SINGAPORE will, for the first time, buy two brand new submarines so it can retire its oldest Challenger-class vessels and maintain its reputation as South-east Asia's best-equipped military.
The Ministry of Defence (Mindef) said in a statement on Monday that it signed a deal with German defence contractor ThyssenKrupp Marine System last Friday to buy two Type 218SG submarines.
The new-generation diesel-electric subs will be built from scratch by the company, and are expected to be delivered from 2020.
They will be fitted with a state-of-the-art Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system that allows the vessels to spend a longer time at sea.
Mindef said the contract includes a logistics package and training of the Singaporean crew in Germany. It declined to say how much the deal is worth or which other companies submitted bids.
Security affairs publication Intelligence Online had reported last month that ThyssenKrupp Marine System and French shipbuilder DCNS were competing for a US$1.8 billion (S$2.3 billion) contract to supply three new submarines to Singapore.
ThyssenKrupp Marine System has sold Type 212 and 214 variants to the Italian, German, Greek and South Korean navies.
Buying new, custom-made vessels will be a first for the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), which until now has bought only second-hand refurbished vessels from Sweden.
Between 1995 and 1997, it acquired four Sjoormen-class submarines built in the 1960s. After undergoing refurbishment, RSN renamed them Challenger-class vessels.
In 2005, the RSN bought and upgraded a pair of Swedish Vastergotland-class submarines and called them Archer-class vessels.
These submarines, which are now battle-ready, are fitted with the AIP system that allows the vessels to last six weeks at sea - twice as long as the older Challenger-class submarines.
With the Type 218SG and Archer-class submarines in the fleet, Mindef said the Challenger-class vessels will be "progressively retired".
The AIP system will mean the fleet is better prepared to hide from enemies. It will also give the submarines expanded capacities for operations like anti-submarine warfare or trailing surface ships in areas such as the South China Sea or the Strait of Malacca.
Singapore is the only South-east Asian navy with AIP-equipped submarines.
Military analyst Collin Koh Swee Lean said they will allow the RSN to carry out "more complex surveillance missions".
"They can stay longer and farther out at sea to collect more information," said Mr Koh, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.
However, he added that Singapore's latest move is unlikely to trigger a regional arms race amid projections that Asia-Pacific nations are to spend more than US$200 billion on new ships and submarines over the next two decades.
This is because the political context is "benign", said Mr Koh, and current relationships among regional countries are "way better" compared to how they were in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
If there is a desire among regional navies for submarines, it is more to gain "national prestige".
He said: "To be able to buy, operate and maintain submarines is a symbol of wealth, technological sophistication and the maturity of navies... it allows navies to have more options to take on a wider range of operations."
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