This month's Singapore air show falls on the 70th anniversary of the fall of Singapore to Japan in the Second World War. While Asia is an unimaginably different place now, Singapore's leaders have never forgotten the speed with which Singapore fell - or the three years of brutal occupation that followed.
Memories of the war have played no small part in the development of Singapore's world-class military, backed with what is unquestionably southeast Asia's most powerful air force. While Singapore will never have the strategic depth of a larger nation, its advanced military will create a "poison shrimp" dynamic to give any aggressor pause.
The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) is unique in southeast Asia. Apart from being the region's largest, it is also the best trained, led, and equipped. It places a high priority on maintaining its equipment to ensure both readiness and safety. While political concerns are inevitably a part of acquisition decisions, it chooses aircraft and weapons systems based mainly on their utility in combat - something that is not always the primary consideration in other countries.
An upgrade of Singapore's F-16 fleet may lie ahead
Tim Huxley is an analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and has written a book about Singapore's armed forces. "Over the last forty years, Singapore's air force has evolved incrementally toward having an extremely powerful capability by regional standards," he says.
"This is not just in terms of modernity and weapons, but in the way equipment integrates to form an overall air capability. It is an integrated and well-balanced force, and careful thought has been given to logistics."
For the time being, Singapore appears content with its fighter fleet. The RSAF has yet to reveal its future fighter procurement plans, and there is no major competition under way to obtain new fighters. Indeed, the last of Singapore's Boeing F-15SGs - a variant of the F-15E - have yet to be delivered. Nonetheless, Singapore will eventually need to make decisions about its future force structure.
Analysts and industry experts interviewed for this article are all but unanimous that Singapore will one day obtain Lockheed Martin's F-35. Like Israel, Singapore is a tier four "security co-operation participant" in the programme. While it cannot influence the design of the aircraft, it has access to programme information and can request special studies. Sources say Singapore could also be interested in the F-35B, the type's short take-off and vertical landing variant.
Huxley says Singapore's tier four status is appropriate because the eventual size of any Singapore F-35 buy would not have justified the country being a founding partner in the programme. "In all military areas Singapore tries, where possible, to acquire a qualitative edge over possible contenders, and other countries feel that only the F-35 offers this qualitative edge in the future. There is no other similar equipment in the pipeline, and it's effectively the only potential in terms of a new airframe."
Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow of the Military Transformations programme at Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Studies, thinks Singapore could eventually buy up to 100 F-35s. "Delays in the F-35 programme are not a problem for Singapore because they probably won't place an order for several more years anyway," he says. "In 2015, I could see them upgrading some of their [Lockheed Martin] F-16s, and also ordering 40-odd F-35s, with an additional F-35 order perhaps in 2020."
Given Singapore's long history with the F-16. it is a leading candidate to upgrade these aircraft. In this it would follow Taiwan and South Korea, which in 2011 disclosed plans to upgrade their F-16 fleets. The salient element of these upgrades is the addition of an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. The contenders are Northrop Grumman's Scalable Agile Beam Radar and Raytheon's Advanced Combat Radar. Industry sources say the first AESA to win an order will be all but assured to hold the entire F-16 AESA upgrade market and, by default, ascertain the eventual radar modification for Singapore's F-16s.
Bitzinger says an F-16 upgrade could also see Singapore retire the last of its venerable Northrop F-5s, which have been in service since the 1970s.
A likely beneficiary of any RSAF F-16 upgrade programme would be domestic maintenance, repair and overhaul provider ST Aerospace. The company has an intimate relationship with the air force, which includes dispatching technicians in RSAF uniform to provide support for aircraft on overseas deployments. It also has a long history of complex upgrades, including a programme in the 1980s to install a non-afterburning version of the General Electric F404 engine on the McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, which resulted in a lighter aircraft with 500lb (2.2kN) more thrust. The company also routinely performs upgrades to Lockheed C-130 transports, a niche in which it claims to be "a centre of excellence".
Nonetheless, ST Aerospace president Chang Cheow Teck is tight-lipped about the prospect of upgrading RSAF F-16s. He will only say that, historically, the company's military upgrade capabilities have been driven by the air force's needs.
Eventually, Singapore will also need to replace its Fokker 50s. The decision facing the RSAF is whether to acquire a newer aircraft of similar capability, such as the Ruag DO228NG, which will be attending the Singapore air show for the first time, or a larger platform, such as surplus US Navy Lockheed P-3C Orions or even a variant of the Boeing P-8A Poseidon.
In 2010, Lockheed revealed Singapore had issued a letter of request to look at the P-3. Mark Jarvis, Lockheed's director, design and production for P-3 programmes, says Singapore's interest could be for about four or five aircraft, possibly drawing on the configuration of the 12 secondhand Orions due to be delivered to Taiwan starting this year.
Given Singapore's limited economic exclusion zone, and that the majority of its patrols take place close to home, experts feel the P-8A is an unlikely choice.
"If they really think they will conduct long-range maritime patrol as a permanent mission they might [buy the P-8A], but on the other hand they might just keep flying around the region," says Bitzinger. He adds that while Singapore has a strong tendency to buy new aircraft, in some circumstances, such as with the Boeing KC-135 tanker, it will buy used equipment. "The most important thing with maritime patrol is not the airframe, but what goes into it," he adds.
