Model of LHD variant of ST Engineering Marine's Endurance-160. (Wendell Minnick)
TAIPEI — For years, Singapore’s ST Engineering Marine has been parading a ship model of a landing helicopter dock (LHD) vessel that could handle the jump-jet variant of the F-35 joint strike fighter.
The model was most recently on display at last month’s Singapore Airshow. And while Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) won’t confirm that it has plans to build such a vessel, it’s also not denying it.
The model shows a variant of the Endurance-160 multirole support ship configured as an LHD.
MINDEF confirmed that Singapore has expressed an interest in the F-35B, as illustrated by the recent inspection of the aircraft by Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen during his visit to Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., in December.
In an interview transcript released by the Defense Writers Group, conducted in late July, US Air Force Gen. Herbert Carlisle disclosed that Lt. Gen. Ng Chee Meng, Singapore Defence Force chief, had told him that Singapore would procure the F-35B.
“I know that’s a decision that’s been made and that’s why they’re part of the program, but I don’t know where they’re at in putting that in the budget,” said Carlisle, commander of Pacific Air Forces.
Four 14,000-ton Endurance multirole support ships already serve in the Singapore Navy as landing ship tank (LST) vessels, and ST Marine delivered its first export order for the vessel to Thailand in 2012.
Though significantly smaller than the 40,000-ton US Wasp-class LHD amphibious assault ships, outfitting a 14,000-ton vessel such as the Endurance with F-35Bs is not a new idea. South Korea’s LPH-6111 Dokdo-class and Japan’s Hyuga-class “helicopter destroyer,” each 14,000 tons, reportedly have had their flight decks covered with urethane to make them resistant to jet engines.
Factors driving Singapore’s need to build light aircraft carriers include maintaining the sea lines of communication in the Malacca Strait, consolidation plans that reduce air bases from three to one, lack of strategic depth, and unresolved histories that include animosity and violence with Indonesia and Malaysia.
An unsettling reminder occurred during the Singapore Airshow in mid-February, when Indonesia named a Navy corvette “the KRI Usman Harun” in honor of the two marines who planted a bomb in a Singapore bank building in 1965 as part of then-President Sukarno’s “confrontation” policy. More than 30 bombs were set off in Singapore during the crisis. In 1968, Singapore hanged both men. Singapore has protested the naming and barred the Nakhoda Ragam-class vessel from entering Singapore.
A short-takeoff, vertical-landing (STOVL) jet is well suited for Singapore’s congested land mass, said Carl Thayer, professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
“Singapore is in the process of consolidating its three military airfields. The reduction in runways is compensated for by the F-35s ability to take off in a short space. A fully loaded F-35B needs only 168 meters of runway,” he said. “In addition, the F-35B has demonstrated that it can land and take off easily from ships at sea.”
In August, the F-35B performed its first night vertical landing aboard WASP. This type of capability would “suit Singapore future procurement plans,” Thayer said.
But not everyone is sold on the idea.
“I’m sure it has its appeal, not just from a power-projection and anti-piracy perspective but also from a force survivability standpoint,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Teal Group, Fairfax, Va. “But it would add considerably to Singapore’s F-35 acquisition bill.”
Costs could increase as much as 25 percent to buy and operate the F-35B relative to the standard takeoff version. This would mean fewer planes, Aboulafia said.
“Singapore, as an island nation, realizes their combat aircraft runways would be vulnerable and likely targets,” said Guy Stitt, founder and president of AMl International, a Bremerton, Wash., naval analysis firm. “A STOVL capability gives them the ability to ensure combat air capabilities could be maintained without runways, although vertical take-off does eat a lot of fuel.”
The Endurance LHD design would require considerable enlargement and revamping to operate and store fixed-wing aircraft, said AMI’s chief analytical officer, Patrick Bright. The vessel would require a ski ramp and a larger elevator to handle the F-35B.
Singapore appears to be eager to procure either the F-35B or a light aircraft carrier. With the procurement of submarines and the littoral mission vessel, “I imagine the new multirole vessel design would follow them starting in 2021,” Stitt said.
The time frame would fit with plans to upgrade the country’s F-16 fleet and allow for others to iron out bugs in the F-35B program, Thayer said.
MINDEF officials said Singapore is in “no hurry” to buy the F-35. ■