With 50 per cent of global oil shipments passing through the Malacca Strait daily, threats to the freedom of sea lines of communication, whether from piracy or terrorist attacks, will adversely affect Singapore's economic well-being, as well as regional peace and stability.
The importance of cooperation among the regional and global community has also become increasingly clear in today's challenging maritime security environment, especially with growing concerns over the recent surge in piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia. As such, the entry of the Republic of Singapore Navy's (RSN's) final two Formidable-class stealth frigates - RSS Stalwart and RSS Supreme - into active service on 16 Jan marks a timely and significant step forward in the ongoing transformation of the 3rd Generation Navy.
The need for this cutting-edge fleet of vessels becomes clear when one considers the growing need to combat terrorism and protect regional and international trade routes against piracy.
With its full fleet of six frigates now operational, 185 Squadron's role in maritime security and Singapore's seaward defence has been greatly enhanced.
"The frigates will help to defend Singapore from seaborne threats. But more importantly, with their longer range and reach, the frigates will significantly increase the RSN's ability to protect our sea lines of communication," said Minister for Defence Teo Chee Hean during the commissioning ceremony at Changi Naval Base on 16 Jan.
"This is a critical mission as the lion's share of Singapore's trade is conducted by sea," he added.
With all six frigates now in active service, the final phase of the Frigate Programme, which began in 2000, when the Ministry of Defence signed a technology transfer agreement with naval defence company, DCNS, is now complete.
The lead ship, RSS Formidable, was designed and constructed in France, while the the other five were built locally by ST Marine.
A Journey of Validation
Since the arrival of the first ship, RSS Formidable, in July 2005, these latest additions to the fleet have been put through their paces in extensive trials and exercises, which were conducted both in local waters and as far afield as those of France and Hawaii.
In a test of the RSS Steadfast's endurance and ability to conduct sustained sea operations, it participated in the multilateral Rim of the Pacific (Rimpac) naval exercise in 2008. It was the first time the frigate took part in the exercise.
The crew proved their ability to perform under high-tempo operational conditions over a prolonged period, sailing out at sea for 22 consecutive days and successfully carrying out a Harpoon anti-ship missile live-firing, off the coast of Hawaii.
"With the frigates, we have opportunities to exercise not just within our region, but also all the way to Europe and the middle of the Pacific Ocean," said Commanding Officer 185 Squadron, Colonel (COL) Giam Hock Koon. "These deployments afford us the opportunity to participate in more complex maritime exercises. By taking on higher-end warfare duties and doing them well, we are now able to benchmark our frigates against similar classes of ships from the best navies in the world."
"We have received very positive feedback during our interactions with other navies, and this has given our people confidence in our warfare capabilities, and pride that we are maximising our potential, as well as that of the platform."
Waves of change
As relatively new additions to the fleet, the frigates have naturally brought about fresh challenges for RSN personnel.
The ships' greater endurance and sustainability, for example, enable the RSN to undertake longer deployments to more countries in a wide variety of operations.
Facing added demands from this increase in operations profile, Squadron Supply Officer Korin He is currently working towards customising an integrated logistics system. This will allow the RSN to better meet the supply requirements of multiple missions at one time.
Due to advanced automation technology and enhanced work processes, each frigate can be operated with a lean crew of slightly more than 70 members, who often multi-task and take on diversified roles.
Said 1st Warrant Officer (1WO) Jaya Sankaran, Squadron Chief Engineering Warrant Officer: "Getting the vast number of systems on-board running in top condition is no easy task, but the challenge is what drives us to do the best we can for the squadron."
1WO Ng Cheng Boon, Squadron Chief Command and Control, agreed, sharing that his biggest satisfaction is to "see the systems operationalised and helping the operators in their operations". A supervisor in the Combat Information Centre, 1WO Ng also works closely with Defence Science & Technology Agency and DSO National Laboratories to help translate the RSN's operational needs into reality.
In the past, for instance, it would have taken several minutes with many crew members involved to accurately track and determine the best way to deal with potential threats detected by the vessel's sensors in the air, on the surface and underwater.
Now, thanks to sophisticated sense-making systems incorporated in the indigenously developed Combat Management System (CMS), this process has been cut down to mere seconds, shared COL Giam.
Greater Connectivity, Reach
Not only does the CMS function as a nerve centre to command and control the various sensor and weapon systems on board each frigate, it is also connected to the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF's) Integrated Knowledge-based Command and Control network.
This means that the frigate squadron is able to link with not just its own navy ships in the Task Group, but also with assets from the Republic of Singapore Air Force, headquarters ashore and other SAF entities, explained COL Giam.
"As part of this network, we are able to tap the information and sensor status from the whole SAF, as well as provide information from our own sensors to contribute to the wider SAF operational and tactical picture."
Sophisticated sensors such as the Multi-Function Radar enable the frigates of 185 Squadron to maintain a three-dimensional air surveillance, while advanced weaponry like the Aster surface-to-air missiles allow the ships to provide effective air defence over a larger area.
"Collectively, they provide a strong capability edge in the air, surface and sub-surface dimensions," said Chief of Navy Rear-Admiral Chew Men Leong at the ceremony.
"The frigates have assimilated well into the fleet... and they have been integrating with the rest of the SAF, in particular, testing out new war-fighting concepts to operate with the air force in air defence."
He added that this was validated during the recent Fleet Concentration Period, where four frigates worked closely with sister ships as well as counterparts in the Air Force, contributing to the scope and complexity of the exercise.
The range and reach of the frigates will be extended with the upcoming integration of the Sikorsky S-70B naval helicopters, which will boost the ships' anti-surface and anti-submarine capabilities, as well as complement their ability to detect air threats early.
Helicopter crew have been training in the United States since November 2007, and a frigate will be joining them for six months in the latter half of the year to undergo integration training.
"I expect we'll be kept busy, but our purpose is clear. We have very capable, motivated and committed people who ...fully support the drive to continuously hone our operational capabilities," said COL Giam.
With these new and exciting goals ahead, the servicemen of 185 Squadron are determined not to rest on their laurels, but to always improve and maintain their sharp edge, keeping foremost in mind the RSN’s key mission of safeguarding Singapore’s sea lanes and the security of her surrounding waters.