Sunday, March 15, 2015

Why the sale of F-35 JSFs to Singapore continues to elude Lockheed Martin

Singapore's FY 2015 $13.12 billion Defence Budget was passed with not a word on whether the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) would finally wear Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) colours

Among Singapore watchers who study the RSAF's order of battle closely down to the last tail number, it is only a matter of time before the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) will seal the deal. This expectation stems from awareness of the lack of warplane candidates that can carry the RSAF into the next decade and beyond, as well as the present-day reality that the RSAF's F-5S/T Tiger II fleet cannot go on flying forever. Project M****, which gave the F-5 a new lease of life in the 1990s, has served its time.

And so, if cyber chatter is to be believed, the F-35 will be next. Or will it?

The growth trajectory of the RSAF's fighter fleet assumes the next candidate will be a manned fighter. Hardly any F-35 proponents or opponents flag out the possibility of the RSAF eventually fielding Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) as a complement to manned fighters.

If one looks at the trend in other parts of the world, the evolution of Unmanned Air Vehicles eventually, indeed inevitably, graduates from a platform that can only furnish persistent awareness day and night to an armed UAV that can not only see but persecute targets within the range ring of embarked weapons.

Granted, most of these are A2G engagements.

But add another 10 years or so from the current state-of-the-art in UAV technology and what are you likely to get? Quite possibly, an air platform that is not only unmanned but autonomous with the range, reach and the smarts to fly A2A missions with an agility unmatched by manned fighters (which are G-limited not by engineering constraints on the airframe but by what the pilot can take before G-LOC incapacitates him/her).

Forward-looking air warfare planners must therefore hedge their bets by asking if a new warplane costing some $200 million apiece is really worth the investment or would a sizeable number of locally-developed UCAVs make a better complement.

The deterrent edge of these new and expensive fighters is questionable because there are many ways to clip their wings other than meeting them head-on in air combat.

Airbase relocations
The possibility of fielding of an upsized drone fleet by the future RSAF would tie-in with the rethink concerning RSAF air bases on mainland Singapore. Plans to relocate Paya Lebar Air Base after 2030 have already been announced.

A wild hypothesis: If another airbase eventually makes way for future development, how would the future RSAF maintain its ability to generate and sustain airpower with manned fighters alone? Drones could account for a reduce airbase footprint because of the wider range of launch options vis-a-vis manned fighters.(As an aside, the WW2-era German Natter was designed to be launched vertically by rocket boosters, which gave it the ability to operate without runways. But recovery of the fighter and pilot by parachute proved tricky.)

The addition of STOVL-capable fighters will reduce the RSAF's dependency on long runways. In this regard, pundits have singled out the carrier-capable F-35B as the most likely of three F-35 variants that Singapore is keen to buy.

One must ask if the short take-off and vertical landing capability is tied to a desire to reduce the RSAF's vulnerability to surprise attacks on its airbases, or does this capability stem more from a desire to increase the RSAF's ability to launch and recover air power from the sea?

One would think it is more the latter. This is because the expanded range of options to deliver the RSAF's airpower at anytime from anywhere will force hostile entities to watch out for air attack from all compass points.

This means the F-35 story cannot be read in isolation as an air force story alone.

Look to the Republic of Singapore Navy, ask yourself where it is heading in terms of air-capable platforms (not just the Endurance-class LST replacements but the one after that), ponder what could be taking place inside our defence R&D labs are you'll have a possible answer to why we are taking so long with that F-35 announcement.

Check Six!


el28 said...

Interesting observations. There are significant differences between F-35A, F-35B & F-35C variants, with F-35B being slowest, shortest range and most expensive. I recall F-35B had more difficulties during development compared to the other variants.
My guess is SG buys a majority (>60) of F-35A for land-basing and maybe 8-20 F-35B for future expanded Endurance LPD (I'm told Endurance 160 can't take more than 4 or 5 F-35B, need something like Endurance 180 or 200 to have any appreciable number of F-35B on board). Another question is how many of these expanded is RSN acquiring? The Chinese believe having 3 carriers ensures at least 1 is always available for deployment (the other 2 being repaired, upgraded, replenished etc).

lai said...

Is there a possibility of rsaf buying non US 5th gen aircraft in the event that the rsaf didn't buy f 35 for some reason?

Shawn C said...

