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Singapore

‘Rigorous evaluation’ on F-35 continues as Singapore’s defence needs evolve: RSAF

03:04 Min
F-35 fighter jets have made their first appearance at a multinational air combat exercise in Darwin, Australia. This exercise has given countries like Singapore - which is buying the fifth-generation aircraft - a bird's eye view of its stealth capabilities and real-life performance. Lauren Ong with more.
DARWIN: The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) will not be in a rush to complete its evaluation of the F-35 fighter jet as Singapore’s defence needs continue to evolve.
 
Major Zhang Jian Wei, who heads an RSAF office preparing for the delivery of the F-35s, said there was no deadline on when it should complete the evaluation process.
 
“There is none unfortunately because the needs of the next-generation SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) will continue to evolve, and we need to continuously evaluate the need for the next-gen capability to meet the defence needs of our country,” the 37-year-old said.
 
MAJ Zhang was speaking to reporters on Tuesday (Aug 30) at Exercise Pitch Black, an air combat exercise involving Singapore and 16 other nations being held in Darwin, Australia.

The United States Marine Corps’ F-35Bs are also taking part in the exercise, and the RSAF said it is getting valuable insights on how the stealthy warplanes could work together with the rest of the SAF’s warfighting systems.

The RSAF will buy an initial four F-35Bs - the variant that can take off from shorter runways and land vertically - for further testing before deciding if it will take up the option of acquiring another eight of these fifth-generation jets.

The four F-35Bs are expected to be delivered in 2026 to a base in continental US, where the RSAF will test their advanced capabilities and determine integration requirements.

The F-35 can avoid getting detected, carry advanced weapons and fuse information from different sensors to give the pilot a more holistic picture, making it a “very lethal platform” that can survive longer in hostile environments, MAJ Zhang said.

A United States Marine Corps F-35B taking off at Tindal Air Base in Australia during Exercise Pitch Black 2022. (Photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)

NOT COMMITTING TO VARIANT YET

MAJ Zhang called the F-35B’s short take-off and vertical landing feature a “key capability”, but said the RSAF is keeping all options on the table before committing to a variant.

“While our rigorous evaluation process has identified the F-35B as the most suitable replacement for the F-16s as of now, we will continue our rigorous evaluation and we will make further decisions when we are ready,” he said.

Head of RSAF's next-generation fighter project office Major Zhang Jian Wei. (Photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)

When asked if this meant the RSAF was open to buying the F-35A - a more conventional fighter that can fly farther without refuelling and carry more weapons - or the F-35C variant designed to land on carriers, MAJ Zhang said this would depend on the results of the evaluation.

“We cannot make any determination right now and we are not sure about how things will go in future,” he said.

For now, MAJ Zhang said his office has a series of “evaluation opportunities” lined up in the coming months and years. This could include participating in F-35 users-only conferences and study visits to F-35 facilities around the world.

His office comprises four other RSAF experts, each focusing on the operations, logistics, infrastructure and security requirements for its F-35 programme.

For instance, the operations person could look at how the F-35 would conduct a mission, while the security person studies how to safeguard the jet’s top-secret capabilities.

A United States Marine Corps F-35B. (Photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)

EXCLUSIVE ACCESS

In May, the team visited F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin’s production line in Texas to learn more about the jet’s capabilities and maintenance needs, and to interact with other user countries.

On another visit to the facility in July, the team attended a training session with experienced United States Air Force F-35 instructors, tried an F-35 simulator and sat in a powered-on F-35 to better understand its use in different operational and tactical scenarios.

A US Marine Corps F-35B takes off from Tindal Air Base at night. (Photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)

MAJ Zhang said the “high-fidelity” simulators closely replicated the F-35’s actual capabilities, and that his experience in the simulator was not far from his observations of how the jet operated in real life.

“We also corroborate that with our interactions with other F-35 users as well as we see how it performs in exercises such as Exercise Pitch Black. Suffice to say, we are happy with the performance of the aircraft as of now,” he said.

United States Marine Corps F-35B pilot Captain Anneliese Satz. (Photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)

United States Marine Corps F-35B pilot Captain Anneliese Satz told reporters on Monday that she had a “great experience” flying with the RSAF’s fighter jets and tanker during the exercise, calling them “very capable (and) competent”.

