Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is no Peace Corps

Singapore's intention to buy a large warship that can carry helicopters has been packaged under the catch-all, say-nothing moniker, Joint Multi-Mission Ship (JMMS).

Apart  from adding to the alphabet soup of Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) acronyms, the term JMMS conjures a vessel that is a Swiss Army knife of sorts: A vessel of indeterminate length able to shoulder missions aplenty, carry more and venture further than anything the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) has afloat today.

While close to nothing has been said about the military role of the JMMS as a surface combatant, mainstream media in Singapore have happily cut and pasted the MINDEF/SAF narrative of the JMMS as a disaster relief ship in their reports.

Look at these headlines:
Channel NewsAsia:  S'pore may buy large ship  for use in disaster zones: Dr Ng
Today: SAF mulls buying larger ship to better aid  in diaster relief
The Straits Times: Singapore may buy large warship for use in disaster zones

No one has asked about the role a large ship that can carry helicopters can serve in enhancing the SAF's capability during operations (read: in peace, troubled peace and war).

Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen told reporters in his interview with the Singapore media ahead of SAF Day, which is today:"A larger JMMS would be able to carry more helicopters or  have more helicopters operating. When we responded to Typhoon Haiyen... basically the typhoon was so devastating that comms and communication were knocked out. There was no centralised ability for command and control of the airspace. In that context, a ship like the JMMS would have been very useful."

And indeed it would.

The unease one feels with such a storyline comes from the impression that such sugar coating builds in the minds of Singaporeans as well as friends and frenemies abroad.

It could lead to the image of the SAF in general, and the Singapore Navy in particular, as a Peace Corps for the region. So if and when our multi-billion dollar defence budget eventually results in a JMMS pierside at an RSN naval base, Singapore may find itself inundated with calls to assist in the aftermath of nature's fury.

Can we ignore these plaintive pleas?

If we get the large ship that can carry helicopters, we may find it awkward to RSVP in the negative. If we go, how long should the more capable large ship that can carry helicopters stay in theatre? Would the author of the HADR storyline also have an exit story crafted for future policymakers so that Singapore can bow out of an extended deployment in a disaster zone with dignity and goodwill bridged with the foreign nation?

Whatever the narrative the mainstream media laps up, observers should know the SAF's key purpose of deterring aggression through strength and readiness lies at the core of our capability enhancement development projects.

Ditch the Peace Corps mental image and one sees a JMMS capable of supporting amphibious operations on the exposed flank of the area of operations. Singapore Army and Republic of Singapore Air Force assets embarked on the JMMS would allow the SAF to project combat and combat support forces on and from the sea. More impactful is the type and sustainability of air support coming from RSAF rotary-wing and quite possibly fixed-wing aviation operating from the JMMS. These could conceivably range from upgraded Apache attack helicopters (the crashed bird is being souped up to a new standard), troopships to combat naval aviation.

In addition, drones tailored for military missions other than surveillance could be unleashed by the JMMS, adding a new dimensions to the fight that present-day RSN Task Groups built around its LSTs cannot muster.

As the 141-metre long Endurance-class tank landing ships are already frontrunners in this role of projecting SAF muscle across the beach, the capability of the planned JMMS is likely to be on par or superior to that  found aboard the Endurance LSTs. Few amphibs used by foreign navies can rival the beach landing capabilities of each Endurance LST, which is designed to embark a sizeable number of fast waterjet-propelled landing craft. This suggests an uplift in the ability of the JMMS to not just move men and materiel on the water and in the air, but also use its flight deck to deliver RSAF combat power where it counts - let's leave it at that. Singapore Army, Navy and Air Force executing multiple missions jointly from the same hull - hence JMMS.

By the time the JMMS hits the water, our ageing fast landing craft introduced under Project M are expected to have been superceded by a new class of landing craft, some of which have a drive-thru design to carry heavy vehicles around 70 tonnes. These landing craft could appear sooner than you think.

Keep your eyes open.

Happy SAF Day.


tumduck said...

This ship would be perfect for the F35 STOVL version. I understand the Aussies are considering their Landing Helicopter Docks (LHD) to fulfil that purpose.

Anonymous said...


A couple of observations:

Firstly, Singapore isn't the only country looking at mid-to-big deck amphibious vessels. India has an outstanding requirement, the South Koreans are building their third Dokdo class and the Japanese their second Izumo class 'heli-destroyer'. And as Tumduck mentioned, the Aussies are just about to launch their first of two Canberra class LHDs.

As you wrote in a previous article, Malaysia has created a Marine unit, but they don't have any dedicated amphibious warfare vessels since 2011, so expect to hear something from them as well.

Even with the Pacific Pivot and the new LCS and JHSV classes, it's clear that we can't rely on the USN to pick up all the load concerning humanitarian assistance, and as you know, it won't be all about peace.

