SINGAPORE - The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has maintained its operational edge despite the wide-ranging impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which had halted exercises and delayed acquisitions, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.
A six- to nine-month disruption caused by the disease, which first surfaced in China late last year, would not have a huge impact on the SAF's operational edge as there are various cohorts in units, so capabilities were maintained. It will be different if the disruptions last two to three years, he added.
"The short answer is so far, no foreseen impact. Critical operations continue, capabilities maintained, and we are hoping to resume overseas training," he told reporters in a virtual interview on June 25 ahead of SAF Day on Wednesday (July 1).
The officer and specialist cadet schools have continued operating throughout the circuit breaker period, noted Dr Ng, and basic military training was stopped for only a few weeks.
"Our recruitment of regulars is ongoing, so in terms of generation of units, we have not seen any disruption or diminution."
Overseas training for the SAF was suspended and more than 6,000 servicemen and women mobilised for the national fight against Covid-19, including in areas such as running foreign worker dormitories and contact-tracing operations.
Dr Ng was responding to a question on the overall impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the SAF.
Beyond the immediate fallout from the crisis, he reiterated that the SAF had to remain strong in an uncertain external environment, with the most obvious being heightened contestation between the United States and China.
Singapore will be "acutely impacted" in both trade and security as it cannot avoid the effects of the growing competition, he said.
Asean faces additional stress with the prospect of slower growth, greater public debt and rising unemployment amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen than 10 million people infected worldwide.
At the same time, known threats remain, be it in the South China Sea, or in terrorism and cyber security.
He said: "So the question to us from a national security perspective is how does Singapore navigate our small vessel amid turbulent waters and large ocean liners that are crisscrossing and changing lanes?
"I think we have to do it with great care and focus. As a small country, we know it takes very little to tip us over. So, for the SAF, we need to be alert, to be strong to defend our sovereignty and national interest."
"We do not want to be caught in between big power rivalry or be forced to choose sides. We want to be useful and friendly to all."
Amid such uncertainty and unpredictability, Dr Ng emphasised the importance of having top defence officials meet, and said he was looking forward to meeting both US Defence Secretary Mark Esper and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe in person later this year if conditions permit, adding that this was a "significant if not must-do deliverable".
There are also plans to meet Asean and other Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus partners in Vietnam in October.
Providing an update on the SAF's hardware renewal and training projects, Dr Ng said some would be delayed as a result of the fallout from the pandemic, although most others remained on track.
Delivery of the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF's) new helicopters and the navy's German-made submarines would be delayed by up to a year each, due to supply chain disruptions from the pandemic.
The H225M medium lift and CH-47F heavy lift helicopters would be delivered from early 2021 onwards, instead of end-2020 as earlier projected. These helicopters are meant to replace the current Super Pumas and Chinooks, which have been in service since 1983 and 1994 respectively and are facing obsolescence.
The new helicopters have better lift and reach capabilities, and will enable the RSAF to meet the SAF's requirements more efficiently, with fewer helicopters and less manpower.
The first of four Invincible-class submarines is expected to be delivered to Singapore by 2022 instead of 2021. It was launched in February last year,
Safti City, a state-of-the-art military training facility to be built in western Singapore, will also be delayed by six to nine months, with its construction suspended during the two-month circuit breaker period from April. It is now expected to be completed in 2024, instead of 2023 as earlier projected.
But the acquisition of the next-generation F-35 fighter jets - the first four to be delivered by 2026 - and the navy's upcoming six Multi-Role Combat Vessels by 2030 remains on track, said Dr Ng.
The same goes for the development of training facilities in Queensland, Australia, with major construction expected to start this year, and the establishment of a fighter training detachment in Guam, in the US, by 2029.
With a full recovery next year still uncertain, the Ministry of Defence and the SAF are taking measures to cut costs where possible without compromising critical operations or reducing the SAF's medium- and long-term capabilities, said Dr Ng.
But the SAF has continued to beef up its capabilities. The Command, Control, Communications, Computer and Intelligence (C4I) community and the Defence Cyber Organisation have added 150 people to their ranks in the past year, he said.
The army has enhanced its Island Defence Task Force, including establishing a new island defence C4I surveillance and reconnaissance battalion to manage its digital communication systems by the end of this year.
Since May, the navy's Maritime Security Task Force has also been restructured to better respond to evolving threats like terrorism and to coordinate maritime security operations. The navy aims to add new capabilities, such as new purpose-built and auxiliary vessels, and boarding teams.
In the meantime, four refurbished patrol boats equipped with less-lethal options like laser dazzlers will be ready for operational duties in the next few months.
The SAF will gradually resume more training and overseas exercises, said Dr Ng. For instance, the frigate RSS Supreme will set sail for Hawaii in July to participate in Exercise Rimpac, which will involve 24 ships from 11 nations.
More in-camp training for operationally-ready national servicemen will also resume in the coming months, including Individual Physical Proficiency Tests.