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F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

Singapore's defense minister said 18 January 2019 that the F-35 fighter was the most suitable replacement for the country's F-16 fleet, and it planned to initially buy a few for evaluation. With Southeast Asia's largest defense budget, the wealthy city-state is a key prize for global arms companies. Singapore's fleet of around 60 F-16 jets, which first entered service in 1998, will be retired soon after 2030. "They (defense agencies) have decided that the F-35 would be the most suitable replacement fighter," Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said. "We want to procure a few planes first, to fully evaluate the capabilities of the F-35 before deciding on the acquisition of a full fleet."

A central element of Singapore’s defense posture is maintaining a qualitative military edge over other South-east Asian states. RSAF remains as an active participant of the Integrated Area Defence System (IADS) which is the operational element of the Five-Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA). In the larger context, the FPDA, which groups Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore as members, is a unique and important component of the regional security architecture to which Singapore remains committed. While New Zealand has no fighter aircraft [happy is the land that has no need of heroes], and Malaysia has only small numbers of fourth generation fighters, both the UK and Australia plan to operate the F-35.

Singapore has engaged in collaborative projects with counterparts in the United States, France and other friendly nations who share common interests. One such example is the RSAF’s participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program that facilitated access to proprietary information, including flight simulators. The mission of the International Directorate (ID) is to lead the integration of international participation within the framework of the F-35 program office. JSF ID has implemented a Security Cooperative Participation (SCP) approach with Israel and Singapore, which joined in 2003. In 2007 Chief of Air Force, Major General Ng Chee Khern, revealed the JSF as a contender alongside the Boeing F-15SG to replace the RSAF’s ageing F-5 fleet.

On 16 March 2004 Singapore signed the Letter of Offer and Acceptance to participate in the System Development and Demonstration Phase of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme as a Security Co-operation Participant (SCP). The JSF programme is a US-led multi-nation project to develop an advanced, cost-effective multi-role stealth strike fighter that can perform air defence and ground attack missions with precision engagement, enhanced combat survivability and lower cost of maintenance.

Singapore’s bilateral SCP arrangement with the US provides an early opportunity to assess the JSF’s ability to meet the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s longer-term operational requirements for a multi-role fighter. Singapore will have insights into the JSF’s development progress and be able to conduct studies for integration of Singapore’s requirements into the JSF. As an SCP, Singapore can also request early purchase of the JSF for delivery from 2012 onwards. Singapore is the only Asian country to sign an SCP Letter of Offer and Acceptance for the JSF programme. The LOA follows a Letter of Intent signed in February 2003, which laid down the broad principles for the SCP arrangement.

Aerobatic manoeuvres by aircraft such as the Republic of Singapore Air Force's advanced F-16C and F-15SG fighter jets are always perennial crowd pleasers. And this was no exception at the Singapore Airshow 2012, held at the Changi Exhibition Centre (CEC) from 14 to 19 February. To declare the opening of this biennial aviation exhibition, Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen and Minister for Transport Lui Tuck Yew jointly officiated at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Dr Ng also also stopped over at Lockheed Martin's chalet, which featured the F-35 cockpit demonstrator.

At the 12 March 2013 Committee of Supply (COS) debate for the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), Defense Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen expressed Singapore’s desire to acquire new military platforms for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), particularly for the air force and navy. Noting that two of the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF's) main air combat platforms are either approaching the mid-life or end of their operational life cycles, Dr Ng revealed that the defence ministry is close to completing its evaluation of the JSF as a potential replacement for its ageing fighters.

Making reference to MINDEF joining the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program as a Security Cooperation Participant in 2004, Dr Ng explained that the JSF platform, also known as the F-35 fighter aircraft, has the potential to be the most advanced multi-role fighter aircraft. He revealed that as the RSAF's F-5 fighter aircraft are nearing the end of their operational life, and that the F-16s are at their midway mark, the F-35 has been identified as a suitable aircraft to further modernise the RSAF's fighter fleet.

"Investing steadily over the long-term allows MINDEF to keep a constant lookout for platforms with cutting-edge capabilities that can provide Singapore with that strategic advantage. For this reason, we joined the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Programme as a Security Cooperation Participant (SCP) back in 2004. The JSF, as some members know, now the F-35, has the potential to be the most advanced multi-role fighter aircraft for decades to come.

