There have been more developments in Singapore’s F-35B Lightning II acquisition. Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen recently said that the city-state was in the “final stages” of buying the Lockheed Martin 5th Generation fighter.
When delivered around 2026, the aircraft will be based in the United States for in-depth evaluation and training. Singapore’s defence commentariat has been understandably abuzz over the F-35B decision since news of its procurement broke in January.
F-35B’s STOVL capability
A commonly raised issue concerns the jet’s short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) capability. Although I covered this in a previous column, a few additional points are in order. The F-35B’s STOVL capability means that the potential for dispersing fighters from regular airstrips and deploying them from austere ones is greatly multiplied. It is worth noting that during Exercise Torrent in 2016, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) deployed its F-15s and F-16s from Lim Chu Kang Road, which is a long stretch of road outside the main city near Tengah Air Base. During this exercise, road fixtures like bus stops and traffic lights were removed, and in their place, temporary airfield lights and other installations for runway operations were set up. All these occurred within 48 hours, and a 2.5 kilometre-long temporary airstrip was birthed.
The F-35B’s STOVL capability means that it will be able to utilise even shorter roads as makeshift runways, being able to take-off from distances as short as 170 metres. A true vertical take-off is however something rarely carried out except during in-extremis conditions because it severely reduces the amount of fuel and/or ordnance the aircraft can carry. Also, the typical weapons load of an F-35B is only 83 percent (or about 1,400 kilograms less) of a conventional take-off/landing ‘A’ variant. Moreover, the technical complexity of the F-35B means that there will be a premium placed on maintenance, which is a major consideration for RSAF planners to ponder when drawing up the austere-base concept of operations for the aircraft.
Singapore’s defence acquisition
Another salient point about Singapore’s small F-35 purchase (an initial order of only four planes with an option for another eight) is that it clearly manifests the city-state’s gradualist and evolutionary approach towards defence acquisition. Singapore’s modus operandi in this regard has usually been this: make a limited purchase, slowly ease in the capability while fastidiously assessing its effectiveness and level of integration. Only when the F-35B has been truly bedded into the RSAF/Singapore Armed Forces edifice would another purchase be considered.
In contrast, Singapore’s first buy of the F-15 in 2005 was much larger (12 planes with an option for eight more), but the Eagle had an enviable decades-long operational record by then. The same cannot be said of the F-35 at this stage, given that the first F-35B Squadron to achieve Initial Operational Capability (IOC) was achieved in 2015 with the first F-35A deployment into Europe in 2017. The F-35’s teething problems are finally being sorted out but this lack of a track record may be key in explaining Singapore’s cautious F-35 purchase.
Going forward, the RSAF is likely to remain with the ‘B’ variant of the Lightning II although there would be milage in considering the cheaper, more capable, and technically less complex ‘A’ variant in future procurement plans. After all, the current price tag of an F-35A is some $90 million and this compares favourably to the $115 million of its STOVL brethren. Besides a larger payload as mentioned earlier, with a combat radius of 590 nautical miles, the F-35A can also strike targets further out compared to the ‘B’ variant (450nm).
It is therefore conceivable that the F-35A could be in RSAF service one day, although arguably well into the 2030s and beyond. By then, the cost of the F-35 should have gone down significantly and its problems rectified. That said, replacing the entire RSAF F-16 fleet (three squadrons of 60 planes) with an equal number of F-35s would amount to a prodigious amount of defence dollars. One way around this would be to accept having a smaller F-35 force supplemented with unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV) following Australia’s ‘loyal wingman’ concept. While the concept is still in its infancy, RSAF chieftains might do well to look into it for their long-term planning. And no, UCAVs will not entirely replace manned aircraft in the future but their importance as supporting actors should not be undervalued.
by Ben Ho