Singapore has finally decided to acquire four F-35 aircraft with options for eight more, initially for evaluation purposes. The purchase appears cautious, well-timed, and cost-effective.
Cautious, in that development remains ongoing with a full rate production decision not likely until late 2019. Singapore plans to sign a contract about then.
Well-timed, in that it means Singapore will buy the fully-developed F-35 version, the Lot 15, Block 4 Standard. Any F-35s bought before then will need upgrading to that standard; most of Australia’s F-35s, those delivered and on order, will need upgrading.
And cost-effective, as Singapore will be buying as US annual production rate peaks, usefully pushing acquisition costs down.
The limited numbers and the F-35’s attributes suggest that Singapore will use its new F-35s in combination with its F-16 and F-15 fleets. The attribute of the F-35 that pilots most stress is its excellent sensor package that provides a very detailed picture of the battlespace. The emerging F-35 operating method appears to be F-35s operating forward in hostile airspace using stealth to survive, while passing detailed targeting information back to distant F-16 and F-15 aircraft flying outside heavily defended areas, allowing them to fire their air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles at maximum range. This approach maximises the qualities of the different aircraft involved: the F-35’s stealth and the others’ range and payload capabilities.
In terms of sending a message to an assertive China, the language is mixed. The F-35s limited range means it will not threaten mainland China, although with air-to-air refuelling the fighters could reach China’s new South China Sea airbases.
There is a problem though. The F-35s when in stealthy mode can only datalink to another F-35. But that issue might be addressed by mid-next decade, and there are practical tactical work arounds, even if a bit messy. This issue hints at both opportunities and constraints.
While Singapore will have only limited numbers of F-35s, these can be employed as force multipliers using their advanced sensors to enhance the operational effectiveness of regional air forces (albeit this will require these air forces to have high-quality datalinks). In that regard, Singapore’s F-35s would be well suited to cooperate closely with South Korean, Japanese, Australian, and US forces.
Most ASEAN air forces, however, will have difficulty working directly with Singapore’s F-35s given data link and interoperability issues. Such air forces might operate in the same general area as Singaporean F-35s rather than forming a closely integrated force package. The Singaporean F-35 influence on, and usefulness to, air forces around the South China Sea region seems limited.
In terms of sending a message to an assertive China, the language is mixed. The F-35s limited range means it will not threaten mainland China, although with air-to-air refuelling the fighters could reach China’s new South China Sea airbases. However, given Singapore’s geostrategic location, the country might be less than enthusiastic about joining in a China conflict, instead trying hard to remain neutral.
Such a stance could see the F-35s protecting Singaporean airspace from all comers, a Switzerland of Southeast Asia if you will. Singapore’s F-35s may be more a regional asset than one appropriate to a China contingency.
Such comments aside, in simply military terms, Singapore’s small number of air bases are progressively becoming more vulnerable to attack. China is building an impressive long-range ballistic missile and cruise missile attack capability. The long-runway F-35A version would be quite vulnerable if based in Singapore; the existing protective shelters would be hard placed to stop a ballistic missile attack. This doesn’t just apply to Singaporean F-35s. It is difficult to see US Air Force F-35As operating in Singapore during some time of hypothetical conflict as it would be too risky for too limited a return.
Given these concerns, Singapore could acquire at least some of the short-range/low payload F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing version. As these do not need long runways to operate, they can be better hidden and accordingly better survive missile attack. The F-35Bs could be flown around Singapore as flying senor packages relaying targeting data to ground-based surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missile systems (such as anti-ship missile systems). While the F-35B is rather expensive to buy and operate, in such a niche air defence and air surveillance role it may provide a useful, unique capability.
Singapore’s purchase throws up two issues for Australia.
Firstly, Singapore gradually developing an F-35 operating base on the island will be advantageous to Australia’s F-35 regional deployments, especially for Five Power Defence Arrangement exercises. In that regard, being a flying sensor package, both nation’s F-35s might usefully monitor Chinese aircraft movements around the region in peacetime, or perhaps during a crisis short of war.
