Singapore’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions

In early March last year, a model of what appeared to be a Landing Helicopter Dock was put on display at the Singapore Air Show. The model betrayed no other information other than the fact that it was a variant of the Endurance class Joint Multi Mission Ship (JMMS). Although the Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) didn’t make that big a deal out of the whole event, it doesn’t take an expert to look beyond the unpretencious façade of the vessel. To look towards Singapore’s growing role in the establishment of security in the maritime domain of South East Asia.

Given the fact that conflagrations in the South China Sea have been on the rise, it’s no secret that most of the nations involved have been making a conscious effort to beef up their deterrence capabilities. The conflict in the South China Sea is a complex one. With a number of nations (sometimes upto 6) claiming small features of land in a vast expanse, it is not surprising to see a bit of friction.

When you look at the nations that are headlong in the dispute, you simply can’t ignore China. The PLAN has come a long way since the first major “incidents” of the dispute, way back in the 1970s. China’s political assertiveness has gone hand in hand with its steady military expansion policy. Today the PLAN’s arsenal is nothing short of impressive. Landing Helicopter Docks (LHD), Corvettes, Frigates and submarines stock the inventory, but the PLAN’s crown jewel is definitely the Liaoning – China’s first aircraft carrier. Though it is yet to enter into operational service, it serves as a reminder of China’s growing military prowess.

However, China is not the only regional nation to join the elite club of nations who operate aircraft carriers. The Indian Navy has been operating aircraft carriers for almost half a century. With two operational carriers, one aircraft carrier in the pipeline and years of operational experience, the Indian Navy’s portfolio in this regard is quite impressive.

The Hyuga class helicopter destroyer, in service with the JMSDF (Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force) is what can be termed as a helicopter destroyer. However, given the sheer size of flight deck, it isn’t hard to see how these massive vessels could support STOVL/VTOL aircraft and tiltrotors in addition to helicopters. With the first vessel of the Izumo class nearing operational status, the JMSDF is all set for a serious expansion.

The Republic Of Korea Navy (ROKN) operates the Dokdo class Amphibious Assault Ship. Similar in size to the JMSDF’s Hyuga class, the Dokdo class of vessels have a slightly different range of operational parameters. Unlike the Japanese helicopter destroyers, the Dokdo class is built to support amphibious operations.

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) holds considerable sway in the southern portion of the region. Though the Royal Australian Navy has operated carriers in the past, the last aircraft carrier in RAN service – HMAS Melbourne, was decommisioned in 1982. However, gaps in operational capabilities left by the absence of an aircraft carrier will soon be offset by the commissioning of the Canberra class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD). With a huge flight deck and Australia’s continued support for the F-35 JSF programme, it isn’t hard to see how the versatility of the vessel can be exploited to fit its operational role.

Singapore’s Defence Minister, Dr Ng Eng Hen, with the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter at Luke AFB.

Singapore’s Defence Minister, Dr Ng Eng Hen, with the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter at Luke AFB.

In an interview in July 2014, Singapore’s Defence Minister – Dr. Ng Eng Hen spoke about the possibility of commissioning larger Joint Multi Mission Ships, to add to the capabilities of existing Landing Platform Dock vessels, already in service. In addition to this, when asked about the possibility of the acquisition of such a vessel, Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) refused to comment on the topic.

However, MINDEF did confirm that Singapore will soon be acquiring F-35B stealth fighters. Analysts heaved a sign of relief when confirmation came from a rather unusual source. In July 2013, US Air Force General Herbert Carlisle unwittingly disclosed that Singapore’s Chief of Defence Force, Lt. Gen. Ng Chee Meng had confided to him that Singapore had planned to procure the F-35B.

The decision to procure the B variant of the F-35 and the apparent shift in policy in favor of larger Joint Multi Misson Ships (JMMS) point towards Singapore’s regional aspirations. It is plain to see that Singapore has taken it upon them to balance China’s assertiveness.

Though it seems like Singapore’s Ministry of Defence has made up its mind, what are the reasons behind this decision?

To completely understand the decision, we have to talk about Singapore’s real estate or rather, lack of it. The total size of this city state is about seven hundred and sixteen square kilometers, which is approximately half the size of London.

Due to its geographical position, Singapore lies bang in the middle of a natural chokepoint. Now what this means is that all of Singapore’s assets, both economical and military are concentrated in a very small area. Ergo the entire nation can be crippled by a large aerial bombing campaign.

A replica of an F 35 Lightning-II with Singaporean fin flashes at the 2014 Singapore Air Show.

A replica of an F 35 Lightning-II with Singaporean fin flashes at the 2014 Singapore Air Show.

