Singapore and the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter

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Singapore and the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter

Indications are that Singapore may go ahead with the purchase of the JSF. That would be a game-changer for its operational capabilities.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Defense Writers Group in late July, General Herbert J. "Hawk" Carlisle was asked about Singapore’s interest in the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program and if an initial sale had been made. He had this to say:

“I talked to their CDF (Singapore’s Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant-General Ng) Chee Meng. I was just in Singapore. Singapore’s decided to buy the B model, the VSTOL variant to begin with. But I don’t know where they’re at in putting it into their budget. I know that’s a decision that’s been made and that’s why they’re part of the program, but I don’t know where they’re at in putting that in the budget”

That portion of the interview has mostly escaped the attention of media covering the event as coverage zeroed in on the U.S. Air Force’s plans for the Pacific pivot, which was also discussed at length. If General Carlisle is right, it would mean that Singapore will become the fourth operator of the F-35B, after the United States Marine Corps, the United Kingdom and Italy.

A densely populated island nation sitting at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore sits at a choke point along the vital sea lines of communications between the economic powerhouses of East Asia with the Middle East and, further afield, Europe. Its deepwater port is the lifeblood of a booming economy, while world-renowned Changi International Airport serves as a vital Asian air hub for travellers throughout the globe. With so much to defend and so little strategic depth (the main island measures just 723 square kilometers or approximately 277 square miles), Singapore has responded by building a powerful military, widely regarded as among the best in Asia.

Singapore joined the F-35 program in February 2003 as a Security Cooperative Participant (SCP). As an SCP, Singapore is believed to be able explore configurations of the JSF to meet its unique operational needs and form its own program office. However, the island nation’s interest in the STOVL variant started to catch the eye only in 2011, when Rolls-Royce revealed that Singapore had launched studies aimed at considering the F-35B.

Having the United States and Australia, both of whom have close defense ties with Singapore, also planning to operate F-35s in the neighborhood, it would be no surprise if Singapore was keen to follow in their footsteps. Together with Japan’s (and possibly South Korea’s) aircraft, the type’s network-enabled capability and integrated sensor suite is a definite plus for interoperability with allied F-35s in the event of a need to conduct joint operations in the region.

Notoriously secretive about its military matters, defense officials in Singapore have neither confirmed nor denied the reports about its interest in the F-35B. However, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen had previously gone on record a number of times to say that Singapore is evaluating the F-35 for the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) next fighter, but that no decision has been made. General Carlisle’s remarks are the first indication of the direction Singapore’s Ministry of Defence will be taking with regards to an initial purchase.

With Singapore’s strategic limitations in mind, the F-35B would appear to be a very prudent option to consider. A fleet of easily-dispersed STOVL-capable assets capable of taking off fully loaded from a 168m (550ft) runway would ensure that the RSAF would be able to keep up combat air operations even without operational, full length runways in the event of an enemy first strike. Such a capability would certainly complicate any adversary's calculations in attempting a first strike to nullify Singapore's defenses.

With the recent announcement by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that land-scarce Singapore will close one of its three tactical fighter bases to free up land for residential and industrial use in the near future, this would leave Tengah Air Base in the west and Changi Air Base (East), next to Singapore’s international airport in eastern Singapore, as the only bases to house the RSAF’s air combat aircraft. Both airbases will be expanded and upgraded to accommodate the relocation of RSAF aircraft and units currently based at Paya Lebar.

With the number of available runways in Singapore to be reduced by one, having an air combat asset on hand capable of STOVL operations would assume a greater importance in the mind of Singapore’s defense planners. It will be just one of many factors to consider, but the upgrades to Singapore’s existing fighter bases will likely include building thermally coated “lilypads” that would enable F-35Bs to land vertically without the hot exhaust gases damaging the tarmac.

However, Ng has also said that Singapore is in no hurry to make a decision, even if he has called the F-35 “a suitable aircraft to further modernise (Singapore’s) fighter fleet.” With a relatively young fleet of advanced F-15 and F-16 multi-role fighters already in its current fighter inventory, Singapore’s defense establishment will likely want to see several aspects of the JSF program mature before committing to what will be one of the most, if not the most, costly military acquisition programs in Singapore’s history. Even with the price of the F-35B having fallen to US$104 million per aircraft (sans engines, which are bought separately) in the Pentagon’s recently released contract for aircraft in Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) Batch 7, it might be some time before Singapore issues a Foreign Military Sales request for the F-35.

The RSAF currently operates 60 late model Lockheed-Martin F-16C/D Fighting Falcons serving alongside 24 Boeing F-15SG Eagles. It has been reported elsewhere (and seemingly corroborated by photographs from a recent Maple Flag exercise in Canada) that Singapore has received additional F-15SGs that have not been publicly announced. These will most likely be for replacing the handful of Northrop F-5S/T Tiger II interceptors still in service when they are retired in the next year or so.

Singapore has also recently announced that the RSAF’s F-16s will undergo a Mid-Life Upgrade, which should keep them in service until the mid-2020s. That would appear to be an ideal timeframe for the RSAF to introduce the F-35 to its inventory. With Singapore’s usual procurement policy being incremental purchases in several batches, an initial F-35B order will almost certainly not be the last. If one bears in mind that the F-35B has payload, maneuver and other performance limitations put upon it due to its STOVL capability compared to the other variants, it might also not be farfetched to speculate that Singapore may eventually order the Conventional Take-off and Landing (CTOL) F-35A further down the road as well. As they say, watch this space.