F-35B: The unprecedented capabilities Singapore always wanted
The US announcement of a sale of 12 Lockheed Martin F-35Bs to Singapore has finally put a stop to a year-long debate as to which variant the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) was seeking.
The decision to go for the short take-off vertical landing version comes as little surprise for most military analysts, but beyond just the advanced C4I and stealth capabilities, the various unprecedented features it brings to the table will solve numerous headaches that the RSAF has faced for years.
With a land mass of just 721.5km², the island state of Singapore is continuously seeking land for national development. In 2013, the government announced that it will decommission its largest airfield, the 800ha Paya Lebar Air Base, sometime in 2030. Although plans are under way to expand Tengah Air Base by 106ha, and Changi Airbase, it is still a net loss in terms of available runways, roads and shelters.
The vulnerability of RSAF runways against saturated attacks is recognised by planners, and the future arrival of the F-35B will solve some worries should a runway be damaged. In short, the F-35B had everything the RSAF wanted and which the Harrier probably did not have a few decades ago.
The arrival of the F-35B could even open up the helicopter facility of Sembawang Air Base as a possible alternative site for the jet, although new air traffic procedures would have to be drafted and extensive re-pavement works carried out to make that a reality.
A huge possibility is also the deployment of these jets on the future Joint Multi-Mission Ship of the Republic of Singapore Navy, essentially a helicopter carrier with a ship-to-shore capability, giving the armed forces more flexibility to project its forces if needed.
The cost of the F-35B against other platforms is not a major factor after an extensive study by MINDEF and its procurement agency, the Defence Science and Technology Agency. Based on US DoD FY2020 fixed-wing reimbursement rates, the hourly operating cost for the F-35B is estimated at $16,995, compared to $17,604 for the F-15E and $17,050 for the F-35A.
It is also widely agreed that the RSAF will continue to see secondary orders for the jets, a common practice for the service after it becomes familiar and comfortable with a platform’s capabilities and maintenance.
However, the force-multiplying effect of the F-35 could mean a smaller number of potential jets compared to the 60-plus F-16C/D/D+ fighters that the RSAF currently has across four units. The domestic defence industry would also be actively involved in tweaking the jet to the RSAF’s unique requirements.
Come 2030, the RSAF would possess an advanced order of battle consisting of the F-35B, F-15SG and a handful of F-16s deployed in a complex CONOPS with other supporting assets such as UAVs and A330 MRTTs, leveraging their strengths and specialties.
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