By DAVID BOEY
Singapore announced on Friday (Jan 18) that it would buy a "small number" of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for "a full evaluation of their capabilities and suitability before deciding on a full fleet".
If the sparse 127-word Ministry of Defence (Mindef) statement spread over two paragraphs left you with more questions than answers, you are in good company.
Two key questions remain.
First, is the Lockheed-Martin F-35 — the most advanced warplane that friends of the United States can buy — the chosen one that will replace Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) F-16s?
It is a critical decision as single and double-seat variants of the F-16 are currently the most numerous fighter type in the RSAF.
Literature touting the superiority of the new generation multi-role F-35 inevitably ends up downplaying capabilities of F-16s that were once Lockheed's best-selling fighter jet.
Second, what is the RSAF's Plan B if the F-35 fails the evaluation?
Singapore's search for an F-16 replacement is the RSAF's longest and most complex fighter evaluation.
It was launched formally in March 2004 when the Republic paid an initial US$50 million for what was essentially observer status on the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme, giving it insights into the evolution of the multi-role fighter aircraft now known as the F-35 Lightning II.
After 15 years eyeing the JSF, with the RSAF and Defence Singapore Technology Agency (DSTA) investing the last five years on a technical evaluation, a firm order from Singapore beyond the test airframes continues to elude Lockheed.
When one considers the longevity of the JSF programme, the popularity of fighter jets and copious amounts of literature on the internet debating the merits (or lack thereof), teething issues and cost of the F-35, it is not surprising that the topic has captivated many people in Singapore and abroad.
There are broadly two camps: supporters who feel the F-35 is a game changer, and detractors who argue that the F-35 is an overpriced lemon. (The F-35A conventional take-off and landing model costs almost US$90 million, while the short-takeoff F-35B model costs US$115.5 million.)
Singapore's reputation as a tough and discerning defence customer makes its decision on the F-35 closely watched.
Alas, Mindef's skimpy statement on Friday left both camps somewhat perplexed.
Fans of the F-35 were disappointed the fighter jet was not declared a clear winner but nonetheless relieved that it is still in the running.
Opponents were disappointed the aircraft was not dropped outright after such a lengthy assessment but nonetheless relieved that only a handful — possibly as few as two aircraft — will be used for a thorough assessment.
DEAL OR NO DEAL?
Mindef and DSTA, Singapore's national authority for weapons acquisitions, appear to be pacing the project prudently and responsibly.
Singapore's try-before-buy approach is not unique among JSF customers and has precedents locally.
For example, Australia and the Netherlands both acquired two F-35s for tests before buying 100 and 37 fighters respectively.
In Singapore, several second-hand Sjoormen-class submarines were bought from Sweden in the 1990s to assess the suitability and capability of these undersea hunters.
The successful submarine trials led to the formation of the Republic's submarine force, which is now the largest in South-east Asia.
For the F-35, RSAF and DSTA will have to assess how well the jets can integrate with the Singapore Armed Forces’ network of weapons and sensors.
The small number of F-35 test aircraft will therefore serve as prototypes for Lockheed to customise the fighter to the RSAF's specific operational requirements.
There should be some latitude for Singapore to recommend enhancements that will facilitate the exchange of data securely and in near real-time, now that other F-35 customers have done likewise.
The F-35 must also adapt to Singapore's equatorial weather. The RSAF learned a hard lesson in 2010 after an Apache attack helicopter crash landed in Woodlands.
The investigation found that corrosion of an engine part sooner than maintenance cycles could detect the degradation contributed to the crash.
The component failed as a result of operating in Singapore's airspace, which has high salinity as sea breezes constantly fan across the island.
It was a crucial lesson that both the RSAF and Boeing, the Apache manufacturer, appreciated as the near-miss has tightened the maintenance regime to prevent similar incidents. As a result, Apache flights in places close to the sea are now safer.
Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen said in a Facebook post that the next stage of the F-35 evaluation could take nine to 12 months.
A potential deal-breaker could come from the reluctance of the Americans to allow Singapore to make the modifications it needs to maximise the F-35's potency and effectiveness.
Past hang-ups over access to source codes that control sensitive electronic warfare equipment have seen Singapore turn to alternative vendors to fulfil the RSAF's operational requirements.
But when Washington is prepared to work with the Lion City, a win-win partnership blossoms that benefits American industry and enhances the SAF's defence readiness.
This brings us to a discussion on Plan B.
Even without the F-35, the RSAF can still command a numerical and technological edge if alternative jet fighters are introduced to replace the RSAF's fleet of 60 F-16s.
Upgrades to the existing stable of fighter types from the US and Europe make new variants of existing fighters such as the F-15, Eurofighter Typhoon and Rafale potent adversaries in the air-to-air and air-to-ground arenas.
These fighter types may lack the F-35's stealthiness but are no pushovers in combat. Introduced in meaningful numbers in an integrated air defence network, a future RSAF fighter force sans the F-35 can still represent a formidable deterrent.
Observers are correct to point out the F-35 is the only choice when one is looking for a fighter plane that can integrate information from sensors on the aircraft and data supplied by external sensors like ground radars and warships.
But there are alternatives if one thinks outside the box. For instance, technology might develop from now till 2030 for us to see unmanned combat aerial vehicles operate with advanced sensor fusion and networked capabilities.
These might even end up being more stealthy and manoeuverable than manned fighter jets.
Whatever conclusion is reached eventually, the sparse Mindef news release on the F-35 will not be the last we will hear on this subject.
Exciting possibilities are in the works and for the future of the RSAF's air power.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
David Boey is a member of Mindef's Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence. A former defence journalist who has visited fighter aircraft factories in the US, Britain and France, he attended the F-35B flight demonstration and static display held for Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen in December 2013 at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.