MELBOURNE, Australia — Singapore’s long-expected decision to acquire the Lockheed Martin-made F-35B Joint Strike Fighter could transform how it generates and sustains air power, with the tiny Southeast Asian island nation no longer reliant on long, vulnerable runways to operate an aircraft. The fifth-generation fighter jet’s short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing capability allows it to operate with little to no airstrip.
The jet’s advanced network-enabled capabilities would also be an added advantage for Singapore, which is working toward modernizing its military.
Following a lengthy evaluation process, Singapore last year selected the F-35 to replace its fleet of Lockheed Martin F-16C/D jets starting in 2030. And in early January 2020, the U.S. State Department cleared Singapore’s request for 12 F-35Bs, with four confirmed and an option for eight more.
Located at the southern end of the Strait of Malacca, near the southern end of the South China Sea and through which an estimated one-third of the world’s commercial shipping passes, Singapore’s economy is highly dependent on the global maritime trade.
Singapore is approximately 280 square miles, and its main island is only about 25 miles at its widest point. But while its military is a force to be reckoned with in the region, the country’s fleet of 60 F-16s and 40 Boeing F-15SG Eagle fighter jets still require relatively long runways. And that’s why the vulnerability of its runways will be put into sharper focus as the Republic of Singapore Air Force starts to retire its F-16s. In addition, Singapore plans to shut down one of its current fighter air bases to free up land for civilian purposes, leaving the country with just two fighter bases from the next decade onward.
Singapore’s acquisition of the F-35B will, however, reduce the Air Force’s dependence on long runways in the event of a conflict, during which an adversary might attempt to deny the use of runways. The short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing aircraft needs about 550 feet to take off (and it can of course land vertically).
Due to the shortage of training airspace at home, Singapore maintains several aircraft detachments for training in overseas, including in Australia, France and the United States. These include two fast-jet detachments at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho for training F-16 and F-15 crew respectively.
Should Singapore purchase the F-35B, it’s unlikely a training program for the stealthy fighter will take place at Luke AFB because the international training program there focuses on the conventional-takeoff-and-landing F-35A. Instead, Singapore will likely seek to embed a detachment with U.S. Marine Corps units flying the F-35B, which makes Marine Corps air stations Beaufort in South Carolina, Miramar in California or Yuma in Arizona as three possible locations.
In December, Singapore signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. for its fighter jets to conduct training on the Pacific island of Guam, which will see the long-term basing of a squadron of jets on the U.S. territory for training from 2029 onward.
Given Singapore’s procurement history, an F-35B purchase will likely be followed by more as the country incrementally replaces its F-16s. Singapore has traditionally used this procurement model with its fighter purchases to avoid budgetary peaks and troughs, as well as to maintain secrecy over defense acquisitions.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.