RSAF to acquire 8 more F-35B fighter jets, bringing its fleet to 12

The Defence Ministry decided to exercise the option to purchase eight more of the fifth-generation fighter jets after a full evaluation. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Ministry of Defence will acquire eight more F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, growing its fleet to 12 of the jets by the end of this decade.

With the full complement of these fifth-generation stealth jets, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) will further hone its fighting edge even after it phases out older warplanes that are approaching obsolescence, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Friday.

“This acquisition will support the progressive drawdown of our ageing F-16s, which will retire from the mid-2030s,” he said. “Which means that at steady state, the RSAF will operate the F-35 and F-15 fighter planes, the most advanced in the region.”

At the debate on his ministry’s budget, Dr Ng stressed that defence is a long-term business, and thanked the House for its constant and strong support through the years for steady defence spending.

This had enabled the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to successfully complete a modernisation that took two decades.

“We can have a quiet satisfaction that the SAF today is recognised as one of the most advanced in Asia,” he said. “The SAF is not large relatively (but) we operate modern, state-of-the-art platforms. Together, these services can prosecute campaigns across a spectrum of security challenges.”

Dr Ng said his ministry decided to exercise the option to purchase eight more of the fifth-generation fighter jets after a full evaluation, having bought four of the aircraft in 2019, with an option to buy eight more. The sale was valued at some US$2.75 billion (S$3.7 billion), according to the US government.

The earlier purchase had allowed Mindef to access information and facilities for the F-35, while RSAF pilots have since learnt from F-35 instructor pilots and flown with other F-35 operators, such as during Exercise Pitch Black in Darwin, Australia, said Dr Ng.

Responding to Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) who sought broad details on estimated expenditure and greater scrutiny of the defence budget, Dr Ng said Mindef is subject to independent audits by the Auditor-General’s Office, and the Public Accounts Committee can also request additional information after examining these audits, which it has done.

The minister said that while Mindef does not give detailed cost figures including on its acquisitions for security reasons, there are strong internal controls and rigorous procurement processes. “When there are large-scale projects, we have senior management committees to ensure oversight and compliance.”

On Friday, Dr Ng also gave an update on the Digital and Intelligence Service (DIS), the SAF’s fourth arm that was established in October 2022.

The DIS’ formation means the SAF has integrated the existing military intelligence, digital and cyber capabilities from across the military – a decisive move to deal with present and future threats, he said.

While digital threats in the cyber arena have become pervasive, Dr Ng said the cyber agency is focused on external and orchestrated attacks by state and non-state actors, such as terrorist organisations.

“The DIS has picked up some entities and is monitoring them for their activities,” he said.

To provide in-house software development for the SAF, the DIS will set up a Digital Ops-Tech Centre that will be operational in 2024.

Mindef’s budget for 2023 is projected to be just under $18 billion for the coming financial year, a 5.6 per cent increase from 2022.

This is down to three key reasons, said Dr Ng: inflationary pressures, catching up on projects disrupted by Covid-19, and increased spending in areas such as digital capabilities.

Overall, Mindef’s spending has stabilised at between 3 and 4 per cent of Singapore’s gross domestic product and will remain so barring increasing tensions or persistent high inflation, he said.

Dr Ng noted that Mindef and the SAF have been watching the war in Ukraine very closely, given that it is the only modern state-on-state warfare in recent times. While there are military lessons to be learnt, a key takeaway is the importance of ordinary citizens in making a difference.

He put the spotlight on how civilian engineers worked with the Ukrainian army to create improvised grenades fitted to shuttlecocks that could be lifted by drones and dropped onto targets from above. Crowd-sourced pictures from civilians also played a key role in helping the military locate Russian troops in real time, which led to multiple successful strikes.

“If this war has taught us anything, it must be that weaponry and fighting platforms are important, but ultimately, it is the fighting spirit of the people that will decide if they end up subjugated or sovereign,” he said.

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