Singapore looks inclined to say yes to Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter jet, with the manufacturer confident of slashing production costs and fixing the glitches that has plagued the fifth-generation plane. Sources have told The Straits Times that a decision will be made soon, as the Republic eyes a better final deal for what is touted as the world's most advanced fighter jet.
This comes at a time when the United States' costliest weapons programme is suffering from ballooning costs, production delays and operating flaws.
But the US-based defence giant yesterday defended the F-35, saying it will resolve all the issues raised and it is committed to complete the final development tests on the plane by the end of next year.
Mr Orlando Carvalho, executive vice-president for Lockheed's aeronautics business, said: "As we finish the development, that will also help to bring down the cost...we have succeeded in resolving the issues in the past... we know what needs to be done."
He said that since the first plane rolled off its factory floor in 2010, Lockheed has already cut production costs by 60 per cent. And it is on track to shave a further 20 per cent off the current price by 2020. By then, each F-35 will cost about US$80 million to US$85 million. Lockheed and its partners, such as defence contractor Northrop Grumman, have spent US$170 million (S$240 million) to look into ways to cut production costs. Mr Carvalho added that Lockheed has also been ramping up production and will be able to roll out 100 planes in 2018. In comparison, the firm completed only 45 last year.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who has seen the jets up close as recently as last December, had said previously that Singapore was "seriously considering" buying the F-35 but was in no hurry to replace its fleet of F-5s. Dr Ng had also said in Parliament last year when talking about defence expenditure: "We do not buy a platform when it is just new. We watch when the price comes down."
Today, more than 170 F-35s are being put through their paces across 10 US air bases. They have clocked more than 50,000 hours.
The US Marine Corps was the first American military service to declare "initial operational capability" for its F-35B jets, which take off from shorter runways but land like a helicopter.
Up next will be the US Air Force's F-35A jets, which have been targeted to achieve initial operational capability by August this year, followed by the US Navy's F-35C warplanes in 2018.
To meet the August deadline for the F-35A, which takes off and lands conventionally and is one of the models that Singapore is said to be interested in, Mr Carvalho said the firm is "doing everything" to rectify flaws found in the plane. The F-35 programme has been under scrutiny after a string of deficiencies found in tests conducted by the Pentagon.
Yesterday, Lieutenant-General Jon Davis, the Marines deputy commandant for aviation, said the F-35's operational capabilities "far outweigh" the deficiencies uncovered. Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the Singapore Airshow, he said those "flying this airplane are doing things that I didn't dream ever possible. We are running scenarios with four airplanes ... (that) I know I couldn't do with 12 to 13 to 14 fourth-generation airplanes".