MELBOURNE: As Singapore moves closer to selecting its next fighter jet to replace its fleet of F-16s, the oldest of which turned 20 earlier this year, the focus has been on the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.
It has been widely considered by the defence community as the leading option to be selected by Singapore.
So how would the F-35 be able to fit into Singapore’s defence system?
ALLOWS SINGAPORE TO GENERATE HIGH-END AIR POWER CAPABILITIES DESPITE FEW AIRBASES
The F-35, which has already been selected by 13 countries as their next generation fighter jet and is gradually entering service with a few, exists in three different variants.
The F-35A conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) version that has been selected by a majority of customers; the F-35B Short Take-off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) version that can operate from short runways or smaller aircraft carriers; and the F-35C that is designed to operate from the US Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
As far back as 2013, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) was known to be evaluating the F-35 among several other fighter types for its F-16 replacement, with reports since then suggesting that Singapore was particularly interested in the F-35B STOVL variant.
The F-35B can take off from a stretch of runway as short as 168m and land vertically courtesy of a lift fan and a thrust vectoring exhaust nozzle system that diverts airflow downwards during take-off and landing.
This also allows the F-35B to operate from the smaller aircraft carriers operated by the US Marine Corps and Italy, or those who lack a specialised aircraft launch and recovery systems like the United Kingdom’s ships.
Essentially, the F-35B will be the first truly multirole STOVL-capable fighter jet in service. Older STOVL aircraft, such as the Anglo-American Harrier “jump-jet”, were essentially light attack or local air defence aircraft with limitations in performance and weapons carrying capability.
The attraction of the F-35B in Singapore’s context is that it brings the advanced capabilities in the other F-35 variants, albeit with some weapons carriage and manoeuvrability restrictions due to the lift fan, into an aircraft with STOVL performance.
This means a potential operator like Singapore, with its limited strategic depth due to its small land area and number of airbases, will still be able to generate high-end air combat capability to defend itself in the event of its runways being disabled in times of conflict.
Previously, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) has conducted exercises by turning a stretch of Lim Chu Kang Road adjacent to Tengah Airbase into an alternate runway where fighter jets can take off and land from.
A NIMBLE NODE FOR A NETWORKED FORCE
The F-35 is designed from the start to be more than just a fighter jet.
Its ability to function as part of an integrated, networked force is a big plus for Singapore, given MINDEF’s efforts to transform the SAF into what it calls a “3rd-Generation fighting force” that is similarly networked and integrated.
The F-35 can function essentially as a network node in such a force; gathering, processing, and sharing information and data about the battlefield to friendly forces through datalinks.
As part of these network-enabled capabilities, the F-35 is even able to send targeting information to friendly aircraft and other forces that will then be able engage that target.
This capability was demonstrated recently when a US Marine Corps F-35B provided information about the exact location of a distant target via datalink to one of its High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) during an exercise in Yuma, Arizona.
The Marine HIMARS, similar to those currently being operated by the SAF, was then able to use this information to destroy that target by firing a GPS-guided rocket, according to a report that appeared earlier this month in the Marine Corps Times newspaper.
The effect of this capability is two-fold. First, the demonstration of the F-35’s capability of being a network node means that its ability to unleash fire power at enemy targets is not limited by the weapons it can carry itself.
Second, the F-35B is able to give friendly forces such as other, less stealthy fighter jets or ground-based rocket systems, the ability to engage those targets without using their own sensors (such as radars) to find targets – therefore lowering the risk of giving away either of their own positions.
Another potential capability of the F-35B that could be of interest to Singapore’s defence planners in the future is work in the US exploring its ability to act as a mothership to cheaper, unmanned aircraft.
The US Air Force Research Laboratory has taken steps to develop such a concept, known as the Loyal Wingman.
Defence companies have also done work in this area, with Lockheed-Martin having reportedly flown a demonstration with an unmanned F-16 teamed with a manned fighter. Another company, Kratos Defence and Security Solutions has also tested two unmanned aircraft types that were developed for the programme.
Such a development would not only enable militaries to send unmanned aircraft for riskier missions while under the control of a manned aircraft, it would also conceivably enable air forces to reduce manning requirements.
With Singapore’s population challenges that has seen the SAF embrace the use of unmanned technology in recent years, this is yet another potential avenue that could interest MINDEF in years to come.
ENABLING REGIONAL INTEROPERABILITY
There are several regional air forces already buying F-35s with Australia, an F-35 development partner country who has a close security relationship with Singapore, ordering 72 F-35As.
Australia is also building facilities and infrastructure to support its own F-35s, which includes threat emitter systems to simulate hostile radar and air defences in the same training areas RSAF fighters have used in the past as part of the training agreements Singapore has signed with Australia. These could potentially be used by the RSAF to train with in the future.
In northeast Asia, both Japan and South Korea have ordered F-35As for their own air forces and have reportedly looked into the possibility of operating F-35Bs from ships of their respective navies.
The United States military also plans to deploy F-35s to its forward-deployed forces based in the region, with one squadron of US Marine Corps F-35Bs already based in Japan while more US Air Force and Navy fighter squadrons based in Japan are expected to convert to the F-35 over the next decade.
This will create a significant pool of F-35 users in the region, which will potentially enhance interoperability among these nations during any multinational coalition operations.
Australian companies have also successfully secured the rights to conduct heavy maintenance and warehousing of spare parts for regional F-35 operators, and this would streamline sustainment and supply chain matters should Singapore opt for it as the next fighter jet.
Mike Yeo is the Asia reporter for US-based defence publication Defense News.