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.The argument in that article for SG to acquire an aircraft carrier (or carriers) is, to be blunt, simplistic. To be blunter, childish.
Briefly, the argument is that SG has limited land, and we are closing Paya Lebar Airbase, so we will have even fewer options in the coming years, and Tengah Airbase launches planes almost immediately into Malaysian airspace. So the solution is an aircraft carrier. The argument glosses over the fact that our main warplanes are not carrier capable (F15 and F16). So if "the aircraft carrier solution" is to solve our airbase constraint, there are a lot more other issues to consider and decide before it becomes even the inkling of a solution. (At least not for THAT problem.)
But I am sure Singapore's Defence planners would have at least considered if an aircraft carrier would best serve SG's defence needs. So I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand. But if SG were to decide to have aircraft carriers, it would not be for the reasons put forward in that article.
To be sure, it would not be a super-carrier like the Nimitz-class (or the new Ford-class) carriers of the US. Those carriers require a whole carrier group to be effective, and to survive. Because while a carrier is a game-changer, it is also a big fat target.
China intends to hold off US carrier groups with their "anti-carrier" missiles. In other words, you don't need to have a carrier battle group to defeat another carrier group. Just an Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) system. Much cheaper.
(Of course, there are two questions to ask. One, are these ASBM capable of hitting a carrier? The educated, expert opinion is, we don't know. It has never been tested against a real "uncooperative" target. But assuming that it is capable, or the Chinese have enough of it to offset any unreliability issues, there is a second question. Will China really use in and under what circumstances? And how might the US counter it or defend against it? And the answer is, maybe China won't use it except under the very worst case scenario.)
And because it is so cheap, China can make lots of it (and China has a reputation for making lots of cheap copies). And it doesn't even have to be accurate. If China can launch 50 low-cost and unreliable missiles towards the Carrier Battle Group, the CBG will be obliged to defend against these missiles (because, lucky shot). BUT, the CBG has a limited amount of ammunition to defend itself. Once their defensive measures are exhausted, the CBG would be vulnerable. It doesn't matter if they still have offensive weapons or munitions. They are sitting ducks.
So in that sense the ASBM can be a "mission killer", even if it does not actually "kill" a carrier.
The speculative carrier ambition that Singapore is most likely to have would be for "mini-carriers" or "light Carriers" (14,000 tonnes displacement), in the configuration of a "Joint Multi-Mission Ship" or Helicopter Support Ship, or a Landing Platform Dock.
(In comparison, the US Super-carriers are in the 100,000 tonnes displacement class. China's Liaoning is significantly smaller at about 60,000 tonnes or less. S. Korea and Japan have Helicopter carriers in the less than 20,000 tonnes class - 14,000 (empty) - 19,000 (loaded) tonnes. The Endurance 160 would be in the same class as S. Korea's Dokdo, or Japan's Hyuga - light carrier.)
[See "Japan considers refitting Helicopter Carriers for Stealth Jets"]
In all probability, SG will likely get a Joint Multi-Mission Ship (JMMS) that could in a pinch be converted to a light aircraft carrier, with, the obvious solution to many armchair defence analysts, the F35B or C variant. However, to avoid provoking regional fears, the F35s will probably not be based on the JMMS on a permanent basis. SG may also acquire a small number of F35s, but we would not be making a purchase any time soon.
However, SG would have the same strategic and tactical consideration. If you put a lot of your eggs in one basket, you will want to protect that basket. Sure, our carrier "basket" is smaller than the US "basket", but it would be proportionally large and significant to us.
The purchase of the F35 will augment but will not replace the mainstay of the RSAF - the F15SG and the F16C/Ds. But paired with the JMMS in a light carrier configuration, it would offer greater versatility and flexibility of operations for the RSAF.
But will it be necessary?
The F35 has also been called, the Last Manned Fighter.
No. Not because after this, all fighter jets will be "womanned".
Drones. Or rather UCAV - Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles.
