Singapore's 1bn helicopter deal reveals true ambition of a new heavyweight

In the midst of a navy and air force evolution, Singapore will be offering a $1bn (£687m) tender for multi-purpose military utility helicopters in an effort to develop and maintain continued air superiority in a region marked by rising nationalism, territorial disputes and emerging asymmetric threats. Simon O. Williams, director of Tactique Services reports.


Singapore skyline

Singapore's defence budget is the largest in the region, increasing year-on-year by an average of $200m per annum since 2011. It is expected to break the $10bn mark before 2020.

Last year, the country undertook $900m of upgrades to its Lockheed Martin F-16 fleet and purchased Airbus A330 air-to-air refuelling tankers, ThyssenKrupp submarines, and Littoral Mission Vessels (LMVs) - all of which indicate that the Ministry of Defence is very serious about its upgrade and procurement programmes, putting valuable tenders on the table ready to be signed.

French or Italian

Key decision-makers in Singapore are evaluating helicopter characteristics which must be present in any future purchase to replace the country's ageing Airbus Super Pumas. The Ministry of Defence values choppers with strong utility, search and rescue capability and combat functionality to perform general functions, as well those able to take a stand against regional rivals and non-state actors who threaten stability in the state's sphere of influence.

While the exact models under consideration have not been confirmed, the procurement leads have reportedly narrowed down a long list of candidate manufacturers to two finalists: France's Airbus and the Italian aerospace giant Finmeccanica's helicopter division. The initial deal will likely see the purchase of around one dozen multi-mission rotorcraft for deployment from sea and land. Later deals could include tactical lift helicopters to replace Singapore's Boeing Chinooks, patrol aircraft, and fighter jets - possibly Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighters - by the end of the decade.

A range of missions

As an island nation with a heavily maritime-centred economy along the world's busiest East-West shipping lane, maritime search and rescue (SAR) capabilities are not just a bonus factor, but a must for Singapore. The helicopters under consideration will need to perform SAR functions for both the Singapore armed forces as well as the general public and merchant marine within, or beyond, their flight radius. The radius will be extended as Singapore also plans to upgrade its air-carrier fleet, potentially allowing these choppers to hopscotch not only ship-to-shore, but also ship-to-ship.

The new helicopter must have significant utility functions to facilitate fast and reliable equipment, supply and personnel movement (in both ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship capabilities). While heavy-lift is not necessarily a must, endurance and cargo capabilities are essential. In addition to near universal male citizen conscription, Singapore leverages technological advantages in air and naval platforms to overcome its small geographic size and comparatively smaller population than its rivals. Such capability will build on Singapore's technology trends to propel the island nation ahead of its rivals.

"Singapore's planned chopper upgrade will keep it on a level playing field with the competition."

As tensions rise in the region, incorporation of traditional and advanced combat capabilities and technologies cannot be ruled out, even for multi-purpose helicopters. Modular design allowing for easy swap on/off of equipment and armament to rapidly convert choppers between SAR craft, anti-submarine sniffers, and attack helicopters would provide the Singapore armed forces with a unique tactical advantage in their region, resulting from the platform's versatility that can make up for their small geographic size and relatively low population. Such single-platform based interchangeability and multi-use roles would position each helicopter as a genuine force multiplier in Singapore's order of battle and provide a cost-effective solution superior to investing in a larger portfolio of single-role rotorcraft.

Regional rivals

Tension in the region is rising. With China's contentious activities in the South China Sea being challenged by Vietnam, the Philippines and others, maintaining competitive air advantage or - at the very least - capabilities is a must. Singapore's planned chopper upgrade will keep it on a level playing field with the competition. Yet other regional players are undertaking fleet upgrades as well.

While Russian rotorcraft have not been shortlisted for Singapore's current procurement needs, the Russian helicopter majors have recently closed a number of deals (while on tour in the city-state) indicative of the platforms that Singapore's armed forces will need to compete with in an increasingly hostile region. At the biennial Singapore Airshow in February, Joint-Stock Company Russian Helicopters inked a contract to provide seven Ka-32A11BC and two Mi171 helicopters to China and entered into preliminary agreements to provide helicopter repair and maintenance services for the Vietnamese military's Mi-8/17 choppers under the combined Russian-Vietnamese venture HELITECHCO, subject to positive audit results.

Additionally, Singapore is increasingly taking a leadership role in counter-piracy and counter-terrorism operations in the region and further afield. Growing asymmetric threats and response activities in South-East Asia have gone from contingency to daily operation for multi-disciplinary forces like Singapore's, which are tasked with conventional duties, but also deter smugglers and engage in counter-terrorism and counter-piracy responsibilities.

"Maritime smuggling, piracy and armed robbery has spiked again in the Singapore Strait."

Maritime smuggling, piracy and armed robbery has spiked again in the Singapore Strait, where commercial vessels and private yachts have recently been seized, cargo and bunkers stolen, and crews kidnapped, attacked and even killed. Singapore's naval aviation capabilities are scaling up to mitigate and address these attacks, and there may be no better fast response platform than multi-purpose rotorcraft that can be launched from the city-state or from carriers offshore.

The Singapore armed forces' push to counter terrorist activities and prevent terror infiltration in the country and wider region is also a daunting task. With increasing radicalisation and repatriation of fighters from‎ ISIS-controlled territories in the Middle East to their homes in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, Singapore is increasing its threat level and deploying resources to match.

Taken in aggregate, Singapore's planned procurement of new multi-purpose helicopters will‎ foster a modern technical and operational capacity allowing the armed forces to better monitor, deter and mitigate the conventional and asymmetric threats in the region. By selecting helicopters with capabilities congruent for responding to the diverse range of situations at hand, this new fleet can serve as a real game changer for the city-state's defence posture.