Singapore’s new F-35 fighter jet: Raising RSAF’s bar to the top

A single manned F-35 could be capable of controlling a fleet of cheaper or older unmanned crafts for any operation.

Photo: Lockheed Martin

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) today (Jan 18) unveiled its pick to replace its ageing fleet of F-16s: the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. Let’s find out what makes the F-35 a great upgrade for the RSAF.

Expert and experienced fighter pilots across the world are raving about it

Photo: Lockheed Martin

“We can get closer to the enemy before they know we’re there. It is amazing how our four-ship formation of F-35A’s destroyed five surface-to-air threats in a 15-minute period without being targeted once,” Major James Schmidt, an F-35A pilot from the US Air Force’s 388th Fighter Wing raved after his flights.

“After almost every mission, we shake our heads and smile, saying ‘We can’t believe we just did that’”.

Major Schmidt also loved the multirole capability of the F-35A in a non-permissive environment which he appreciated a lot, “After taking out the ground threats, the multirole F-35A is able to pitch back into the fight with air-to-air missiles, taking out aircraft that don’t even know we’re there.”

It doesn’t need much space to operate

The F-35 comes in three variants. The F-35A, designed for conventional take-off and landing, is the most popular one among the three but probably this isn’t the one the RSAF is interested in.

While they’ve been very tight-lipped about the variant they intend to purchase, Observer+ believes that the RSAF has its eyes set on the F-35B, which is designed for Short Take-off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) meant for operation on short runways and smaller aircraft carriers.

An F-35A taking off on a validation flight. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

It only needs 168 metres of runway to take off and can even land vertically thanks to its lift fan and thrust vectoring exhaust nozzle system that directs thrust towards the ground. This makes the F-35B suitable for land-scarce Singapore, which will see the RSAF closing Paya Lebar airbase, and shifting operations to Changi from 2030.

Additionally, when operating in scenarios where runways are targeted by adversary forces, the F-35B’s STOVL capabilities will allow it to operate from austere or makeshift runways in a quick pinch. How’s that for force multiplication?

It’s a smart and connected plane

The F-35 was designed with the future in mind. In fact, it was designed to operate until 2070.

One way it does this is by having the ability to communicate with other planes by “asking” for information on targets it cannot gather intel on.

Additionally, it can also provide intel on targets to friendly planes so that they can engage them. All of this happens in the background without the pilot needing to lift a finger.

An F-35B is cleared for short take-off at night. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

The F-35 is also secure meaning that older fighters cannot intercept the data being transmitted unless they are perfectly aligned.

With access to the older datalink system, the F-35 is able to upload intel that would provide situational awareness to an entire fleet.

A situation where this would be useful is in highly contested territory. A fleet of F-35 planes can swoop in and out, while provide data for other assets – such as fighters and missile launchers – to finish the job.

It can automatically control drones

In the future, a single manned F-35 could be capable of controlling a fleet of cheaper or older unmanned crafts for any operation.

This would allow strategic operations that only require a fraction of personnel needed in a fully manned one. The use of a single F-35 drone mothership in especially risky operations would increase safety drastically.

A formation of F-35Bs above USS America. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

The SAF has been looking into unmanned technology in recent years what with Singapore’s population challenges. The F-35 would be in line with MINDEF’s interests for the years to come.

Our training partners and friends use it too

This doesn’t mean that Singapore is caving in to peer pressure. It means that Singapore can easily tap into a network of countries that already use the F-35 for development and training.

One of these countries is Australia, with whom Singapore has extensive defence cooperation links. Australia has already purchased 72 F-35As and is building facilities and infrastructure to support them.

A row of unfinished F-35s sit along the assembly line, where photos are strictly not allowed. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

With agreements signed between Singapore and Australia, the RSAF is expected to use these facilities for training purposes.

Japan and South Korea have ordered F-35s, and the United States plans to deploy a few, significantly increasing the pool of F-35 users in the region. This will enhance interoperability during multinational coalition operations.

Additionally, Australia has secured rights to maintain and warehouse of parts for countries using the F-35. This would provide an easy supply chain solution to Singapore in the future.

Speaking of which, maintaining the F-35 will be a breeze. Yes, maintenance is not exactly the most sexy topic. But if it means that keeping your fighters in flying condition takes hours instead of days, then that should make the most seasoned aviator sit up and pay attention. The F-35 is designed from the ground-up to reduce maintenance. For example, using compressed air instead of explosive charges to release missiles, eliminating burn marks and carbon build-up. Maintenance panels are easy to access, which is especially important on a stealth jet, since this preseves the stealth layer for longer.

ALIS tracks the health of each part of each F-35 around the world. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

With the F-35 bringing abilities like stealth, operating from smaller spaces, linking up additional firepower, and quick maintenance, the RSAF certainly looks like it’s moving forward and upwards at lightning speed!

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