In January 2019, the United States approved the sale of up to 12 Lockheed-Martin F-35B Lightning II fighter jets and related equipment and services to Singapore in a $2.75 billion deal.
F-35B Lightning II fighter jets
The U.S. Department of Defense DoD) said that Singapore asked to buy four planes, with the option of eight more as well as up to 13 aircraft engines, electronic warfare suites, and various support services. According to figures cited in the 2019 Singapore Budget debate, the F-35B – the most complex and expensive amongst the three Joint Strike Fighter variants – costs around $115 million.
The acquisition of America’s most advanced warplane will mark a quantum leap in capability for the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as a whole. The F-15 Eagles and F-16 Falcons currently in RSAF service are considered fourth-generation aircraft, while the F-35 is a fifth-generation asset.
Indeed, the Lightning II is slated to replace the Falcon, which is continually being upgraded, but which could face obsolescence post-2030. Moreover, the procurement of the Lightning II would not only make the RSAF the first South-east Asian air force to owe a 5G fighter capability, but also a true stealth aircraft.
The Lightning II capabilities
The Lightning II can function not just as a traditional fighter capable of attacking aerial and surface targets but to borrow a term from American football parlance, as a ‘quarterback’ too. With its cutting-edge sensor array, it could act as a network node sending target information to friendly aircraft as well as ground and naval forces in order to ‘dictate play’ over and on the battlefield.
For instance, an RSAF F-35 could relay information to the non-stealthy F-15 without the latter activating its sensors and compromising itself. As the Lightning II carries a much smaller payload compared to the Eagle due to its ordnance being stowed internally to preserve stealth, it would make sense for the latter to act as a bomb/missile ‘truck’.
It is also worth noting that during a 2018 training exercise, a US Marine Corps (USMC) F-35B provided target information to a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System on the ground. Given that the Singapore Army also possesses the same artillery platform, expect it to team with the F-35B when the latter enters RSAF service.
What is more, the Lightning’s quarterback capability ties in seamlessly with the SAF’s ongoing initiative to become a next-generation fighting force that is networked and integrated. MINDEF speaks of the concept of Knowledge-based Command and Control (IKC2) “tying… air, land and sea capabilities into a synergistic whole”.
It contends that IKC2 “gives commanders and soldiers the ability to see first, see more; understand better; decide faster; so that they can act decisively to achieve victory,” adding that “(t)his is achieved by leveraging on networks of sensors, shooters and communications to provide comprehensive awareness and self-synchronisation on the battlefield.” The F-35B, with its game-changing ability to network with other SAF assets, would have an pivotal role to play in all of these
All that being said, why did Singapore choose the costlier short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) B variant over the “conventional” A variant that costs $80 million apiece? The city-state’s tiny size and lack of strategic depth are perhaps the main reasons behind the decision.
In the current era of long-range precision-guided munitions, Singapore’s few airbases could be easily targeted and the F-35B offers redundancy on this note. Its STOVL capability would allow it to deploy under less-than-ideal operating conditions, such as from a long stretch of road, should regular airfields be rendered inoperable from enemy action.
Indeed, the F-35B can deploy from an airstrip of less than 170 metres in length. In stark contrast, the corresponding figure for the F-35A is 2,400-plus metres.
The B variant’s STOVL capability could also complicate the adversary’s targeting calculus given that he must factor in the likelihood of F-35Bs operating from ad-hoc runways.
Singapore’s F-35 procurement
In the larger strategic context, Singapore is one of the very few nations in the Asia-Pacific and the rest of the world not allied with America to possess the F-35. This aircraft is on the books of staunch US allies Australia, Japan, and South Korea, with all three possessing the A variant and the two north-east Asian powers planning to buy the B variant for possible deployment on its landing ships helicopter that could function as de facto aircraft carriers.
Outside of the region, Israel and a number of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies such as the United Kingdom, Italy, and the Netherlands possess the F-35. Singapore’s F-35 procurement thus affirms the robust long-standing defence ties between the city-state and Washington.
by Ben Ho