DARWIN - Within seconds, the United States Marine Corps' (USMC) F-35 Joint Strike Fighter took off the runway at the Royal Australian Air Force's (RAAF) base in Tindal and became a mere speck in the vast skies, ready to sortie as part of a multinational air combat exercise.
The fifth-generation stealth fighter, manufactured by American defence contractor Lockheed Martin, is considered to be the world's most modern fighter jet.
And in four years' time, Singapore will count four of them among its fleet of aircraft in the Republic of Singapore Air Force, acting as a replacement to the ageing F-16s, which have been in service since 1998 and will be obsolete beyond 2030.
The Singapore media caught a glimpse of the F-35's capabilities at the Tindal base on Monday (Aug 29), during a 21-day air drill named Exercise Pitch Black.
Efforts to acquire the F-35 are progressing well, said Major Zhang Jian Wei, the branch head of RSAF's Next-Generation Fighter Project Office.
An RSAF delegation made a visit recently to Fort Worth in the US to operate a high-fidelity F-35 simulator and gain insights from US air force pilots working with the platform, he told The Straits Times in an interview on Tuesday.
The Ministry of Defence announced in 2019 that it would purchase four F-35Bs, with the option to purchase eight more. The initial four fighter jets will be deployed in the US for training and evaluation when they are delivered in 2026.
While the aircraft comes in three variants, the Republic opted for the F-35B for its ability to take off from a shorter runway and land vertically.
This was a key capability that the RSAF considered, said Maj Zhang, who is taking part in the exercise with his counterparts from 16 countries, including Australia, Britain and the US.
He added that the F-35s also possessed additional qualities that made them superior to the current crop of fighter jets in the RSAF's arsenal.
These included their stealth capabilities, as well as advanced sensors and versatile weaponry.
Maj Zhang said the RSAF has been keeping tabs on the F-35 programme, which has been plagued by reports of numerous defects, from system malfunctions to faulty components, as well as cost overruns and production delays.
"Suffice it to say, we have already conducted a long and detailed evaluation of this aircraft," he said, adding that the RSAF has also gleaned insights from other nations that have adopted F-35s.
Singapore has been part of the F-35 programme since 2003, when it joined as a security cooperation participant, before it picked the F-35B as its choice of next-generation fighter aircraft.
Currently, 16 countries, including Singapore, are either operating or in the midst of procuring the stealth fighters.
Maj Zhang said recent efforts, including the Fort Worth visit, were useful in understanding the fighter jets' capabilities and how they could be integrated with the wider Singapore Armed Forces.
F-35B pilot Anneliese Satz, 32, who is part of the USMC's F-35B detachment in Exercise Pitch Black, said that integration would come naturally.
Captain Satz said: "The fifth-generation is definitely the future. It's more competitive, especially in the air-to-air arena as well as the air-to-surface arena."