CnB spoke to David Boey of Senang Diri, who shed some light on the history behind Singapore’s civil resource ships and if the sale of Neptune Orient Line (NOL) would pose any challenge to our readiness at sea.
Christopher Nolan’s latest movie, Dunkirk, tells the true story of the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. Britain pulled of a miracle by evacuating over 300,000 soldiers who were trapped and with their backs against the wall (or the English Channel). To make that happen, the Royal Navy and the Ministry of Shipping requisitioned over 600 civilian ships. Their shallow draught enables them to get close to the beach for soldiers to board.
Fast-forward 40 years, Britain requisitioned over 40 merchant ships for Falklands war, from liners, tankers to roll on roll off ships. These ships carried 9,000 soldiers, including the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 ferrying 3,200 5th Infantry Brigade men, 25,000 tonnes Fort Toronto carrying potable water and the infamous Atlantic Conveyor, which carried Harriers jets, Chinooks and Wessex helicopters.
“Britain’s mobilisation of commercial vessels – Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) – to provide sealift for British military forces tasked to retake the Falkland Islands set Singapore Armed Forces planners into thinking about the part Singapore’s substantial sealift assets could be employed to support SAF operations. “ said Boey. This was also during the period when Singapore launched the Total Defence concept which entails harnessing Military, Civil, Social, Psychological and Economic elements for defending Singapore.
Boey said in the late 80s the Mindef Resource Planning Office considered the extent to which vessels belonging to Singapore’s national shipping line, Neptune Orient Lines (NOL), could be requisitioned during a national emergency, a role not often mentioned.
NOL was established in 1968 not long after the country’s independence to develop Singapore’s economy, establish shipping capabilities and give us a competitive edge when comes to shipping rates.
“In the 1990s, MINDEF/SAF turned its attention to studying the concept of operations (CONOPS) for helicopter operations from ships other than aircraft carriers (HOSTAC). This move was likely due to the way the British had employed container vessels such as the ill-fated Atlantic Conveyor as light aircraft carriers. “
“The CONOPS for HOSTAC assessed the feasibility of converting an NOL container vessel into a helicopter carrier to support RSN operations, such as amphibious landings, by acting as lily pads from which UH-1 and Fennec gunships, or Super Pumas could refuel and rearm.”
In June 2016, Singapore’s debt-ridden Neptune Orient Line (NOL) was sold to France’s CMA CGM for S$3.4 billion. That period was a stormy time for the maritime industry, over capacity saw the consolidation of numerous shipping firms as well as the collapse of Korean giant Hanjin Shipping. However, could the selling of NOL compromise the Singapore’s civil resource capabilities when the button is pressed?
Boey thinks the sale of NOL to the French has minimal impact on NALCOM’s drawer plans because the scale of sealift Singapore may call upon during an emergency will not be on the scale of a Falklands-type operation.
“The intervening years from the Falklands till now has given MINDEF/SAF a more realistic appreciation of the tonnage, number and type of merchant vessels that should be requisitioned to support the RSN. The responsibility for doing so falls upon specialised Civil Resource squadrons under the Naval Logistics Command (NALCOM). Past exercises saw merchant ships called up for exercises and reconfigured as hospital ships, with the addition of containerised modules housing medical equipment.”
Then, the government owned entity had 20 ships in 1970 and when it acquired American Presidents Line (APL) in 1997, her fleet grew to over 80 ships. Today APL has vessels carrying from 319 containers to the largest class, APL Raffles, 13,892 containers.
APL continued to be used in SAF’s military’s vehicular movements, as seen in the recent Terrex saga, the ICVs are transported in specialised 20foot pallets in APL ships.
“The stockpiling of essential items like rice and POL also reduces the need for tankers and cargo ships. Open source data puts the size of Singapore’s rice stockpile at six months’ supply and one could expect this duration to stretch a little longer if rationing is imposed. Singapore’s POL stockpile is also substantial and this adds to the supplies already maintained at key installations such as Changi Airport and government ministries, which have their own diesel generators to provide an uninterrupted power supply for a certain period to guarantee some degree of self-sufficiency.”
We also think that the RSN’s current Endurance-class Landing Ship Tanks and future Joint Multi-Mission Ship will provide sealift capability that the SAF of the 1980s and 1990s lacked.
That said, there will still be a need for civilian vessels such as heavy lift cranes, oceangoing tugs, barges and landing craft (such as the ones used to ferry SAF vehicles to Pulau Tekong).