Saturday, November 23, 2013

Deal or no deal? Decision awaited on whether the F-35 will join the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF)

Today's Straits Times report* headlined "S. Korea to buy 40 F-35 stealth fighters"' is a dress rehearsal for how the local media will describe the warplane if and when Singapore updates its fighter fleet.

If the Lockheed-Martin (LMCO) warplane is going to be touted by the Singaporean media as a "stealth fighter", one would hope our home audience of tax payers is discerning enough to know their war machines.

That's because in the world of low observable (aka "stealth") technology, there are stealth fighters and there are stealth fighters.

Clever marketing campaigns, below-the-radar lobbying and clueless newsrooms often conspire to upsell stealth wannabes as the real thing, when in reality the warplane falls short in the real world test of fighter jet versus integrated air defence system.

In the case of the LMCO F-35 Lightning II, design features such as its angular fuselage which make the fighter less observable have elevated the platform's status to that of a stealth fighter.

But what's linguistically correct may not pass muster in the eyes of discerning military buyers and knowledgeable defence scientists.

A warplane with low observable features does not magically transform into a stealth fighter just because one wishes it to. It would, for example, take an F-35 driver with boundless/misplaced optimism to fly against an island air defence system (like Singapore's) armed with current-day technology to deliver the miserable two bombs on target. If you wish, you could even pit an F-35 against an Su-30, like the ones they have up north, in a one-to-one gladiatorial contest and see if it can fly out again after stirring the hornet's nest.

That the F-35 has got short legs and a modest payload (to phrase it politely) counts against it. Ditto its uninspiring capabilities when pitted against current day dogfighters such as the F-16 or Su-30.

While the "stealth fighter" tagline is an instant conversation starter for defence buffs who are pro or anti-F-35, the stand first of the same article that said the warplane is a "costly jet" stands on firmer ground.

Hefty price tag
Even as the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and air warfare planners in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) mull over the shape, form and lethality of Singapore's future air power capability, there are segments of defence-aware Singaporeans who have expressed private misgivings about the F-35's purported flyaway cost.

In and around Bukit Gombak, the figure touted is in the region of US$200 million per plane.

Now, you can argue that Singapore's peace and security is priceless. But there are many ways to defend our skies and the sound of freedom need not thunder out of the nozzle of a F-35B.

Options include buying more Boeing F-15 Strike Eagles, with bar talk suggesting that Singapore can buy several top-end F-15s for the price of a single F-35B.

Looking in the years ahead, there are unmanned options the RSAF can consider and if you are part of this conversation, there's no need to elaborate.

To be sure, the vision of overcoming land constraints by putting frontline military aviation on surface platforms is alluring. From a force survivability and operational flexibility point of view, there are convincing arguments for having strike aircraft based off mainland Singapore. The scenarios projected are interesting and yes, Singapore must start somewhere if potential game-changers are to be added to the list of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) capability options.

However, Singapore's air warfare planners must be self-aware that tech infatuation is a malady that may afflict military minds subjected to LMCO's relentless marketing blitz to find and secure buyers for the costly fighter.

We must also remember that the aggressive push by the United States to grow the F-35 fraternity is made with its self interest in mind, as it fights to enlarge the pool of buyers to make it economically sensible to commence F-35 low-rate initial production.

High-low fighter force
Not mentioned in the article on South Korea's decision on the F-35 is its stablemate, the F-22 Raptor.

Air warfare professionals have noted that since the 1970s, the United States Air Force fighter fleet has been raised on a high-low concept, with a high performance fighter complemented by larger numbers of fighters with a more modest performance envelope.

The high-low mix was defined by the F-15s and F-16s. Not for nothing is the F-15SG described as Singapore's most capable fighter, even though in terms of product evolution, the F-15's product life cycle actually began years before that which led to the General Dynamics YF-16 lightweight fighter. The RSAF's present day order of battle which comprises F-15SGs and a large flock of three variants of the F-16 (we fly Southeast Asia's largest F-16 fleet) is the state-of-the-art that has been combat proven by the Israelis and is a combination also adopted by the South Koreans.

In theory, today's USAF sees itself fighting with a high-low mix comprising F-22s and F-35s.

The F-22 is not for sale, owing to its superior technology and low observable features that are said to give American fighter pilots  a winning edge against fifth generation fighter platforms. As far as stealth fighters go, the F-22 is the Real McCoy.

So countries which hanker for the F-35 are not in the same league, developmental cycle wise, as those which aspired to add the F-15 Eagle to their air force once upon a time in order to achieve the high-low mix. Countries that want the F-35 must realise they are chasing the "low" in the high-low mix as the F-22  is not for sale.

With the Singapore Airshow 2014 around the corner, you can bet LMCO will go great guns to tout the F-35 as the fighter for the future.

But with the F-22 - also made by LMCO - barred from its sales catalogue, Lockheed salesfolk have no option but to bet the farm on that costly fighter.

As for the Singapore media - so prone to calling every armoured vehicle a tank and every large warship a battleship - let's hope the defence writers can tell rhetoric from reality.

* The story on South Korea's decision on the F-35, plucked from wire agencies, could have been copy edited to sieve out the marketing fluff.


Anonymous said...

