In a global climate increasingly characterized by polarization, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has continued to push forward with its next-generation transformation to serve the island-state’s defense needs. This was on display during the recent Exercise Forging Sabre 2023 (XFS23), which saw the official play-testing of a multitude of the SAF’s freshest technological novelties during a military exercise conducted in the United States.
Looking through the lens of Singapore’s fleet of armored military vehicles, some critical lessons can be gleaned from the SAF’s newest vehicular transformations, as well as potential causes for concern in its next-generation warfighting setup.
The Mothership Concept
Singaporeans might find this concept’s name familiar, as the “mothership” label is most often associated with a popular local online news site that has its footprints imprinted into Singapore’s digital landscape. Coincidentally, the same terminology has been used as a descriptor to classify segments of the SAF’s newest developments, starting with its maritime service, the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN).
In March 2023, Singapore’s Ministry of Defense (MINDEF) announced it had signed an arms contract with ST Engineering to acquire six Multi-Role Combat Vessels (MRCV) for the RSN. Slated to replace the existing Victory-class missile corvettes by 2030, MINDEF has earmarked the six MRCVs to function as a “mothership” for other unmanned drones and vessels in the SAF’s sea warfighting setup, particularly when out at sea. Essentially, the MRCVs have been designated as the sea-based control tower for an SAF that is moving toward a widespread integration of unmanned assets across its four services.
Looking into the SAF’s land service, similar concepts are at play in its newest armored vehicle, the Hunter Armored Fighting Vehicle (AFV), officially commissioned for service in June 2019. What is most notable about the Hunter is its full digitalization and technological sophistication, with its interior equipped with an Integrated Combat Cockpit alongside a myriad of visual screens and controls for the vehicle crew. Considering this, the Hunter could already have the digital complexities built in to serve a role equivalent to the one the MRCVs play for the RSN, with the AFV as the ground-based “mothership” for the Singapore Army.
In the SAF’s plans for 2030, there are several unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) classified under the “Land” category of the SAF’s next-generation iteration, with some of these elements making their official debut during demonstrations conducted in XFS23. Such UAV elements alongside an atypical section of infantry soldiers, with the Hunter as the “control tower,” could potentially be used to capture footage of military targets and translating them into actionable military intelligence through target identification. That represents a tantalizing prospect for the upgrading of Singapore’s land fighting capabilities, both for its soldiers on foot, and in cabin for its armored vehicles.
With this in mind, having a digitally sophisticated intelligence and command system that is able to process swathes of data is of paramount importance for any state when trying to develop its military capabilities. The aforementioned Hunter is equipped with the Army Tactical Engagement Information System (ARTEMIS) Battle Management System (BMS), the SAF’s next-generation tactical Command and Control (C2) system that has been depicted as the functional brain of the vehicle itself. The ARTEMIS label also evokes references to Greek mythology, with Artemis also known as the Olympian goddess of the hunt, equipped with a bow and arrow, alongside a pack of hunting dogs. That is a potentially synchronous nod to ARTEMIS as the control tower software for the rest of the SAF’s assets.
The long-term development and cross-platform application of ARTEMIS is perhaps the vital deciding factor of the success of the SAF’s mothership concept for its land fighting setup – a future where the entirety of the SAF’s services are able to look at a singular digital “map” that combines intelligence gathered from all sources thereafter ensures maximum interoperability across all frontiers of the battlefield, and more critically, elevates the SAF’s efficiency and lethality as an integrated fighting force.
This systemic centralization will undoubtedly lead to a quantum leap in the efficiency of the SAF’s C2 systems and warfighting capabilities, but the application of similar concepts across other platforms in the SAF remains a technical and conceptual challenge for Singapore’s conscript-based military. Although ARTEMIS is a local defense innovation, attempting to embed a brand-new command system onto the SAF’s fleet of vehicles, and resultantly across the SAF’s four services, is much easier said than done. This process might be more straightforward when attempting to install elements of it onto locally-produced armored vehicles such as the Bionix or Bronco, but functional challenges emerge when it comes to overseas-produced assets of the SAF.
