SINGAPORE: Like a scene from an Avengers movie, the F-35B fighter jet drifted to the middle of centre stage at the Singapore Airshow, its spinning lift fan and downwards rear nozzle drowning out the accompanying music.
The watching crowd trained their lenses on the F-35B as it moved slowly through the air, dramatically kicking up spouts of water. After all, this is the first time the jet is performing aerobatics in Singapore.
And then the F-35B, all 18,000kg of it, stopped in mid-air.
In January, the United States approved the sale of up to 12 F-35Bs to Singapore at an estimated cost of US$2.75 billion (S$3.71 billion), pending approval from Congress. This would make it the most expensive warplane Singapore has bought.
But experts have called the decision prudent, given the F-35B's ability to take off from shorter runways and land vertically. The hovering display on Sunday (Feb 9) at the airshow was a demonstration of this capability.
This capability will allow land-scarce Singapore to launch the jets from smaller air bases with shorter runways and alternative facilities like temporary highway airstrips, analysts have said.
Singapore's Defence Ministry has asked to buy four F-35Bs first to assess the jet's capabilities and suitability before deciding on a full fleet.
"The F-35Bs are the same birds that we put in a request for to Congress. And if no objections from Congress, then we can put up the orders," Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told reporters on Friday.
"Of course, it’s slightly jumping the gun because even if it's approved (by Congress), it will be a number of years before the F-35s (get here).
"First, we get them to train in US and then bring them back to Singapore. But at least for this coming week, Singaporeans can get to see the F-35s in the air."
Singaporeans will also be able to witness other aspects of the fifth-generation fighter jet when it takes to the skies on the public days of the airshow from Feb 15 to 16.
After the F-35B pulled a series of tight turns, vertical climbs and high-speed passes during its display, it flew past centre stage with its internal weapons bay doors open. This bay conceals the fighter's bombs and missiles, and is one aspect of why it is extremely stealthy.
In contrast, Singapore's current warplanes, the fourth-generation F-15SG and F-16C/D, carry their weapons externally, increasing their radar signature. The F-35Bs are expected to replace the F-16s.
"HEAVYWEIGHT FIGHTER NOT MOVING IN THE SKY"
Still, F-35B pilot Lieutenant Colonel Michael Rountree, 41, said the capability airshow visitors would be most interested in is the short take-off vertical landing.
"You will see the aircraft hover centre stage, point at you and translate left and right and front and back," he said on Friday.
"So you can see a 40,000-pound heavyweight fighter not moving in the sky, which is a pretty incredible feat for a modern fighter which can also fly supersonic."
Lt Col Rountree, commanding officer of the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, said the F-35B is easier to land vertically than the AV-8B Harrier, the jet he used to fly.
"While the vertical landing capability of the Harrier is very much a manual procedure, this aircraft is completely computer-controlled," he explained. "My inputs are totally different than I did with the Harrier, so it makes it very easy to land – it’s highly mechanised and very reliable."
This makes the jet very successful at landing on warships, he continued.
"We can recover this aircraft every time safely and reliably, and I’d say that is one of the major differences that makes it a real pleasure flying this aircraft," he stated.
COULD SINGAPORE LAND THE F-35B ON ITS WARSHIPS?
Perhaps it is no surprise then that defence observers have suggested that Singapore might land its F-35Bs on another of its future assets, the Republic of Singapore Navy's (RSN) joint multi mission ship (JMMS).
The JMMS will replace the RSN's current 141m-long, 6,000-tonne landing ships tank (LST) from 2020, and like its predecessor be deployed in disaster relief and counter piracy operations.
Reports have said the larger JMMS might feature a straight-through flight deck, with landing spots for helicopters and possibly the F-35Bs.
But in a July 2018 interview with CNA, the RSN’s head of naval operations Rear-Admiral (RADM) Cheong Kwok Chien played down these suggestions.
"No pilot likes to take off from a ship when the runway is only 50m," he said. "So even for a ship of this size, the runway – the flat deck that it has behind – maybe is only like 70m to 80m."
A 2015 US Department of Defense report estimated that the F-35B can take-off with a typical load of fuel and weapons from runways as short as 170m.
RADM Cheong said "size is maybe the lowest denominator to fulfill" when it comes to designing ships that can carry warplanes, noting that the deck must be strong enough to withstand their weight and hot afterburners.
READ: Ng Eng Hen confident that technical glitches in F-35 fighter jet ‘will be solved’ before delivery to Singapore
"A typical aircraft carrier is much bigger than this, much thicker than this, and it has all its control and launch and recovery systems," he added of the JMMS.
"And then you also need all the radars, the control tower, the whole communications suite to talk to the aircraft. So you can’t really say a car is a Ferrari just because it’s loud – there’s a lot more to it."