SINGAPORE - The United States F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been identified as the "most suitable" aircraft to be Singapore's next-generation fighter jets to maintain the air force's capabilities, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) said on Friday (Jan 18).
Mindef will now enter into talks with the US counterparts over the purchase of "a small number" of F-35s for a full evaluation of their capabilities and suitability as replacement for the existing F-16 fighter jet fleet.
In a statement on Friday, Mindef said the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) have completed their technical evaluation to select the replacement for the ageing F-16s, which face obsolescence beyond 2030.
"However, the technical evaluation also concluded that the RSAF should first purchase a small number of F-35 JSFs for a full evaluation of their capabilities and suitability before deciding on a full fleet," added the statement.
"In the next phase, Mindef will discuss details with relevant parties in the US before confirming its decision to acquire the F-35 JSFs for Singapore's defence capabilities."
No further details were given on the exact number or variants of the F-35s that will be acquired.
The F-35 has stealth functions that make it difficult to detect by enemy radar. It also has network capabilities in fusing information from other F-35s and friendly forces to build up a picture of the battle space.
There are three variants of the aircraft, including a short take-off and vertical landing version that can land like a helicopter.
In a Facebook post, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen wrote that the talks with the US counterparts may take nine to 12 months before a decision is made.
"Even then, we want to procure a few planes first to fully evaluate the capabilities of the F-35 before deciding on the full acquisition of a full fleet," he added.
"We must prepare well and cater enough time to replace our F-16s."
Dr Ng pointed out that the RSAF's F-16s, in service since 1998, will have to retire soon after 2030 even after their mid-life upgrades.
"That's not very far away, just over 10 years, to acquire their replacement and, just as important, to build the logistic support and train pilots individually and as a fleet to guard our skies," he wrote, adding that the technical evaluation took "longer than expected" at five years.
He noted that this delay was because the some part of the evaluation could only go through after developmental flight testing of the F-35s were completed early last year (2018).
Dr Ng had said ahead of SAF Day in July last year (2018) that a decision will be made on a new fighter jet type to take over the baton from the ageing fleet of F-16s in the "next few months".
Options that were on the table for the 4.5 or fifth-generation stealth fighters included the Eurofighter Typhoons, Russian-made Sukhois, and the Chinese-made J-20s.
Singapore had been observing the F-35 programme since 2004, when it joined as a security cooperation participant.