A key cog in any land warfighting setup is the functionality of its main battle tanks (MBTs), vehicles renowned for their blend of firepower, mobility, and protection. Looking at the SAF’s existing fleet of MBTs, it currently possesses the Leopard 2SG (L2SG), which is already equipped with existing German-produced command systems. Attempting to supersede the original system of a vehicle, or to install a new system to operate in tandem with an existing one, is a challenge both in function and purpose for the SAF. As the SAF’s 2040 plans continue to include the L2SG as part of its warfighting force, whether the SAF will be able to realize a full implementation of the mothership concept across its land service remains to be seen.
Considering the limitations of superimposing one vehicle’s system over another, the available options here are perhaps twofold: One, to combine the C2 systems by allowing ARTEMIS to communicate directly with whichever BMS is currently installed in Singapore’s older vehicles, or two, to run both systems together and simultaneously (yet functioning separately) in one singular vehicular platform. This choice is an engineering puzzle that Singapore’s defense establishments continue to grapple with. Questions over the monetary efficacy and practicality of such a move will remain, even if hardware limitations are eventually overcome.
Nevertheless, the mothership concept represents a theoretical permutation of the SAF’s next-generation look as a digitalized and inter-connected warfighting force. Such processes of force connectivity cannot be hastened – they need significant time for proper cost-benefit calculations and functional trials, before a step-by-step integrative process that starts with intra-service installation and standardization, and thereafter a series of combined arms exercises to achieve complete inter-service integration.
Modular Variants and Future Possibilities
Although the “modular” term might be unfamiliar to observers of the SAF, unlike the mothership concept, modular capabilities are not a newfound observation. In architecture, modularity is a design concept that involves the subdivision of a system into smaller pieces (or modules), with these pieces thereafter being transferrable and used in other designs to create different iterations. A simple example of modularity in military technology would be this – imagine separating a typical armored vehicle’s turret (the top) from its chassis (the bottom), and replacing the turret with something else. This new replacement for the vehicle’s top can be anything, from an automated 150mm artillery launcher, as in South Korea’s popular K9 Howitzers, to a combat bridge, as in the SAF’s Hunter armored Vehicle-Launched Bridge variant.
The concept of modular variants has seen widespread application in militaries all around the world, and the SAF is no different. Singapore’s locally-produced Bionix AFV has multiple modular variants, including a combat bridge variant similar to the Hunter, a recovery variant that involves the Lego-like fitting of the Bionix’s original chassis with a 25-tonne winch and a 30-tonne crane, and an artillery variant that involves the same chassis retrofitted with a 155mm howitzer, also known as the Singapore Self-Propelled Howitzer Primus. Looking deeper into Singapore’s existing vehicles, the ultimate illustration of its success in developing modular variants is the Bronco All Terrain Tracked Carrier (ATTC). The Bronco ATTC has been described as having more than 40 different modular iterations, with multiple variants already in service across the SAF, including a Mortar variant, an Ambulance variant, and a Maintenance variant.
Thereafter, applying this modular concept into the SAF’s vehicles opens up intriguing possibilities that could transform the entire outlook of its warfighting setup. With the SAF predicted to face a one-third reduction in its available manpower by 2030, the SAF has emphasized its “Technology as a Force Multiplier” adage while developing new technologies that require less manpower to perform the functions of its older predecessors, or even for unmanned assets to replace manned roles. The SAF had already explored the potential for unmanned armored vehicles previously, with archives recording attempted developments of an unmanned version of the SAF’s older version armored vehicle, the Ultra M113 armored Personnel Carriers (APCs), in 2000. For the Hunter AFV, notable defense observers have already commented on the evident visual cues to note that the Hunter’s closed-hatch camera-based operations, placed alongside its drive-by-wire capabilities and automatic targeting systems, present the potential for a fully unmanned Hunter variant, thereafter opening up a host of different tactical possibilities in land warfare.
