World-class maritime security forces that maintain a presence in disputed waters pack capabilities that our Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) and Police Coast Guard (PCG) sorely lack. For now, no plans are on the horizon to plug that capability gap. This begs the question: Why?
The Icelandic Coast Guard and Britain's Royal Navy sharpened their skills the hard way during the three Cod Wars in frigid Atlantic waters from the late 1950s to mid 1970s.
Closer home and in today's context, maritime security forces from China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have all realised that the capabilities that count are not found in warship reference books such as Jane's Fighting Ships.
Capabilities that have been brought into action include powerful water cannon, the ability to ram and the robustness of their ships to absorb punishment from a deliberate collision.
The action played out in recent months on disputed Asian seas bring to mind the tussle between Britain and Iceland during the Cod Wars during which time aggressive intent was exercised not through the barrel of naval guns but by manoeuvering ships like bumper cars.
Singapore's maritime forces cannot withstand this sort of pressure on the high seas.
RSN's warfighting capabilities
The Singapore Navy's focus on sinking ships and in landing a brigade-size force in one wave has given the RSN admirable warfighting capabilities. It can execute and fend off naval action in the aerial, surface, sub surface and electronic warfare domains using warships, submarines and naval aviation tailored to support the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF) SORs.
The PCG's revamped fleet of fast craft represent an economical way of ensuring one of the world's busiest ports is keep safe 24/7. PCG has shown creativity in introducing fast craft based on Australian lobster boats. These have performed well, giving PCG first responders the ability to be on site quickly just as the Aussie lobster boats could get their catch to market rapidly to ensure freshness.
Singapore should be thankful the dispute over Pedra Branca was resolved in a gentlemanly manner between claimants Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
This is because our warships and coast guard vessels cannot take the punishment from Incidents At Sea that involve ramming. In addition, RSN men-of-war and PCG vessels do not have water monitors that can give an appropriate reply to a watery greeting.
Limitations of Fleet RSN
The RSN's fast craft are simply too small for this sort of work, which is a literal application of Admiral Nelson's last flag signal to "Engage the Enemy More Closely".
The 55-metre Fearless-class Patrol Vessels (PV) and 62-metre Victory-class Missile Corvettes (MCV) are nimble and quick footed at sea, but are handicapped by their low freeboard which makes vulnerable to ramming. It would be foolhardy for a Singaporean PV or MCV to reply in kind by ramming because their slender hulls and delicate electronics are likely to suffer more damage from such action than they can deliver.
We understand there may be a new fast craft, possibly a semi-submersible, already in service. But this wild guess, this shot in the dark - if true - would be better suited for what the Naval Diving Unit requires and is not the sort of thing you want to use for bumping around in maritime disputes. Again, this is pure speculation.
Moving up the value chain, we come to the 114-metre Formidable-class stealth frigates. Tonne for tonne, each RSN stealth frigate can embark a heavier warload of anti-ship missiles than any other frigate or destroyer-class float. The FDs have an impressive menu of capabilities in all domains and recently demonstrated the ability to embed, deploy and sustain naval special forces while chasing pirate skiffs in the Gulf of Aden.
However, this is one ship that should avoid ramming action at all costs.
Because our stealth frigates are fragile. Designed with thin hulls and a shortened hullform to reduce the weight penalty and save cost, the FDs take a green sea over the bow even in moderate seas (see above). Look at publicity pictures for these warships to better understand what we mean. The crenellated hulls show just how the thin steel plates that hold the ship together have endured the stresses of their time at sea.
Stealth frigates cannot absorb punishment from ramming attacks like the ones waged between Icelandic gunboats and RN warships decades ago. Neither is the stealth frigate in a position to ram an opponent without the Commanding Officer risking a serious hull rupture and having the (expensive) warship sink beneath his feet. With only six hulls, the stealth frigate force should be deployed judiciously.
The RSN could of course requisition merchant ships for such rough and tough work. Resupply ships used by the oil and gas industry are possible candidates. Ditto salvage tugs that have multiple water cannon for fire fighting at sea. Both types of vessel are designed with tough hulls and lavishly protected by rubber fenders or dolphins to protect the hull from damage when coming alongise an oil rig in heavy seas.
However, these commercial vessels lack the speed and manoeuvrability and the rate of knots needed to make them devastating quarterbacks at sea.
New RSN Patrol Vessels
One hopes that the eight new Patrol Vessels that are being designed and built by Singapore Technologies Marine will position the RSN in a stronger position to undertake non-combatant missions against the threat matix that ranges from Known-Knowns to Unknown-Unknown future challenges, situations and threats.
Designing from a clean sheet of paper gives the RSN an ideal opportunity to develop a new platform that can fulfil the RSN's present-day SORs and future-proof the Navy.
It would show the world that naval design teams in Singapore can design, deliver and phase through ICIT a unique one-of-a-kind platform and not merely churn out concepts that are facsimiles of what established yards have been doing for years.
Why did HMS Dreadnought stun the world early last century? Because the all big-gun design, slaved to a centralised fire control tower and built in record time gave Royal Navy a commanding lead in the naval arena. Dreadnought's designers did so by breaking away from established concepts of what a fighting ship might need or should look like. And when they matched their new design with shipbuilding capabilities that put it all together more quickly than ships of the line at the time, Britain telegraphed its determination and ability to hold onto its supremacy at sea without breaking the bank, wrecking its economy or overstretching its manufacturing muscle.
Singapore needs its own Dreadnought change agent.
Our defence ecosystem needs to show that its intepretation of the RSN's SORs can be realised creatively, perhaps with a
Thus far, the Singaporean Ministry of Defence, RSN and ST Marine have kept mum on the design, size and tonnage of the new Patrol Vessels.
That's Singaporean transparency for you.