Increase in defence budget in anticipation of acquiring advanced F-35 stealth fighters

MINDEF said on Friday (18 Jan) that the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) have completed their technical evaluation of the advanced stealth fighter F-35B. It plans to acquire a small number of the stealth jets for further evaluation of their capabilities and suitability before mounting a full purchase later.

A member of Mindef’s Advisory Council told the media that it is prudent for Singapore to evaluate the fighter thoroughly before introducing it fleet-wide, given the F-35’s cost.

An F-35A costs about US$89 million (S$121 million), while the short take-off/vertical landing variant, the F-35B, which Singapore is reportedly interested in, costs US$115 million (S$156 million).

“Previous acquisitions that started with modest numbers were expanded to formidable strength after the platforms proved their worth,” he added. “For instance, the RSAF started with just eight F-16s in the late 1980s and now has a fleet of around 60 F-16s, making this the largest F-16 fleet in South-east Asia.”

The RSAF has said that it intends to replace its fleet of F-16s front-line fighters. It said that the F-16s will have to retire soon after 2030 and the F-35 has been identified as the most suitable replacement to “maintain the RSAF’s capabilities”.

F-35 could achieve low observable (LO) stealth performance through its fundamental advanced design. With stealth, F-35 has the ability to evade detection by radar, infrared sensors or emission interception. It allows the aircraft to operate in contested areas, including anti-access/area denial (A2AD) environments that legacy fighters simply cannot penetrate or evade.

Assuming all the 60 F-16s would be replaced by F-35Bs by 2030, that means for the next 10 years or so, MINDEF would have to spend some S$9.4 billion to acquire 60 F-35Bs to replace the F-16s.

But the US F-35 programme has been fraught with ballooning production costs and production flaws in the past. Just last Oct, the Pentagon temporarily suspended operations of its fleet of F-35 fighter jets for 24 to 48 hours to check for possible faulty fuel tubes in the engines of the planes. This came after the first F-35 crashed near the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina a month earlier.

Increase in defence budget

Separately on Sunday (20 Jan), Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said Singapore’s 2019 Budget will focus on its growing needs in education, healthcare, security and defence.

Speaking on the sidelines of a community event, Mr Heng said the Government has done well in providing healthcare and education for the people.

“At the same time, the need for better security and better ability to defend ourselves is also growing,” he said.

“Budget will focus on these very key areas: on our security, on taking care of our social needs especially in education and healthcare, and of course in transforming our economy.”

But Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen assured that this year’s Budget would not see a “large spike in defence spending”. He told the media at another event on the same day.

In other words, we might be seeing “small spikes” in defence spending starting this year for the next 10 years, assuming we would be replacing all the 60 F-16s with F-35s before 2030.