If we want something that can land vertically to maximize sortie rates through the limited number of runways we will have left after PLAB closes, it is the F-35B or nothing. We will probably use them in conventional takeoff and vertical landing (CTOVL) so that they use half the runway time and we can keep more planes in the air. STOVL will only be used in emergencies if the main runways are down from enemy action. The F-35A and C might be somewhat iffy models, but the F-35B is the only modern fighter with vertical landing and that makes it unique regardless of its flaws. I find it very telling that that is the only model we are interested in.

David Boey said...

"...if the main runways are down from enemy action." - Anon 23 Nov'13

If the main runways are down, it is unlikely other parts of the airbase will be left untouched.

I agree with your observations on STOVL. Useful to mull over whether we should/could have taken over the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Harriers when they were stood down. Far cheaper than a single F-35B and probably deliver similar effects.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

The RSAF may not necessarily opt for the above contingency STOVL capability at the cost of performance. Although RSAF will relinquish PLAB, I have elaborated before on the SBAB's ample room for expansion into a base on par with TAB, CAB(E) or the outgoing PLAB, and the economic case for such an expansion (runway approach over the water catchment area). With recent and coming acquisitions, the RSAF may be satisfied with the survivability of our air bases.

Aside, I am pleased that South Korea is giving China something to think about.

David Boey said...

Hi above,
Your continued feedback is appreciated.

You may wish to see the paragraph in the blog post about overcoming land constraints. It has been worded carefully.

SBAB is likely to retain its current footprint.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

Another big money for the Defence people...whilst our NSF men gets "peanuts."

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

JSF is overpriced, regardless of how real its stealth technology is. Anyway, even the stealth technology can be quickly turned useless against advanced ground based radar system.

Vertical takeoff and stealth technology might sound wonderful, but its payload carrying capacity at that configuration is pathetic.

I genuinely think that the silent eagle variant in development is a better option. It features proven technology with a modern twist.

Anonymous said...

Dan C is right. A radar capable of detecting the F-35 may take time to appear in the future.

But given the F-35's cost there will be plenty of incentive for adversaries to develop it. It will be much cheaper than the F-35 and when it negates the F-35's stealth, the F-35 will have precious little capability to fall back on as compared to the current generation of fighters.

Anonymous said...

Buy a number of f-35B and PAK-FA(to repalce the F-22)

Anonymous said...

Apache helicopters are cheaper and offers more roles, even deployed to infantry units

Anonymous said...


... a dress rehearsal for how the local media.. I think is sooner than you think..

More important than the F-35 right now...

check out the news on Singapore as part of the Golden Eye..

Not handled well could turn out like ugly...



Anonymous said...

Wonder if there is any potential WP Defence Minister, wonder would he buy this equipment or spend the money for the NSF men..

Anonymous said...

The F22 is not for sale now doesn't mean it will not be for sale 10/20 years down the road. Long lead time for defence planning exactly because it involves serious budget from the county's coffers. There are some things going on at the ministerial level the public is not privy of course ...

Anonymous said...

There are carrier launch system that can be consider if runway is a problem.

Anonymous said...

The F-22 may be exported when America has a more advanced fighter in service or at least in development. As long as this does not happen, it is hard to foresee the F-22 for sale.

Furthermore the F-22 production line is closed. It will be reopened if the USAF gets a big budget increase for its own order. Even if sufficient foreign air forces desire the F-22, export approval is unlikely without a USAF order.

Anonymous said...

We should see beyond the stealth part of the F35. No doubt stealth featured strongly with it. People tends to over look the other game changing elements such as fully digitized integrated network capability. 360 degree situation awareness with each F35 "talking" to other f35s independent of the pilot and from there building a bigger situation picture. Networked to give near real-time intel. to command.

Network delivery of ordnance from other shooter elements - Land, Sea or drones. Navy and Army to incrementally invest in extended range armaments on a system wide approach. Thus technically a F35 do not need to physically carry all the "bombs" on its body. Air force to develop/invest in Unmanned Combat Air Strike drones, autonomous stealth UAVs.

Sensor fusing enable the F35 to "see" even beyond its own already very capable AESA suit, employing other friendly elements' sensors. (need not elaborate further)

The F35 is a whole new way of doing air combat. A paradigm shift in mission delivery.

Deployed in conjunction with the air superiority fighter F22s...

Until the F22 is make avail to allies, have to make do with the twin engine F15Cs. RSAF can consider? We have the strike eagle SG but not the "dog fighter" version even though SG is capable to play that role but...

Anonymous said...

WP Defense Minister?
No WAY...

KepalaFreedom said...

What's the rush? Why commit now?

Uncle Sam put pressure must all the time show willing ah?

Relak lah.

Anonymous said...

If you have a VALID criticism of the WP, please show it.

Anonymous said...

WP LTK is interested in the TeleText, and he had to raise this in Parliament...Maybe he should asked whether US200 million can be used to continue with the TeleText, one aircraft less will not hurt the Singapore defense, and maybe there are small changes left over for our NSF BOYs.

Anonymous said...

David @ November 23, 2013 at 9:59 PM

There is ample room for SBAB to expand without expanding its footprint. A quick check will show the longer runway over the years and some of the new works at the sides. Also, note that the current base footprint includes a golf course.

Crimson Crusader said...

I fear that this is going to be a very long wait for the F-35 for the RSAF.

I wager that if we are going for Air Superiority Fighters, the only logical choice for the RSAF would be the Russian T-50 PAK-FA.