With almost 400 operational aircraft, the Republic of Singapore Air Force is one of the strongest and most well trained forces in the region. However the air bases these aircraft operate out of, are in close proximity with each other. All of this adds up to the same thing – A few well positioned bunker busters and anti-runway penetration bombs can knock out the entire RSAF infrastructure.

There are two ways to overcome this tactical disadvantage.

  1. Increase the area of the mainland
  2. Increase the number of bases of operation.

Since the former takes a lot of time and resources to materialize, the latter is the Singapore military’s best bet. The lack of real estate can be offset by introducing an off shore floating base of operations. In simple words, an aircraft carrier.

Singapore’s Ministry of Defence is taking this option very seriously. But how will they go about acquiring this vessel?

The most likely route that will be taken by the Minstry of Defence is to issue the tender to a Singaporean firm. If they are to go down this road, it will be a huge step forward for Singapore’s naval industry. An aircraft carrier is a huge leap from the Endurance class Landing Platform Docks currently in service with the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN).

The second and less likely option would be to procure an existing vessel and carry out an extensive refurbishment.

Despite all the layers of defences, an aircraft carrier’s most potent weapon is the aircraft that operate off of it. Singapore was a Security Cooperative Participant in the F-35 programme for more than a decade and the F 35B has been in the sights of RSN officials for years, but no steps have been made to show interest in the procurement of this aircraft or its variants.

The Singaporean Defence Minister made it clear back in 2013 that Singapore was in no hurry to buy new aircraft because “F-16s are still very operational.” With all the glitches and initial problems facing the F-35 programme, its safe to assume that Singapore’s just waiting for the aircraft to complete it’s maturation period.

With or without the F-35, Singapore believes in improving it’s tactical position in the event of a conflict.

If the leadership believes that the costs towards the construction, operation and maintenance of an aircraft carrier can be justified and although it’s a huge leap forward, an aircraft carrier is a step in the right direction.

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  • Joseph Tan

    Dear Sir,

    The article start on a wrong footing. Tussle of those islands in South China Sea.

    Singapore had no claim nor do Singapore want to be involve in those South China Sea reefs, shoals dispute. Further with almost 75% of her population consists of Chinese or Chinese descents, it is the perhaps last (or second last) thing that Singapore want to be involved in.

    Singapore derives much trade from her big neighbours – especially Indonesia and Malaysia, IN fact, a lot of Singapore had lots of ties and kins across the causeway (i.e Malaysia)

    So to built up a HLA or an aircraft carrier may sent a very unfriendly message to her neighbours. Singapore air forces had long been trained to land and take-off on highways and certain roads during emergency, just like in Sweden or Taiwan.

    Because of such a great wealth and such a small place, Singapore must have a powerful fleet vis-a -vis her neighbours to prevent any unnecessary or untowards adventure. She also allow US carrier to dock as and when the carrier passed over this part of the world. In fact the US may parked 2 to 4 of those new coastal patrol just for US “to show the flag”

    No wonder, Singapore treat the LHA matter as a non existence matter.

    Similarly with INDIA which after being admitted in the SCO, BRICS Bank and AIIB, suddenly the issue of “China threat” had suddenly and over-night disappeared. Of course US try to play up this India insecurity.

    India is not that stupid to be used as US’s pawn. You can see that India may not going to proceed with the 120 + Multi-Role Fighter with Rafale France as the so-called “threat” dissipated.

    Wise move, should I say as PM Modi focused more on economy.



    • kyrifles

      Pawns? Given that no vassalage is involved, it’s hard to see how Singapore becomes anyone’s pawn. The US has no territorial ambitions in the region. Throughout China’s long history, it has had nothing but territorial ambitions. The real question is whether the US should allow itself to become a pawn in the region’s attempt to remain independent of China’s clutches, as China’s military power becomes increasingly matched to its historic territorial goals, meaning any US attempt at assisting the sovereign nations in the region against China will become increasingly expensive in American lives and treasure.

      • Joseph Tan

        Hahahaha…………….. US has no territorial ambition

        From 13 states, she bought, annex, killed threatened to kill, invade to become what US presently. Ask the following person of the grievances:-
        i) The Mexican (on part of California, New Mexico, Utah, part of Texas etc).
        ii) The Islanders ( on Hawaii, American Samoa, etc etc in the Pacific)
        iii) The Red Indian (how they roam freely throughout the Wild West – perhaps as large as current Mongolia to be confined to restricted settlement and treated as strange creature to lure tourists
        iv) The fraud on the Russian that cause the purchase of Alaska
        v) The purchase of mid-West from France with a instigated war

        vi) the unjust lease in Guantanamo in Cuba
        vii) the semi-colony of Puerto Rico
        viii) Read more about US Guano Islands Act.

