Careful Modernisation

RSAF F-16D combat aircraft
RSAF F-16D combat aircraft: The RSAF has upgraded its fleet of Lockheed Martin F-16C/D aircraft as a stopgap measure while it builds operational experience with the successor F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.

The Singapore Air Force is carefully modernising its complete fleet through a range of high-end current generation aircraft through to the latest upgrades for legacy platforms.

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) continues to transform itself into one of the most advanced and capable air arms in the Asia-Pacific region. First established in 1968 as the Singapore Air Defence Command (SADC) ahead of the impending withdrawal of British forces from the region in 1971, the fledging island state of Singapore had to raise an air force from scratch to take over the reins of air defence from the UK Royal Air Force (RAF).

With no local operational air-defence assets following its independence in August 1965, the immediate objective for the SADC was to quickly establish a nucleus of trained air controllers, pilots, technical personnel, and weapons operators. The initial batch of aircraft, just eight Cessna 172K trainers, were used to instruct its first pilots.

From SADC to RSAF

In April 1975 the SADC was renamed RSAF in recognition of its growing role in Singapore’s national security, as well as to accelerate the development of its air-defence capabilities.

In the following decades, the ‘First Generation’ RSAF introduced several new platforms, including the Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II combat aircraft, which in 1979 became the service’s first supersonic fighter; the Douglas A-4S Skyhawk that was eventually upgraded locally by ST Aerospace to the A-4SU Super Skyhawk; the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules airlifter; and Bell 212 and UH-1H Iroquois helicopters.

The RSAF from 1985 to 2005 underwent another concerted effort to enhance its fledging capabilities with new platforms such as the Lockheed Martin F-16A/B Block 15 Fighting Falcon and subsequently the more advanced F-16C/D Block 52/52+ multirole combat aircraft, the Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker aerial refuelling and transport aircraft, and Fokker 50 maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), Aérospatiale AS332 Super Puma and AS532UL Cougar utility helicopters, Boeing AH-64D Apache attack helicopters, and Boeing CH-47D and CH-47SD Chinook heavy-lift helicopters.

However, many of these ‘Second Generation’ RSAF acquisitions are now undergoing mid-life upgrades to extend their operational lifespans and support the transition to next-generation platform types.

RSAF AH-64D Apache
RSAF AH-64D Apache: The RSAF is upgrading its Apache attack helicopter fleet with improved survivability and long-range communications.

Combat aircraft modernisation

The Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle platform was selected in September 2005 to replace the upgraded but ageing A-4SU Super Skyhawk fleet – which by then were over 30 years old – and designated the F-15SG.

An order for 12 aircraft with options for a further eight was placed in December of that year. The option was converted to a firm order in October 2007, when the ministry signed a contract for 12 more aircraft bringing the order to 24. Additionally, unannounced orders have since increased the number to 40, with separate batches of eight aircraft received since 2012. Neither Boeing nor the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) have provided any confirmation, although company financial statements, US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) registration filings, and US congressional reports have offered compelling evidence of the delivery of these additional aircraft.

RSAF-specific customisations for the F-15SG platform include a multimode version of Raytheon AN/APG-63(V)3 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, an updated countermeasures suite, as well as improved sensor systems and navigation equipment, including Lockheed Martin AN/AAQ-33 Sniper advanced targeting pod, TIGER Eyes navigation pod, and an infrared search-and-track (IRST) system. A Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) provides improved pilot situational awareness and high off-boresight engagement capabilities, while a Link 16 tactical datalink enables the aircraft to share targeting information with other air combat assets.

With some of the RSAF’s F-15SG fleet now at the 15-year mark after the initial batch was delivered in 2009, the service is likely to explore upgrade options sooner rather than later. The current air force chief, Major General Kelvin Khong, noted that the service will continue to review its capabilities and evaluate the need for an upgrade to ensure the type’s operational relevance and effectiveness well into the future.

“[The F-15SGs] play a critical role in Singapore’s multi-layered air defence system,” said MG Khong.

RSAF F-15SG
RSAF F-15SG: First delivered in 2009, the RSAF’s Boeing F-15SG will likely be upgraded in the near future to complement its future F-35B Joint Strike Fighters.

“These fighter jets have served us well since we first took delivery in 2009 and remains a crucial component of our fighter fleet in the next-generation Singapore Armed Forces [SAF],” he added.

Meanwhile, the RSAF has also embarked on a major upgrade effort to extend the operational lifespan of its 20 F-16C and 40 F-16D Block 52/52+ multirole combat aircraft.

MINDEF first announced in 2015 that the planned modernisation of the F-16 fleet would proceed with enhancements centring on a new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar – which remains undisclosed but is believed to be Northrop Grumman’s AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR) – that will “extend the F-16’s detection range and enable the fighter aircraft to track and engage multiple targets at greater distances” and “equip the F-16s with an all-weather ground-attack capability, enabling it to strike targets with more capable precision munitions such as the Laser JDAM”.

