Greater anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare capabilities. That is what the integration of the Formidable-Class stealth frigate and Sikorsky S-70 naval helicopter will bring to the 3rd Generation Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN).

In order to better hone and develop these anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare capabilities resulting from the integration, Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) pilots and air crew as well as RSN Tactical Co-ordination Officers (TACCOS) and Sensor Operators (SENSOS) commenced training at the Peace Triton training detachment located at the Naval Air Station North Island in November 2009.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Teo Chee Hean, who witnessed an anti-submarine exercise on board RSS Stalwart on 14 Mar, said that the integration was a major leap forward in the capabilities of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

“The capability that the frigate and helicopter integration has for the SAF is that it enables the ship and helicopter platform to dominate a much greater area of sea and air space both above and below the surface,” said Mr Teo during a doorstop interview after viewing the exercise to validate the interoperability between the naval helicopter and frigate.

The anti-submarine exercise involving two RSN naval helicopters and RSS Stalwart was part of a larger United States Navy (USN)-led exercise held from 8 to 15 Mar in the Pacific Ocean, just off the waters near San Clemente Island.

Commander of 1st Flotilla Colonel (COL) Wellman Wan also said that with the integration, a significant milestone for the 3rd Generation RSN was achieved since the naval helicopters have the potential to deliver more effective air and sea power to help enhance maritime security.

“This will be a new capability for the SAF and will greatly boost the war-fighting capabilities of our Navy, enabling us to have a more decisive advantage at sea,” said COL Wan.

The naval helicopter can travel up to a speed of 140 knots and is capable of covering the same distance five times faster than that of the frigate. As such, its speed enables it to extend the frigate’s capabilities, ultimately providing the latter with the ability to conduct faster and further surveillance.

“The mobility and speed by which the naval helicopter can be sent out to scan and verify enemy threats provides us with a greater tactical advantage and fidelity. For example, the frigate can deploy its naval helicopter to verify an enemy threat identified by a Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA),” explained COL Wan, citing an example of how the naval helicopter could provide the frigates with greater operational flexibility.

“With the naval helicopter on the job, the MPA is thus free to scan the other surrounding areas for possible threats.”

Weighing 9,600 kilograms and equipped with missile torpedoes to take out enemy submarines, the naval helicopter, when integrated with the frigate, is truly a force to be reckoned with.

In order to ensure the successful integration between the frigate and the naval helicopters, RSN and RSAF servicemen had to undergo vigorous training at Peace Triton alongside their USN counterparts to master the skills needed for the integration.

The naval helicopter requires a four-man team to operate it and consists of two RSAF pilots and a RSN SENSO and TACCO. The make-up of the team ensures that the knowledge and skills of the air force and navy will be effectively harnessed to better operate this new capability.

However, working together and making the transition from sea to air was not a walk in the park. Master Sergeant (MSG) Joseph Ng who has been in the navy for ten years and is now a SENSO on board the naval helicopter, said that he experienced his fair share of challenges while trying to adapt to his new role.

“Initially, I was bothered by the vibration and noise that the naval helicopter emitted while performing manoeuvres at high speed. This experience was immensely different from the stability and relative quiet which ships offer,” he said.

“The environment was challenging and coupled with the fact that these capabilities offered by the integration was a first, the learning curve to master this new system was pretty steep.”

Even former Super Puma Pilot Major (MAJ) Goh Ker Jia found the move to fly the naval helicopter challenging.

“The Super Puma is primarily a troop carrier. As such, my main concern was to insert land forces safely. When landing, I would have to watch out for trees, hills and the possibility of getting my wheels stuck in the mud. However, landing the naval helicopter on the frigate is a different affair altogether,” said MAJ Goh.

Although the naval helicopter landed on the helipad, which was relatively flat and smooth, this came with its own set of challenges.

“Even if we aimed for dead centre on the helipad, it would still drift when the ship moves. The flight deck could also be heaving and rolling, making it even more difficult to land,” MAJ Goh added.

The integration would not be possible without the coordination and communication link between the frigate and the naval helicopter. For this end, the Combat Information Centre (CIC) on board the frigate ensures that both ship and naval helicopter are on the same page during missions.

“The CIC is important to the integration process because we relay information on the ground to the crew in the naval helicopters, who may not have an accurate maritime picture. We are also in charge of recommending possible tactics an aircraft could deploy in missions,” said Communications and Electronics Officer Captain (CPT) Sean Ler.

The successful integration between the naval helicopter and the frigates can be attributed to the dedication and professionalism of the SAF personnel. This was something that did not go unnoticed by the USN trainers who worked with the RSN and RSAF personnel during their integration training.

“The Singapore Navy does not have an air wing so it has roped in the Air Force to fly the naval helicopter. What astounds me is the speed and professionalism by which the navy and air force personnel mastered this new operation system for the integration,” said Commander Third Fleet Admiral Richard Hunt.

“The SAF was also able to maximise the potential of a small crew which is something the US is just starting to experiment with,” he added.

In total, the RSN has acquired six naval helicopters to complement its six frigates. Having taken delivery of three, the naval helicopters will be back in Singapore by the end of this year.