One blog (by someone with access to SG defence information) suggests that,
Forward-looking air warfare planners must therefore hedge their bets by asking if a new warplane costing some $200 million apiece is really worth the investment or would a sizeable number of locally-developed UCAVs make a better complement.In case you missed the hint, I've underlined the relevant phrase.
The blogger goes on to write:
... the F-35 story cannot be read in isolation as an air force story alone.The suggestion is that the F35 would have a limited window of usefulness, or that our defence planners are looking beyond the next generation, and are actively researching and developing our own local UCAVs.
Look to the Republic of Singapore Navy, ask yourself where it is heading in terms of air-capable platforms (not just the Endurance-class LST replacements but the one after that), ponder what could be taking place inside our defence R&D labs are you'll have a possible answer to why we are taking so long with that F-35 announcement.
That would be quite an achievement, considering we have little aeronautical experience. But UCAVs may have a lower barrier to entry for us into military aeronautics.
The carrier of the future therefore may not be a manned aircraft carrier. The carrier may well be a drone carrier - armed with flights of drones to carry out various mission.
Or a swarm of drones.
Drones or UCAVs may have varying levels of autonomy. A swarm of networked drones could also be more effective, have greater survivability, and present a more devastating threat.
[August 2017 update: If you watch the 2017 NDP or rehearsal, you would have seen the drone performance. 300 drones programmed to present a light show in the night sky. That is the potential of networked drones.]
Or they can be led by a single piloted aircraft, with sufficient autonomy to support the piloted aircraft without human intervention.
Alternatively, the "aircraft carrier" may well be another aircraft - a modified C130 that can launch swarms of drones or UCAVs.
And as technology converge, the line between a UCAV and a missile may become blurred. The missile of tomorrow may well be a re-usable and recallable weapon capable of "loitering" over the target zone, either to seek out targets of opportunity, or to wait for a strategic moment to strike.
Carrier drone swarms and the new battle plan
Marrying the old and new concept, carrier-based drone swarms could "save" the aircraft carrier.
With drones, the need for aircraft carriers is actually lessened. Rather than have an aircraft carrier at the heart of a carrier battle group, the fleet could instead have a few drone carriers which does not need to be the big fat target that a carrier would be.
So if the ASBM is a credible threat to the carrier, the drone battle group which is less of a target, can sally into the range of the ASBM, while the CBG stays outside of range.
UCAV/Drones can defend the DBG (against hostile ships and aircrafts) as it penetrates the ASBM defenses. This present the defender with a dilemma - use the ASBM against the lesser targets that are the Drone Carriers, or save those for the targets they were designed for - the manned aircraft carriers. Who may never get within range of the ABSM.
Once the Drone carriers are within striking range, Carrier-based manned aircraft could be launched (while still outside the range of the ASBM). The carrier-based warplanes may be refuelled by drones or tankers protected by drones, on the way to the target, and then continue onto the target.
If the defender uses the ASBM to take out the Drone Carriers (and there will be quite a few of them - these need not be specially built ships. Drone Carrier System could be retrofitted onto any ship, and in a Drone Battle Group, every ship could launch drones, or a few could be the main Drone carriers.), it would mean a reduced threat to the CBG, and they can then enter the ASBM defensive range, taking the fight to the Defender.
The idea is for the manned warplanes to deliver their payloads against militarily or strategically significant targets, while the drones, support or screen the CBG and their aircraft. If the manned warplanes are unable to enter the theatre of conflict due to the Anti-access/Area Denial (A2/AD) missile or other defensive system, the drones can do the job instead.
The solution is not better carriers and better defences against ASBM, but drones.
So would SG have carrier ambitions?
It would be so cool.
But no. we don't do things just to be cool. We can't afford to just be cool. We need to invest in viable, credible, plausible, flexible defensive system.
Drones, Drone swarms, and retrofittable Drone launch and recovery system will be where it's at.
So when you look at the latest Littoral Mission Vessel, it is obvious that there is a helicopter landing deck. What would not be so obvious (if it exists) are drone launch and recovery system. Those do not need to have prominent infrastructures. If at all.
[See also: SG pledges to be responsible in exporting UAVs. And of course the first question you must ask is, we have UAVs to export meh?]