Commentary: The road to getting the F-35s up and ready for Singapore
The US Department of Defence announced an approval of sale of up to 12 F-35s to Singapore on Friday. The Republic of Singapore Air Force will face challenges operationalising this advanced fighter jet once it takes delivery. Mike Yeo paints what the road ahead looks like.
MELBOURNE: As history has shown us, it is one thing for militaries to buy advanced, high-tech weaponry that look good at national parades, it is another to be able to use it effectively and decisively when push comes to shove.
From the decisive defeats Israel inflicted on the well-equipped Arab armies in 1967 and 1973, to the Saudi-led coalition’s ongoing struggle to defeat Houthi insurgents in Yemen despite the oil-rich kingdom being the world’s top arms importer between 2014 and 2018 - there is ample evidence showing militaries need to focus on adequately training and integrating new platforms to become an effective fighting force.
The challenge of gaining proficiency on, and integrating a new, technologically advanced platform is not new to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).
Singapore’s impending purchase of the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter will however present a new test of the SAF’s ability to successfully do so.
That purchase moved one step closer to reality when the US Department of Defence announced an approval of a sale of up to 12 F-35s and related equipment to Singapore on Friday (Jan 10).
A GAME-CHANGING FIGHTER JET
As has been described before, the F-35 suite of stealthy networking capabilities will be a game-changer, with the potential to radically transform how militaries operate not just in the air but in the land and sea domains as well.
The F-35B variant, which Singapore has requested to purchase, has also a lift fan, essentially a second engine that directs additional thrust downwards, that allows the fighter jet to take off and land vertically, without the need for a long runway.
For land-scarce Singapore, merging three airbases into two in the near future, this added capability will give the country a needed boost in its air power generation capabilities.
Coupled with the SAF’s push in recent years to transform itself into a networked force, the need to fully utilise the F-35’s game-changing technology and ensure it is fully integrated into the SAF will take on an added layer of importance and potential complexity.
So how would the F-35’s introduction to service look like?
THE TRAINING NEEDED TO GET PILOTS UP TO SPEED
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen has previously said Singapore’s F-16s will start to be phased out around 2030.
By this time, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF)’s future F-35 pilots would have started training on the jet, with Singapore’s first handful of aircraft having already been delivered, almost certainly at an overseas training detachment.
At first glance, the prime candidate for this training detachment would appear to be Luke Air Force Base just outside of Phoenix, Arizona.
The base is where the RSAF’s Peace Carvin II F-16 training detachment is located, having been there continually over more than two decades, and is also where the US Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command will train American and international F-35 pilots for the foreseeable future.
However, the USAF and most international users will operate the conventional take-off and landing F-35A variant.
Hence, it might make more sense to set up a training detachment at one of the US Marine Corps’ bases, given that the Marines are the service operating the F-35B and the RSAF can leverage on their experience on the unique capabilities of the F-35B – the same model the UK and Italy employ, and which Japan has also ordered.
Between 2015 and last August, the UK Royal Air Force operated a small detachment of its aircraft alongside a Marine F-35B training squadron at Marine Combat Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort in South Carolina for crew training purposes, before heading back home last year.
Given that the infrastructure, such as simulators and other support equipment at bases like Beaufort (or MCAS Yuma in Arizona where the Marines will also be basing F-35Bs at) will be specific to the F-35B, the case for the RSAF setting up a training detachment at these bases is stronger than anywhere else.
Training may also involve partnership programmes with friendly air forces that have purchased the F-35B variant – which on top of the US and UK, include Italy and Australia, countries that the RSAF have very friendly ties with and have training spaces in or made training deployments to.
THE ROAD TO FULL OPERATIONAL CAPABILITY
The setting up of an overseas training detachment will be followed by the first aircraft heading back to Singapore, to form the nucleus of the first locally-based RSAF F-35 squadron.
The next major milestone for the squadron would be attaining Initial Operational Capability (IOC) with the F-35.
The criteria for IOC would be determined by the RSAF and differ from other operators, but it would likely be pegged to a certain number of aircraft delivered, the number of air and ground crew trained to perform an initial set of missions and roles, and the ability to deploy a pre-determined number of aircraft for operations.
Full operational capability (FOC) for the F-35 will follow, which is typically declared a few years after IOC.
By this time, the first RSAF squadron would have received its full complement of aircraft, a cadre of crew trained to carry out the full range of missions and the platform integrated into the RSAF.
The F-35 will have been integrated into Singapore’s Island Air Defence Network, a locally developed systems-of systems network that enables all air defence sensors and platforms to be linked under a single communication protocol.
The RSAF will also almost certainly have taken part in overseas exercises with the F-35 by this time, for benchmarking and interoperability training with foreign partners, in addition to integration training within the SAF itself.
Given the RSAF’s cautious entry into the F-35 programme following a history of development delays and cost overruns, the path towards IOC and FOC will have been well-trodden by other operators by the time it is Singapore’s turn, which will help the RSAF in gaining an understanding of how to tailor its own processes.
Using the Boeing F-15SG Eagle as a rough guide, the first RSAF jet arrived at the Peace Carvin V detachment at Mountain Home, Idaho in the US in May 2009, followed by the arrival of the first jets in Singapore in April 2010 to form the nucleus of 149 Squadron at Paya Lebar Airbase. The squadron then declared FOC in October 2013.
It is however by no means certain that the introduction of the F-35 will follow a similar timeframe. The time taken to reach the IOC and FOC milestones is dependent on several different variables, and the integration of the F-35 into the SAF may well be very different from its predecessors, given its complex suite of capabilities.
RENOVATED BASE INFRASTRUCTURE
Singapore’s air bases will also change with the arrival of the F-35 in Singapore. This goes beyond the base realignment that has already been announced so far, which will see Paya Lebar Air Base close in the 2030s to free up land for other uses and the aircraft, equipment and personnel moved to the expanded Tengah and Changi East airbases.
Work at whichever base(s) the RSAF’s F-35s will be stationed at will also need to take into account US security requirements for F-35 basing.
Essentially, an extra layer of fencing will need to be built around all F-35 parking areas, along with additional security arrangements.
These include limiting access to these areas only to personnel specially cleared to enter, essentially turning it into an airbase within an airbase.
Another upgrade would entail the building of landing pads to allow F-35B pilots to conduct vertical landing training and operations on. These pads would need to be specially reinforced to withstand the intense downward heat generated by the F-35B’s powerful engine as it lands vertically.
The F-35 looks set to transform the global air power landscape in the next few decades. It also has the potential to transform how Singapore will use air power and leverage technology to defend itself.
Introducing its capabilities into the RSAF would be a complex task, and one whose success is crucial to maximising its potential with the SAF.
Mike Yeo is the Asia reporter for US-based defence publication Defense News.