Singapore’s Careful F-35 Fighter Aircraft Purchase
Well-timed, in that it means Singapore will buy the fully-developed F-35 version, the Lot 15, Block 4 Standard. Any F-35s bought before then will need upgrading to that standard; most of Australia’s F-35s, those delivered and on order, will need upgrading.
And cost-effective, as Singapore will be buying as US annual production rate peaks, usefully pushing acquisition costs down.
The limited numbers and the F-35’s attributes suggest that Singapore will use its new F-35s in combination with its F-16 and F-15 fleets. The attribute of the F-35 that pilots most stress is its excellent sensor package that provides a very detailed picture of the battlespace. The emerging F-35 operating method appears to be F-35s operating forward in hostile airspace using stealth to survive, while passing detailed targeting information back to distant F-16 and F-15 aircraft flying outside heavily defended areas, allowing them to fire their air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles at maximum range. This approach maximises the qualities of the different aircraft involved: the F-35’s stealth and the others’ range and payload capabilities.
In terms of sending a message to an assertive China, the language is mixed. The F-35s limited range means it will not threaten mainland China, although with air-to-air refuelling the fighters could reach China’s new South China Sea airbases.
There is a problem though. The F-35s when in stealthy mode can only datalink to another F-35. But that issue might be addressed by mid-next decade, and there are practical tactical work arounds, even if a bit messy. This issue hints at both opportunities and constraints.
While Singapore will have only limited numbers of F-35s, these can be employed as force multipliers using their advanced sensors to enhance the operational effectiveness of regional air forces (albeit this will require these air forces to have high-quality datalinks). In that regard, Singapore’s F-35s would be well suited to cooperate closely with South Korean, Japanese, Australian, and US forces.
Most ASEAN air forces, however, will have difficulty working directly with Singapore’s F-35s given data link and interoperability issues. Such air forces might operate in the same general area as Singaporean F-35s rather than forming a closely integrated force package. The Singaporean F-35 influence on, and usefulness to, air forces around the South China Sea region seems limited.
In terms of sending a message to an assertive China, the language is mixed. The F-35s limited range means it will not threaten mainland China, although with air-to-air refuelling the fighters could reach China’s new South China Sea airbases. However, given Singapore’s geostrategic location, the country might be less than enthusiastic about joining in a China conflict, instead trying hard to remain neutral.
Such a stance could see the F-35s protecting Singaporean airspace from all comers, a Switzerland of Southeast Asia if you will. Singapore’s F-35s may be more a regional asset than one appropriate to a China contingency.
Such comments aside, in simply military terms, Singapore’s small number of air bases are progressively becoming more vulnerable to attack. China is building an impressive long-range ballistic missile and cruise missile attack capability. The long-runway F-35A version would be quite vulnerable if based in Singapore; the existing protective shelters would be hard placed to stop a ballistic missile attack. This doesn’t just apply to Singaporean F-35s. It is difficult to see US Air Force F-35As operating in Singapore during some time of hypothetical conflict as it would be too risky for too limited a return.
Given these concerns, Singapore could acquire at least some of the short-range/low payload F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing version. As these do not need long runways to operate, they can be better hidden and accordingly better survive missile attack. The F-35Bs could be flown around Singapore as flying senor packages relaying targeting data to ground-based surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missile systems (such as anti-ship missile systems). While the F-35B is rather expensive to buy and operate, in such a niche air defence and air surveillance role it may provide a useful, unique capability.
Singapore’s purchase throws up two issues for Australia.
Firstly, Singapore gradually developing an F-35 operating base on the island will be advantageous to Australia’s F-35 regional deployments, especially for Five Power Defence Arrangement exercises. In that regard, being a flying sensor package, both nation’s F-35s might usefully monitor Chinese aircraft movements around the region in peacetime, or perhaps during a crisis short of war.
This cuts both ways. China will also be assiduously trying to collect information on Singapore’s (and Australia’s) F-35s to help China further improve its stealth aircraft technology and tactics. This geographic vulnerability to intelligence collection also applies to South Korea’s and Japan’s new F-35 fleets.
Secondly, the Singaporean defence minister Ng Eng Hen displayed admirable candour concerning F-35 operating costs. Outside the US Government Accountability Office, that’s rare, Australia for one doesn’t know.
Ng noted the total cost of ownership of a 12 aircraft F-35 buy will be “comparable” to that for Singapore’s initial 12 two-engine, heavy-weight F-15SG buy. That might make replacing each all Singapore’s sixty single-engine, light-weight F-16s with F-35s an expensive business. Singapore’s Air Force might shrink – or perhaps choose to supplement a smaller fleet with Australia’s exciting new “loyal wingman”.
Dr. Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. A retired RAAF Group Captain, Peter has extensive experience in force structure development and taught national security strategy at the US National Defense University. He has written extensively on defence and security matters, and was awarded the US Exceptional Public Service medal for force structure planning work. In 2006, he won the RUSI Trench Gascoigne Essay Prize for original writing on contemporary issues of defence and international security. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.
This article appeared originally at Lowy Institute's the interpreter.