SINGAPORE, Feb 25 (The Straits Times/ANN): The decision to add eight more F-35B Joint Strike Fighters to the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) comes at an opportune time when the order pipeline has matured, bringing costs down, the Ministry of Defence has said.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen’s announcement of the acquisition during the debate on his ministry’s budget on Friday means that Singapore will have a dozen of what is considered the world’s most modern fighter jet by 2030, which will enhance not just the air force, but also the capabilities of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).
In an interview with the media, the head of RSAF’s Air Plans Department, Colonel Daxson Yap, said the F-35B’s “game-changing” suite of advanced sensors means the jets are able to collect a wide range of battlefield information and share it with other friendly units, multiplying the effectiveness of the SAF’s various forces.
“It is a given that the air force and SAF of the future will be more networked, and we fight as one system,” he said.
Mindef said the purchase of the additional F-35Bs comes after it conducted a comprehensive evaluation process of the platform. This includes technical and operational exchanges with existing F-35 users, such as at the multilateral Exercise Pitch Black in 2022.
“Since committing to the acquisition in 2020, we have gained exclusive access to F-35 information and facilities,” Mindef said. “That has provided us with essential information to complete our evaluation.”
Besides having gone through exercises with other F-35 operators, RSAF personnel have trained with the United States Marine Corps and its F-35B fighters at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona and visited maker Lockheed Martin’s production factory in Texas to understand the jet’s maintenance and engineering requirements.
RSAF pilots have also evaluated the F-35’s avionics, such as the communication and navigation systems, and its helmet mounted display system, Dr Ng said on Friday as he called the F-35 “the best choice to meet our defence needs now and in the future”.
Such opportunities have given the RSAF valuable insights into how it can best harness the full suite of F-35 capabilities, Mindef said. Buying the planes now is also a calculated move to take advantage of economies of scale reached, as more countries have ordered the aircraft, the ministry added.
“It will also serve as a hedge against supply chain risks, given what is happening elsewhere in the world,” said Col Yap.
The maintenance cost of the fifth-generation fighter jets has also come down, according to Mr Ang Jer Meng, director of air systems at the Defence Science and Technology Agency.
In 2019, Dr Ng said the unit price of the F-35 ranges from US$90 million to US$115 million (S$121.5 million to S$155.3 million) per aircraft, comparable to what Singapore paid for its F-15SG multi-role fighters.
He said the total cost of ownership of a fleet of F-35s, including maintenance, will be similar to that of the F-15SGs, but added that Mindef is working with the US Department of Defence to “optimise operating and maintenance costs”.
The incoming F-35s will replace the F-16s that are still being used by the RSAF, after having been upgraded in 2022 with extended range for threat detection and engagement. The current fleet of F-16 fighter jets first entered service in 1998, and will face global obsolescence beyond 2030.
The RSAF will continue to use its F-15SGs, with the first of those jets having been delivered in 2009.
The decision to round out Singapore’s fleet of F-35s comes two decades after the Republic joined the F-35 programme in 2003 as a Security Cooperation Participant. Mindef first announced the purchase of four F-35B jets in 2019, with an option to purchase eight more.
The ministry said previously that the F-35B’s ability to perform short take-offs and to land vertically like a helicopter will be useful in land-scarce Singapore.
Defence experts said this capability also means the RSAF will be able to keep up combat air operations even without operational, full-length runways in the event of an enemy first strike, complicating any calculations to nullify Singapore’s defences.
The F-35 is also a stealthy jet, as its radar-absorbent material means it is able to evade enemy detection and operate in contested environments. Within the region, only Australia, South Korea and Japan currently operate the F-35s. - The Straits Times/ANN