Saturday, 19 January 2019

Singapore selects F-35 jets to replace ageing F-16 fighters

RSAF may first buy a small number to evaluate their capabilities before deciding on a full fleet
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 19 Jan 2019

Singapore has identified the United States F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as the most suitable aircraft to be its next-generation fighter jet.

The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) said this yesterday as it revealed that the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and the Defence Science and Technology Agency have completed their technical evaluation to select the replacement for the ageing F-16s. The F-35 JSF has been dubbed the world's most advanced fighter jet.

MINDEF said the evaluation concluded that the 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.

In the next phase, MINDEF will enter into talks with relevant parties in the US before confirming its decision to purchase the fighter jet.

No further details were given on the exact number or variants of the F-35s - manufactured by Lockheed Martin - that will be acquired.

The F-35 has stealth functions that make it difficult to detect by enemy radar. It also has network capabilities in fusing information from other F-35s and friendly forces to build up a picture of the battle space.

There are three variants of the aircraft, including a short take-off and vertical landing version that can land like a helicopter.

In a Facebook post yesterday, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen wrote that the talks with US counterparts could take nine to 12 months before a decision is made.

"Even then, we want to procure a few planes first to fully evaluate the capabilities of the F-35 before deciding on the full acquisition of a full fleet," he added.

"We must prepare well and cater enough time to replace our F-16s."

Dr Ng pointed out that the RSAF's F-16s, in service since 1998, will have to retire soon after 2030 even after their mid-life upgrades.

"That is not very far away, just over 10 years, to acquire their replacement and, just as important, to build the logistic support and train pilots individually and as a fleet to guard our skies," he wrote.

Dr Ng added that the technical evaluation took longer than expected at more than five years.

He noted that the delay was because some part of the evaluation could go through only after developmental flight testing of the F-35s was completed early last year.

Options for Singapore's new 4.5 or fifth-generation stealth fighters included the Eurofighter Typhoons, Russian-made Sukhois and Chinese-made J-20s.

Singapore had been observing the F-35 programme since 2004, when it joined as a security cooperation participant.

It could join 13 other countries that have signed up for the F-35 programme, including Japan and South Korea in Asia.

Mr David Boey, a defence blogger and member of the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence, said the F-35 will "sharpen the air force's operational and technological edge and strengthen our national security".

MINDEF replacing F-16 jets: Starting with a few F-35s a prudent move, say analysts
With an F-35B costing $156 million, move will give MINDEF time for thorough evaluation and room to manoeuvre
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 19 Jan 2019

The Ministry of Defence's plan to acquire a small number of United States F-35 fighter jets for further evaluation of their capabilities and suitability before a full purchase is a responsible move, said analysts.

MINDEF said yesterday that the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) have completed their technical evaluation of the aircraft - a process which took more than five years.

Singapore will now enter into discussions with US counterparts on issues such as the costs, variants, and interoperability of the F-35 with current systems before acquiring "a small number" of F-35s for a full evaluation.

Mr David Boey, a member of MINDEF's Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence, said buying a small number first shows MINDEF and DSTA are "pacing the acquisition responsibly".

He said it is prudent for Singapore to evaluate the fighter thoroughly before introducing it fleet-wide, given the F-35's cost.

An F-35A costs about US$89 million (S$121 million), while the short take-off/vertical landing variant, the F-35B, which Singapore is reportedly interested in, costs US$115 million.

"Previous acquisitions that started with modest numbers were expanded to formidable strength after the platforms proved their worth," added Mr Boey.

"For instance, the RSAF started with just eight F-16s in the late 1980s and now has a fleet of around 60 F-16s, making this the largest F-16 fleet in South-east Asia."

Mr Mike Yeo, Asia reporter for Defense News website and magazine, said some countries adopted the practice of buying a few before confirming a fleetwide purchase.

"This is not a unique situation, with both the Netherlands and Australia getting an initial two aircraft each for test and evaluation in the US before increasing their respective aircraft orders later," he added.

Senior analyst Kelvin Wong of military publication Jane's by IHS Markit said the completion of the technical evaluation marked the halfway point in replacing the F-16s with the F-35s.

He said: "It is a clever move by MINDEF to start with a small number, giving them some room to manoeuvre before committing to a full purchase, should the F-35 programme go wrong."

This is because how the F-35 performs in actual operations is still up in the air. Britain, for instance, declared initial operating capability for its F-35 fleet only earlier this month, said Mr Wong.

The F-35 programme has faced delays, ballooning production costs and production flaws in the past.

In October last year, the Pentagon temporarily suspended operations of its fleet of F-35 fighter jets for 24 to 48 hours to check for possible faulty fuel tubes in the engines of the planes. This came after the first F-35 crashed near the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina a month earlier. The pilot survived after ejecting.

"Extended evaluation of the aircraft in local conditions is therefore prudent, especially since the actual cost of sustaining it in the long term is still not yet fully understood," said Mr Wong.

RSAF and DSTA Complete Technical Evaluation of F-16 Replacement -18 Jan 2019

RSAF's F-15SG declared fully operational -18 Sep 2013

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