinger. He adds that while Singapore has a strong tendency to buy new aircraft, in some circumstances, such as with the Boeing KC-135 tanker, it will buy used equipment. "The most important thing with maritime patrol is not the airframe, but what goes into it," he adds.

Huxley says for long-range patrols Singapore already has a resource in place with its six Formidable-class frigates. The Republic of Singapore Navy has openly stated that these large warships were obtained to defend the nation's sea lines of communications. A major element of the reach of these ships is their Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk shipborne helicopters.

Another area for potential new aircraft is in the tanker role, in which Singapore operates ex-US Air Force KC-135s. These aircraft provide air-to-air refuelling for both the RSAF and its allies, but suffer similar obsolescence issues to USAF KC-135s. During the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace exhibition in Malaysia in December 2011, an RSAF contingent visited the Royal Australian Air Force's Airbus Military A330-based KC-30A mutli-role tanker/transports, on static display. A source said the delegation was interested to learn about the aircraft's capabilities, which also includes the ability to carry passengers and cargo.

As with its fighters, Singapore also appears to be in no rush to replace its key tactical platforms, namely Eurocopter Super Puma and Cougar helicopters and C-130H Hercules. Helicopter suppliers have heard nothing about a Super Puma/Cougar replacement, with industry observers believing Singapore is happy to stay with these types for another decade.

Ultimately, it is difficult to obtain a clear picture of the RSAF's acquisition plans and the future roles this envisages. Bitzinger feels this aids the all-important deterrent role of the Singapore armed forces. "This ambiguity lets the other guy project his concerns and fears," he says.

"The last thing the Singaporeans want is to fight last-ditch battles on Singaporean soil," he adds. "A lot of this goes back to the fall of Singapore in 1942. That history is very poignant to them - the idea that once the Japanese crossed the straits of Johore, it was all over. They never want to have this happen again. They will take the war to the enemy."