MELBOURNE: Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen’s revelation that Singapore will soon decide which aircraft will replace the Lockheed-Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon multi-role jet fighter in the Republic of Singapore Air Force service has re-ignited interest in the programme among the wider defence community.
Speaking to media in the lead-up to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Day, Dr Ng had said that the decision will be made in the next few months, with the new fighters needed by the 2030s when the F-16s will start facing obsolescence issues.
He added that some of the criteria that will be used to choose the new jet will be its capability to defend Singapore’s airspace; whether it can work with other SAF air, land and sea platforms; ease of maintenance; as well as the overall cost.
F-35 THE FAVOURITE
The fighter jet that is being replaced, the F-16, has been the mainstay of the RSAF since 1998, when the first of what will become 60 aircraft were delivered to the RSAF.
Singapore’s F-16s are currently being progressively upgraded by manufacturer Lockheed-Martin, where they will be fitted with a new, more advanced radar, and improved datalinks for better networking with the rest of the SAF’s assets.
Capable as they are, the F-16s will be more than 30 years old by the year 2030 and will be approaching the end of its useful life even with the upgrades.
With this in mind, it had been known as far back as 2013 that the Defence Ministry had been looking at new fighters, with the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter being one of the types evaluated and seen by many as the favourite to be chosen as Singapore’s next fighter jet.
As its name suggests, the F-35 is the result of a multinational programme by several nations led by the United States to develop a next generation multirole fighter.
These other development partners include the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway. Other users of the F-35 include Israel, Japan and South Korea, all of whom have received their first aircraft.
Described as a fifth generation fighter by Lockheed-Martin, the F-35 is more than a traditional fighter jet. In addition to the “stealthy” design and features that will make it difficult for an enemy to detect it with radars and other sensors, also features a host of other advanced capabilities.
These include an advanced, secure datalink that will allow F-35s to share information about the battlefield and assist each other in targeting adversaries without the risk of inadvertently revealing their own location. There is also what is called the Distributed Aperture System, essentially six electro-optical cameras that will allow the F-35 pilot to “see” all around the aircraft including what is below and behind the aircraft.
The images, as well as other important flight and combat parameters, will be able to be projected onto the visor of the F-35’s unique helmet, allowing the pilot to have improved awareness on what is happening around him compared to today’s contemporaries.
There are three variants of the F-35: The conventional take-off and landing F-35A that has been ordered by the US Air Force and most user nations, the F-35B Short Take-Off Vertical Landing version ordered by the US Marine Corps, the UK and Italy that can take off on shorter runways and smaller aircraft carriers, and the F-35C designed to operate off the full-sized US Navy aircraft carriers.
Several quarters have reported that Singapore’s interest is in the F-35B variant.
Given Singapore’s land constraints as well as the small number of airbases available to the RSAF (especially given that Paya Lebar Airbase is set to be relocated in 2030 or later), the choice of a fighter jet that can operate from shorter runways would make sense. It would allow the RSAF to continue generating air power even in the event of its runways being targeted during combat.
However, the F-35B, which has a large lift fan in the centre of its fuselage to allow it to land vertically, has some restrictions placed on its manoeuvrability as well as being unable to carry as much in its internal weapons bay as a result compared to the other variants.
This opens the possibility that Singapore may opt for a mixed fleet of F-35As and Bs, although this will likely be contingent on how much more it will cost to operate two different variants compared to a homogenous fleet.
During his media interview, Dr Ng also mentioned several other fighter types available on the market although he appeared to stop short of confirming that Singapore had also evaluated these types. These include the European Eurofighter Typhoon as well as Russian and Chinese stealth fighters.
Despite its very impressive performance, the Typhoon is essentially what is known as a “4.5 Generation” fighter which does not offer significant improvements in capability over the RSAF’s F-15SG and upgraded F-16 fighters.
Meanwhile, Russian and Chinese offerings would present significant inter-operability issues with the rest of the SAF’s equipment, which are almost exclusively of western origin.
The RSAF has always operated US-made fighter aircraft with the exception of its first combat aircraft, the British Hawker Hunter acquired in the 1970s.
There are also question marks over the development and capabilities of Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57, with India pulling out of a planned joint development of the type while China is unlikely to export its Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter.
Chinese designs are also further hampered by the use of Russian engines, with Chinese attempts at developing indigenous jet engines hampered by lingering engineering issues.
A CONSIDERED APPROACH
Singapore’s interest in the F-35 was known as far back as 2013 with Dr Ng saying then that the F-35 was “a suitable aircraft to further modernise our fighter fleet”. However, that has not been translated into an F-35 order from Singapore, with the Defence Minister saying in the meantime that Singapore was in “no particular hurry” to do so with the F-16s expected to serve until the 2030s.
It is possible that in this time, Singapore has been negotiating to ensure that it would be able to maintain as high a level of sovereign capability as possible for its aircraft in the form of customising them for Singapore’s unique requirements like it has done with RSAF’s F-15s and F-16s.
It is also likely that Singapore would have wanted to keep heavy maintenance of its aircraft in-country instead of sending its aircraft to a Lockheed-established regional facility, as well as requested restrictions on what sort of operational data is sent to the cloud-based logistics system designed and operated by the aircraft manufacturer.
The gap in time between Singapore’s initial interest and impending decision is also likely as a result of the Defence Ministry waiting on the F-35 development programme’s maturity before committing to the type.
Due in no small part to the F-35’s cutting edge technology but also because of programme management missteps, the development of the F-35 has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. It is only now that the schedule is mostly getting back on track with the flight test programme in its advanced stages and production starting to ramp up.
As such, an order in the near future means the SAF can be reasonably confident of getting a fully combat-capable aircraft, while at the same time there will be less risk of the aircraft being ordered too late and not being able to be delivered to meet the F-16 retirement dates.
The United States has also started to deploy its own F-35s, with the Marines now operating a squadron of F-35Bs to Japan since 2017 and on board its amphibious ships earlier this year. F-35 pilots who have taken part in the realistic Red Flag wargames in the Nevada desert have also been effusive with their praise of the “God’s eye view” of the battlefield offered by the F-35’s sensors, calling it a “game-changer” in the realm of air combat.
Other partner countries are also starting to receive their aircraft and based on development timelines, receiving aircraft in the 2030s would mean the Singapore will be getting fully mature aircraft with a full set of capabilities.
With the production of what is expected to be an order book of 3,000 aircraft well underway, it would also mean that aircraft unit price and operating costs would have dropped by then, with Lockheed-Martin targeting the price of a single F-35A to be US$80 million, or cheaper than the cost of some of today’s fighters.
Mike Yeo is the Asia reporter for US-based defence publication Defense News.