        So do not be self-righteous before accusing another, It is good to be modest, humble and learn from whatever past mistakes.

        They used to say “to err is human, to forgive, divine”. God bless.

        • kyrifles

          But that was then, when every other power was expanding its borders to the limits of its ability. China has certainly always done so, from its origins as a small kingdom on the banks of the Yellow River. As to atrocities, Chinese history is so rife with atrocities that the 20th century massacre at Nanking was only third major massacre in that city during the past 500 years. The Dzungars were almost exterminated in the 19th century by the Chinese, contemporaneous with the winning of the West. This wasn’t simply of taking land or the occasional massacre. The Chinese killed every single Dzungar they came across.

          The US has not annexed any territory apart from Hawaii in the last century, and gave the Philippines its independence in the 1940’s. No East Asian country could possibly believe that the US wants to add additional territory to its already extensive holdings. Every country in the world is borne of armed conquest. The difference with China is that it continues to want to bring all under heaven into the warm embrace of the Chinese empire.

          As to “unfair treaties” over peripheral territories like Guantanamo – Cuba owes its very existence as an independent country (from the Spanish empire) to the US. It’s no surprise that its rulers would sign such a lease, especially given that it remained a possibility that the Spanish empire might attempt to retake Cuba. The fact that the current Communist government wants to abrogate the treaty now that the danger is over is no surprise, but that doesn’t mean the treaty isn’t binding.

          With respect to Puerto Rico, it might come as a surprise to you, but Puerto Ricans are a running joke on the mainland. The US would be a better place without the Union flag flying over Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, Puerto Ricans just can’t seem to get the hint and will not back, let alone declare independence. According to Wikipedia: “Independence also received the least support, less than 4.5% of the vote, in the status referendums in 1967, 1993 & 1998.”

  • Joezifu

    One very expensive piece of high valued asset and lives to defend. Not sure what it will achieve?

    • robertl

      Agreed.they have no major enemies and if they did more than likely they would face them with a coalition.purchasing harriers to complement the f16s would be the best route adding an extra degree of tactical flexibility and response.24hr air survailence and enhanced air defenseses shouldbe greatly reduce the chances of a quick strike knocking out the main force.Even with all this extra spending it’s still way cheaper than the cost of maintaining a carrier let alone all that’s needed to support it.

      • idkwutidk

        Singapore sees Malaysia and Indonesia as threats, That’s why they train with the Australians.

    • WRECKIT8

      By closing Paya Lebah airport, the value of the land around it will more than enough to buy any aircraft carrier.

  • Another Guest (from Australia)

    Singapore picks more F-15SGs over F-35Bs; Weapon and training support requests.

    4th April 2013: AMRAAM + F-15SGs. The US DSCA announces Singapore’s request to buy 100 AIM-120C7 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) – but it’s the context for this $210 million export request that makes it important. Sure, Singapore also wants 10 AMRAAM Spare Guidance Sections and an AMRAAM Programmable Advanced System Interface Simulator (PASIS). They also want 18 AN/AVS-9(V) Night Vision Goggles, the H-764G GPS with GEM-V Selective Availability Anti-Spoofing Module (SAASM), and Common Munitions Built-in-Test Reprogramming Equipment (CMBRE-Plus) “in support of a Direct Commercial Sale of new F-15SG aircraft.”

    The natural interpretation is that they’re about to buy another 12 F-15SGs as F-5 replacements and grow their fleet to 36, instead of buying 12 F-35Bs that won’t be useful until 2018 or later. Subsequent revelations show that the fleet has expanded, but it isn’t clear whether this request covers the 8 extra F-15SGs delivered in 2012, or a forthcoming sale.

    The fighters themselves are noted as a DCS sale, so Singapore manages all of that themselves, and figures aren’t disclosed. They’ve done this for all of their F-15SG buys, and past estimates for their 12-plane buys have been around $1.5 billion ($125 million per aircraft + support etc.). Their support and training infrastructure is already in place, so the total per plane may be lower this time.

    The $210 million FMS request will cover additional containers, spare and repair parts, support equipment, tools and test equipment, training equipment, and US government and contractor support – though Singapore won’t need any more on-site representatives. The prime contractors will be Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson, AZ (AMRAAM); Honeywell Aerospace in Phoenix, AZ; ITT Night Vision in Roanoke, VA (NVGs); and ATK Defense Electronic Systems in Clearwater, FL.