Singapore’s acquisition of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II has shifted from an unlikely possibility to a plausible probability in recent months.
The F-35 is being touted as a state-of-the-art fifth generation fighter, described as only second to the U.S. Air Force’s prized F-22 in air-to-air capabilities and the best in air-to-ground abilities. While many Western and pro-West states, such as the UK and Japan, have already received the F-35, the tiny city-state of Singapore has been a financial contributor as a ‘Security Cooperative Partner’ in the F-35 programme since its launch in 2003, though they since remained characteristically tight lipped on any involvement.
This changed in 2013, when Minister of Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen announced that they were in the ‘final stages of evaluating the F-35’. In December last year, Dr Ng was given a tour of F-35 training facilities at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona where he told reporters that he was ‘pleased’ with the progress of the F-35 programme and that it continued to ‘tick boxes’ in evaluation. These recent developments, along with an appearance of a replica F-35 at the Singapore Airshow suggests that Singapore’s interest in the programme is higher than ever.
Singapore’s move for the F-35 is atypical; the state has exhibited a preference for depending on their own industry for military equipment. When required to look abroad, the usual defence procurement habit has been to purchase second-hand or slightly dated equipment, before refurbishing and modernising it. Recent examples of this include Singapore’s acquisition and refurbishment of second-hand Leopard II tanks in 2006 and the purchase of heavily upgraded F-15 fighters that became operational in 2013. Despite the tradition of obtaining hand-me-downs, Singapore’s military is already considered the most advanced in South East Asia. Thus, a move alongside Western states for the brand new F-35 is intriguing.
The F-35 would no doubt enhance the RSAF’s capability. The F-35 programme’s director of business development Steve Over said that the F-35 is equipped to handle ‘today’s developing advanced threat systems’ which fourth-generation aircraft, still in use by US and Singapore air forces, may not be able to handle.
It is speculated that Singapore’s interest is specifically in the F-35B variant. The F-35B is a Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft. Some analysts cite the city-state’s severely limited land constraints and short runways as the reason the F-35B is the preferred option. However, others have suggested Singapore’s move for a STOVL aircraft, coupled with interest in developing its own ‘multi-mission ship’, indicates that it intends to operate the F-35B off such a vessel, virtually creating an aircraft carrier. If such speculation is true, this would dramatically increase the capability of the RSAF.
Singapore is a tiny state, half the size of London, and as such, all of the RSAF’s military assets (excluding overseas detachments) are concentrated in a small area. Operating F-35s from sea increases the operational possibilities for the RSAF, who are in the process of reducing their already minimal airbases due to severe land constraints. This is not to mention the increased capability that an aircraft carrier would offer any state. Furthermore, Lieutenant General Davis of the U.S. Marine Corps said that four F-35s were able to carry out tasks that conventionally required thirteen aircrafts. Therefore operating a handful of the versatile F-35s from aircraft carriers multiplies the RSAF’s capabilities.
When analysing why Singapore has taken this uncharacteristic move, some have suggested that the state is keen on protecting its interests against China’s assertiveness in the region, and thus desires to balance against China’s growing military strength. However, Singapore has little motive to do so. As explored in a previous article, Singapore does not have any claims in the disputed South China Sea, has remained categorically neutral, and supports China’s desire for bilateral negotiations on the disputed region. Dr. Ng told Parliament last year that, ‘defence relations with China are excellent’ and as Singapore’s largest import and export partner, it is unlikely that it will want to antagonise China militarily at the risk of souring a profitable economic relationship.
Examining regional context of Southeast Asia proves that the answer lies closer to home. Singapore’s leaders have always identified themselves as realists, and are convinced that its Malay-Muslim neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, do not fully accept the sovereignty of the predominantly Chinese Singapore and are envious of its economic success. This sentiment stems back to the tumultuous days of post colonial Malaya, when Singapore was evicted from Malaysia and was subsequently involved in a ‘confrontation’ with Indonesia.
Singapore’s defence policy involves maintaining what William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security calls a ‘defence premium’, which involves outspending rivals on defence and maintaining a technological edge over them.
In recent years Indonesia and Malaysia, along with the rest of Southeast Asia, have increased their defence budgets and have started modernising their armouries. Malaysia’s air force suffers from being overly diverse, outdated, and expensive to maintain, and seeks to replace several aging aircraft with modern alternatives. Malaysia has already procured a number of modern Sukhoi Su-30 fighters from Russia, and is looking to further expand its fleet by forty modern aircraft by 2020. Indonesia’s air force is similarly outdated, but they have announced that they will be adding the multi-role Su-35 to their fledging fleet of sixteen modern Su-27 and Su-30 aircraft. The Su-35 is a 4++ generation aircraft, meaning that it is placed just below the F-35. However, even without the F-35 the RSAF still outmatches the new Malaysian and Indonesian air forces, but it is unsurprising that the RSAF is evaluating a fifth generation aircraft in order to maintain its defence premium in the face of their neighbour’s modernisation programme.
Singapore’s acquisition of the F-35 is far from a done deal. And despite the advantages that the aircraft would offer, it remains to be seen whether the state will follow through on its interest. Dr Ng has repeatedly said that there was ‘no hurry’, and Singapore can afford to be patient for two reasons. Firstly, the current fleet meets the state’s needs for the foreseeable future. The F-15SG wielded by the RSAF is said to be the most advanced F-15 variant in the world, and wouldn’t be outmatched by its any of its rival’s new aircrafts. Furthermore, Singapore’s F-16s are about to undergo an extensive upgrade programme that will prolong their lifespan by 20 years. This means that there is no present need for Singapore to possess the F-35; Dr Ng said that the F-35 would only be purchased to satisfy ‘long-term’ needs. Secondly, the F-35 has already experienced a 55 per-cent decrease in price since the first operational model was built, and it is claimed that prices will be driven down to within the same range as fourth generation aircraft. Thus, being patient will allow Singapore to save hundreds of millions of pounds should the state eventually decide to purchase the fighter while also ensuring that the slew of technical issues and criticism that plagues the fighter are smoothed out before doing so. Dr Ng had stressed that cost-effectiveness is an important consideration on the viability of the fighter. Even if Singapore were to eventually purchase the F-35, the extensive schedule of upgrades planned for their existing fleet rules out the prospect that the F-35 is meant to replace tit. It is more likely that Singapore will purchase a relatively small number F-35s and integrate them into their current fleet.
Singapore is unlikely to acquire the F-35 in the near future, especially while lower prices are on the horizon. The state is satisfied with its current fleet and is thus able linger over a purchase. It is likely that Singapore will eventually confirm a small order of between eight to twelve of the aircraft, albeit closer to 2020. If the programme progresses as promised, the F-35 will offer a number of state-of-the-art capabilities at an affordable price that ensures a defence premium over its neighbours for years to come. The prospect of deploying the versatile craft from sea means that there is an enticing case to procure the aircraft for long term use.
 Rahim, L. Z. Singapore in the Malay World: Building and Breaching Regional Bridges. (New York: Routledge, 2009), 84.