“It's always been a good opportunity in order to increase the amount of reps we get working together in the air-to-air arena, and also with aerial refuelling,” she said.

Captain Satz said the F-35’s capabilities make it “more competitive” in both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, and that fifth-generation fighter jets are “definitely the future”.

“Just having the aircraft available to us has given us an edge overall in our capabilities, especially when working together with fourth-gen or even with other fifth-gen aircraft,” she added.

RSAF F-15SGs on the flight line before a night mission. (Photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)
An RSAF F-16D+ taking off from Darwin Air Base during Exercise Pitch Black 2022. (Photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)

MAJ Zhang declined to elaborate when asked what the RSAF has learnt from specific F-35 user countries, although he acknowledged that some of them have flown the jets in operational missions.

“Unfortunately, we are not privy to some of this more classified information as to how other nations operate the F-35 in operations,” he said.

“However, we have only heard good reviews about the performance of the aircraft in operations, but we don't have any further information on that. What we know is it is a combat-proven platform, as it has been already used in many operations.”

The US had deployed its F-35As to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) eastern flank ahead of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, while Germany in March said it will buy the F-35s - said to be capable of carrying US nuclear weapons stored in Germany - to support NATO's concept of nuclear deterrence.

A United States Marine Corps F-35B taking off. (Photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)

CONCERNS WITH F-35 PROGRAMME

MAJ Zhang also addressed questions about whether the RSAF had any concerns with the global F-35 programme - from the B variant’s relatively smaller weapons payload, to South Korea grounding its entire F-35A fleet in January after a malfunction forced one plane to land on its belly.

To the first point, he said each variant has its own “unique capabilities”, and that the RSAF will decide which platform to take up based on its ability to interoperate with Singapore’s defence ecosystem.

To the second point, he said the RSAF keeps a “close watch” on the F-35 programme as a whole. “We will ensure that we only induct the most capable platform and when it is ready,” he said.

A United States Marine Corps F-35B on its landing approach. (Photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)

With delivery of RSAF’s F-35s about four years away, MAJ Zhang said details on initial training for both its operational and logistics crew will be “fleshed out” in the coming years, amid “comprehensive discussions” with the US’ F-35 Joint Program Office.

“We discuss items such as the type of maintenance equipment we should procure ahead of time, and the type of training we should receive as we approach the delivery of our aircraft,” he said of the office, which leads the F-35 life cycle programme management for foreign users.

Singapore’s F-35 package will include a jet training system, spare and repair parts, support equipment, tools and test equipment, technical data and publications, personnel training and training equipment, as well as logistics support services.

The entire package, including the jets, their engines, electronic systems and weapons employment capability, is estimated to cost US$2.75 billion, according to a US government press release in January 2020 on its approval of the F-35 sale to Singapore.

Singapore will buy four F-35Bs with the option for eight more. (Photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)

COSTS "CONSISTENTLY" GOING DOWN

MAJ Zhang said the F-35’s unit and sustainment costs - the latter involving maintenance and flight costs - have “consistently” gone down as the programme matured over the years.

Reuters reported in July that the F-35A costs US$221 million when it came off the production line in 2007, before increasing buyers, production quantities and know-how helped the price fall to US$79 million.

Forbes reported in July last year that this latest unit cost compares favourably to the latest non-stealth Western fighters - like the Rafale, Typhoon and F-15EX - that cost between S$85 to S$100 million each.

United States Marine Corps F-35Bs flying during Exercise Pitch Black 2022. (Photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)

In September 2021, the F-35 Joint Program Office awarded Lockheed Martin a sustainment contract committing the contractor to reduce the average cost per flight hour for all F-35 variants, from US$36,100 in 2020 to US$33,400 in 2023.

According to a June 2021 article by Janes, citing a former F-35 programme official, the cost of flying Lockheed Martin’s newer F-16s is somewhere between US$25,000 to US$30,000 per hour.

“(The F-35’s) current cost is actually better or comparable to current fourth-generation fighters,” MAJ Zhang said, echoing what Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told Parliament in 2019.

“We will continue our evaluation efforts to ensure that we only induct the most capable and cost-effective capability to meet the defence needs of Singapore.”

Source: CNA/ng

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