Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Circuit breaker Day 29 pix: Republic of Singapore Navy Missile Gunboats

Fire light: A Republic of Singapore Navy Missile Gunboat fires a Gabriel anti-ship missile during a live-fire exercise in the 1990s. The Singapore navy upgraded its MGBs to carry as many as four Gabriels in single cell launchers plus up to eight Harpoon missiles, up from five Gabriels pre-upgrade.  

Today (5 May 2020) is the 53rd anniversary of the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN).

Celebrations may be muted because of the Coronavirus pandemic. But we can always mark the occasion online by remembering how far the Navy has progressed, and pausing briefly to reflect on the efforts of the current generation of men and women who serve the RSN.

Here's an old tribute to the RSN Sea Wolf-class Missile Gunboats which I wrote for The Straits Times in May 2008. It's abit long but for those of you with oodles of time, I hope you find it interesting. 
Victory-class Missile Corvettes (left and centre) form up with an MGB (right). The MGB below is seen moments after firing a Gabriel missile. You can just make out the missile booster after it has detached from the missile body (it's the light smudge in the smoke trail above the letter C in the watermark).

Fond farewell for old warriors

The Straits Times
Thursday 15 May 2008
By David Boey
Though the navy’s Missile Gunboats (MGBs) have protected the seas off Singapore for over 33 years, it’s a safe bet that many Singaporeans will not recognise the warship.

Tuesday’s (13 May 2008) retirement ceremony for six Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) MGBs -- RSS Sea Wolf, Sea Lion, Sea Dragon, Sea Tiger, Sea Hawk and Sea Scorpion – was significant as it signaled that the last warships dating from the navy’s formative years have finally called it a day.

A review of the MGB’s service history is timely – both to assess if tax payers have reaped the biggest bang for their defence dollars and to understand why the Ministry of Defence pensioned off the six ships.

Two of the six – Sea Lion and Sea Hawk – were mothballed in “keep warm” condition last year (2007). This means they were taken out of active service but maintained regularly so they could be made operationally fit rapidly if the need should arise. The manpower saved – each of the ships needs a crew of about 40 – has helped the RSN man its new class of six Formidable-class stealth frigates.

The MGBs served with the navy’s First Flotilla’s 185 Squadron, based at Changi Naval Base, alongside the 114-metre stealth frigates.

Even when they were decommisioned, the MGBs were not relics of a bygone age. Their top speed of 40 knots made them the navy’s fastest missile boats – and this record is likely to stay unchallenged for the foreseeable future.

What’s more, the MGBs were armed with more types of guided missiles than any other RSN vessel. 

Each 45-metre long MGB could carry four Gabriel anti-ship missiles, eight Harpoon anti-ship missiles – in peacetime, they usually carried two Gabriels and four Harpoons – and a Simbad launcher for two Mistral anti-aircraft missiles. The MGBs truly lived up to their name – missile gunboats.

With these points in mind, one could ask if the MGBs should have remained in active service.
To be sure, defence planners have done much since the first three MGBs were commissioned in January 1975 to ensure they pack a lethal punch. Three other MGBs were commissioned in February 1976.

The need for missile boats to protect Singapore’s access to the sea lanes was identified as early as 1968. Six MGBs were ordered from Friedrich L├╝rssen Werft, a German shipbuilder which amassed considerable experience building fast torpedo boats, known as S-boats, which served Germany’s Kriegsmarine with distinction during World War Two. Two were built in Germany and the construction of four locally in the early 1970s did much to expand naval construction expertise here.

The MGBs were initially armed with computer-controlled 57mm and 40mm Bofors guns, which could hit aerial and surface targets, and five Gabriel missile launchers. They carried enough fuel and provisions to sortie up to 1,000 nautical miles from base and return.

The 20-kilometre range of the Gabriels allowed MGBs to hit ships up to horizon range. Singapore was the first export customer for the combat-proven Gabriels. The missiles were good for hit-and-run operations in congested waters because they could be guided using an optical sight from the MGB, thereby lessening the risk of hitting neutral ships.

The missile boats were so successful that the RSN proposed Mindef buy three improved MGBs under Project Albatross to protect Singapore’s access to the sea lanes. Though Mindef turned down the proposal in favour of more A-4 Skyhawk fighter jets, the Project led to mid-life upgrades for the Sea Wolf-class MGBs.