Secondly, the RSN's Endurance class have done a lot of sailing in the last 15 years, and I'm wondering if this has taken a toll regarding their maintenance and refurbishing was the reason why they were not deployed for Haiyan. I mean, wasn't RSS Endurance parked at VivoCity for a show and tell while other navies were scrambling to send assets to the Philippines? The RN sent HMS Daring from Singapore and the HMS Illustrious from India! How did the RSN turn down this "call to assist in the aftermath of nature's fury?"

Perhaps it's time to regenerate our amphibious assets as well, and a 20k ton LHD akin to the Mistrals sounds about right.. not too big that we end up with a dockside white elephant for tourist to visit when not in infrequent use.

By the way, for the traditional 'cheap' second-hand option that the SAF sometimes likes to employ when acquiring new capabilities, the LHA USS Peleliu will be decommissioned from the USN this year. The RSN can even inspect her in Hawaii as she's at RIMPAC

Andrew Leung said...

I hope they also buy LCAC and V22 Osprey.

earlyfalloutboy said...

On the same page of today's ST it was reported "New scheme allows SAF to tap civilian skills"

Do you think NSmen enlistees are willing to take up the offer attend conversion training, extend their ROD date to age 50 and convert to ME4 in their civilian specialisations?

earlyfalloutboy said...


Good observations. However, the USS Peleliu is excessively large and high on manpower requirements.

In any case, I'm sure the decision has been made to go local. In my personal opinion of course.

Anonymous said...

Likely that the JMMS is based on ST Marine's Endurance-160? Also, didn't think anyone really would take the "for HADR" statement at face value. Seems to be more of a diplomatic shield to possible criticism from our neighbours. 
My thoughts: http://temasekthunderbolt.wordpress.com/2014/07/01/joint-multi-mission-ship-announcement/

Kamen Rider SG said...

No second hand please.
Hopefully an extended version of Endurance 160 to operate F-35B & naval version of AH-64D

Chew said...

Almost 20 years ago, the Malaysian Navy wanted to obtain a helicopter carrier. Unfortunately, for political and other reasons, they were fostered with the unfortunate submarines which were never really on top of their wish list in the first place.

Kamen Rider SG said...

David...do you have any info?
There is a report mentioning that Singapore just procured 50 Merkava 4 MBT from Israel...

earlyfalloutboy said...

I checked out the report. It mentioned "new build vehicles." If not spurious, I think it could be complete vehicles as much as it could be chassis for R&D and building a future local AFV.

David Boey said...

You didn't see me at SA.
But you could catch me in SA.
Onboard systems give my masters superior SA.
What am I?

Not hell on wheels
But terror on tracks
Advanced armour brings you there and back.

Project A won my creators the DT prize.
Project B ís not just a BX in another guise.

I do not exist - for now.
But should I aim at you in time of war
Run for your life before I roar.


Abao said...

Rather than calling it a JMMS, MINDEF should be frank that we need a sea control ship, aka Izumo Class or the likes of it.

In this case, we also need to prepare for the failure of F35B program and ensure the ship can be reequipped with FA18 in ramps.

Since MINDEF had identified the need for sea control, they better follow up with more Formidables' to properly escort it.

earlyfalloutboy said...

David, an update for your piece "1/3 empty or 2/3 full?: Suggestions for sensing the commitment of Singapore Permanent Residents towards National Service"



Anonymous said...


As much as I think the entire F-35A/B/C concept has been flawed (too many similarities to the F-111 'naval fighter' saga for my taste) it's the only production STOVL strike fighter in the world (the Harrier 2 has not been in production for over 15 years) and is finally approaching IOC with the US Marine Corp.

This also means that it's the only aircraft that can be operated from a 'light carrier' or LHD/LHA design with some slight modifications.

In order to operate the FA-18E Super Hornet a navy would at the very least require a STOBAR configured carrier of at least 30,000 tons and 250m in length, equipped with arrestor gear and an angled flight deck. This would not only quite far outside the scope of the JMMS concept, but also costly - at least S$1.5 billion per ship. Ramp launching a big Super Hornet also isn't economical - you simply cannot launch a big fighter with a useful warlord, as the PLANAF have now discovered their J-15s, and this is why both the Indian and Russian Navy are using the MiG-29K - a smaller, lighter aircraft.

Regarding Sea Control. No where has MINDEF or Defense Minister Ng used that specific term in public to refer to the JMMS. The Sea Control Ship denotes an anti-submarine warfare carrier with a small fighter jet complement for local area or convoy defence, and was conceptualised by the former USN CNO Admiral Zumwalt for ASW and convoy escort against Soviet air and submarine forces if the Cold War went hot. In the 21st century, the only country building warships close to this concept is Japan with their Hyuga and Izumo helicopter destroyers, every other nation is either building LHA/LHDs or pure carriers above 30,000 tons.