"Though the F-35 aircraft is still in development, we are nonetheless interested in the platform for our future needs. The F-35 will be the vanguard of next generation fighter aircraft when operational. Our F-5s are nearing the end of their operational life and our F-16s are at their mid-way mark. For the longer term, the RSAF has identified the F-35 as a suitable aircraft to further modernise our fighter fleet. We are now in the final stages of evaluating the F-35. So in the interest of transparency, I'm telling you we're now in the final stages of evaluating the F-35. MINDEF will have to be satisfied that this state-of-the-art multi-role fighter meets our long-term needs, is on track to be operationally capable and, most importantly, is a cost-effective platform. I've given many necessary caveats before we make a final decision, but we are evaluating the platform."

At a April 24, 2013 US Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Lt General Christopher C. Bogdan, Program Executive Officer F-35, stated "Singapore has shown tremendous interest. Every time I see anyone from the Singaporean Air Force, I can tell you that they are quite enthused about the airplane. I believe by this summer we will hear if Singapore is in the program."

Singapore formally submitted a "letter of request" to the US in December 2014, seeking information on how to purchase the jets, and followed up in 2015 by indicating that they preferred the most advanced model of the F-35, the F-35B. The F-35B was designed for the Marine Corps and has been ordered by Italy and the United Kingdom. The craft is intended for vertical landings on unmaintained airstrips and short take-offs.

Singapore intended to acquire four F-35s by around 2022, with the option to purchase another eight more. In early 2016, the US decided that if Singapore purchased F-35s, they would allow them integrate a proprietary data link and radio system into the craft. At that time, international partners had committed to buying 612 of the jets, while the Pentagon intends to purchase 2,443 for the US Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. Finland, Spain, Belgium, and Poland were considering the acquisition of F-35s.

In response to media queries on MINDEF's interests in acquiring the F-35, the following MINDEF reply was issued 08 May 2015: “As a small country with no strategic depth, Singapore will always need superior air capabilities to protect its interests and borders. As stated by the Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen in his speech during the Committee of Supply Debate in 2013, fifth generation fighter aircraft, such as the F-35, are potential options to enhance the RSAF capabilities for the longer term. Our current fleet of fighter aircraft are adequate for our defence needs and the F-35 is still under evaluation."

Singapore postponed plans to buy twelve Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets. The craft was to be purchased by 2022, with an option to buy eight more, but Singapore's secretary of defense informed the Pentagon in mid-June 2016 that the nation would delay the final steps toward purchasing the fighters. The government hadn't given any indication of when it may want to complete the process of buying F-35s, but the US was encouraging them to make the purchase. At a White House media conference with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, US President Barack Obama said in his opening remarks, "We welcome Singapore's interest in purchasing the F-35 aircraft."

Richard Aboulafia, military aircraft analyst for the Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia, said that Singapore had "been uncertain on the F-35 for years," and that, "As a 'security cooperation partner' they were never as fully committed as the primary partners. They have a large and very new fleet of F-16s and F-15s, and the threats they face don't really call for a plane in the F-35 class" so "any F-35 sale to Singapore was viewed as a relatively long-term proposition."

Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen announced in early March that the country plans buy up to 12 F-35 warplanes, with US news outlet CNN saying the potential purchase could cause trepidation from China. The CNN report said that Singapore's decision was indicative of growing concerns within Asia regarding China's "regional ambitions," and quoted analysts as saying that China should see the plan as evidence that there remains strong demand in the Asia-Pacific region for a US presence.

Chinese experts said Singapore's decision to buy F-35 fighter jets from the US was unlikely aimed at China, and recent analyses by US media saying otherwise are ridiculous and wishful thinking. Zhu Feng, executive director of China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University, told the Global Times that "The assertion by CNN is really ridiculous. For the most part, it is merely wishful thinking by US media." Singapore has been importing advanced US fighter jets for 30 years, and this F-35 plan is just a continuation of its traditional "small but advanced" national defense strategy, Zhu said. "I do not think this is aimed at China."

Ng said in June 2018 that Singapore was looking to replace the aging F-16 fighter jets with not only the F-35, but also China's J-20 as options, Singapore-based newspaper the Straits Times reported then. Even the CNN report admitted that Ng did not mention China when announcing the purchase plan. He only said the jets will contribute to Singapore's ability to safeguard its sovereignty and security.

If the deal goes through, Singapore will become the fourth US ally in the Pacific to own the F-35, joining Australia, Japan and South Korea, who had bought the stealth fighter earlier. But it is absurd to say this is "a message to China," because the four countries' fighter jets were originally all US-made, as they are all core allies of the US in the Asia-Pacific region, the military expert said. Japan, South Korea and Australia's older fighters were extremely outdated and they had to upgrade, and Singapore's plan is also a normal equipment replacement, the expert noted.

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Page last modified: 19-03-2019 09:49:10 ZULU