Commentary: Was Singapore’s announcement to buy a small number of F-35s too slow, too tentative?
Buying a small number allows the Republic of Singapore Air Force to understand how best to integrate the Joint Strike Fighter's game-changing capabilities into its existing doctrine and systems, says Mike Yeo.
SINGAPORE: The announcement on Friday (Jan 18) by Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen that Singapore will acquire a “small number” of Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has unsurprisingly garnered a lot of interest among defence watchers at home and overseas.
The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) announced that following a technical evaluation by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), the F-35 has been identified as the most suitable replacement to maintain the RSAF's capabilities.
It added that the technical evaluation also concluded that the RSAF should first purchase a small number of F-35 JSFs for a full evaluation of their capabilities and suitability before deciding on a full fleet. In the next phase, MINDEF will discuss details with relevant parties in the US before confirming its decision to acquire the F-35 JSFs for Singapore's defence capabilities.
WHY BUY SO FEW?
The MINDEF news release still leaves some questions unanswered, as it did not reveal the number of aircraft the RSAF is initially purchasing or the number it is seeking for its future fleet. It also did not disclose the variant or variants of the F-35 out of the three available that Singapore will acquire.
The decision to buy a small number of F-35s for further evaluation has also raised eyebrows, with a foreign aerospace commentator claiming that this was unprecedented and that MINDEF was still not fully convinced by the F-35.
However, this may not necessarily be the case, when other countries share a similar procurement schedule. The Netherlands took delivery of two F-35s in 2013 for operational testing and evaluation as well as training in the US before committing to the first of a total of 37 aircraft in 2015 with the first deliveries expected later this year. (There is also speculation in Dutch defence circles that they may eventually purchase about 50 to 60 to replace their fleet of about 60 F-16s.)
Singapore itself has also set such a precedent when introducing a new capability into the SAF. It acquired one used submarine from Sweden in the late 1990s, ostensibly to evaluate the suitability of the Challenger-class submarines in regional waters before acquiring three similar boats in 1997.
It also acquired two more newer Archer-class submarines in 2005, barely three years after the initial four submarines entered service with the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN).
It is therefore unlikely that MINDEF’s decision for a small buy signifies a lack of confidence in the F-35 or even that Singapore might somehow walk away from buying more aircraft in the future, given that it has been known to have been evaluating the type since 2013.
The then-head of the F-35 Joint Programme Office, Lieutenant-General Christopher Bogdan, had told this writer in 2015 that Singapore had been very thorough in its evaluation, in line with its reputation in defence industry circles.
He also revealed that Singapore had requested information on all three variants of the F-35 during its evaluation, although most previous reports have said that the Short Take-Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) F-35B was the type Singapore was most interested in.
TIME NEEDED TO INTEGRATE NEW CAPABILITIES
That MINDEF has chosen to take this procurement route with the F-35 is instead perhaps an acknowledgement of what F-35 pilots have called its “game changing” capabilities, and that as a result, it needs to carry out such an evaluation to fully understand and examine how to maximise its capabilities in Singapore’s somewhat unique security context given the F-35 will be the first time the RSAF will be operating a stealth aircraft.
These capabilities include stealthy characteristics that are designed to make it difficult for adversaries to detect it by radar or intercept its electronic signature, as well as its advanced sensor fusion and its unique Distributed Aperture System, essentially a set of cameras that beam images to the F-35 pilot’s cutting-edge helmet, providing him with an all-round 360-degree view of the aircraft’s surroundings.
In addition, if Singapore does choose to buy the STOVL F-35B as reported, it will also represent the first time that it will be operating a combat aircraft with such capabilities, adding to the need for MINDEF to evaluate how these unique capabilities will fit into its existing doctrine and systems.
The US Marine Corps and United Kingdom already operate the F-35B. The B variant has also been selected by Italy and Japan, although these operators intend to use their aircraft for shipboard operations.
Given that Singapore’s reported interest in the F-35B is for very different reasons from the other operators (i.e. to reduce the RSAF’s need for long runways to generate airpower given Singapore’s shortage of land and strategic depth), it would further add to the need for the RSAF to assess the variant’s capabilities in such scenarios.
