RSAF Chief: Upgraded F-16s, Maritime Patrol and New UAVs

 - February 19, 2020, 12:16 PM
IAI unveiled the Heron II at the Singapore show. The type’s extended nose allows the carriage of more sensors. (photo: Chen Chuanren)

After five years of extensive work, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) is expecting its first upgraded Lockheed Martin F-16C/D/D+ mid-life upgrade (MLU) to roll out in 2021. In a Singapore Airshow interview, RSAF Chief Major General Kelvin Khong said that the program is on track and prototyping work is underway by Lockheed Martin, while serial production has also commenced locally at Singapore Technologies.

Addressing numerous questions, Khong said that defending Singapore’s airspace has become more complex as air traffic has grown 59 percent over the last decade. He also commented that the development of the RSAF must be “multi-faceted,” building on both conventional capabilities and new technologies to operate efficiently amid emerging threats.

Both the Elbit Hermes 450 and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Heron 1 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are approaching obsolescence, noted Khong, explaining that a UAV’s lifespan is much shorter than a manned aircraft's. He also described that new technologies are allowing UAVs to be smaller with better endurance.

“Smaller UAVs are becoming increasingly capable and offer new options to meet our operational requirements. For example, they can be paired with larger UAVs as they have a smaller signature and we can operate them closer to the adversary without being noticed. We are keeping track of the technology developments in UAVs and we are studying new concepts to achieve the outcomes we want,” he said.

Israeli firms such as Rafael, Controp, and IAI unveiled new UAV capabilities at the Singapore Airshow, including the new, slightly larger Heron Mk II.

The Fokker 50 maritime patrol aircraft are expected to serve longer following a 2017 life-extension program to update the maritime patrol radar, electro-optical/infrared sensors, and communication systems. Despite being offered new systems from Boeing (P-8A), Saab (Swordfish), and IAI (ELI-3360), Khong said that the RSAF will fly the Fokker 50 for “as long as it is operationally and economically feasible.”

Regarding the F-35B, Singapore is awaiting the letter of offer and acceptance from the U.S. government. The first four jets will stay in CONUS for initial training and testing, and a suitable location for training is under discussion.

With the exception of logistical sustainment, Khong said that most of the technical issues are resolved and that the price of the aircraft has fallen 40 percent since 2010. The ministry estimates that the costs of procuring and operating the F-35B are comparable to those of the F-15SG, which the RSAF has flown for more than 10 years.