When German shipyard ThyssenKrupp delivers the boats from 2020, the Type 218SGs - the world's most modern conventional subs - and two Archer-class subs presently in service will give the RSN the largest fleet of submarines in Southeast Asia (provided regional fleets stay the same).
It is an acquisition to cheer; a prudent hedge against choppy waters in regional sealanes.
With the subs operating in concert with the RSN's six Formidable-class stealth warships -
The Singapore navy may not have made it this far, if Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and RSN defence planners were not given the time, know-how and resources needed to make an informed case for or against buying subs.
And so, in September 1995, Singapore took the plunge when it bought a single, low-cost second-hand sub from Sweden to see if the RSN should add subs to its fleet. Yes, we bought a submarine to assess if we should add subs to the RSN.
Try before buy
If that leap of logic baffles you, bear in mind that MINDEF/SAF force planners in the 1990s were pitted against a formidable anti-submarine "weapon" - a sceptical and influential politician whose say-so carries some heft. That politician was Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father.
"Every armed force believes it ought to upgrade. For years I told the Singapore Armed Forces, which wanted submarines 'You are crazy. These are shallow waters. You will easily be detected and bombarded with depth charges.'
"But well, OK. Here is the Swedish submarine. The economy is doing well and it is a cheap sub. Its purchase will still be within the 5 per cent of GDP assigned to defence. So, why not use it for some training," said Mr Lee in his first comments on the RSN's foray into submarine warfare.(Straits Times 11 Oct 1995)
To his credit, the time and space Mr Lee allowed the RSN has helped shape Fleet RSN into the compact yet credible fighting force it is today.
Sub operations from S'pore
Subs are not new to Singapore. Prior to the Second World War, British naval planners recognised their value even in the shallow seas around Singapore. The Royal Navy's 4th Flotilla of submarines operated out of Sembawang Naval Base. That we heard nothing of their contribution to the Battle of Singapore was due to their redeployment to the eastern Mediterranean during the halcyon two years and three months before the outbreak of war in the Pacific.
As war raged in Europe, the aircraft carrier which operated from Singapore, HMS Eagle, was also reassigned to Mediterranean waters to bolster British naval forces fighting the combined might of German and Italian forces. There, the subs and aircraft carrier from Singapore fought with distinction.
Had they remained in the Far East, it would be fascinating to contemplate the "what-if" scenario involving the Royal Navy's Force Z centered on the battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, the battle cruiser, HMS Repulse, with the weak escort of just four destroyers.
Alas, both Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk on 10 December 1941 by Japanese bombers off Kuantan. But their loss underlined the importance of fighting a naval war in regional waters with a "balanced" navy - which in today's context means having naval forces able to conduct operations against surface, underwater, aerial targets as well as packing an electronic warfare capability to be used against sensors like radars and guided weapons.
MINDEF/SAF defence planners have apparently heeded these lessons well.
In the past 18 years, the RSN has looked at more than merely adding more subs to its order of battle. The first hand-me-down from Sweden, renamed RSS Challenger, was joined by three other Challenger-class boats before a more capable albeit second-hand class of sub, which we renamed the Archer-class, was bought from Sweden.
Singapore has recognised that submarine support operations are vital too. Today, the RSN is the only Southeast Asian navy with a submarine rescue capability complemented by strong underwater medicine expertise. This is a low-profile capability, arguably less eye-catching and not as sexy as warships with all their guns and missiles, but is one that is nonetheless vital for submariners to have peace of mind while at sea.
Singapore has also used its defence science know-how to give our submarines a secure homeport to operate from. The reinforced concrete submarine pen at Changi Naval Base is probably unique in the region as it allows our subs to berth within a concrete enclosure, protected from the elements, prying eyes and enemy munitions.
Above all, the thousands of defence engineers are a precious asset that has allowed the RSN to order successive generations of subs tailored-made for local waters.
It is no accident that Internet search engines scouring cyberspace have failed to suggest the vital statistics or an artist's impression of our newly-ordered subs. This is because the Type 218SGs are said to be a class of sub specially designed for the RSN. The name change is not merely to allay suggestions that ThyssenKrupp's current Type 214 subs were rebranded as "214" sounds like "sure to die" in Cantonese while "218" has a more auspicious "sure to prosper" ring to it. :-)
Going forward, the "customised submarines" the RSN will receive from Germany make it clear that homegrown defence science know-how will be used to build a combat information system that forms the heart of the Type 218SG's combat potential.
In this regard, the Defence Science & Technology Agency (DSTA), which is spearheading the effort to deliver the subs with German partners, has strong expertise to draw upon. The combat system that ties together various sensors and weapon systems aboard the Formidable-class frigates is the product of Singaporean defence engineers, who delivered the goods despite initial cynicism from foreign defence observers who could not believe the empty frigate hulls could be kitted out by Singaporean hands.
But we did it and several Defence Technology Prizes - the Oscars of Singapore's defence science community - were scooped by various project teams associated with the stealth frigate project.
To be sure, the task at hand for integrating various bits and pieces for a bespoke man-of-war designed to sink and fight from beneath the waves will be complex and will test the diligence and creativity of our defence scientists and naval planners.
However, thanks to the foresight of defence planners 18 years ago, the Type 218SG project team can draw upon nearly two decades of experience in sub operations plus a growing alumni of MINDEF/SAF underwater warfare experts.
One has little doubt that the Type 218SG project team stands to earn its own Defence Technology Prizes in time to come.