The JMMS, on the other hand, has been publicly defined as "a larger ship compared with the Land Ship Tanks (LSTs) on the SAF’s books that will enable it to send more helicopters to crisis-hit areas."

earlyfalloutboy said...


The problem of the J-15 taking off with a small warload can be solved by tanking or buddy tanking after take off, if the Chinese have this capability.

This problem and solution apply to the F-35B in STOVL operation, even more than to CTOL aircraft. However, buddy tanking is very inefficient if tanker is itself an F-35B (one of a small number on the ship in combat, maintenance, reserve or tanking).

The alternatives are: accept only air to air and modest air to surface roles, or carry heavy air to surface roles only at short range. Both are not good value for money such an expensive fighter.

In this context, I won't fault the F-35B variant for being wastefully expensive. It is almost the ideal STOVL fighter that anyone could wish for (the A and C are stupid). One simply can't defy physics and expect a STOVL strike aircraft to perform like a CTOL one. I would say, look hard at the requirement for a carrier or land-based-just-behind-the-front-lines-dispersed-operations air superiority and strike fighter, and see if it is really necessary in the context of operations within the range of land based air power.

earlyfalloutboy said...

"By the time the JMMS hits the water, our ageing fast landing craft introduced under Project M are expected to have been superceded by a new class of landing craft,"

Hi David,

I was wondering if you know why the SAF prefers to use the M-113 for landing exercise on Pulau Sudong. Even though it is only in use with the ATEC company nowadays AFAIK.


Anonymous said...

Hey earlyfalloutboy:

Buddy tanking ramp-launched J-15s doesn't sound efficient, as the J-15 tanker itself will have the same weight limitations.

What I reckon is that China developed the J-15 as it was their fastest route to a naval fighter - they were already producing the J-11 and acquired an Su-33 prototype from the Ukraine. Chengdu is apparently also developing a navalized J-20 while the Guizhou JL-9G naval trainer is in flight testing.

The PLAN is still in the early stage of developing carrier aviation and are using the Liaoning for training and experience in carrier operations until their indigenous carriers (widely rumoured to be CATOBAR designs) are commissioned. Once you see the PLANAF conducting regular carrier landing qualifications with the JL-9G you'll know that they're in prime time - there's will be a lot of accidents when novice pilots start their carrier-quals and writing off a trainer is far cheaper than a J-15.

The F-35 is very much in the RSAF's long term acquisition plans. With the transfer of F-16A/Bs to the RTAF, there's actually a twenty year procurement 'age' gap between the oldest F-5S and F-16C/D, and by 2020 the F-5 fleet will hit 44 years of service and definitely due for replacement. This is when I predict MINDEF will order the F-35, especially as LockMart promises that by 2019 the cost of a full-rate production F-35 will drop to USD$80 million.

You do know that there's been reports that the RSAF has 'interest' in the V-22? Boeing have already conducted successful roll-on/roll-off trials of a refuelling rig for the Osprey, which makes it an even more likely candidate for a multirole support aircraft that can do transport, vertical replenishment, on-board delivery and tanking.

Big 'if' time. If the JMMS project does proceed, I would not be surprised if the RSAF buys a mix, perhaps a squadron each of 'A's and 'B's. This would enable a future LHD type JMMS to deploy 4 Bs along with 2 to 4 V-22s, drones and naval helicopters (i'm partial to the Merlin for transport, ASW and AEW).

@David - is this what you mean by a new class of landing craft?

earlyfalloutboy said...

The F-16s are being upgraded to meet our needs pending the F-5's retirement and in any case, the crews of many F-5s have already transitioned to the F-15, even if some F-5s remain in active use. I believe the F-5 is being used today because it is sufficient for peacetime tasks and because the airframes have remaining life.

We also know the F-15 as the replacement for the A-4SU. However, when the RSAF retired the A-4SU in 2005, it was the same year the F-15SG was ordered and 3 years before their delivery (5 before their arrival back home). http://kementah.blogspot.sg/2010/03/april-fool.html We had decided that the F-16 and F-5 fleet was sufficient for our needs between those years.

If a JMMS were to deploy 4 F-35Bs, between aircraft in maintenanance and the recovery phase, there would not be enough for air defence of the fleet, let alone strike missions. The fleet would have to operate within coverage of land based air power to be secure. The aircraft aboard could handle strike missions with Osprey tanking. But with the fleet having to remain under land based air cover, one wonders if the strike task could be performed more effectively by land based fighter aircraft and tankers. The F-35B could also be employed as a CAS aircraft in the manner the USMC deploys 6 Harriers per LHD. Again this could be done by land based fighters carrying high payloads. Or by attack helicopters aboard the JMMS that can perform the CAS task more cheaply and more effectively than any fighter aircraft.