Singapore’s Navy inks modernization deals amid personnel shortage

MANILA, Philippines — Singapore has hired ST Engineering to upgrade the country’s Formidable-class frigates, part of the Navy’s overarching

Singapore’s Navy inks modernization deals amid personnel shortage

MANILA, Philippines — Singapore has hired ST Engineering to upgrade the country’s Formidable-class frigates, part of the Navy’s overarching effort to become more flexible and to integrate unmanned technology into the fleet.

The contract, announced by the firm Dec. 14, comes as Singapore’s military grapples with limited troop size and training spaces. The country has embarked on numerous joint training exercises and sent troops to various countries to ease the problem, but end strength remains a challenge.

The company is also on contract to deliver six multirole combat vessels to replace the Navy’s aging missile corvette fleet. The Navy commissioned ST Engineering for the job in March, using designs from Sweden’s Saab Kockums and Denmark’s Odense Maritime Technology.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen had previously told lawmakers that “autonomous technologies have been built into the Navy’s new multirole combat vessels to function as a ‘mothership’ with unmanned platforms that can work together to conduct a range of missions.”

The Navy anticipates a 30% decrease in the number of personnel in the next 20 years, according to the Defence Ministry, presenting a challenge to the country’s security efforts. The military, however, hopes unmanned platforms will fill the gap.

The Defence Ministry did not respond to Defense News’ request for comment by press time, but the defense minister told lawmakers in February the sea service “will shift towards a future force structure where about half of its vessels will be unmanned.”

As such, the military is focusing on what it calls “pocket plays” — multipurpose platforms capable of combat operations and low-intensity operations, such as humanitarian assistance, disaster response, counterterrorism and counter-piracy.

“This is what we call scalable, naval modular technology,” said Collin Koh, a senior research fellow at the Singapore-based Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies think tank, which is part of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“There is a lot of premium being placed on automation and on reducing manpower needs. That is why we are leaning toward this whole idea of a smaller number of platforms that are larger, but at the same time they do not require as much crew [as] previous assets,” he told Defense News.

The big picture

Singapore has, in recent years, steadily allocated about 3% of its gross domestic product toward military efforts, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. And from 2018 to 2022, the Southeast Asian nation increased its defense spending by 10% to nearly $11.7 billion, the Swedish think tank found.

Singapore’s defense fund is expected to reach $15.8 billion by 2027, according to analytics firm GlobalData.

Indeed, the country’s military modernization efforts have always been strategic and backed by steady funding, according to Bernard Loo, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He said there is a tendency for all platforms under one ship class to come from the same contractor as long as suppliers — whether domestic or international — meet Singapore’s “geostrategic and geopolitical circumstances.”

“As long as the suppliers can provide them with the kind of capabilities built around particular conditions that [Singapore] identified as essential, and it can be done in a cost-effective manner, then [the country] will go down that particular path,” Loo told Defense News.

Since the military unveiled its modernization plan, meant to take shape by 2040, Singapore has embarked on upgrading its naval fleet by acquiring platforms from international companies and modernizing maritime patrol capabilities with a mix of commercial and indigenous technologies.

In the next five years, Singapore’s government anticipates a deluge of naval platforms. It plans to put into active service this year four Invincible-class submarines under a deal with Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems. It will also begin receiving offshore patrol vessels from German shipbuilder Fassmer starting in 2028, the same year ST Engineering is contracted to begin delivering the multirole combat vessels.

Singapore does tap foreign markets for missiles, torpedoes and submarines, but its Navy depends heavily on domestic companies to fill demands. Most of the fleet, including offshore patrol vessels, multipurpose auxiliary vessels and platform landing ships, was constructed by local businesses.

ST Engineering, the country’s largest defense company, supplies about 38% of the Navy’s equipment and has inked several important contracts over the last year. As part of its work on the six Formidable-class frigates, the company will upgrade their marine and electrical systems.

The company is the 45th largest contractor in the world when ranked by defense-related revenue, according to Defense News’ Top 100 list. In an email to Defense News, the firm’s head of international defense business activities, Chua Jin Kiat, noted ST Engineering is focused on cloud computing, artificial intelligence and autonomous technology.

And there’s room for expansion: The country’s aerospace and defense markets are expected to grow by 12% from 2023 to 2028, according to research firm Mordor Intelligence.

The government and private companies have already tapped tertiary institutions for defense-related research, Koh noted, which could broaden science, technology, engineering and math research through partnerships with countries like Japan and South Korea.

“These days, the defense industry is not just about selling weapons or building jet fighters,” Koh said. “In fact there are dual-purpose — civilian and military — items, which opens up … a lot of opportunities.”

Leilani Chavez is an Asia correspondent for Defense News. Her reporting expertise is in East Asian politics, development projects, environmental issues and security.

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