Exposed: Singapore's Aircraft Carrier in Disguise

Many are speculating about the role of Singapore’s Joint Multi-Mission Ship (JMMS).

Ever since the Defense Minister of Singapore, Dr, Ng Eng Hen talked about the prospect of acquiring what is called a Joint Multi-Mission Ship (JMMS) in late June last year, speculations about the true nature of this vessel—allegedly an aircraft carrier in disguise—have been swirling.

Most recently, writing for DefenceAviation, Marvin Diaz noted, “it doesn’t take an expert to look beyond the pretentious façade of the vessel.” But perhaps Singapore is not trying to be pretentious at all.

Beyond Physical Characteristics

The International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) defines an aircraft carrier as a ship “with a flight deck that extends beyond two-thirds of the vessel’s length.” Yet there is no accepted standard definition of what constitutes an aircraft carrier. Countries that acquire carriers may categorize them as whatever is politically expedient.

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For example, the Soviets called their Kiev-class aircraft carriers “large aviation-carrying cruisers” to circumvent the Montreux Convention so as to be able to sail through the Bosporus Strait. The Japanese called their Hyuga and larger follow-up Izumo classes “helicopter destroyers” in order to avoid misperceptions.

So indeed, the JMMS fits the “aircraft carrier” criterion insofar as physical characteristics are concerned, going by the IISS definition.

But Singapore has not labeled it as a JMMS in order to obscure its true purpose as an aircraft carrier. Beyond physical characteristics, it is necessary to examine the inherent design of the vessel, as well as looking at it as a system of systems, in order to decipher its actual roles and functions. In other words, a ship may have the physical characteristics of an aircraft carrier but it may not be optimally designed as one. More importantly, it may make little strategic sense to be deployed as such.

Endurance-160 as the Reference Point

The construction of a JMMS should also not come as a surprise to anyone. Singapore’s indigenous shipbuilder, Singapore Technologies Marine (STM) has already demonstrated it can construct a through-deck warship, designated Endurance-160 Multi-Role Support Ship. It was first unveiled in 2010 and its replica was even displayed at Euronaval 2010.

Reportedly inspired by the Italian San Giorgio class, the Endurance-160 was originally intended for the export market but to date has found no foreign buyer. This can be attributed to the competitive market for through-deck multi-role support ships. STM has to compete with numerous competitors in the West and Asia. As it stands, Singapore has the potential to become the first customer of the Endurance-160.

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At 163.7 meters in length, the 14,500-ton Endurance-160 is one of the smallest of its kind. In comparison, South Korea’s Dokdo class, which is perhaps one of the closest equivalents in size, measures 199 meters in length and weighs 18,800 tons fully-loaded. Japan’s Osumi class measures 178 meters in length and displaces 14,000 tons fully-loaded.

Western equivalents are larger. The Spanish-built Juan Carlos I class measures 231 meters in length and displaces 26,000-tons fully-loaded. The Australians acquired a pair of these ships, designated the Canberra class. The French-built Mistral class measures 199 meters in length and displaces 21,300-ton fully loaded.

Physical size does matter. In theory, the larger the hull, the bigger the physical capacity that translates into bigger payload, better range, endurance and sea-keeping qualities. But the inherent design of a ship may be the more decisive factor in determining the actual roles and missions it is intended for.

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Inherent Design #1: Internal Stowage Capacity

There is really no pretense about what JMMS is designed for. It is a multi-role vessel configurable for several different missions—amphibious assault, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR), replenishment, hospital ship, command and control center, and so on. A full flight deck along the ship’s length merely means it can support a greater aviation capacity and flight operations.