That Singapore has also asked for information on the other variants of the F-35, the Conventional Take-Off and Landing (CTOL) F-35A and the F-35C for the US Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, also suggests that MINDEF is cognisant of some of the trade-offs designers have had to make for the F-35B in exchange for its STOVL capability, which enables an F-35B loaded with weapons and fuel to take off from a runway as short as 183m according to its official design requirements.
These trade-offs include reduced manoeuvrability, range and weapons capability, due to the weight and space occupied by the lift fan located behind the pilot, which provides a significant amount of the downward thrust that allows the F-35B to take off from short runways and land vertically.
As a result, some users like Italy and Japan have opted for a mixed fleet of F-35As and Bs. The F-35A is also cheaper to acquire than the B variant, although this will be offset by higher sustainment costs, associated with having to maintain spares and other support equipment for both variants.
As a result of these trade-offs, it cannot be ruled out the Singapore may eventually opt for a mixed fleet of F-35As and Bs. What we will most likely see will be the purchase of a small batch of F-35s with the first handful for the evaluation and possibly some other for training, most likely in the US where international F-35 training programmes are already running.
This will eventually rise to a full squadron, with a second and possibly third squadron to replace the RSAF’s three squadrons worth of F-16s, spread over several years.
NO RUSH TO BUY IN ONE SHOT
Buying the aircraft across several batches in a multi-year buy will be in line with what other F-35 operators are doing and is similar to what Singapore has done with its F-15 and F-16 purchases previously.
This has the advantage of allowing the RSAF to introduce the new type and train its crews gradually, take advantage of further drops in the aircraft unit price as orders stream through, while at the same time avoiding spikes and troughs in Singapore’s defence spending.
Entering the programme at this time, with an intention to replace the F-16s which are due to start retiring in the 2030s, also reduces risk as the F-35 programme comes to the end of its development cycle, which in earlier years saw its share of well-publicised problems that included delays, missed deadlines and budget overruns.
The US Marine Corps has declared Initial Operating Capability with its F-35Bs in 2017, with one of its squadrons already permanently stationed in Japan and another operating out at sea off the Middle East from a US Navy ship.
Other operators such as Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom have already started operating their aircraft in their home countries.
Meanwhile, the US Department of Defence is on the verge of giving the go-ahead for full-scale production of the F-35 to start as the developmental testing phase enters the final straight, although the Governmental Accountability Office in the US, which provides oversight of government programmes and spending, would like to see some outstanding deficiencies to be fixed before that happens.
Also still in development is the F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System, the JSF’s operating system software used for mission planning, repairs and the ordering of spare parts. This has proved to be more problematic, with cyber vulnerabilities and deficiencies still being addressed and still runs a risk of schedule delays to its development.
However, again, with Singapore looking only to put its new fighter into service in the 2030s when the F-35 will already be in full service with several countries, there appears to be little reason to believe that the system will not be a lot more mature by that time.
NEXT MILESTONES TO WATCH
We are unlikely to see an announcement of the total number of F-35s Singapore will eventually purchase. Just like its purchase of more batches of F-16s and F-15s over the years without announcing the actual final numbers, there are deterrence advantages to keeping the actual number of a country’s fighter jets secret.
We might see MINDEF ask for options to purchase more to be factored into its first F-35 contract with Lockheed Martin, as we can expect the RSAF to consider over time a plethora of factors including its airpower doctrine, its operational needs and budget, and in ensuring the timely replacement of older fighter aircraft, as well as the lowering of costs of the F-35 as the programme gains maturity and more orders form programme partners.
In the coming months, we may see an estimate of the number of fighters Singapore has requested though it may not reflect the number eventually bought - when the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency releases a notification to Congress when the State Department approves the request. (And the sale is considered approved if Congress does not block 15 days after the notification is issued.)
But we may also expect an announcement of how many Singapore may be purchasing for its full evaluation when the US Defence Department awards a contract to Lockheed Martin to build the aircraft as part of a multinational production lot, although in past contract awards, the typical practice is to lump all non-US aircraft into one figure without breaking down the number of aircraft being built for each country.
This number may also be revealed by Singapore at Budget 2019 – since this purchase will take up a huge share of the defence budget if purchased over this fiscal year and following Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s mention that security will be a key area in the nation’s budget just last week.
Mike Yeo is the Asia reporter for US-based defence publication Defense News.