Huxley says for long-range patrols Singapore already has a resource in place with its six Formidable-class frigates. The Republic of Singapore Navy has openly stated that these large warships were obtained to defend the nation's sea lines of communications. A major element of the reach of these ships is their Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk shipborne helicopters.
Another area for potential new aircraft is in the tanker role, in which Singapore operates ex-US Air Force KC-135s. These aircraft provide air-to-air refuelling for both the RSAF and its allies, but suffer similar obsolescence issues to USAF KC-135s. During the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace exhibition in Malaysia in December 2011, an RSAF contingent visited the Royal Australian Air Force's Airbus Military A330-based KC-30A mutli-role tanker/transports, on static display. A source said the delegation was interested to learn about the aircraft's capabilities, which also includes the ability to carry passengers and cargo.
As with its fighters, Singapore also appears to be in no rush to replace its key tactical platforms, namely Eurocopter Super Puma and Cougar helicopters and C-130H Hercules. Helicopter suppliers have heard nothing about a Super Puma/Cougar replacement, with industry observers believing Singapore is happy to stay with these types for another decade.
Ultimately, it is difficult to obtain a clear picture of the RSAF's acquisition plans and the future roles this envisages. Bitzinger feels this aids the all-important deterrent role of the Singapore armed forces. "This ambiguity lets the other guy project his concerns and fears," he says.
"The last thing the Singaporeans want is to fight last-ditch battles on Singaporean soil," he adds. "A lot of this goes back to the fall of Singapore in 1942. That history is very poignant to them - the idea that once the Japanese crossed the straits of Johore, it was all over. They never want to have this happen again. They will take the war to the enemy."
RSAF CHIEF SETS OUT STRATEGY
Singapore is unique among major cities in that the full range of military aircraft can be spotted flying overhead on any given day. The country's small size and large air force make sightings of advanced types such as the Boeing F-15SG and Lockheed Martin F-16C/D commonplace. Indeed, the capabilities of few air forces are on such regular and public display. Keeping Southeast Asia's most powerful air force viable and preparing it for future missions falls to Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) chief Maj Gen Ng Chee Meng.
"The RSAF's core mission is to safeguard Singapore's sovereignty by keeping our skies safe," says Ng, an air force veteran of 25 years and former Northrop F-5 pilot. "While our core mission remains unchanged, developments in the security landscape post [11 September 2001] as well as new technologies introduced have posed new challenges and opportunities that require the Singapore armed forces and the RSAF to transform to be more effective."
He notes that Singapore's security environment has become increasingly more complex with the rise of non-conventional and non-traditional threats, namely transnational terrorism and natural disasters. "Close cooperation between various countries is required to effectively counter these threats," he said. "As such, we have participated in various multilateral initiatives and exercises aimed at enhancing security in the region."
The RSAF has undertaken several deployments beyond Singapore's borders. Along with Malaysia and Indonesia it patrols the Straits of Malacca, a crucial global choke point through which nearly half the world's trade flows. In 2010 the RSAF sent an unmanned air vehicle task group to Afghanistan. Sources said the unit comprised 52 personnel, four Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Searcher 2 unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) and ground-based elements. Based at Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province, the unit performed reconnaissance on the roads around the base.
Another long-range RSAF deployment involved sending a Fokker 50 maritime patrol aircraft to the Gulf of Aden to support anti-piracy efforts. From April to July 2011, the aircraft conducted 58 sorties on behalf of Combined Task Force 151, an international force formed to counter piracy off the coast of Somalia. Singapore's Fokker 50 provided general situational awareness and helped to locate and investigate suspicious vessels.
"Our airmen have gained valuable experiences from such deployments and honed their capabilities as they operate in different and unfamiliar conditions," says Ng. "These missions are also a valuable opportunity for our airmen to benchmark themselves against our international partners while contributing meaningfully to international operations."
Ng adds that the RSAF has achieved "good progress" in its efforts to modernise the force. The most recent example of this is Exercise Forging Sabre, which the RSAF conducted in the US state of Arizona in December 2011 - Singapore lacks the land necessary for large-scale weapons exercises.
Forging Sabre saw the RSAF plan and execute integrated strike operations against a variety of targets under day and night conditions. Aircraft deployed included the F-15SG, the F-16C/D and Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters.
The exercise validated the RSAF's ability to employ munitions such as the Boeing Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missile, says Ng. Forging Sabre also involved the service using F-15SGs to employ laser-guided JDAMs against several targets, including moving ones. In the coming year, says NG, one focus of the RSAF will be the operationalisation of acquisitions made last year, including the IAI Heron 1 UAV.
Ng says the RSAF's transformation to what it terms a "third-generation air force" continues. It has dropped an airbase-centric structure in favour of five operational commands: Air Combat; Air Defence & Operations; Air Power Generation; Participation; and UAV, plus Air Force Training command.
The new structure is intended to provide for increased operational tempo and to help the air force better assimilate new technology. "It also enhances the RSAF's integration with the army and navy, allowing the RSAF to contribute more decisively in the Singapore armed forces operations across the air, land and sea domains."