To overcome limitations on the size of its armed forces, the Asian city-state
of Singapore is exploiting cutting-edge technology by combining home-grown research
and international collaboration.
While its high-stakes fighter replacement competition has been making headlines
in the defense world, Singapore also has been quietly at work reshaping its
armed forces to take advantage of advancements in technology.
In recent years, the threats to Singapore’s security have grown more
complex, according to a ministry of defense official. The Singapore armed forces
have to contend with rising terrorism in the region and increased piracy, the
The island-nation—with an ethnic Chinese majority—sits warily between
its much larger neighbors with Muslim majorities—Indonesia and Malaysia.
Fearing that unrest in those two countries would spill over, the Singapore armed
forces have put in place round-the-clock air, land and sea defenses to ensure
the country’s security.
As a result, Singapore has invested steadily over the years to build up its
defenses. Up to six percent of its gross domestic product goes into defense.
That amounts to roughly $4.8 billion each year, by far the largest defense spending
in Southeast Asia, according to the Center for Defense Information.
Singapore is gearing up for two major replacement programs. The banner competition
this year is the fighter replacement program, which has Western European and
U.S. aerospace giants buzzing with expectation—would it be the Typhoon
Eurofighter, the French Rafale or the U.S. F-15T? Singapore is expected to buy
as many as 20 fighters at a program price tag of around $1 billion.
“The decision will be based on a detailed framework that looks at all
aspects pertinent to our requirements, including operational performance, logistics
supportability, total life cycle costs and growth potential,” said the
The other impending replacement is that of the Navy’s missile gunboats,
built a couple decades ago by Singapore Technologies Marine.
The missile gunboats were state-of-the-art naval strike-craft when acquired
in the mid-1970s. As new technology became available, these boats underwent
a number of upgrading programs in the 1980s and 1990s to increase their capability
The ministry also is looking to acquire naval helicopters to complement the
new “Formidable” class frigates. Helicopters under evaluation include
the Eurocopter AS532SC Cougar, the NH-90 and Sikorsky’s S-70B Seahawk.
In the meantime, Singapore dedicates a significant chunk of its defense money
to research and development. Five percent of the defense budget goes into research
and development, according to the ministry.
The defense ministry, in recent months, set up a future systems directorate
to take the lead in exploring how technology can be harnessed to develop innovative
“The ministry of defense considers this effort so critical that we have
set aside one percent of the defense budget for experimentation, over and above
the four to five percent we set aside each year for research and development,”
said minister Rear Adm. Teo Chee Hean.
A newly created center for military experimentation already is conducting experiments
in a virtual environment, he said in a speech during the 2004 budget debate.
“The [military] also started conducting experiments outside the laboratory,
during exercises, to test out new concepts under real-life conditions,”
he said. Some of the experiments evolved around command and control concepts,
and future land systems.
With more than 600 engineers and scientists, the defense science organization
is Singapore’s largest research and development body. Meanwhile, the Defense
Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), created almost four years ago, was established
principally to strengthen technology acquisition and management.
It collaborates extensively with domestic and foreign industry on systems engineering
and integration, upgrades, engineering support for weapon systems, modeling
and simulation, and staying informed on relevant technology.
While the country works with overseas partners through joint collaborative
projects and interactions, the ministry also recognizes there is a crucial need
to develop in-country capabilities to meet specific needs, a defense official
told National Defense in an e-mail interview. “Our principle has always
been to buy whatever and whenever we can off-the-shelf, but there will always
be a need to invest in strategically critical technologies” for Singapore
to stay ahead, according to the official.
Nevertheless, “there is a limit to what we can do by ourselves,”
said the official. Therefore, the country has “built up a global network
of linkages—both formal and informal—with technologically advanced
countries,” such as France, Sweden and the United States. Singapore also
has a good working relationship with Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom
and Israel, which it tries to keep under wraps.
Both agencies have relied extensively on foreign expertise in their research
and development work and have a growing number of collaborative projects with
its foreign counterparts.
