Monday, February 11, 2013

Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) specific operational requirements should aim to plug capability shortfall

If you had to design ships for duty in troubled waters, what specific operational requirements would you spell out?

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.

Pissed off: Japanese and Taiwanese coast guard vessels celebrate the Songkran water festival at sea. What's next? VBSS boarding teams with Nerf guns?

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.

Taking it green: The thin hull and sensitive electronics aboard Formidable-class stealth frigates (lead ship seen here) make them unsuitable for constabulary duties on the high seas. But these are precisely the sort of duties naval forces are increasingly shouldering as regional powers assert their claims on the high seas. 

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.
Battle scarred: Royal Navy Leander-class frigate Diomede showing the results of close contact with an Icelandic gunboat during the Cod War in the mid-70s.

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 upsized supersized version of that semi-sub that will be untouchable by all known classes of SSMs when under missile attack, yet make it a greyhound of the sea when rigged for surface action.

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.


Anonymous said...

Something like SMX-25? That would be a surprise. But then again; why the current secrecy? Another hint David?

Anonymous said...

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.

How many landing craft does RSN have?

Anonymous said...

RSN deals with no nonsense real fighting and killing when unleash. Can leave the ruggedized ramming and water jet fight to the police coast guard. The PCG is not so intimidating and will not come across as a bully in the media. PGC is underinvested, need a more active profile in the public's eye to prepare the PCG and Singaporeans for the impending clash in our littoral and near SLOC. The RSN stands ever ready to back up our PGC if the other guy play rough. Thus RSN must push the message out it is not a waterjet ramming force. Don't even try to ram RSN, full force will be unleash and your death wish will be granted. THIS shall be the message to potential aggressor.

Anonymous said...

IMHO I think the current PV should be retired or sell to the PN. Replace with 12 ST Marine multi-role combat Off-Shore Patrol vessels. At 700 ton displacement, all 12 can be configured for ASW, AShW, USV and RHIB operations. Yes, ALL 12 of them. They patrol and fight in our littoral and escort our landing vessels to our near SLOC to handover protection duty to our formidables. They play a secondary combat role watching the flanks of our fighting frigates as at 700 ton they can take higher sea state. Not forgetting a medium heli-pad for our ASW helicopter landing/replenishment. Also an organic UHV for recon littoral patrol armed with 7.62mm GPMG and bull horn.

Anonymous said...

I think our formidable need another complementing squadron. The RSN really need to expand. Singapore island is located at the heart of Asian maritime. The great responsibility of ensuring peaceful and free passage of maritime commence falls on RSN's lap as all ships pass through our corridor. We really need 12 no nonsense combat multi-role OPVs watching and if call upon, fight to protect this freedom of commercial navigation. Joint forces with M'sia, Indon and Brunei navies and coast guard. We must be strong and join force with our neighbours so that we will not be beholden to certain global power wannabe in the UN.

The 12 OPVs should be non fanciful. State of the art deserve for another squadron complementing the formidables. Proven radar systems and weapons platform should be mounted. A 76mm super rapid main gun, Harpoons, ASW torpedoes, 30mm Mk44 chain gun with navalised turret system on starboard and port. Barrak anti-missile missiles for self defence including chaff decoys and soft kill options, etc. All proven and tested.

Anonymous said...

I see a brave soul commenting on everything political and military at once. He knows everything about the mighty Republic of Singapore and the SAF which stands at the centre of his universe.

We are all cowards or quitters compared to him. If we are foreign, we are doubly wrong. If any of them dare to prove the Republic, they shall face the wrath of the SAF's hatchet. If any of us dare to insult the Dear Leader, we shall be put to death.

Anonymous said...

Let me just ask our triple post hero here.

If it is a China or Indon ship, do you want to sink it or bump it?

Also thank you for your suggestion on the armaments. Maybe you can write in to Mindef to suggest?

Anonymous said...

PLAN and Indon navy are too sophisticated and serious to play ramming and waterjet games. In the open seas away from the littorals, you will be wise to stay alert and keep a distant from naval combatants. That is why a code of conduct at sea is so badly needed now. We don't want unnecessary flashpoint.

RSN at the end of the day will always be the little navy due to our limitation in size. That is why we must endeavour to work with our neighbours M'sia, Indon and Brunei, to build consensus for common ground.

Chill. i enjoy reading David's blog and i thank him for giving me the opportunity to indulge in my hobbies and fantasies about all things military (a bit of politics lah) and weapons platform ;-)

Anonymous said...

They are going to ram you all the same. It is political and not military. If PLAN has rammed US ships why wouldn't they ram a RSN ship?

PLAN is telling the US, we dare to ram your ship. What are you going to do about it? Shoot us?

In Sg's case if any country does the same, the RSN ship will sink or be crippled. And you cannot be 100% sure the command at Changi will give permission to fire in time or some cockup has not occurred.

Who else agrees the Indon navy is sophisticated?

Anonymous said...

With a shrinking land mass, maybe the Navy should think of investing in Aircraft Carriers so there will be place to park planes away from enemy and potential saboteur with so many foreigners crawling around.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3.06

You are right.

Anonymous said...

RSN do not need to ram but build up it's shoot-at-long range capability.
I do hope the new 8 vessels with be the Fearless version of multi-role combat with stealth characteristics.They can be armed with 76mm gun,Harpoon,ASW torpedoes,Aster 15 VL,vertical UAV or a 5 tonne helicopters.
I do agree that we need another 6 Formidable or extended class of Formidable to replace MCV.
Additional units of S-70 and a new long range MPA will be an excellent add on.

Anonymous said...

You guys make it sound like our ships need robotic arms with punching gloves to deliver a haymaker to any approaching ship.

Anonymous said...

What about RSN LST?