Pushing this modular concept further, what if the SAF could introduce new modular variants to replicate the warfighting functions of its other vehicles, in particular its older and aging ones? A side-by-side visual comparison of the SAF’s armored vehicles reveals deeper details. Both the Bionix and the Hunter are categorized under the same vehicle classification of AFVs. However, one is considerably bulkier than the other. The Bionix and the Hunter have vastly different tonnages, or weight, with the former said to weigh around 23 to 24 tonnes, while the latter measures at 29.5 tonnes. In fact, the Hunter’s size can even be compared to the SAF’s L2SG MBTs, with the Hunter’s width of 3.4 meters being just shy of the L2SG’s 3.7 meters.
The L2SG’s manufacturing base is the Leopard 2A4 MBTs, which have already been retired from service in Germany’s armed forces. Maintaining functional operability of the SAF’s L2SGs will thus continue to be an uphill challenge, considering the lack of spare part availability across the entirety of the international arms market, a problem that has only been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.
Putting the pieces together, it is not far-fetched to imagine using the Hunter’s modular capabilities in developing variants that can supply the same firepower as the existing L2SGs. The successful creation of an MBT variant of the Hunter would represent a significant breakthrough in regional military developments. The process of planting a 120mm turret onto a vehicle chassis can sound like a simplistic game of stacking one piece above another, but the technical complexities are immense. It has been reported that Singapore had toyed with the idea of installing a 120mm turret on the Bionix in the early 2000s, but that its plans fell through due to technical difficulties.
Trying to install a new (and much heavier) gun onto an existing chassis changes the operational space left for the crew to maneuver in the vehicle, which could change the SAF’s manpower deployment plans. As for the vehicle’s performance, the installation of such high-caliber guns will lead to a spike in the vehicle’s overall tonnage, thereafter affecting its suspension and stability during vehicle movement. More critically, the vehicle must be able to allow for the gun to traverse and fire at a wide range of angles, while simultaneously maintaining a healthy-enough balance to absorb the recoil caused when firing high-caliber munitions.
Nonetheless, as the SAF prepares for its next-generation iteration, transformative processes have to start sooner than later. For one, it can consider the potential for Light Tank modular variants instead of MBT variants. Such variants can retain the combat movement speed of typical AFVs while deploying lighter-caliber ammunition for its main gun, such as the 105mm guns that can be found on South Korea’s K21-105 Light Tank or Austria’s Pandur II APCs.
More importantly, to alleviate or circumvent the technological difficulties involved in such developmental ventures, Singapore should continue to pursue closer military partnerships with like-minded states under the ambit of defense diplomacy. For modular capabilities, the most obvious model would be South Korea, an up-and-rising competitor in the international arms market that has captured global attention for the successes of its military exports. South Korea’s successful “modularization” of its armored vehicles has seen it secure lucrative arms deals with states like Turkey and Australia, with the former’s new Altay MBTs based on the chassis of the South Korea K2s, and the latter’s new AS21 Redback IFVs built on the South Korea K21s respectively.
While the potential purchase of new armored vehicles seems like a far-and-away idea that requires a prolonged calculation of fit and purpose, pursuing closer defense ties with such states could allow Singapore to learn from their experiences, and to gain technological know-hows that could aid in accelerating the transformation of the SAF’s armored vehicles.
Effecting change in the realm of defense is never a simplistic top-down process, as states need to keep in mind the omni-directional reverberations of each and every decision made, both to its domestic audience and to the international community. The traditionally opaque nature of defense affairs in general requires policymakers to approach such decisions with high levels of caution and sensitivities. As militaries around the world continue to extract operational lessons from contemporary conflicts such as the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and the 2023 Israel-Hamas war, the SAF has to continue forging new frontiers in its military developments to maintain its position as one of the strongest militaries in the region for years to come.