22 Maret 2010
RSAF's F-5 Tiger II (photo : Xxairforces)
Does the Republic of Singapore Air Force Really Need to Replace the F-5?
The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) is widely considered to be the most technologically advanced in Southeast Asia.
The RSAF boasts a fleet of about 100 generation 4.5 fighters that includes Block 52/52+ variants of the F-16 and the F-15SG while maintaining about 40-odd F-5S aircraft employed in the interceptor role.
These well-maintained but aging interceptors will no doubt have to be retired in the near future, but the question remains, should they be replaced?
Singapore is a security coop-eration participant in the F-35 program. Despite the Singapore Armed Forces' cost-effective practice of upgrading weapon systems when possible to extend their lifespan, there is an obvious appeal to replace the F-5 in the air defense role with the F-35. The F-35s will introduce new capabilities to the RSAF, particularly a stealth deep-strike capability.
But that in itself does not quite justify the flyaway cost of the F-35, which is likely to exceed $120 million per aircraft by the time the RSAF gets its hands on the plane.
In fact, the RSAF's current fleet of about 100 generation 4.5 front-line multirole fighters is able to take on the air defense role of the F-5s, thus rendering the replacement of Singapore's F-5s with the F-35 a costly and unnecessary move.
The case for the F-5's replacement is even less pressing in light of regional developments and capabilities.
Malaysia has recently announced that, as a result of financial constraints, it will put off replacing its MiG-29 fighters. The Royal Malaysian Air Force maintains an operational generation 4/4.5 fighter fleet of 10 MiG-29N, eight F/A-18D and 18 Su-30MKM aircraft.
To date, the Indonesian Air Force's generation 4/4.5 fighter fleet consists of 10 F-16s of the Block 15 variant (whose operational status has been severely reduced by the U.S. arms embargo lifted only in 2005), two Su-27 and five Su-30 aircraft. Even assuming that all of Indonesia's F-16s are operational, Singapore's generation 4.5 multirole fighter fleet is easily twice the size of the combined Indo-Malaysian generation 4/4.5 fighter fleet.
In short, the RSAF possesses a significant quantitative and qualitative edge over the air forces of its immediate neighbors.
F-35 in the Singapore Airshow 2010 (photo : sacbee)Considering the RSAF's capabilities vis-à-vis those of other Southeast Asian air forces, any move to replace its F-5s with another aircraft type that introduces a significant offensive capability into the region will create an unintended competitive arms dynamic. Short of any abrupt shifts in the regional security ecosystem, the RSAF can well afford to retire its F-5s without replacement.
On the other hand, no matter how well intended or explained, replacement of the F-5 with a generation 5 platform such as the F-35 will inadvertently unsettle Singapore's immediate neighbors, particularly when the RSAF's 100-odd F-15SGs and Block 52/52+ F-16s can easily fill the gap left by the aging F-5s.
If there is a gap in Singapore's air defense capabilities that needs addressing, it is the lack of an area or theater missile defense system against medium- and long-range munitions such as ballistic missiles.
The combat system on board the Republic of Singapore Navy's Formidable-class stealth frigates allows each vessel to track up to 200 targets which, in tandem with shipborne Aster missiles and other land-based systems, provides a certain degree of point and area protection against medium- and long-range ballistic threats.
Neither the Formidable's shipborne Aster nor any of the other surface-to-air missile systems in the RSAF's inventory, however, is a dedicated anti-ballistic missile system such as, for example, the Patriot PAC-3. The substantial cost savings derived from retirement (without replacement) of the F-5s can be invested in a proven, cost-effective theater missile defense system that fills an actual gap in Singapore's air defense capabilities.
In the absence of new offensive capabilities being introduced into other Southeast Asian armed forces, the replacement rather than the retirement of the RSAF's F-5s is not only unnecessary, but a departure from the cost-effective, rigorous, systematic and prudent defense acquisition process for which Singapore is renowned.