Sunday, April 7, 2013

More joy for the F-35 in Asia?

F-35B Lightning II STOVL Joint Strike Fighter (Lockheed-Martin Photo)

Even as the troubled Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program runs into headwinds elsewhere (with Denmark and the Netherlands being the latest participants/customers to express doubts about purchasing the 5th Generation fighter), it is in the Asia-Pacific where the JSF has been seen in more favourable light among American allies seeking to bolster their air forces against a backdrop of maritime/territorial disputes, North Korean belligerence, increasing Chinese assertiveness and general instability. Japan's order in late 2011 for 42 F-35As kicked off the order book in Asia for the F-35, and the type is currently in the running for two other potentially lucrative sales in the region.

South Korea

South Korea's South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) is expected to make the final selection for the winner of its F-X III fighter replacement program sometime later this year, and sources have reported that DAPA has entered final negotiations with the competitors, namely the F-35, Boeing's F-15SE Silent Eagle and the Eurofighter Typhoon. The F-X III winner will replace the ageing McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom IIs currently serving with Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF). South Korea's close military relationship with the United States would put the two American products the front-runners with the F-35 believed to have a slight edge, despite misgivings about the F-35's technical and budgetary problems and the Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) already operating the F-15K SLAM Eagle.

On March 29, the United States' Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) issued two separate Arms Sales Notifications to Congress, including one for 60 units of the F-35A Conventional Take Off and Landing variant to South Korea. The DSCA notification for the South Korean F-35s provides an interesting insight into the prices of the F-35, with the estimated sticker price of US$10.8 billion for 60 aircraft working out to an average of US$180m per aircraft, although at least one (unnamed) analyst has said that the price estimated was "conservative" and that he expected the final price will be lower than this.

It is worth noting at this point that South Korea has earmarked 8.3 trillion won (US$7.3 billion) for the F-X III program and DAPA considers price to be the most important issue for selecting a final bidder. However with North Korea's recent belligerence and nuclear/missile tests, it remains to be seen if the F-35's reported capabilities will still end up being the decisive factor here.


Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen's speech in Singapore's Parliament on the 11th of March (full transcript) also touched on Singapore's interest in the F-35. To flesh out the bits regarding the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and the F-35, the Minister said:

  Investing steadily over the long-term allows MINDEF to keep a constant lookout for platforms with cutting-edge capabilities that can provide Singapore with that strategic advantage. For this reason, we joined the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Programme as a Security Cooperation Participant (SCP) back in 2004. The JSF, as some members know, now the F-35, has the potential to be the most advanced multi-role fighter aircraft for decades to come.

Though the F-35 aircraft is still in development, we are nonetheless interested in the platform for our future needs. The F-35 will be the vanguard of next generation fighter aircraft when operational. Our F-5s are nearing the end of their operational life and our F-16s are at their mid-way mark. For the longer term, the RSAF has identified the F-35 as a suitable aircraft to further modernise our fighter fleet. We are now in the final stages of evaluating the F-35. So in the interest of transparency, I'm telling you we're now in the final stages of evaluating the F-35. MINDEF will have to be satisfied that this state-of-the-art multi-role fighter meets our long-term needs, is on track to be operationally capable and, most importantly, is a cost-effective platform. I've given many necessary caveats before we make a final decision, but we are evaluating the platform.


The minister's speech led to a flurry of articles in the media, with Reuters reporting on 14th March that Singapore's upcoming F-35 order was expected to include the F-35B STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant. This was followed by another piece by AOL Defense's Colin Clark who wrote on 25th that Singapore was poised to order 12 F-35Bs within the next 10 days (note: this deadline has since passed) as part of an eventual 75-aircraft F-35B order. Singapore's interest in the F-35B is not new, with reports from back in 2011 (which I covered here) already stating the island-state's interest in the STOVL F-35B.

Singapore's potential F-35 acquisition is however, more likely to be a longer term project, with the F-35 being unlikely to be ready in time to replace the last handful of Northrop F-5S/T Tiger II interceptors still serving with the RSAF. These are likely to be replaced with further purchases of Boeing F-15SG Eagles, 24 of which are already flying with a Singapore-based squadron and a training detachment based at Mountain Home Air Force Base in the U.S state of Idaho.

Instead, when (if?) it happens, I expect the RSAF to order 3 squadrons plus a US-based training detachment of F-35s, totaling between 50-60 aircraft, to replace the RSAF's fleet of Block 52/52+ F-16C/Ds in the 2020-2025 timeframe. As is the normal practice, Singapore will not order the whole lot of F-35s at once but in multiple batches of anywhere from 8-24 aircraft per batch. Given the F-35B's weight/load/performance limitations along with its higher costs, I also do not agree with Colin Clark that the RSAF will go for an all-B fleet, and expect that only 1 squadron of 15-20 aircraft to be the STOVL variant, operating alongside the CTOL F-35A.

Despite the F-35 being bedeviled by development issues and cost overruns, both South Korea and Singapore, operators of relatively modern fleets of F-15s, are likely to be able to afford the luxury of waiting for later, full scale production lots of F-35s with (hopefully) more mature capabilities and (hopefully) lower unit prices. They will thus avoid the pitfalls of other F-35 customers like Japan, who will almost certainly end up paying more for their F-35s due to the urgency of their requirements as their current fighter fleet approaches obsolescence.

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