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Commentary: Singapore gets a boost to become a 5th-generation air force, but what lies ahead in the F-35 journey?

Singapore’s journey to become a fifth-generation air force progressed further after Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen revealed its plans to buy eight more Lockheed Martin F-35B at the recent parliamentary debate over his ministry’s annual budget.

The F-35B aircraft (pictured) can travel at a maximum speed of about 1.6 times the speed of sound, or about 1,900km/h.

The F-35B aircraft (pictured) can travel at a maximum speed of about 1.6 times the speed of sound, or about 1,900km/h.

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Singapore’s journey to become a fifth-generation air force progressed further after Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen revealed its plans to buy eight more Lockheed Martin F-35B at the recent parliamentary debate over his ministry’s annual budget.

It is deemed the most suitable replacement for the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) F-16C/D fleet. 

The purchase will add to the four aircraft confirmed in 2020, bringing the total to 12 F-35Bs, a decision made after an extensive evaluation in areas of the aircraft’s full capabilities and interoperability within the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). 

Singapore got one foot in the door after signing the letter of intent in 2020, which gave it exclusive access to F-35 user conferences and training facilities. Such interactions gave F-35 users, including Singapore, deeper insights and access to aircraft-related information. 

The timing of the acquisition is fitting. 

The first F-35B is expected to be delivered in 2026, meaning by the time the F-16s are phased out in 2030s, there is already a batch of operational F-35 pilots ready, not to mention flying the latest F-35B version with upgraded avionics known as Block 4. 

The aircraft will also arrive ahead of the expected closure of Paya Lebar Airbase from 2030, when the RSAF could potentially face a net reduction in available runway for conventional take off. 

With no strategic depth, RSAF runways are vulnerable to enemy attacks. 

Therefore the short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) capabilities on the F-35 “B” variant will be an important feature, which will enable the RSAF to continue to generate airpower should the runways be attacked or partially disabled. 

So, how might the Singapore F-35 programme move on from now? 


The Singapore and United States governments have shortlisted Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith, Arkansas as the preferred site to house RSAF’s future F-35B detachment. 

RSAF’s F-16 detachment is also expected to shift from Luke Air Force Base in Arizona to Ebbing. Currently, the US authorities are undergoing environmental impact assessment before the final decision is made. 

As RSAF upgrades and expands the existing Tengah and Changi air bases to prepare for the relocation of Paya Lebar Airbase, resurfacing work has to be done to some tarmac to support STOVL operations. 

Nonetheless, the F-35s will fit right into the RSAF future smart air base concept, with its highly digitised systems giving RSAF operation planners full view of F-35’s operational status. 

One big question remains: How many and which F-35 variant will RSAF procure further, on top of the 12 F-35Bs? 

Currently there are three F-16 operational squadrons in Singapore and one training unit in the US. 

While 12 F-35Bs can form two small squadrons, it still wouldn’t be sufficient to replace all of RSAF’s current F-16 capacity. Assuming one F-35B unit be based in Ebbing, more would be needed to defend Singapore skies. 

It is also important to note that with the advanced capabilities, the F-35 will not be a one-for-one replacement for the F-16. As a comparison, the Royal Thai Air Force estimates one F-35A could replace three of its older F-16s. 

A conservative estimate could see RSAF planning a second batch of F-35s, even expanding options to the conventional take-off F-35As, which has slightly longer endurance and lower operating costs, to diversify the fleet’s capabilities. 

There could be possibly two operational squadrons, and one detachment in the US. 

The RSAF's F-15SGs, like the F-16s, will undergo a mid-life capability upgrade to lengthen its service life beyond 2030. In any case, the F-35 will pair nicely with the F-15SG in service, the latter known for its heavy payload and endurance. 

A typical air to ground operating scenario could see the F-35 using its stealth capabilities to take out enemy air defences, allowing the F-15SG to follow in and destroy key infrastructure. 

If the enemy air defence and infrastructure is likened to a building; F-35s would kick down a building’s door, allowing the F-15SGs to enter and destroy the building from within. 

In December 2022, the F-35 programme was under the spotlight again when a F-35B spun out of control while landing in a test flight in Fort Worth, US. 

Engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney has quickly identified the issue to a “very rare systems phenomenon” described as a harmonic resonance, and has provided solutions that it describes as “a quick and elegant fix” to a limited number of affected engines. 

This should rule out any issues for Singapore’s jets set to be delivered three years later in 2026. 


Interoperability is becoming an important commodity in Asia Pacific air arms. 

Unlike the likes of The North Atlantic Treaty Organization where all members work and operate upon a similar concept of operation (Conops) and tactics, Asian air forces, albeit flying similar platforms, have differing Conops, procedures and language. 

Many air arms from India, Japan, South Korea to Australia are all reaching out to another, aiming to establish military working relations and interoperability. 

The ability to “plug and fight” — where an air force can muster its aircraft to a theatre and start flying missions with partners — is now becoming an important factor in air power generation. 

By 2035, there will be around 300 F-35s in the Indo Pacific region, majority in Australia, Japan and South Korea. 

There will also be US F-35s present either from land or sea, in the form of carrier borne F-35Bs and F-35Cs. There will also be a common spare pool available to F-35 users, lowering additional logistical footprint. 

Steps are already underway to bring these current and future F-35 users together. 

Japan and South Korea debuted at Exercise Pitch Black in 2022, sharing and working alongside Australia, Singapore, US and other air arms to develop mission plans and tactics, so that these air forces can quickly interoperate if required in the future. 

RSAF fighters have also flown in more “intimate” training scenarios when the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and US Marine Corps visited Singapore with the F-35A and F-35B respectively. 

RSAF air and ground crew also conducted professional exchange on the F-35 platform, and at one occasion witnessed F-35B carrier operations on assault ship USS Tripoli. 

By the time RSAF receives its F-35B in 2026, it will have credible flying hours with and against the F-35 to not only develop its own set of tactics, but also with partnering air forces. 

F-35 users from elsewhere will be able to quickly deploy and fly alongside RSAF and, when required, also accept spares which are under a common pool system. 

And plugged into the SAF’s highly networked fighting system, the F-35 can potentially provide air, land and sea units with a common air picture that enhances the situational awareness, allowing it to fight as a single coordinated force.

For example at Exercise Pitch Black 2022, the crew of RSAF G550 airborne early warning aircraft gained unprecedented experience integrating and controlling F-35As in the skies.

Teaming up with RAAF F-35As as “Blue Air” or the “good guys”, it pitted itself against a disproportionately large “Red Air” playing as “enemies” and emerged victorious in the war game.

The result of winning an air war with a small but deadly footprint is exactly what the RSAF is looking for.



Chen Chuanren is a freelance defence journalist, writing for defence publications including Shephard Media and AviationWeek Network.

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