Mindef replacing F-16 jets: Starting with a few F-35s a prudent move, say analysts

With an F-35B costing $156m, move will give Mindef time for thorough evaluation and room to manoeuvre

File photo of a real-size mock of F-35 fighter jet is displayed at Japan International Aerospace Exhibition in Tokyo, Japan, on Nov 28, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

The Ministry of Defence's plan to acquire a small number of United States F-35 fighter jets for further evaluation of their capabilities and suitability before a full purchase is a responsible move, said analysts.

Mindef said yesterday that the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) have completed their technical evaluation of the aircraft - a process which took more than five years.

Singapore will now enter into discussions with US counterparts on issues such as the costs, variants, and interoperability of the F-35 with current systems before acquiring "a small number" of F-35s for a full evaluation.

Mr David Boey, a member of Mindef's Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence, said buying a small number first shows Mindef and DSTA are "pacing the acquisition responsibly".

He said it is prudent for Singapore to evaluate the fighter thoroughly before introducing it fleet-wide, given the F-35's cost.

An F-35A costs about US$89 million (S$121 million), while the short take-off/vertical landing variant, the F-35B, which Singapore is reportedly interested in, costs US$115 million.

"Previous acquisitions that started with modest numbers were expanded to formidable strength after the platforms proved their worth," added Mr Boey.

"For instance, the RSAF started with just eight F-16s in the late 1980s and now has a fleet of around 60 F-16s, making this the largest F-16 fleet in South-east Asia."

Mr Mike Yeo, Asia reporter for Defense News website and magazine, said some countries adopted the practice of buying a few before confirming a fleetwide purchase.

"This is not a unique situation, with both the Netherlands and Australia getting an initial two aircraft each for test and evaluation in the US before increasing their respective aircraft orders later," he added.

Senior analyst Kelvin Wong of military publication Jane's by IHS Markit said the completion of the technical evaluation marked the halfway point in replacing the F-16s with the F-35s.

He said: "It is a clever move by Mindef to start with a small number, giving them some room to manoeuvre before committing to a full purchase, should the F-35 programme go wrong."

This is because how the F-35 performs in actual operations is still up in the air. Britain, for instance, declared initial operating capability for its F-35 fleet only earlier this month, said Mr Wong.

The F-35 programme has faced delays, ballooning production costs and production flaws in the past.

In October last year, the Pentagon temporarily suspended operations of its fleet of F-35 fighter jets for 24 to 48 hours to check for possible faulty fuel tubes in the engines of the planes. This came after the first F-35 crashed near the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina a month earlier. The pilot survived after ejecting.

"Extended evaluation of the aircraft in local conditions is therefore prudent, especially since the actual cost of sustaining it in the long term is still not yet fully understood," said Mr Wong.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2019, with the headline Mindef replacing F-16 jets: Starting with a few F-35s a prudent move, say analysts. Subscribe