Pictures of the MGBs now show marked differences in their weapons, sensors and ship structure compared to the 1970s. In the mid 1980s, the revamped MGBs included the Harpoon, which could hit targets some five times farther than the Gabriels. In 1994, the 40mm Bofors gun was replaced with the RSN’s first anti-aircraft missiles, the 5-km Mistrals.

Progressive upgrades made under the watch of nine navy chiefs – including the current Rear-Admiral Chew Men Leong – indicate that naval planners understood importance of constantly upgrading warships to ensure they remain a credible deterrent.

Less obvious are additions made to the MGB’s electronic warfare capabilities, giving each ship the ability to deceive, degrade or destroy enemy radars and sensors. With space already limited on the warships, the RSN enhanced the MGBs’ ability to fight and survive missile attacks by renovating the boats to include Juliet and Eureka rooms. Each of these were crammed with secret equipment that enabled officers to detect, identity and locate enemy radars, and provided early warning of incoming anti-ship missiles.

The addition of Harpoon missiles in the late 1980s gave MGB commanders the ability to target hostile vessels that lurked over the horizon, more than 90km away. The navy and Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) cooperated so Harpoon missiles could receive vital data on the location, course and speed of target ships from RSAF observer planes.

Such cooperation spawned new tactics for wielding the MGBs in naval combat. Missile boat tactics matured from high-speed, search-and-destroy missions – done mainly in daylight – to complex integrated air power and naval missile strikes.

In 1990, the RSAF took things a step further with Project Colosa, which gave it its first radar-equipped maritime air surveillance planes. Six twin-engine Skyvan transport planes were upgraded with radars that could search for and track ships some 40-km away. Project Colosa marked a watershed, as RSN personnel were deployed for the first time as part of an RSAF squadron, thus forging closely integrated air-naval battle management.

The MGB upgrades are a prime example of the Singapore Armed Forces learning the value of integrating its fighting forces tightly. It also underscored the importance of a homegrown defence science capability to design sensors and data links that ensure information between various fighting units can be transmitted securely in real-time.

MGB upgrades emphasise why it is necessary to go beyond simply counting warship tonnage when assessing naval power. While the number of MGBs has remain unchanged for over 30 years, the just-retired MGBs had combat capabilities far more lethal than they had originally.

This brings us back to the question of whether the MGBs could have soldiered on. While the missile boats packed a hefty punch, they had two major weaknesses: they were defenceless against submarines and their small size made them unsuitable for sustained operations in the South China Sea, especially during the monsoon season. Small size also precluded the use of naval aviation like drones from their already cluttered decks.

The MGBs once reigned as the RSN’s main strike craft. They were joined by more capable assets such as missile and torpedo-armed Fokker 50 Enforcer maritime patrol aircraft, submarines, stealth frigates and missile corvettes.

The Formidable-class stealth frigates are larger, more stable and powerfully-armed warships. They can hunt and kill submarines, carry a helicopter, have space to fly naval drones and have the bandwidth to plug into the One SAF battle network.

The MGBs achieved much during their career. But the time indeed has arrived to pension off the old warriors.



James said...

Thanks vy much David for another insightful post. Whatever happened to all six TNC45 hulls, ten years since, do you know? Do we still maintain several as reserve? Or have we sold them off to 3rd parties? Ditto the Swift CPCs and PVs I knew several CPCs were sold to Indonesia but what abt the rest?

JF said...

Hi David, should be harpoon-armed fokker 50 instead of torpedo

David Boey said...

MGBs were sold off. Unsure to whom. Unsure what happened to the Vosper Patrol Craft "A" and "B"classes.

The F50s can carry Harpoons and torpedoes. The aircraft was also seen with a life raft pod during an RSAF Open House.

Take care all,

IAF said...

In the mid-80s my secondary school organized an excursion to the Brani naval base where we boarded an LST, Class A & B patrol vessels and finally an MGB. The bridge of the MGB was semi-outdoor of course. Along the corridor below the deck it was hot and cramped. Then we felt a blast of chilled air from a certain dimly lit room where a crew stood at its entrance gesturing us curious kids to move along­čśÄ