Specifics were not revealed, but an earlier US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announcement disclosed that equipment worth approximately $130 million had been requested by Singapore to support its F-16C/D upgrade effort. This included 12 Northrop Grumman LN-260 embedded GPS/Inertial Navigation Systems (INS), 50 Boeing JMHCS, 90 BAE Systems AN/APX-126 Combined Interrogator/Transponders, and 92 Link 16 Multifunctional Information Distribution System-Low Volume Terminals (MIDS-LVT).

The DSCA also noted that the proposed sale includes additional requirements apart from an earlier request made in January 2014, which detailed several major upgrades worth up to $2.43 billion. Notable new additions are the Link 16 MIDS-LVT, which would enable the RSAF’s F-16s to share and receive data more readily with F-15SGs, as well as improving their interoperability with international partners.

“The [F-16] upgrade will extend their lifespan and ensure that they remain operationally relevant [until the 2030 timeframe],” said MINDEF. “The F-16s, when upgraded, will be enhanced with new sensors and weapons, among other improvements.”

Some of the upgrades to the F-16 fleet, however, were initially introduced under tight secrecy. For example, aircraft photography enthusiasts have for several years captured images of some aircraft carrying inert training missiles that physically resembled the Rafael Advanced Defense Systems’ Python short range air-to-air missile.

It was not until September 2023 that the RSAF finally acknowledged that it has integrated the Rafael’s Python-5 missile to upgraded examples of its F-16 fleet. The Python 5 features and advanced imaging infrared (IIR) seeker with an improved signal processing system and an improved onboard inertial measurement unit (IMU) that provides the weapon with off-boresight lock‐on‐after‐launch (LOAL) capabilities, providing capabilities that are believed to be on par with the latest version of the US-made Sidewinder missile, the AIM-9X.

Next-generation combat aircraft

With the upgraded F-16 fleet ready to serve until the 2030s before it will be gradually phased out, Singapore has committed to acquiring the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B. in March 2023, Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen confirmed during a parliamentary debate in February 2023 that the country will exercise an option to purchase eight more F-35B aircraft as after it first announced an intent to acquire an initial batch of four aircraft for ‘evaluation’ in 2019.

RAF F-35B
RAF F-35B: Singapore has ordered 12 F-35B short take-off and landing Joint Strike Fighters. The move is surprising because the RSAF has never operated STOVL aircraft types in the past.

Singapore officially entered the JSF programme as a security co-operation participant as early as 2004, making it the second such member after Israel. Participation at this level – which reportedly required an investment of $50 million – has already provided Singapore with nearly 15 years of privileged programme development access to evaluate the F-35’s suitability for its specific defence requirements.

“The price of F-35s has been steadily falling due to the healthy orders from the US and 10 other countries, including the UK, Italy, Australia, Japan, and South Korea,” said Ng, noting that the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) assessed that it was then an opportune time to put in Singapore’s request.

“The current unit price of the F-35 ranges from $90 million to $115 million per aircraft, comparable to what we have paid for our F-15SGs. The total cost of ownership of a fleet of F-35s, including maintenance across its lifespan, will also be similar to [that of] our F-15SGs,” he added.

Head of Air Plans Department at MINDEF, Colonel Daxson Yap, earlier told media that evaluation of the F-35B is well under way, with work focussing on understanding the aircraft’s full suite of capabilities and their applicability in enhancing the SAF’s operational edge.

“[We also] sought to understand the F-35s interoperability and integration requirements with the rest of the SAF’s warfighting systems,” Colonel Yap added. “Lastly, we sought to acquire a deeper understanding of the aircraft’s engineering and maintenance requirements…[and how we can integrate the F-35 with other warfighting systems to support the ‘SAF 2040′ transformation efforts].”

Apache upgrade

MINDEF selected the Boeing AH-64D attack helicopter in June 1999 with an initial order for eight aircraft armed with the 30mm M230 automatic cannon, 70mm Hydra folding fin aerial rocket (FFAR), and the AGM-114K Hellfire II laser-guided missile. These were delivered to Silver Bell Army Heliport, Arizona, for training under the Peace Vanguard programme. An option for 12 aircraft was exercised in August 2001, bringing the fleet total to 20.

In April 2017, MINDEF announced that its Apache helicopter fleet will be upgraded with new mission systems to improve its effectiveness and survivability. The ministry noted that the attack helicopters will be outfitted with a Helicopter Integrated Electronic Warfare System (HIEWS), as well as SATCOM capabilities, although it did not provide the specifics. MINDEF noted that the upgrade work is expected to be completed “over the next few years”.

