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Why Is Singapore Armed To The Teeth?

April 17, 2015
Singapore National Service march

The SAF in 1985.

Upon achieving independence in 1965, the city-state of Singapore was trapped. To the north loomed a less than congenial Malaysian Federation. To the south, Sukarno’s Indonesia was waging its Konfrontasi.

Singapore needed to deter these existential threats.

The protection guaranteed by the British, which failed spectacularly in World War Two, could no longer be relied upon since Her Majesty’s forces were withdrawing by 1971. The conventional narrative that follows is the People’s Action Party under the headstrong Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew laid the foundations for a national armed forces.

Singapore Ultimax 100

The Ultimax 100.

With the help of advisers from Israel the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) used mandatory conscription called National Service to maintain a sizable standing army with the best equipment money could buy. This mindset is still apparent today and as a result the Republic of Singapore possesses the most advanced military in the region.

Each year, more than 3% of GDP goes to a robust defense budget. In 2013 it reached $9.9 billion, rising to above $10 billion the following year. By 2020 Singapore could be spending up to $15 billion on its armed forces, placing it within the global top 20 for defense spending.

In typical Singaporean fashion, foresight, efficiency, and a broad awareness of potential risks made the SAF a world-class institution. The Singapore model for developing a national armed forces and a domestic arms industry is worth emulating.

Here’s how.

Singapore Leopard 2SG

A convoy of Leopard 2SG’s.


Considering its geographic size, Singapore’s ground forces are enormous. Depending on which source is consulted, the SAF’s total manpower is between 60,000 and 72,000 with a reservist pool of 500,000. These numbers guarantee the city state can never be conquered by a ground invasion.

The SAF also believes in peace through superior firepower.


Singapore AH-64E gunship

The Singapore Air Force maintains 20 AH-64D Apache Longbow gunships. Singapore was the third international customer for the Longbow during the late 1990s and the first in Southeast Asia. It ordered 12 Longbows in 1999 and followed up with another batch of eight in 2001. Deliveries commenced in 2002.

One of Singapore’s earliest arms purchases were 72 AMX-13 light tanks. The French-made light tanks were a popular choice for developing countries in the 1960s and Singapore bought its first tanks from Israeli surplus. It then bolstered its armor assets with hundreds of Cadillac Gage V-200 armored cars. Towed howitzers and M113 APCs followed.

Between 2006 and 2009 Singapore acquired 94 Leopard 2A4 main battle tanks from Germany. The Leopards have since been upgraded with extensive add-on armoring on their turrets and chassis. The MBTs were re-designated as Leopard 2SG and are operated by the 48th Battalion, Singapore Armoured Regiment.

In 2013 Indonesia received its own Leopard 2’s.

There is an intense focus within the SAF to punch above its weight. This explains why the HIMARS multiple rocket launcher, the Milan and Spike anti-tank missile launchers, and hundreds of 155mm howitzers are all critical parts of its current inventory.

Singapore Bionix APC

The Bionix IFV is armed with a 25mm cannon.

Going Local

Beginning in the 1980s, state-owned defense contractor ST Engineering,  formerly Chartered Industries Singapore (CIS), spearheaded the process of indigenization. This is a crucial step for any country, with local production making supply chains and logistics impervious from wartime constraints.

In the span of 30 years, ST Engineering developed the Primus self-propelled howitzer, the Bionix tracked IFV, and the Terrex 8×8 APC. ST Engineering and its subsidiaries also expanded to electronics, ballistic protection, and aerospace.

With 23,000 employees worldwide and an enormous product catalog, ST Engineering is a remarkable example of successful vertical integration.

ST Engineering’s role in fostering a local arms industry begins with assault rifles. The SAF were originally equipped with the Colt M16A1. By 1980, the first locally made assault rifle was introduced, a license-made copy of the AR-18 called the SAR 80.

Several years later the SAR 88 entered production and in 2005 the 5.56mm bullpup SAR 21 replaced the M16A1 as the army’s standard battle rifle.

The arrival of the American-designed Ultimax 100 light machine gun in the mid-1980s was Singapore’s first small breakthrough as an arms manufacturer. With a mature defense industry, Singapore is poised to shift from an arms importer to a full-fledged exporter in the coming years.

Singapore commandos

Digital camo, face paint, Kevlar helmets, a light anti-tank weapon, and bullpup rifles. The SAF’s modern gear is impressive.

The Top Shelf

The SAF took a great leap forward in the 1980s, when the city state enjoyed an economic boom thanks to its role as a sea port.

With the fundamentals of territorial defense down pat, the Singapore Navy and the Singapore Air Force began to assume their current forms.

Beginning with a small fleet of mine countermeasure vessels in 1983, the Navy started honing its firepower and by the 1990s Victory-class missile corvettes and fast patrol ships gave it a real combat capability.

Singapore Formidable-class frigates

The deadliest in Southeast Asia? Singapore’s Formidable-class frigates.

In the 2000s the Singapore Navy set its sights on six Formidable-class frigates from the French shipbuilder DCNS. Having these missile-armed warships allows the SAF to engage enemy states beyond Singapore’s maritime boundaries.

The Singapore Navy is in the process of augmenting its two Swedish Archer-class submarines with longer-range models from Germany, although the exact type hasn’t been specified.

Local shipbuilding is advanced as well. The introduction of the Endurance-class landing platform dock (LPD) allows the SAF to conduct amphibious and humanitarian relief operations. In 2012, Thailand received its own $135 million Endurance-class LPD, which it commissioned as the HTMS Ang Thong.

Singapore’s cutting-edge are its F-15SG squadrons. From 2005 until 2012, the air force received 32 F-15SG’s from Boeing. Alternate estimates raise the number to 40. Together with the 60 Lockheed Martin F-16’s the air force started flying in 1990 and the older F-5 Tigers, Singapore has more than 100 combat aircraft.

To this day bilateral ties between Israel and Singapore remain strong and Singapore was an early customer of the Hermes 450 UAV. For the SAF, change is constant. Its next benchmark is the widespread introduction of unmanned systems and information warfare for its different branches.