Collaboration usually occurs at a government-to-government level, said the
official. In cases of company-to-company collaboration, the developed technologies
must pass security reviews, according to the ministry.
While investments in research and development are critical, for the near and
medium term, the Singapore military has placed priority on renewing some of
its older platforms and modernizing its force structure, according to the ministry.
“This will enable the military to continue to respond effectively to
key requirements, such as the need for sufficient and modern air-defense, and
to ensure that the sea lines of communication remain open and secure,”
said the official.
For future requirements, the ministry has been developing new capability areas,
such as advanced networking technologies and unmanned systems, according to
“Advanced networking will enable better integration of our forces to
achieve significant force multiplication effects,” the official said.
Unmanned aerial vehicles fall into that arena. “UAVs can provide enhanced
surveillance capabilities to enable the military to build a significantly higher
level of situational awareness of the battlefield. Defense technology will play
a critical role in developing these capabilities,” the official said.
Singapore’s military has been operating a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles
for some time. The Searcher capability provides the army with greater battle
space awareness, said the official, but “future UAVs are likely to perform
more demanding roles beyond battlefield surveillance.”
The air force purchased the Israeli-made Searcher UAV back in 1998 to replace
the earlier Scout system. The Searcher can carry out operations up to 100 kilometers
away from its point of control and has an endurance of up to 14 hours.
“The military is keenly monitoring developments in this area to determine
how best UAVs will be able to contribute towards enhancing the armed force’s
overall defense capability,” the official added. “We are likely
to engage in experimental work with various classes of UAVs to gain deeper insights
into their unique operational capabilities.”
Singapore places heavy emphasis on airborne surveillance for its air and maritime
defense operations. Singapore also is attempting to arm unmanned systems. Its
indigenous “Lalee” program, intended for high-altitude strategic
surveillance and intelligence gathering could potentially accommodate a weapon,
according to experts.
Lalee, short for low-altitude, long enduring endurance at first may appear
to have a confusing moniker. Even though the UAV has the term low-altitude in
its name, it is designed to fly at 60,000 feet—the low is in comparison
to satellites. The drone is drummed up to be the size of a Boeing 737 airliner.
Lalee is being developed in collaboration with the European Aeronautic Defense
and Space Company.
Singapore also has looked into a number of smaller UAVs, including the Tailsitter,
which is supposed to be smaller than a golf bag, and the palm-sized Sparrow.
Singapore’s ST Engineering (STEngg) has been spearheading those efforts.
StEngg is a conglomerate that consists of four core Singapore Technologies
Group companies—ST Aerospace, ST Shipbuilding & Engineering, ST Electronics
and Engineering, and ST Kinetics, all of which are government-linked.
StEngg also has developed a Fantail UAV, suitable for urban reconnaissance
and airfield defense. The aircraft has an autonomous flight-control system,
terrain avoidance capability and a nearly silent engine.
Meanwhile, the National University of Singapore has been investigating what
researchers call an unconventional control mechanism for a small rotary-wing
According to Northrop Grumman’s Rick Ludwig, Singapore expressed interest
in the Firescout, a vertical take off and landing UAV, currently under contract
with both the U.S. Navy and Army.
“The [Republic of Singapore Navy] is not a big navy by any standards,
but it has built up a balanced set of capabilities that will allow it to perform
its missions,” the official said. We are...mindful of the need to continually
update our war fighting concepts and keep relevant our platforms and systems
through upgrade programs or new procurements.”
The navy, even though it recognizes the importance of advanced weapon platforms,
now is focused on gathering, processing, sharing and exploiting information
critical to any operation, said the official.
“The navy has identified the need to push the capability envelope in
this area as part of the overall integrated knowledge-based command and control
framework,” said the official. The navy’s fighting assets, including
the new Formidable class frigates and future naval helicopters, will be designed
to fit in that framework, the official said.
