The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) now has its first fully customised submarine.
Mrs Ivy Ng, wife of Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen, launched the submarine Invincible at the thyssenKrupp Marine Systems shipyard in Kiel, Germany, on 18 Feb.
The German-built Invincible-class or Type 218SG submarine is designed for operations in Singapore's shallow and busy tropical water.
It will undergo a series of sea trials before it is delivered to Singapore in 2021.
At the launch ceremony, Dr Ng said the new submarine will boost the Navy’s capabilities in protecting Singapore's sea lines of communication.
He said: "Everyone knows that Singapore sits astride two of the busiest sea lines of communication: the South China Sea and Strait of Malacca.
"Most people would see this development by RSN as assurance that the RSN is able to do its part in keeping our sea lines of communication open because it's crucial for maritime trade."
Invincible is the first of four Type 218SG submarines to be built for Singapore. The remaining three submarines – Impeccable, Illustrious and Inimitable – are still under construction.
Once ready, they will replace the Navy's current submarines which have been in operation for over 20 years.
The RSN currently operates four refurbished submarines – two Challenger-class and two Archer-class – acquired from Sweden.
The Invincible-class submarines will be more lethal. They can stay submerged about 50 per cent longer, and carry a wider range of mission payloads.
The new submarines will be manned by a crew of 28, the same as with the Navy's existing submarines.
But the advanced automation and sense-making systems on board will allow the new boats to be run on three instead of two watches or shifts.
"That actually gives us higher human endurance," said Colonel (COL) Teo Chin Leong, 46, Commanding Officer of 171 Squadron, the submarine unit of the Navy.
The advanced systems also help submariners to act faster. For example, the calculation of data is now done by computers, so the crew can concentrate on checking and making sense of the answers.
They include data analytics and decision support engines developed by the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA).
The sensors, as well as automation, will help the crew to manoeuvre effectively in the region's shallow and busy waters, said COL Teo. "We have better sensors that help us 'see' further or rather 'hear' further, (to) make sense of our environment better," he explained.
The new submarines are ergonomically designed for Asian bodies. For example, RSN crew can easily reach all the valves and buttons inside the submarine.
"Being Asians, our size and height are slightly different from Caucasians. So these factors certainly are factored into the design," said Military Expert (ME) 3 Simon Oh, 42, Coxswain of Invincible.
The new submarines will come with slightly larger living quarters, and more showering and toilet cubicles. They also come with more storage spaces for food ingredients. This will allow the chef to come up with more food options.
To streamline workflow and communications, the submarine is designed such that the watchkeepers (for engineering, combat functions and weapons) can be co-located in one place.
In the Navy's current submarines, watchkeepers are deployed at three different locations.
"There are no physical barriers, so communication is more direct, and decisions can be made faster," said ME3 Oh.
The crew will start operational training on board the submarine, after the sea trials, before bringing it to Singapore.
At the same time, training simulators tailored for Type 218SG submarine operations will be built to support training.
The pioneer crew of 28 for Invincible has been selected, comprising a good mix of senior and junior submariners.
They have already been flying in and out of Germany for training sessions on operating various submarine systems, while Invincible was being constructed. They will subsequently be based in Germany for up to two years for intensive training.
Expectations for the pioneer crew are understandably high, because they will be operating the first of the new submarines.
But Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Jonathan Lim, Commanding Officer of Invincible, is looking forward to the challenge. He wants the pioneer crew to set a high benchmark, for future crew to build on.
"This is a new capability and new step (for the Navy). And when we walk this step, it definitely has to be a step forward, on stronger foundations that we (can) continue to move upward," said the 38-year-old graduate of the German submarine commanding officer course.
LTC Lim attended the course in Germany in 2016, where he had to command a German submarine. He had never operated on that submarine before, and language barrier was a challenge as the crew would hold discussions in German, before reporting to him in English.
Nevertheless, he performed extremely well, and was awarded the Command Star, an award usually presented to German officers for meeting the high performance standard set by the German Navy.
"With that, there is an acknowledgement that I am as good as one of their own, able to perform up to their standards, even though I come from Singapore, and (have) never stepped into their submarine until the first day of the course," he said.