While the conversation about Australia’s purchase of the short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) ‘B’ variant of the F-35 periodically rears its head, one of Australia’s key regional allies, Singapore, has been approved to acquire a total of 12 of the fifth-generation fighter aircraft to further enhance the efficacy of the city-state’s ‘Poisonous Prawn’ strategy.
Throughout much of its recent history, Singapore has been considered a fortress city-state. While its fall to the Imperial Japanese Army in the opening salvos of the Second World War rattled the nation's future strategic and tactical thinking, it did so in a manner that resulted in a strategy affectionately known as the 'Poisonous Prawn' for Australians and 'Poisonous Shrimp' around the world.
Seeking to avoid and deter a repeat of history, Singapore's strategy has seen the nation develop a formidable national defence strategy relying on what has become the largest and most potent air force in south-east Asia, an equally capable and rapidly evolving naval capability and land forces, respectively.
This approach to national security is only going to become further enhanced as the regional balance of power continues to evolve rapidly, driven largely by the unwavering ambitions of Xi Jinping's China, which is continuing it's territorial reclamations in the contested South China Sea and rapidly developing a potent military capability to rival that of the US and its larger regional allies, Japan, South Korea and Australia.
A key component of Singapore's strategy has long been focused on developing strong partnerships and interoperability with regional allies, of which Australia is at the top of the list as part of the Australia-Singapore Military Training Initiative (ASMTI), which Defence states provides an "opportunity for Australia to build Defence capability and enhance its bilateral relationship with Singapore, while providing enduring economic benefits to central and north Queensland".
As the region has continued to evolve, Singapore has embarked on a series of rapid and expensive modernisation programs, with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) the beneficiary of endeavours to future-proof the already formidable capability of the force, while also developing greater interoperability and capability for ‘Poisonous Prawn’ strategy.
Towards a fifth-generation air combat capability
In early 2019, Singaporean Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen confirmed that the south-east Asian nation would be pursuing the F-35 to replace the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s ageing fleet of F-16s, with the fifth-generation fighter to serve as the backbone of the RSAF's future air combat capability, bringing the nation in line with the US' other regional allies, including Australia, Japan and South Korea.
Singapore has maintained a long period of connection and integration with the F-35 program as a 'Security Cooperative Participant' along with Israel to ensure that the nation was well positioned to take advantage of the fifth-generation aircraft, should it prove suitable for the nation's air combat requirements.
"The technical evaluation also concluded that the RSAF should first purchase a small number of F-35 JSFs for a full evaluation of their capabilities and suitability before deciding on a full fleet. In the next phase, MINDEF will discuss details with relevant parties in the US before confirming its decision to acquire the F-35 JSFs for Singapore's defence capabilities," the Singapore Ministry of Defence release said at the time.
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Minister Ng expanded on the comments, saying, "They [defence agencies] have decided that the F-35 would be the most suitable replacement fighter. We want to procure a few planes first, to fully evaluate the capabilities of the F-35 before deciding on the acquisition of a full fleet."
This participation recently got a major boost with the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) granting approval for the Singaporean acquisition of up to 12 short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) F-35Bs for the RSAF, which has also been endorsed by the US Department of State and is worth an estimated US$2.75 billion.
A release from the DSCA stated, "This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States. Singapore is a strategic friend and Major Security Cooperation Partner and an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Asia-Pacific region."
Expanding on this, the DSCA articulated the reasoning behind the Singaporean acquisition, saying, "This proposed sale of F-35s will augment Singapore's operational aircraft inventory and enhance its air-to-air and air-to-ground self-defence capability, adding to an effective deterrence to defend its borders and contribute to coalition operations with other allied and partner forces."
While Singapore considered all variants of the F-35 platform, specific focus was placed on the specialised STOVL 'B' variant given the geographic realities of Singapore and the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) 'A' variant of the aircraft to meet the nation's unique operational requirements.
Benefits for Australian industry
The Singaporean purchase of the F-35 will serve as a boon for Australian industry, particularly Queensland-based TAE Aerospace and BAE Systems Australia operations at Williamtown. TAE's new Turbine Engine Maintenance Facility (TEMF) at Bundamba will enable deeper-level maintenance for the F-135 engine modules for all F-35 variants operating in the Indo-Pacific.
The specially designed, secure facility will provide optimised work areas for improved production flow, which is climate controlled throughout, while implementing an open plan design to maximise the use of space and equipment.
Last year, TAE Aerospace chief executive and managing director Andrew Sanderson told Defence Connect, "The biggest growth opportunity for TAE is moving from an initial depot capability, to then begin competing for the broader regional F135 maintenance projects. Building on that enables us to then compete for excess maintenance and sustainment work coming out of the US and even broader global F-35 partners."
In early 2015, the US government assigned BAE Systems Australia (Williamtown) the regional F-35 airframe depot maintenance responsibility for the south Asia-Pacific region. In August 2017, BAE Systems Australia was also assigned the regional warehouse responsibility for the Asia-Pacific region.
This Australian industry regional depot maintenance has responsibility for 64 of the first 65 aircraft components (Tier 1), assigned by the US government to BAE Systems, GE Aviation, Northrop Grumman and RUAG in November 2016.
Regional assignments for the next tranche (Tier 2) of about 400 aircraft components are expected to occur in the latter part of 2018. The portfolio of F-35 sustainment activities at Williamtown will see about 400 jobs created over the next 10 years and a continuing requirement for this level of employment for the 30-plus years outlined as part of the contract.
At the time, BAE Systems Australia chief executive Gabby Costigan said, "This is the first step in creating a depot capability in Australia. Our mechanical, avionics and structural technicians will be trained at the facility where the F-35 is designed and built. This training will ensure they have all the necessary skills to provide the very best support for the Royal Australian Air Force."
Meanwhile, the ASMTI is delivering enhanced training areas for the Australian Defence Force in central and north Queensland, enhancing Australia’s bilateral defence relationship with Singapore and providing significant local economic opportunities.
Over the life of the ASMTI, there will be an injection of about $2 billion into Queensland’s regional economies, including an estimated $50 million spent annually during the construction phase.
Additional work packages for fencing, potable water supply, waste consumption, fuel supply, consumables and quarry products will be awarded as part of an anticipated 200 sub-contract packages that will be available over the next five years in central Queensland.
Boosting allied interoperability and distributed lethality
The Australia-Singapore defence relationship includes the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), which provides for the joint development of military training areas and facilities in Australia and Singapore to continue to exploit the benefits derived from the development of Exercise TRIDENT as the signature bilateral joint military exercise.
The CSP will enable Australia and Singapore to work together on defence science and technology, in areas including combat systems/command, control, communications, computers and intelligence integration; and cognitive/human systems integration.
The introduction of the F-35 platform, despite different variants, will enable greater interoperability and allied capability generation through common platforms, ease of information sharing and the development of a truly integrated, fifth-generation fighting force.
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability, serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.