Retiring the 37 F-5 Tiger IIs (28 F-5S, 9 F-5T) will see a reduction of 26% to the RSAF's current combat aircraft fleet (this includes the rumored 16 'extra' F-15SG aircraft) and brings the RSAF to a historic low of 102 frontline fighters. To put things in perspective, by 1980 the RSAF was already operating a combat fleet of 126 aircraft (44 A-4S Skyhawks, 36 Hawker Hunters, 25 Strikemastethers and 21 new F-5E/F), in 1990 133 combat aircraft; in 2000 137 combat aircraft and in 2010 123 combat aircraft. Another factor of the retirement of the F-5S is that it removes almost 50% of the RSAF's current single-seat fighter inventory, leaving 32 F-16Cs to fulfil the role of the F-5s (Intercept/QRA/CAP). While these roles can easily be filled by the twin-seat F-15SG and F-16D, doing so will detract from their primary taskings and training.

Bear in mind as well that according to a recent article, the F-16 upgrade contract will be signed by this year - this will further limit the number of available F-16s as the aircraft are cycled through the upgrade programme over the next few years.

While I don't expect RSAF planners to announce a replacement for the F-5 soon, I do expect this by 2018, with two possible options: The first is to buy an additional squadron of either F-16s or F-15s (both are still in production) and hold off the order for F-35s to post 2020. The second is to place an order for F-35s for delivery from 2020, when the type is in full-rate production.

Regarding local R&D on UAV/UCAVs - ST Engg seems to have quietly stepped away from UAV development - in fact removing any mention of previous UAV projects from its website. While I'm sure that there's a classified project or two bubbling away somewhere, our main benchmark for the current state-of-the art in UAV technology from what has been publically disclosed from the USA, a country that is currently spending billions in unmanned vehicle research every year, so I'd expect local developments to be a few years behind the US.

What the Americans have recently disclosed is that they are now focusing away from 'drone' ISR UAVs towards platforms able to operate in contested airspace. Predators, Global Hawks and Reapers are simply too vulnerable to air defense systems, as evidenced by the USAF having to escort Predator drone patrols in the Straits of Hormuz with F-22 Raptors to counter Iranian F-4s! They do have RQ-170s and RQ-180s for penetrating ISR, but strike is another matter.

Autonomous UCAVs with A2A loadouts are still quite some time away, and this is primarily due to the infancy of artificial intelligence. While the USN has already demonstrated with the X-47B that UCAVs can take off, fly a mission and return to land on an aircraft carrier autonomously, none of this has happened in an EMCOM or severe EW environment. This is a major topic of contention right now over in the US, and the primary reason why the USN's UCLASS competition has been pushed back a few years to a possible in-service date of 2023, as the RFP looks to change from one calling for a UCAV for strike and ISR over uncontested airspace to one for a platform able to penetrate a peer nation's networked A2D and EW. UCLASS may also have a secondary role as a 'spear carrier' - carrying and launching AAMs like the AMRAMM, but handing off guidance and mid-course correction updates to another platform, like an F-35C, F/A-18F or E-2D.

As a MilGeek, I'd love it for the RSN to go big with a 200m flightdeck LHD in the 20k ton range - hey, I hear the French may have a good deal on a Mistral, too bad it won't be able to handle F-35Bs...

Owl said...

I'm with Shawn on this. There are huge constraints on UCAVs, some of which are not known by people who don't use comms. The encrypted mode for comms has a 2 second delay. Not a good thing in air combat. Have you ever tried to play a FPS shooter with a 2 second lag? Or any lag at all? How did you fare? Same with UCAVs, this time with a multi-million dollar aircraft on the line. I fear Singapore will run out of money before it can field enough UCAVs to make a significant difference in A2A.

As for the F-35B and Endurance, that is a very...I can't think of a proper word to describe the proposal. Something along the lines of proposing all infantrymen carry GPMGs. Nice in theory and isolation, terrible in practice and overall tactics/strategy.

The F-35B fans keep harping that "Singapore will get the -B variant because" but the reality is that MINDEF never said a single word on variant type and I suspect more likely than not, they'll settle on the -A. The noise about the F-35B was IMO a lot of wishful thinking from the F-35B fans.

David, IIRC, there was a study done once upon a time for Singapore to get Harriers. The final conclusion was that the added maintenance and cost was simply not worth it and our runway repair capacity was sufficient. Do you know anything about that?

Unknown said...

F35B most probably for the Endurance class Navy ship, like UK have its success with the harrier in the Falklands war.

Singapore is delaying the purchase and US is trying to pressure the purchase. Singapore will upgrade the F15 first but eventually buy the F35 whatever variant.

US also wants to sell their UAV to Singapore, previously the sale is disallowed to foreign countries.

Johns t on said...

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter remains years away from combat readiness

some numbers were being fudged to make for a more positive image.

Johns t on said...

some numbers were being fudged to make for a more positive image