16 Februari 2016
F-35 Lightning II (photo : US Navy)
Here at the Singapore Airshow the host nation is poised on a range of defense aircraft purchases which has the OEMs vying for position, displaying their wares.
For example Singapore will soon decide on a replacement for its 30-year old fleet of Super Puma helicopters, but speculation about a purchase of Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft is seemingly premature.
As for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, the island state continues to send mixed signals on when it might commit to the stealth fighter, and which variant it will buy.
In an email interview with AIN, Maj Gen Hoo Cher Moo, commander of the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) said that suitable, cost-effective replacements for the Super Pumas are currently being evaluated. Alongside the larger Chinooks, they have featured in some of the RSAF’s humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations. There have been more of these in the past two years than in the preceding four years combined. These included the missing Malaysian Boeing 777 (MH370) and crashed Air Asia Boeing 737; flood relief in Kelantan, Malaysia; earthquake relief in Nepal and Sabah, Malaysia; and fire-fighting in Sumatra, Indonesia.
The RSAF’s Fokker 50s have been providing maritime surveillance since 1995, and have also contributed to the recent HADR operations. “We will continue to operate them for as long as it is operationally and economically feasible,” Moo said. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy deploys ships and P-8 Poseidons to Singapore, from where they have operated close to the islands and reefs in the South China Sea that China is controversially building and claiming.
Referring to those tensions, Moo said that the regional security environment is becoming increasingly complex and challenging. But Singapore’s defense minister, Dr. Ng Eng, told the country’s Parliament last year that, “our defense relations with China are excellent.”
Singapore has been a ‘Security Cooperative Partner’ in the F-35 program since 2003, and sends representatives to the Joint Program Office (JPO) in the U.S. Two years ago, Dr. Ng said the country was “in no particular hurry” to buy the F-35. Moo told AIN that the RSAF was, “in the advanced stages of evaluating the F-35.” But he also said that a final decision would not be made until “we are satisfied that [it] is on track to be operationally capable, and most importantly, is a cost-effective platform.” Amplifying that point, Dr. Ng said last March that, “we do not buy a platform when it is just new. We watch [for] when the price comes down.”
There has been speculation that Singapore could buy the F-35B STOVL version and operate it from a new ‘Joint Multi-Mission Ship’ that would be built here by ST Marine. Dr. Ng revealed that project in June 2014 as a potential replacement for the Singapore Navy’s four Endurance-class amphibious transport docks, but only as a helicopter carrier. Moo said that, “each of the F-35 variants has its unique strengths that could enhance our operational capability.”
F-35 Lightning II (photo : Lockheed Martin)
F-16 Upgrades, Life Extension
Meanwhile, the RSAF will upgrade its large fleet of F-16C/Ds to the F-16V standard as promoted by Lockheed Martin and also sold to Korea and Taiwan. Moo is looking forward to these fighters being equipped with the new active electronically scanned array (AESA) from Northrop Grumman; an advanced helmet mounted display and datalink; and being armed with the Laser Joint Direct Attack Munition (LJDAM). He said that their service life will be extended for another 20 years.
The RSAF is set to receive six Airbus A330MRTT tanker-transports beginning in 2018, to replace ageing KC-135s. They will come with both boom and hose-and-drogue refueling equipment, which will enable the RSAF to work more effectively with other air forces.
Moo noted that these big twinjets can be quickly configured for a variety of airlift missions. The RSAF currently flies ten C-130s in that role, all of which have had an avionics upgrade. But Airbus would doubtless like to follow up its tanker success by selling some A400Ms here–it has arranged for neighboring Malaysia’s first such airlifter to be on static display here.
Singapore has also turned to Europe for new air defense equipment. At the last Singapore Airshow (in 2014), the RSAF showed the Thales Ground Master 200 mobile radar for the first time (locally renamed the Shikra; see page 22 for more on this system).
Singapore is also acquiring MBDA Aster 30 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to replace the I-Hawks that have served for more than 30 years. The Singapore Navy already operates Thales radars and Aster SAMs on its six French-built frigates.
The RSAF has built a reputation as the region’s best-organized and most credible air arm. Thanks to partnerships with Australia and the U.S., it is able to demonstrate long-range, combined-arms capability there, in exercises that could not possibly be staged on this small island. “Our servicemen and women are committed, technologically-savvy, and better educated than before,” said Moo.
They need to be. “The emergence of hybrid warfare such as the conduct of cyber-attacks and information operations could pose a great challenge to our security environment,” Moo said. He continued: “The increasing number of self-radicalized individuals and the orchestration of terrorist attacks, as seen in Paris and recently in Jakarta, are stark reminders that as one of the most diverse regions in the world, stability in Southeast Asia must not be taken for granted.”