Singapore plans to continue spending record amounts on defence, with several new aircraft procurements envisaged over the next several years, despite a slumping economy and delays to several programmes.

At the top of the spending list, Singapore plans to order eight new fighters and eight helicopters within the next year. The fighters will replace retiring McDonnell Douglas A-4SUs and the helicopters are to support a new fleet of navy frigates.

Singapore air force chief Lim Kim Choon says the service also plans to upgrade its Aermacchi S211 trainers and Lockheed Martin C-130s. Singapore is also starting to evaluate new training aircraft and airborne early warning and control platforms.

Lim says the outbreak of SARS last year and the resulting reduction in government revenues will not slow Singapore's defence spending plans. Singapore historically has committed 6% of its gross domestic product (GDP) to defence, one of the highest allocations in the world.

"Defence is a matter of high priority for Singapore, and we have always adopted a steady and systematic approach to the air force's modernisation and force development. The Singapore government commits a defence budget allocation of 6% of GDP while MINDEF [the defence ministry] has capped spending at about 5% of GDP, even during the 1997 financial crisis to the present. Such an approach ensures the long-term security of Singapore and the operational capabilities of the air force are not undermined by short-term economic fluctuations."

The consistency of Singapore's defence spending benefits Singapore Technologies Aerospace (ST Aero), which supports most air force fleets by providing both maintenance services and a wide mix of upgrades. Defence contracts account for aboutS$440 million ($260 million) in annual revenues for ST Aero, with Singapore by far its largest customer.

"The Singapore budget is okay," says ST Aero chief executive Tay Kok Khiang. "It's still growing and it is supposed to grow at 3% to 5%, and 3% to 5% isn't bad."

The fighter acquisition will be by far the biggest ticket item over the next few years. Lim says while eight aircraft will be acquired initially, a follow-on order of another 12 to 16 is possible "in the near future".

Last year Singapore shortlisted the Boeing F-15T, Dassault Aviation Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon for the purchase. A selection is planned for late 2004 or early 2005.

"The shortlisted candidates have been invited to participate in the next phase of the tender," Lim says. "During this phase, the air force will be conducting further detailed technical and flight evaluations. As in other phases, all factors will be evaluated and assessed and the most cost-effective candidate will be selected."

In 2001 Singapore narrowed down the helicopter competition to three candidates - Eurocopter AS532C Cougar, NH Industries NH90 and Sikorsky S-70 - but the programme has since been marred by delays. The manufacturers believe budget constraints and internal debate over the configuration alternatives have driven the delays, but Singapore has failed to disclose any reason.

Lim says the Singapore air force and navy are now working together to select one of the candidates but declines to say when this will occur.

"While the concept of operations is still being refined, it is clear that the helicopter will be organic to the frigates and perform multiple roles, especially in the areas of anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare," Lim says. "To prepare for this, our pilots have gone on board ships of friendly nations such as the French navy to familiarise ourselves with how they operate their shipborne helicopters."

Lim also declines to say when the C-130 upgrades will be pursued, another programme that has been in the wings for several years awaiting funding. ST Aero is in the frame to lead the project, when Singapore finally goes forward with the programme.

Lim says the upgrades will include "a series of avionics, powerplant and structural upgrades. The introduction of advanced avionics such as colour multifunction displays and an integrated flight management and navigation system will increase the crew's situational awareness and lower workload, while engine and airframe upgrades will result in increased reliability and better performance. In addition to overcoming problems associated with ageing technologies, the upgrades will improve the C-130's operational functionality and availability."

Singapore's S211 replacement programme has also been marred by delays for undisclosed reasons. Two years ago Singapore asked trainer manufacturers for information on their aircraft, but a formal competition has not yet been launched.

Lim says Singapore is now upgrading the trainers to make sure they continue to meet training requirements for the interim and adds: "The details of the replacement trainer are still being worked out.

"The air force is looking ahead and is presently reviewing and studying future training requirements to ensure that we continue to possess a competent training fleet in the future."

Singapore has also been rumoured to be looking at new AEW&C aircraft, including the Gulfstream 550 business jet equipped with Israel Aircraft Industries' Phalcon radar. Singapore has yet to make public its intentions to buy any new AEW platform, but Lim acknowledges he is looking ahead and planning for the replacement of its Northrop E-2C Hawkeye fleet.

With an eye towards more long-term requirements, Singapore is also joining the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme as a security co-operation participant (SCP). Singapore is expected to sign within the next few weeks a letter of agreement from the US government to join the programme.

"By participating as a SCP member, we hope that it would help us make a more informed decision on the future acquisition of such a platform," Lim says. "Participation in the JSF programme also serves another purpose. Technology is critical to the Singapore armed forces and our collaboration with technologically advanced countries on programmes such as the JSF allows us to keep abreast with technological advances and update ourselves on so that we can continue to optimise on technology as a force multiplier."

Meanwhile, Singapore this year will begin taking delivery of a new batch of 20 Lockheed Martin Block 52 F-16C/Ds. Lim says these aircraft, with improved avionics and radars, will improve Singapore's all-weather air defence and strike capability. Singapore plans to phase out itsF-16A/Bs as the new F-16s arrive.

Source: Flight International