Thursday, October 6, 2011

Singapore studying the STOVL F-35B?

RSAF Northrop F-5S Tiger II deploys its drag chute upon landing on a public road during an Alternate Runway exercise. (Photo: Singapore MINDEF)

Stephen Trimble's (aka @thedewline) piece on Flightglobal regarding the F-35B's recent flightdeck tests on the deck of the USS Wasp contained this nugget:

"Meanwhile, Singapore - a security co-operation participant in the F-35 joint programme office - has launched studies aimed at considering the STOVL (Ed: Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant, said Gregg Pyers, lift fan programme director for UK-based Rolls-Royce."

It has always struck me as slightly odd that up to now, there were no indications that Singapore, a strategic, heavily-defended small island-state less than 50km from one end to another has seemingly never seriously considered (not publicly, anyway) VSTOL/STOVL solutions for its air force. One can assume that even had the RSAF looked into such capabilities before, the only realistic contender prior to the F-35, the Harrier, did not "bring enough to the table" in terms of combat capabilities to warrant introducing a new type (with its associated support requirements) into the inventory.

Then again, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) has several measures in place to mitigate any attempt to restrict its air operations, including hardened/camouflaged airbases, a well-established runway repair capability, main taxiways which serve as secondary runways and public roads which double up as emergency runways should the need arise. And until the procurement by neighbouring Malaysia of the Brazilian ASTROS Multiple Rocket Launcher system, its nearest potential adversaries had little capability of putting its runways out of action, and even so, it was unlikely that any adversary will be able to sustain any operation to keep the RSAF's runways closed for an extended period of time.

Still, a squadron of easily-dispersed STOVL-capable assets would ensure that the RSAF would be able to keep up combat air operations even in the event of it's runways being out of action, even for a short period of time. Knowing that the RSAF retains an air combat capability even without runways in operation would complicate any adversary's calculations in attempting a first strike to negate Singapore's defences.

Endurance 160 Multi-Role Support Ship

There is another dimension in Singapore's interest in the F-35B. At Euronaval 2010 in Paris and again at Singapore's International Maritime and Defence Exhibition (IMDEX) in May 2011, defence contractor Singapore Technologies (ST) Marine displayed a scale model of a Multi-Role Support Ship based on its Endurance 140 Landing Platform Dock (LPD) design. Looking suspiciously like a miniature Landing Helicopter Dock, or LHD in US Navy parlance and designated the Endurance 160, the design displaces 14,500 tonnes, measures approximately 163m by 26m and is equipped with 5 deck spots for helicopters and 2 elevators.

The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) already operates 4 Endurance 140s, and while Singapore has not officially announced the purchase of any Endurance 160s, a reported offer of an Endurance 140 for the Chilean Navy may point to the RSN looking to free up personnel to crew other (newer?) ships.

Studying the Endurance 160 model, the deck elevators as displayed are too small for F-35Bs to be struck belowdecks which would preclude sustained operations, but it is still entirely possible for a detachment of F-35Bs to operate from the flight deck for short operations. Alternatively a larger lift could be incorporated into the design, either expanding the size of one of the elevators (which has the effect of reducing hangar space) or adding a deck edge elevator to operate the fighters.

A bigger issue would be the length of the flight deck, being too short for F-35B operations (550ft/168m being the minimum for F-35B operations on a conventional flight deck) or the addition of a ski jump which would reduce the F-35B's take off distance to 450ft/137m. Should the RSN purchase the Endurance 160, having F-35Bs would maximize the capabilities of such a vessel, albeit with modifications to the existing flight deck design.

It would be interesting to see how the this study on the F-35B's suitability for the RSAF, presumably carried out by Singapore's Defence Science and Technology Agency, pans out. With the advent of the 5th Generation F-35 and a level of parts/logistics commonality with the Conventional Take-off Landing F-35A variant, it seems Singapore's defence planners have seen something in the STOVL F-35B worth looking further into.

Then again, the cynic in me reckons the statement might just be a marketing plug by Rolls Royce to keep the troubled F-35B, and hence Rolls Royce's own lift fan programme, alive by advertising the presence of another potential export customer.

EDIT (7th Oct 2011): Amended flightdeck requirements of F-35B operations relative to the Endurance 160, thanks to reader feedback. (h/t kotay)

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