SINGAPORE: Singapore expects to buy a "small number" of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) for a full evaluation after it identified the jet as the “most suitable replacement” for its ageing F-16s, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) announced on Friday (Jan 18).
This follows a technical evaluation by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and Defence Science and Technology Agency which lasted more than five years.
“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,” MINDEF said.
“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.”
In a Facebook post on Friday, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said this phase might take nine to 12 months, adding that relevant agencies will speak to their US counterparts to “move the process forward”.
Details that will be discussed include price, quantity and which variant of the jet to buy, as well as issues like logistical requirements and the training of pilots.
The F-35A – the conventional take-off and landing variant – costs US$89.2 million (S$121 million), according to maker Lockheed Martin.
It’s believed Singapore is interested in the B variant, which costs more and can take off from shorter runways and land vertically.
If discussions are successful, MINDEF will proceed to buy a few F-35s for a full evaluation. The length of this phase is unclear, and will also depend on developments during tests by other militaries which operate the F-35.
What is clear, however, is that MINDEF is working on a timeline that will not jeopardise the replacement of the F-16s, which face obsolescence beyond 2030. It is understood that MINDEF is still on track to meet this target.
“Our RSAF’s F-16s that were in service since 1998 will have to retire soon after 2030, even after their mid-life upgrades,” Dr Ng said.
“That’s not very far away, just over 10 years, to acquire their replacement and, just as important, to build the logistic support and train pilots individually and as a fleet to guard our skies.”
YEARS OF SPECULATION
The announcement ends years of speculation that Singapore would eventually decide on the fifth-generation F-35 as a replacement for the F-16s.
Last June, Dr Ng said a decision on the replacement would be made in the coming months, although he would only say MINDEF was studying a range of options, including the F-35, Eurofighter Typhoon and Chinese-made stealth fighters.
The decision is now clear as MINDEF has opted for the radar-evading F-35, which is packed with advanced sensors that allow it to see enemies earlier. One such sensor projects a 360-degree view on the inside of pilots’ helmet visors, enabling them to see through and around the jet.
F-35s can also hunt in packs, gathering enemy data across a larger area and automatically sharing it with each other via a more secure network. To that end, MINDEF will also evaluate if the F-35 can work well with other platforms in the Singapore Armed Forces.
Still, the F-35 has a checkered past.
In its 17-year history, the multi-billion dollar programme has suffered from significant delays, cost overruns and technical problems that ranged from faulty ejection seats to an under-performing helmet display.
Last September, a US Marine Corps F-35B crashed in South Carolina with the pilot ejecting safely and no injuries reported on the ground. It's believed the crash was caused by a faulty fuel tube, prompting countries to inspect their fleets and replace suspect parts.
But F-35 production has continued apace, with Lockheed Martin delivering 91 jets in 2018. It has also delivered more than 355 F-35s worldwide, to countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan and South Korea.
The latest announcement is an indication that MINDEF is encouraged by the programme’s maturity and stabilising costs, as well as the fact that other nations – most recently the UK – have declared initial operational capability on their fleets.
During testing, MINDEF will also work with other parties to take into account ongoing developments and ensure the F-35 is safe to operate.