Singapore is reportedly holding off a decision to buy the Lockheed Martin F-35 jet, a multi-role stealthy warplane that is touted as the world's most advanced fighter.
A Bloomberg article published on Tuesday said the Republic's Permanent Secretary of Defence Development - who was not named in the story - informed the United States in mid-June that Singapore would be delaying the final steps of the purchasing process.
The report added that Singapore had intended to acquire four F-35s by around 2022, with the option to purchase another eight more, citing information from the Pentagon's programme office.
While several sources had earlier told The Straits Times that a decision on the F-35 could be made as early as next year, the latest news suggests that the multi-billion-dollar deal will be put on hold for now.
Speculation over Singapore's decision on the F-35 - which has been ordered by 11 countries besides the US - has been rife following visits to the US by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and the air force.
Dr Ng, who saw the F-35 in action in 2013, visited Luke Air Force Base in Arizona last December, on the sidelines of an exercise, to see another variant of the jet. He said on both occasions that Singapore was in no hurry to make a purchase.
An evaluation team from the Republic of Singapore Air Force also visited Lockheed's aeronautics headquarters in Dallas Fort Worth at least twice in the past three years to use the F-35 simulators, it was reported.
Singapore's Defence Ministry did not confirm the Bloomberg report regarding its Permanent Secretary of Defence Development, who is currently Mr Ng Chee Khern.
But it referred to an earlier statement it made in May on the F-35. "As a small country with no strategic depth, Singapore will always need superior air capabilities to protect its interests and borders," the ministry said.
"Our current fleet of fighter aircraft is adequate for our defence needs, and the F-35 is still under evaluation."
Following Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's meeting with US President Barack Obama in Washington last week, both countries issued a joint statement which touched briefly on the F-35. It said only: "President Obama welcomed Singapore's continued interest in the F-35 aircraft."
The F-35 has been in development since 2001 but has been criticised for delays, production flaws and ballooning production costs. At US$379 billion (S$508 billion), it is the Pentagon's costliest weapons project.
Defence observer David Boey, who sits on the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence, said: " The F-35 is, on paper at least, a capable war machine that can network with friendly assets like aircraft, warships and ground forces and is also designed to be hard to detect on radar."
But noting that the F-35's evolution has been vexed by problems, Mr Boey added: "This is perhaps why Singapore, which has earned a reputation as a reference customer who is an astute buyer of war machines, is in no hurry to seal a deal."
[Also, Mr Boey had suggested that the alternative to the F 35, may be UCAV:
Forward-looking air warfare planners must therefore hedge their bets by asking if a new warplane costing some $200 million apiece is really worth the investment or would a sizeable number of locally-developed UCAVs make a better complement.Note the suggestion is for "locally-developed UCAV". If he has any inside information about projects for locally developed UCAV, he is probably not at liberty to say. But why add the modifier "locally-developed"? He could have wrote, "would a sizeable number of UCAVs make a better complement", and his argument would be just as solid.
And Mr Boey concludes,
"Look to the Republic of Singapore Navy, ask yourself where it is heading in terms of air-capable platforms (not just the Endurance-class LST replacements but the one after that), ponder what could be taking place inside our defence R&D labs are you'll have a possible answer to why we are taking so long with that F-35 announcement."His words are of course subject to interpretation, but between his suggestion as to what is in R&D, and his apparent slip about "locally-developed UCAV", which is not something that is openly known, and we can suspect what is in R&D.]