Singapore Develops Blue-Water Capabilities; Battles Piracy, Transport of Arms by Sea
BY Wendell Minnick
SINGAPORE - In the battle to keep nearby waterways safe from pirates, Singapore's arsenal includes cooperative agreements with neighbors, humanitarian missions and new weapons.
The Republic of Singapore Navy is adding six new Formidable-class frigates. The RSS Formidable is shown here during an exercise in the Bay of Bengal. (U.S. Navy)
The Republic of Singapore Navy is adding six new Formidable-class (La Fayette) frigates that give the service a blue-water force and better anti-air weapons. The first, the RSS Formidable, was commissioned in May and has participated in Exercise MALABAR and Exercise CARAT (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training).
Another three were commissioned earlier this month: RSS Intrepid, Steadfast and Tenacious. RSS Stalwart was delivered in October 2007, while RSS Supreme will be delivered this year. All six are expected to be fully operational by 2009, said Col. Darius Lim, director of public affairs, Singapore Ministry of Defence.
"The introduction of the frigates will provide the RSN with a quantum leap in warfare capabilities," Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean said during the Feb. 5 commissioning ceremony at Changi Naval Base. "The frigates will contribute significantly toward the seaward defense of Singapore and the protection of her sea lines of communication."
One defense expert here concurred.
"They are the most capable warships of their size in any Asian navy," said Sam Bateman, senior fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
"They move the RSN well into the league of a green-water navy - not yet a blue-water navy due to the lack of under way support capabilities."
The Navy also recently bought S-70B Seahawk anti-submarine warfare helicopters, extending the service's sensor and strike range, and a new submarine rescue ship.
The ships and helicopters join a fleet that includes four Sjoormen (Challenger)-class submarines, six Victory-class corvettes, 12 Fearless-class and six Sea Wolf-class patrol boats, and four Endurance-class Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs).
The statistics show success: In the Strait of Malacca, incidents of piracy dropped from 46 in 2004 to 16 in 2006, leading Lloyd's of London to take the area off its list of war zones.
But eradicating piracy may be an unattainable dream, given the sheer volume of targets - the Singapore and Malacca straits see about 65,000 ships annually, including about 10,000 tankers, more than 3,500 container ships and an array of fishing boats, ferries and luxury cruise ships - and copious hiding places among thousands of small islands, inlets and jungle coastlines.
At 0.6 miles at its narrowest, the Strait of Malacca is too wide to be blocked by a single hijacked ship, as some have suggested, but it is at least potentially vulnerable to naval blockade or even to terrorists who might take over a cruise liner and hold its passengers hostage.
Anti-piracy experts group attacks into three categories: opportunistic, an unplanned attack on a target of debatable value; proper, a well-planned attack on a specific high-value target; and political, an attack designed for both monetary and symbolic political purposes.
Singapore has worked with other regional navies to reduce piracy.
In 2005, Singapore and 15 other countries signed the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), the continent's first regional government-to-government agreement to fight these scourges.
The next year, the ReCAAP Information Sharing Centre was set up in Singapore and soon produced the first around-the-clock maritime sea and air surveillance of the Malacca and Singapore straits.
"One example is our collaboration with the Indonesian Navy under the ambit of the Indo-Sin Coordinated Patrols to keep the Singapore Strait safe from sea robberies," Lim said.
"More recently, Singapore has bolstered existing bilateral arrangements with Indonesia and Malaysia to enhance regional maritime security, through the launch of the Malacca Strait Sea Patrols in July 2004 [formalized in 2006], and the Eyes in the Sky Maritime Air Patrols in September 2005."
Maj. Gen. Ng Chee Khern, Singapore's Air Force chief, warns that economic slowdowns in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore seem to foment piracy.
"If we do encounter a bad economic patch again, it would not be surprising if the number of incidents of piracy were to increase again," Ng said.
The Singapore Navy leads the country's maritime-piracy fight with the assistance of the Air Force, which flies Fokker 50s in the Eyes in the Sky program.
In 2007, Singapore set up the Changi Command and Control (C2) Centre to host the ReCAAP center, the Singapore Maritime Security Centre, and the Multinational Operations and Exercises Centre.
"The C2 Centre will provide a useful platform for interagency cooperation and information sharing among different nations to better respond to our dynamic maritime security environment and maritime contingencies," Lim said.
Singapore welcomes outside assistance.
"We think that while the three littoral states might be the primary sort of responders to this issue, nonetheless we welcome extra-regional contributions to the security of the straits," Ng said.
Singapore has promoted dialogue at international forums, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS), the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), the Shangri-La Dialogue and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting.
"These frank discussions have helped the region and partner nations to progress from understanding to practical collaboration, and better appreciate the sensitivities relating to sea lanes like the Malacca Strait," Lim said.
They also helped bring a maritime-security focus to various war games, such as the four-year old FPDA Bersama exercises, he said.
In 2005, the Navy hosted Exercise Deep Sabre, a Proliferation Security Initiative war game that tested multinational and multi-agency cooperation to track and interdict ships carrying weapons of mass destruction on the high seas.
Singapore's Navy has more frequently been called to contribute to disaster relief and peace support missions within the region and beyond.
After the December 2004 tsunami, the Navy quickly deployed three amphibious ships to bring gear and troops to isolated parts of Aceh, Lim said. Inaccessible overland, the LSTs brought in equipment and personnel to the disaster site.
The amphibs have also steamed in the northern Arabian Gulf four times since 2003 on multinational peace-support missions such as logistics, medical assistance and training Iraqi Navy sailors.