Tuesday, March 20, 2012

S'pore among big arms importers

SINGAPORE has emerged as the world's fifth-biggest weapons importer in the last five years, says the latest report of a Swedish security and military think-tank.

By Jermyn Chow, Defence Correspondent

With its imports accounting for 4 per cent of the world's total spent on arms imports, Singapore trails only four countries - India (10 per cent), South Korea (6 per cent), and Pakistan and China (tied at 5 per cent).

The annual report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) also said the top five countries' imports make up nearly a third - 30 per cent - of arms sales.


Where the money goes
Defence specialists The Straits Times spoke to said they were not surprised by Singapore's ranking as it has, in the last few years, acquired 110 Leopard main battle tanks, 24 F-15SG fighter jets, 18 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System trucks and six S-70B Sikorsky Seahawk naval helicopters - all big-ticket items.

More recently, Heron 1 pilotless surveillance planes and the Spyder-SR ground-based air defence system have been on the shopping list.

Military publication IHS Jane's defence specialist Jon Grevatt said the purchases are part of efforts by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to transform itself into a third-generation fighting force and to maintain its technological edge.

The Bangkok-based specialist noted that countries in the region have recently bought or are intending to buy fighter jets, and that territorial disputes in the South China Sea are triggering the region's bigger defence spending.

'Being the biggest exporter and most important economy in South-east Asia, Singapore has to continue investing in resources to protect its strategic assets and keep the sea lanes safe,' he added.

Unlike China, which produces much of its military hardware domestically, Singapore imports most of its platforms from foreign defence contractors like the United States.

More purchases are expected, say defence experts.

The SAF will be looking to replace its ageing hardware, such as the KC-135 airborne tankers and Fokker-50 maritime patrol aircraft, in the next two years; Singapore is also expected to decide on whether to buy the most advanced F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet, said Mr Grevatt.

Previous Sipri data indicated that defence spending in the Asia-Pacific has more than doubled to US$275 billion (S$347 billion) since 1990.

Even as the rest of Asia continues on a spending spree, the defence expenditure of the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) has been growing at a steady clip - as a rule, the budget is no more than 6 per cent of the country's gross domestic product.

In the last five years, defence spending has grown by an average of 4 per cent a year, from $10.7 billion in 2008 to $12.3 billion this year.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen explained in Parliament this month that the steady spending on defence allows Mindef to get the best value for its investments.

Where possible, the SAF has upgraded its ageing war machines instead of buying new ones; it has done this with the M113 armoured personnel carriers, the C-130 transport planes and the Victory-class missile corvettes.

Dr Tim Huxley from the Singapore-based International Institute for Strategic Studies said that as the Republic continues to be on the lookout for newer, more modern fighting platforms, it is likely to stay in the top five list in the years to come.

He added, however, that as the SAF buys new weapons and systems for active ground units, it also needs to pay attention to the units made up of operationally ready national servicemen.

'More money can be spent on the NS units to plug the gap and equip them to the same standards as the active units, so that when they fight alongside, they have the same kind of weapons and are networked the same way to fight more effectively.'