The fast pace of defence modernisation in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) means that you can see the same war machine every now and again, yet spot something different.
Those who toured the Singapore navy's stealth frigate, RSS Intrepid (69), with an open mind and a sense of curiosity may have walked away with fresh insights into the Republic of Singapore Navy's largest strike warship.
The Intrepid, berthed alongside the Promenade at VivoCity shopping mall, was centrepiece for the RSN's three-day Navy@Vivo exhibition which started on Friday. Supporting the Intrepid was an exhibition that recounted the RSN's experience in assorted overseas missions and a display of small arms used for compliant and non-compliant ship boardings.
The booth punched above its weight, drawing enthusiastic support from weekend shopping crowds and school children cut loose on the first weekend of the March school holidays. Bravo Zulu to those on duty for making the day special for thousands of visitors.
The 114-metre long stealth frigate, the second in the six-ship Formidable class and the first built in Singapore, displayed modifications that configured the warship for anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden. The other RSN stealth frigate configured this way is RSS Tenacious.
Among the three new things I saw was the decoy launcher from the front perspective (see below). This was a first for me and one of three "wow" moments during the visit last Friday, made possible by the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) Public Affairs Directorate. The other two "wow" moments will remain offline for now until such time they appear in the open domain :-)
The launcher seen above appears to be a 22-tube array of a different arrangement from the 12-tube EADS New Generation Dagaie System (NGDS) launcher the warships were originally fitted with.
To passers-by who had the chance to see the Intrepid at close range, the front decoys seemed structurally different from two structures aft which are fitted atop the hangar. The latter appear to be launchers of an undetermined type for eight tubes shrouded by angular coverings designed to reduce the radar signature of the device. It is possible that the device can be used to project anti-torpedo decoys to protect the stealth warship from underwater attack.
And so with a vacuum cleaner SOP - suck up every bit of data, nothing too small to disregard - we went aboard and made mental comparisons with the last time we set foot on a Formidable-class warship. And there were differences aplenty.
The portable hailing and warning system supplied by US company, LRAD Corporation, called the Long Range Acoustic Device 500 Xtreme (LRAD 500X) was a new piece of kit for Intrepid. The LRAD 500X is said to offer "highly intelligible speech transmissions over 2,000 metres".
During anti-piracy sweeps, this device allowed RSN personnel to project verbal intentions while keeping the warship out of range of small arms fire and RPG attack. The ship could therefore broadcast verbal comms to another party at standoff distance even if the other party had no radio communications or was deliberately non-communicative.[When all else fails, a burst of tracer is one of the best hailing devices at sea.]
The pair of Typhoon guns in stealth cupolas on the RAS deck port and starboard were also new. RAS stands for resupply-at-sea and is a procedure where thirsty ships are refuelled by sailing in company with a tanker - not an easy task as hydrodynamic forces can sometimes pull both ships uncomfortably close to one another. The RAS deck is so named because that's where the refuelling probe is plugged into the ship.
Outward appearances deceive because the two FMDs fitted for anti-piracy duties have the bulk of the structural chances hidden out of sight behind bulwarks in the Missile Deck amidships. This deck occupies about a fifth of the length of the ship.
The changes underline the versatility of the stealth warships as they were fitted with naval capabilities not seen when the warships were first built a decade ago. In a way, the Missile Deck should be renamed the Magic Deck because this part of the ship allows mission planners to plug and play new tools for new purposes with speed and ease of installation few other frigates can match.
The magic piece of deck stretches the full width of the ship, offers unobstructed firing arcs port and starboard and has a deck loading that allows Formidable-class ships to be fitted for but not with various types of hardware. Best of all, bulwarks screen the new tools from prying eyes and help the stealth ship retain her low-observable features despite all the gadgets that Fleet RSN may have crammed onto that space to magically give the warship new capabilities.
Tonne for tonne, the Singapore navy's Formidable-class stealth frigates quite possibly hold the world record for being the most heavily armed missile ships in the world. When fully kitted up for sea denial missions, a single Formidable-class warship can bring some 24 Harpoon missiles for anti-ship missions or a sizeable number of non-line of sight (NLOS) missiles into play.
Aboard Intrepid, the new 7,000-kg capacity crane for the Launch and Recovery System (LARS; does the SAF love acronyms or what??) was flanked by a pair of Harpoons on either side. The starboard half of the Missile Deck was occupied by two Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs) crewed by maritime security warfighters from the crack Naval Diving Unit (NDU).
They were among the 145 SAF personnel who called the Intrepid home during her three-month patrol in the Gulf of Aden codenamed Operation Blue Sapphire (Maritime).
The additions and alterations to Intrepid and her sister ship, Tenacious, point to the creativity of the RSN's Naval Staff and 1st Flotilla in rapidly role changing the ship for a new call of duty.
Such concepts would remain paper plans if not for the support and expertise of Singapore's defence eco-system, namely the Defence Science & Technology Agency (DSTA) and ST Marine, which were instrumental in renovating the Missile Deck to what it looks like today aboard the two modified warships.
There's another reason why the Magic Deck earned its nickname: If the warship ever went into action with its full warload of missiles and let go everything at once, it could make an enemy ship quite simply... disappear.
Am grateful to staff officers from the Public Affairs Directorate, Singapore Ministry of Defence, for organising the visit and to RSN personnel on duty who were all smiles and courtesy. Having seen the Formidables built up from Benoi Basin to commissioning, it is always a pleasure to compare and contrast changes seen from one visit to the next.