This cuts both ways. China will also be assiduously trying to collect information on Singapore’s (and Australia’s) F-35s to help China further improve its stealth aircraft technology and tactics. This geographic vulnerability to intelligence collection also applies to South Korea’s and Japan’s new F-35 fleets.
Secondly, the Singaporean defence minister Ng Eng Hen displayed admirable candour concerning F-35 operating costs. Outside the US Government Accountability Office, that’s rare, Australia for one doesn’t know.
Ng noted the total cost of ownership of a 12 aircraft F-35 buy will be “comparable” to that for Singapore’s initial 12 two-engine, heavy-weight F-15SG buy. That might make replacing each all Singapore’s sixty single-engine, light-weight F-16s with F-35s an expensive business. Singapore’s Air Force might shrink – or perhaps choose to supplement a smaller fleet with Australia’s exciting new “loyal wingman”.
Some of these characteristics may have been on display earlier this year when Northrop Grumman’s SuperBowl AD revealed a flashy first look at its rendering of a new 6th-generation fighter jet. Northrop is one of a number of major defense industry manufacturers who will bid for a contract to build the new plane – when the time is right.
The new aircraft, engineered to succeed the 5th-generation F-35 Joint StrikeFighter and explode onto the scene by the mid 2030s, is now in the earliest stages of conceptual development with the Air Force and Navy. The two services are now working together on early conceptual discussions about the types of technologies and capabilities the aircraft will contain. While the Air Force has not yet identified a platform for the new aircraft.
The Navy’s new aircraft will, at least in part, replace the existing inventory of F/A-18 Super Hornets which will start to retire by 2035, Navy officials said.
The Navy vision for a future carrier air wing in 2040 and beyond is comprised of the carrier-launched variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35C, and legacy aircraft such as the EA-18G Growler electronic jamming aircraft.
Also, around this time is when Navy planners envision its 6th generation aircraft to be ready, an aircraft which will likely be engineered for both manned and unmanned missions.
Technologies are rapidly advancing in coatings, electromagnetic spectrum issues, maneuvering, superiority in sensing the battlespace, communications and data links, Navy leaders have said.
Navy officials also add that the Navy is likely to develop new carrier-launched unmanned air vehicles in coming years as well.
Analysts have speculated that as 6th generation developers seek to engineer a sixth-generation aircraft, they will likely explore a range of next-generation technologies such as maximum sensor connectivity, super cruise ability and an aircraft with electronically configured “smart skins.”
Maximum connectivity would mean massively increased communications and sensor technology such as having an ability to achieve real-time connectivity with satellites, other aircraft and anything that could provide relevant battlefield information.The new aircraft might also seek to develop the ability to fire hypersonic weapons, however such a development would hinge upon successful progress with yet-to-be-proven technologies such as scramjets traveling at hypersonic speeds. Some tests of early renderings of this technology have been tested successfully and yet other attempts have failed.
Super cruise technology would enable the new fighter jet to cruise at supersonic speeds without needing afterburner, analysts have explained.
Smart aircraft skins would involve dispersing certain technologies or sensors across the fuselage and further integrating them into theaircraft itself, using next-generation computer algorithms to organize and diplay information for the pilot.
Smart skins with distributed electronics means that instead of having systems mounted on the aircraft, you would have apertures integrated on the skin of the aircraft, analysts have said.
This could reduce drag, increase speed and maneuverability while increasing the technological ability of the sensors.
It is also possible that the new 6th-generation fighter could use advanced, futuristic stealth technology able to enable newer, more capable air defenses. The air defenses of potential adversaries are increasingly using faster computing processing power and are better networked together, more digital, able to detect a wider range of frequencies and able to detect stealthy aircraft at farther distances.
The new 6th-generation fighter will also likey fire lasers and have the ability to launch offensive electronic attacks.
This story originally appeared in Scout Warrior.