The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 1.16.20
Singapore’s F-35B: Due Diligence or a CONOPS Sea Change?
Hamilton Cook, Research Associate
On January 10, the US formally approved Singapore’s purchase of 12 F-35Bs, which came as a surprise – not because the F-35 was purchased (the deal had been in negotiation since March 2019, and Singapore has been an F-35 Security Cooperative Participant since 2003) but because Singapore had chosen to acquire the short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) B variant. Singapore, which previously implied an interest in acquiring both the F-35A and F-35B variants in order to evaluate the aircrafts’ capabilities, has instead moved forward with only the F-35B variant. The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) will need to replace its fleet of 60 F-16s in the coming decade, with F-15 replacements following that. The decision to acquire the limited-range STOVL variant could now affect the eventual F-15 replacements, in which the RSAF will likely consider acquiring a longer-range fighter jet. The acquisition of the F-35B comes at a time when Singapore has toyed with the idea of using non-traditional runways (think highways) due to limited air base availability, especially with the upcoming closure of the Paya Lebar airbase.
Despite all this, Singapore’s F-35B purchase seems to confirm Avascent’s assumptions regarding the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN). The Republic of Singapore Navy has been quietly executing an ambitious and aggressive naval modernization program that will enable it to better defend its maritime sovereignty. For the last 30 years, the backbone of the RSN consisted of 270-ton missile gunboats and 600-ton Victory-class corvettes. However, the RSN is beginning to phase out these vessels in favor of more modern systems such as 3,200-ton Formidable-class advanced frigates, Type 218 submarines, and 1,200-ton Independence-class Littoral Mission vessels. While this is a massive leap in capability, Singapore seems to be planning something even more ambitious for its replacements for the Victory-class corvette and 6,000-ton Endurance transport docks.
Of the two vessels, the Victory-class corvette replacement with a Multi-Role Combat Vessel is the most ambitious. While generally presented to the public as a light combat ship that will serve as the control node for a group of unmanned aerial and maritime systems, models of the Multi-Role Combat Vessel displayed at IMDEX 2019 showed a large 5,000- to 6,000-ton air warfare destroyer serving as the nexus of an unmanned battle group. Yet, what would this ship be protecting? Singapore’s size makes air-defense systems, like its recent Spyder Air-Defense System purchase, financially efficient and operationally effective solutions. Therefore, this new ship must operate outside of Singapore, and there is one option in the future Singaporean fleet: the Joint Multi-Mission Ship.
In pitching the Joint Multi-Mission Ship (JMMS), Singapore has been coy about its potential capabilities, focusing on how the JMMS will address the shortfalls of the current Endurance-class vessels in supporting humanitarian and counter-piracy operations. However, the sheer scale of the Multi-Role Combat Vessel and Singapore’s preference for STOVL-capable jets points toward a longer-held dream by Singapore: the induction of several STOVL carriers into the fleet. These four ships would likely be the size of the Mistral-class of amphibious assault ship, with an estimated $1.2 billion price tag per ship. These vessels would likely be considered during the latter half of the 2020s, eventually allowing the RSN to operate well into the South China Sea and maintain significant capability against regional powers.
The idea that Singapore is looking to produce a series of light STOVL carriers is a somewhat far afield implication from a single block purchase of F-35B, but it does align with the strategy, CONOPS, budget, and overall story for one of the least transparent countries in the Avascent Analytics dataset. This further lends credence to the widely held belief that naval arms races across the Pacific will be one of the most interesting defense stories to watch in the 2020s.
As the US awaits the release of the FY2021 President’s Budget Request (PBR), the Avascent team has been reviewing the recent FY2020 appropriations and the FY2020 budget compared to the previous year’s budget. The FY2020 appropriations conformed to the 2019 Bipartisan Budget Act, which adjusted the caps for FY2020-2021 put forth by the Budget Control Act. Of the various Department of Defense accounts, Procurement and RDT&E saw increases, while Operations & Maintenance and Personnel saw some minor reductions. Digging deeper into the Procurement and RDT&E accounts, space, ground systems, ships, and aviation programs were the winners, with aviation programs receiving the largest increase (3.9 percent) in funding than what was requested in the initial FY2020 PBR. Additional funding to aviation programs were largely seen in the F-35A, P-8A, E-2D, MV-22, and C-130J. The US Navy saw funding increases to the DDG-51 Destroyer, Columbia-class submarine, and LHA Amphibious ship, while the US Army saw funding increases for the Stryker modifications and Next Generation Combat Vehicle.
C4ISR, Missiles and Munitions, and Classified spending were the losers, with Missiles and Munition taking the biggest cut (4 percent), compared to the initial request. Cuts were made to the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, Patriot PAC-3, SM-6, Tomahawk, AMRAAM, and multiple launch rocket systems/guided multiple launch rocket systems under the Missiles and Munitions account. For C4ISR, which saw a decrease in funding (3.8 percent), cuts were made to the Next Generation Jammer, SLQ-32 surface electronic warfare improvement program, Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS), and Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services (CANES).
Looking forward to FY2021, the Avascent team believes that some programs will fare better than others. Some of these programs include the Next Generation Air Dominance, Future Vertical Lift, unmanned undersea and surface vehicles, and space surveillance programs. However, several factors could affect funding for these programs, including the retirement of existing systems and political pressure to support some programs over others. As of now, the defense community anticipates the release of the FY2021 PBR, which is expected to be February 10.
The German Federal Ministry of Defense selected a team led by Dutch shipbuilder Damen to build the future MKS 180 Multi-Purpose Combat Ship. The Damen team includes German shipbuilder Blohm & Voss and Thales. Although the lead firm is not German, the ships will be built at Blohm & Voss’s shipyard in Hamburg and other German yards belonging to Blohm & Voss’s parent company, Lürssen Group. Most of the investment will return to Germany, with German subcontractors providing 70 percent of the services supporting the ships. Four ships worth nearly $5.9 billion (€5.3 billion) are currently planned, with the Germany Navy advocating for an additional two ships. While the Ministry of Defense has made this selection, it will still need to receive parliamentary approval in the Bundestag. Furthermore, losing bidder German Naval Yards Kiel (GNYK) may protest the decision. The selection of a Dutch-led team as opposed to the German-led team headed by GNYK may raise some political questions regarding the impact this selection will have on the health of the German shipbuilding industry. GNYK’s main partner, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS), has been losing money for years and cutting thousands of jobs, forcing it to be reorganized under direct management of the ThyssenKrupp corporate group. Some saw this as a sign that TKMS may be sold in the near future. But another heavy blow to TKMS was the German MoD’s decision to ban TKMS from bidding for the MKS 180 in 2018. This is likely due to extensive technical problems, delays, and cost overruns that TKMS experienced building the F125 frigates for the German Navy. TKMS was subsequently picked up as a subcontractor to GNYK for the MKS 180 bid, though this move likely contributed to GNYK’s loss to Damen.