The RSS Formidable is in fact the lead ship of a class of six new multi-mission
frigates that was floated out at DCN Lorient, in France, in January. Formidable
is now being fully fitted out at DCN, before starting sea trials towards the
end of this year, and is due to arrive in Singapore in early 2005 and enter
service in 2007, according to the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and
A total of five follow-on frigates—RSS Intrepid, RSS Steadfast, RSS Tenacious,
RSS Stalwart and RSS Supreme—will be built to the same design by Singapore
Under a technology transfer agreement, all six ships are due to be operational
by 2009. The new class of frigates are significantly larger than the Victory
class missile corvettes, which at 62 meters are the largest in Singapore’s
inventory, according to the Institute.
The new frigates are multi-mission platforms, with anti-air warfare, anti-surface
warfare and anti-submarine warfare capability, augmented by a 10-ton cargo helicopter,
according to the institute. With a length of 110 meters, the new Singaporean
frigates are also stealthy platforms, being shaped to reduce their radar cross
section somewhat in the manner of the French Navy’s Lafayette-class frigates,
according to the Institute.
For its part, the army is developing a so-called full spectrum force also integrated
by the same command and control network as the navy, to deal with a wide range
of threats and uncertainties, said the ministry official. In order to maintain
its operational edge, the army is on the lookout for technological solutions
to enhance its capabilities, the official added.
Given Singapore’s limited in-country resources, the army collaborates
with both local and overseas research and development agencies on a wide spread
of technology, covering precision weapons, networking and platform technology.
“We also leverage on our counterparts’ experience and experimentation
to further refine our doctrine and concepts,” said the official. “Our
investments have allowed our forces to be lighter with better mobility, while
enjoying better situational awareness, protection, and firepower.”
In collaboration with the defense industry, DSTA developed the acclaimed SAR21
rifle and the FH2000 artillery gun, according to the ministry.
DSTA also worked on the development of the 155-millimeter modular charge system
(MCS), a propellant charge system for the artillery. With the MCS, the Singapore
artillery halved the need for different types of propellant charges, eliminated
wastage and improved ammunition preparation time. This solution has benefited
the armed forces in terms of logistics’ efficiency, according to DSTA
Several months ago, the army fired the Primus, a self-propelled howitzer for
the first time in an exercise in New Zealand. Equipped with a 155mm, 39-caliber
ordnance, Primus is capable of delivering all NATO compliant ammunition at a
maximum range of 30 kilometers. Primus uses the modular charge system.
The howitzer was developed jointly by DSTA and Singapore Technology Kinetics,
also part of ST Engg.
When it comes to training the military forces, Singapore increasingly has been
developing capabilities and training to deal with possible terrorist threats,
ranging from aviation and maritime to cyber and chemical-biological-radiological-explosive.
The country also is training to conduct enhanced security operations at key
national installations, such as Changi International Airport, said the ministry
To enhance the island’s security, the ministry increasingly works and
trains with the other national agencies to integrate all available national
resources to handle threats.
“It is not enough to develop our own capabilities and responses,”
said the official. Working closely with other neighboring armed forces is paramount
to counter the threat of terrorism in the region, the official said.
The military also participates in regional and multilateral efforts to enhance
security. “Our contributions reflect Singapore’s support for the
UN’s efforts to maintain international peace and stability,” said
Singapore’s most extensive peacekeeping deployment to date was to East
Timor, where, between 1999 and 2003, it contributed medical teams, liaison teams,
headquarters staff, strategic lift support with landing ship tanks and C-130s,
combat peacekeepers and a helicopter detachment.
One of the air force’s C-130 aircraft and crew are in the Gulf to provide
airlift support as part of the multinational effort to help in the reconstruction
of Iraq. One of the navy’s ships, the RSS Endurance, was also deployed
to the Northern Arabian Gulf between for two months between November and December
2003, said the official.
As cooperation with other countries’ troops becomes more prevalent, Singapore
participates in a slew of exercises to enhance interoperability and communications
with other forces. One such exercise is the yearly Cobra Gold that involves
the U.S. Pacific Command and the Royal Thai armed forces.