Modifications on several examples operated by the Peace Vanguard detachment in recent years included new features such as a SATCOM dome – believed to house the Ku-band IAI-Elta EL/K-1891 communications system – on each outer-wing stub to ensure 360 degree coverage, as well as what appears to be newly fitted radar warning receiver (RWR) modules and additional chaff and flare housings along their tail booms.

Maritime Patrol and Transport replacement

With the combat aircraft fleet and aerial tanker renewal process already in progress or completed, it is likely that attention will now gravitate towards replacement of the RSAF’s ageing MPA and tactical airlifter fleets.

For example, Singapore’s existing aerial maritime patrol capability is provided by the RSAF’s fleet of five Fokker 50MPA Enforcer aircraft, which were acquired in 1994. These aircraft were originally expected to remain in operation only until the early 2020s, although they are still being used today with no formal indication of a replacement.

Singaporean officials have reportedly shown interest in several possible aircraft types since the mid-2010s, with companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI), and Saab understood to have been keen to compete for an initial requirement of up to four MPAs with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities.

There has been no indication that the country has moved any closer to mounting a concerted effort for the MPA programme in the past several years. However, in May 2023 Boeing and ST Engineering joined forces to explore the possibility of setting up a P-8 Poseidon services and sustainment centre in Singapore. Possible areas of collaboration included P-8 systems integration, training, local parts distribution and support work.

Singapore’s ST Engineering already provides significant support to commercial Boeing 737-800s, on which the maritime P-8 is based, including component repair management, pool support and MRO services for the type’s CFM56-5B/7B engine.

Although the proposed Boeing-ST Engineering facility could potentially support the US Navy’s P-8 operations the Southeast Asia region, as well as for aircraft operated by other regional operators of the type such as Australia and New Zealand, there has been some discussion that the agreement could be indication of an effort by Boeing to position the P-8 for an impending RSAF MPA tender.

RSAF Fokker 50 MPA
RSAF Fokker 50 MPA: The RSAF is expected to seek a replacement for its ageing Fokker 50 MPA fleet soon, after almost a decade of putting off the programme.

Singapore’s tactical airlifter fleet includes four C-130B, five C-130H, and one KC-130H Hercules aircraft that have been in service since 1977, 1980, and 1987 respectively. Under a 2007 contract with then-ST Aerospace, the RSAF embarked on a project to update the C-130 fleet’s avionics and auxiliary systems to extend operational lifespan. Upgrades to the entire C-130 fleet are believed to have been completed in 2014.

However, there is no doubt that the RSAF will have to confirm a successor for the venerable workhorses by the end of the decade. Although conventional wisdom might suggest that the service will be likely to err on the side of caution and select the latest C-130J variant, some believe that there is still a chance that a different aircraft type could supplant the incumbent aircraft family.

One such possible upset could come from Brazilian airframer Embraer, which beat the likes of Airbus and Lockheed Martin in South Korea to supply its twin-turbofan powered C-390 Millennium airlifter to the Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF).

In December 2023, the company announced that the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) has selected its C-390 tactical airlifter for the $544 million RoKAF Large Transport Aircraft (LTA) II programme. Embraer will provide an undisclosed number of specially configured C-390 Millennium aircraft, as well as ancillary services and training, ground support equipment as well as spare parts.

The company’s offering edged out Airbus Defence’s A400M Atlas and Lockheed Martin’s C-130J Super Hercules, both of which are four-engine turboprop aircraft. It is also worth noting that the RoKAF is also an existing user of the C-130 platform with the C-130H and C-130J aircraft already in its fleet, which makes Embraer’s achievement all the more impressive.

RSAF C-130
RSAF C-130: Singapore’s ageing fleet of C-130 transporters is another candidate for
replacement, with non-traditional suppliers currently positioning for a possible bid.

According to Embraer, South Korea is the C-390 Millennium’s first customer in Asia and the seventh country to have selected the type after Brazil, Portugal, Hungary, Netherlands, Austria, and Czech Republic.

A company source told AMR that Embraer is riding on the momentum of its South Korean win to position the C-390 as a possible candidate for the C-130 replacement. The company also plans to use the Singapore Airshow 2024 exposition to enhance awareness of the C-390 aircraft family, with a Brazilian Air Force-operated aircraft that will fly into Singapore specifically for the event.

“We also hope to demonstrate the aircraft’s capabilities to the Singaporean air force and also government and industry stakeholders,” said the source.

Conclusion

The RSAF’s transformation has typically been framed in terms of technology: the acquisition and deployment of advanced weapons and sensors and the systems that enable it to achieve effects greater than the sum of its parts. The next-generation RSAF is characterised by greater integration, flexibility, and a greater capacity to conduct operations with ground and naval forces.

by JR Ng