Singapore Selects F-35, but Opts for Cautious Procurement

 - January 18, 2019, 5:25 AM
F-35As from the 56th Fighter Wing are commonly seen by the RSAF’s Peace Carvin II F-16 training detachment at Luke AFB, Arizona. (photo: Chen Chuanren)

The Singapore Ministry of Defence announced on January 18 that its procurement agency, the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), has completed a five-year technical evaluation for its F-16 replacement and will procure a “small fleet” of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs for final evaluation.

“The technical evaluation also concluded that the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) should first purchase a small number of F-35 JSFs for a full evaluation of their capabilities and suitability before deciding on a full fleet,” said Mindef in a statement. "In the next phase, Mindef will discuss details with relevant parties in the U.S. before confirming its decision to acquire the F-35 JSFs for Singapore’s defense capabilities.” Defense minister Ng Eng Hen noted on social media that the process could take nine to 12 months.

This will make the city-state the fourth country in the Asia-Pacific region to operate the stealth fighter, after Australia, Japan, and South Korea. Mindef did not specify the total number or variant that has been selected, although the STOVL F-35B is one of the considered contenders. The program would most likely be conducted through U.S. foreign military sales and will have to receive congressional approvals before any contract signing. In February 2018, the U.S. sent a heavyweight State Department delegation to promote the F-35 to Singapore.

If selected for full procurement, the fighters will replace three squadrons of F-16C/D/D+s that are currently undergoing a midlife upgrade that will allow them to fly until around 2030. Minister Ng said that some time is needed to procure and train the relevant crews and platforms, in time for the F-16's planned retirement in 2030, a timeline that Mindef does not wish to derail. AIN understands that Singapore is also encouraged by the falling and stabilizing operating costs for the F-35, which is one of the crucial factors for Mindef’s evaluation, allowing it to better predict total overheads in the long run.

The RSAF currently operates 12 F-16C/D Block 52s at Luke AFB, Arizona, under the Peace Carvin ll detachment, and the same facility could be transformed into an F-35 training detachment should Singapore opt for the conventional fighter variant, just as Luke AFB is slowly becoming a pure F-35A training base.

It is not uncommon for Mindef to procure a small initial batch of aircraft with options and follow up with more aircraft after gaining operational and technical proficiency, although this time it is taking a more stringent and careful approach. The F-35 will be Singapore's first foray into stealth airborne platforms and will bring unprecedented capabilities to the air arm. The Singapore military is known to procure cutting-edge technology as a force-multiplier and leverage against its dwindling manpower.