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Only defense analysts can get depressed over a victory. This week the Singaporean Ministry of Defense and the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) finally ended their long, coquettish courtship with Lockheed Martin and pulled the trigger on buying the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
To the dismay of many, however, this will-she-or-won’t-she romance did not have the fairytale ending they desired. For more than a decade, Singapore has evinced an interest in acquiring the F-35 but always put off making a decision. And when the Defense Ministry finally did place an order, it was for only a “small number” of JSFs, in order to conduct “a full evaluation of their capabilities and suitability before deciding on a full fleet.”
Some have interpreted this as an indicator that the RSAF might still have its doubts about the F-35, that, in the words of one defense analyst, it might be an “overpriced lemon.” According to this argument, by buying only a few JSFs for evaluation purposes, Singapore is still hedging its bets. Such talk must be music to the ears of the makers of the Eurofighter Typhoon, the French Rafale, or even the Sukhoi Su-30.
JSF still the one to beat
Typhoon, Rafale, Su-30? Don’t bet on it. Despite its coyness, the RSAF wants the F-35. In the first place, it has already spent years evaluating JSF technical specs. Singapore has long been a partner in the international JSF program, albeit at Level 4 (“Security Cooperative Participant”), but the same as Israel (which has placed an order for at least 50 F-35s).
And, frankly, the JSF is the only game in town. The RSAF wants a fifth-generation fighter to remain technologically ahead of its potential regional rivals. As such, the F-35 stands alone. The Typhoon, the Rafale and the Su-30 are all fine fighter aircraft, but they are at least a half-generation behind the JSF.
Moreover, the RSAF is interested in the “B” version of the F-35, the STOVL (short-takeoff and vertical-landing) variant of the JSF. In wartime, Singapore’s small size makes it impossible to disperse its air force effectively to remote landing strips, which would in any case be few in number and easily discovered. An STOVL fighter would give the RSAF new options for hiding and operating its fighters almost anywhere in the country, particularly on small islets in the Singapore Strait.
Finally, if the RSAF was not going to buy the F-35, it would probably simply acquire more F-15s or the latest (Block 70) version of the F-16. It is obvious that the Singaporeans feel that it is time to move up a whole generation when it comes to fighter aircraft.
Always the flirt
In addition, making a small initial buy is nothing new for Singapore. It did this with submarines, the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, and the F-15 fighter.
In the 1990s, for example, it bought several second-hand submarines from Sweden, to test the suitability of subs for the Republic of Singapore Navy. These were subsequently replaced with two ex-Swedish (but heavily upgraded) submarines, which then led to the purchase of two new, ultra-modern boats from Germany.
The same with the F-15. After placing an initial order for 12 fighters, the RSAF gradually increased its inventory of F-15s to 40.
In general, Singapore tends to ease into its arms purchases. This is partly done so as not to bust its defense budget. In addition, it keeps its armed forces from being overwhelmed trying to integrate a lot of new systems into its services.
Incremental arms acquisitions can also be viewed as a way to reassure its neighbors that Singapore is not trying to make a major technological end-run around them. New capabilities are introduced gradually and generally in full public view; as a result, Singapore maintains its technological edge, but does so in a way as not to exacerbate regional insecurities and possibly even spark a regional arms race.
Singapore and F-35: no runaway bride
In the end, therefore, defense analysts – and Lockheed Martin – needn’t worry. To continue the courtship analogy, Singapore has taken its time being walked the down the aisle, and it is adding a few lines to the vows before it says “I do.” There is no reason, however, to believe that the RSAF will be a runaway bride. Instead, it is likely that Singapore will eventually become a major operator of the JSF, replacing all of its F-16s and perhaps even its F-15s as well.
Many other countries in Asia are likely to follow Singapore’s example and acquire the F-35. Australia, Japan and South Korea have already purchased the JSF, in fact, and India, Thailand, and even Indonesia are potential customers. If a country wants a full-up fifth-generation fighter, there is simply no other alternative – and, yes, I concede that China has the J-31, which is quite similar to the F-35; but few countries are likely to take the leap of faith in Chinese technology and commit to such an untried fighter jet.
Until another fifth- or sixth-generation fighter comes along – either from the US or Europe, or one involving local cooperation with a Western aerospace giant – Asia has few other choices. So relax, Singapore is going to buy a lot of F-35s.