US approves F-35B sale to Singapore

The US State Department has approved the possible Foreign Military Sale (FMS) of up to 12 Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) multi-role stealth fighters to Singapore.

Approval of the potential sale, worth US$2.75bn (S$3.71bn), was announced on January 9 in a media release from the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA). Following this announcement, the DSCA notified the US Congress, which will ultimately decide if the sale goes ahead. 

The DSCA states that the deal includes up to 12 aircraft – four of which are firm orders with an option to procure an additional eight – and 13 Pratt & Whitney F135 engines (with one spare). The potential sale comes with a variety of systems and equipment, including electronic warfare systems; a command, control, communication, computers and intelligence/communication, navigation and identification (C4I/CNI) system; an F-35 training system and the Autonomic Logistics Global Support (ALGS) system. The DSCA adds that the deal also includes weapons employment capability and other subsystems, the F-35’s unique infrared flares, and aircraft transport from Fort Worth, Texas, to an unnamed continental US (CONUS) initial training base, with tanker support if needed. Support and training equipment, spare and repair parts and logistical support will also be included in the sale, along with Singapore military personnel training.

F-35B [USMC] #1
A US Marine Corps (USMC) Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II after landing for the first time at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) New River, North Carolina, in September 2019. USMC/LCpl Ginnie Lee

In the media release, the DSCA stated: “This proposed sale of F-35s will augment Singapore’s operational aircraft inventory and enhance its air-to-air and air-to-ground self-defence capability, adding to an effective deterrence to defend its borders and contribute to coalition operations with other allied and partner forces. Singapore will have no difficulty absorbing these aircraft into its armed forces.”

It added that “Singapore is a strategic friend and major security co-operation partner and an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Asia Pacific region.” The DSCA also noted that Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney will be the prime contractors for producing Singapore’s possible F-35Bs.

In January 2019, Singapore’s Ministry of Defence initially announced its intentions to procure the F-35 after it was recognised as a suitable replacement for the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF’s) ageing F-16 Fighting Falcon multi-role fighter fleet. In March, the nation’s defence minister, Dr Ng Eng Hen, added that Singapore would first purchase four aircraft for testing and evaluation, adding that the initial firm order would come with the option of a further eight aircraft – something which still seems to be the plan based on the January 9 announcement.

If the sale goes through, Singapore will join Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the US in having placed a firm order for the F-35B Lightning II.

It was long rumoured that Singapore would acquire the F-35 Lightning II. In February 2003, Singapore joined the Joint Strike Fighter programme as a security co-operation participant during the System Design and Development (SDD) phase. The Defence Minister, Dr Ng Eng Hen, also witnessed demonstrations by US Marine Corps F-35Bs in 2013 and was briefed on the aircraft in 2015. However, he said then that the RSAF was in no hurry to order the aircraft and was still evaluating it.

The RSAF has always been a very careful and discerning buyer of military platforms, especially new ones. It would be no surprise for the RSAF to first observe how air arms around the world operate the Lightning II, how it integrates with current platforms and, importantly, ensure that the manufacturers iron out any remaining technical issues. With the F-15 airframe still in its first decade of service and the F-16 undergoing a mid-life upgrade, it might not be until the next decade that the RSAF acquires significant numbers of F-35s.