Parliament: Singapore in 'final stages' of acquiring 4 F-35s, jets be delivered around 2026

A US F-35B Joint Strike Fighter at Singapore Airshow on Feb 15, 2020. The US government and Congress have approved the sale of four F-35s to Singapore, with an option for Singapore to purchase eight more. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Singapore is in the final stages of acquiring four next-generation stealth fighter jets, which are scheduled to be delivered around 2026, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Monday (March 2).

He told the House that the United States government and Congress have approved the sale of four F-35s, with an option for Singapore to purchase eight more.

When the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters are delivered, they will be deployed in the US for training and in-depth evaluation, he added.

The F-35s are slated to replace the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF's) ageing fleet of F-16s, which face obsolescence beyond 2030.

Speaking during the debate on his ministry's annual budget, Dr Ng said Singapore has decided on the "B" variant of the aircraft, which can take off from a shorter runway and land vertically - "an important feature in land scarce Singapore".

Giving an update on training areas, he noted that for each Singapore Armed Forces unit, effective training makes the "decisive difference".

"In an uncertain landscape, we must raise, train and sustain units within the SAF to deal with both conventional and unconventional threats," he added.

Dr Ng said the facilities being developed in Shoalwater Bay and Greenvale, under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Australia, have made significant progress and will provide best of class training facilities.

An ammunition storage building was completed last year, and combined arms air-land ranges are now being developed for the army and the air force to train together with tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, drones, artillery and other platforms.

An urban operations live firing facility for air and combined arms live firing in an urban environment will also be built.

Construction at Shoalwater Bay is expected to be completed by 2024, and Greenvale by 2028, said Dr Ng.

When these facilities are completed, the SAF will be able to conduct integrated training across all three services, involving up to 14,000 personnel annually and over a span of up to 18 weeks, he said.

Currently, up to 6,600 Singaporean troops conduct training in Australia each year for up to six weeks.

For the navy, its ships have ample opportunities to train overseas, said Dr Ng. For instance, the Republic of Singapore Navy will take on a key leadership role later this year in the world's largest multilateral maritime exercise, called Rim of the Pacific, alongside established navies in the Pacific Ocean.

As for the air force, an agreement inked with the US last December to establish a training fighter detachment in Guam by the end of the decade, will allow the RSAF to deploy its fighter jets and supporting assets like the Gulfstream 550 - Airborne Early Warning aircraft there for training.

Dr Ng said: "The airspace around Guam, together with training facilities, will allow the RSAF to conduct larger scale, more complex, and realistic air-to-air and air-to-ground training to hone operational capabilities.

"At the same time, this detachment in Guam, alongside other fighter deployments in Australia, India, and Thailand will allow quick re-deployment back to Singapore when required," he added.

In an interview last week, Senior Lieutenant-Colonel Mark Tan, who led a training deployment of RSAF fighters to Guam in 2017 for four weeks, said having a permanent detachment there would mean more airmen can be exposed to training in such a large airspace.

This would in turn increase the RSAF's effectiveness, said SLTC Tan, 41, who is Deputy Commander Fighter Group under the Air Combat Command.

The Guam airspace, which is more than 80 times the size of Singapore, allows both air-to-air and air-to-ground live firing to be conducted. Weapons can also be employed at standoff, or the maximum range, to hone their beyond visual range skills, he added.

"Our Singapore airspace, compared to Guam, is a bit like fighting in a phone booth. Whereas when you go to Guam, you do not have an airspace constraint, and you're able to employ to the full capabilities of your aircraft and weapon systems.

"The airspace resource, in some ways, is kind of a strategic resource for the airspace, it allows us to maximise the capabilities of our platforms, it allows our people to train realistically, and it ensures that we are an operationally ready air force.

"So if you ask me about the importance (of this permanent detachment), I would say it's very, very significant."

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