Singapore air chief eyes new fighter contest

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New fleets of tactical fighters, advanced trainers and maritime patrol aircraft top the near-term modernisation priorities for the Republic of Singapore Air Force, the service's top official has told Flight International. Modernisation will continue at a consistent pace, with a major new batch of strike aircraft to be purchased in roughly three-year increments, with an overall goal of increasing the "strategic depth" of the island state.

Singapore's recent acquisition of Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeyes extended the air force's potential reaction times to incoming threats by 20-30min, says Maj Gen Ng Chee Khern. Deciding to buy a first batch of 24 Boeing F-15SG fighters allows the air force to exploit the E-2C's expanded arc of surveillance with long-range missiles and fire control radars.

The first batch of F-15s are replacing a fleet of Douglas A-4 Skyhawks, and the next round of purchasing decisions starting next year will focus on replacing Singapore's ageing Northrop F-5s with a new tactical fighter. The choice is between a second batch of F-15s, Ng says, or signing the country's first order for the Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter. In 2002, Singapore aligned with the JSF programme at the "security co-operation participant" level, the lowest rung of the four-tier international team.

Lockheed's development delays have kept Singapore waiting for nearly two years for data regarding the country's unique final configuration, Ng says, but that data is expected to be delivered in early 2008. The step will launch a review phase allowing the air force to choose either the F-35 or the F-15 for its next fighter purchase, he says. Ng adds that a major consideration will be the extent that Singapore is allowed to operate and maintain the low-observable F-35 with national sovereignty.

Another two manufacturers, meanwhile, will be shortlisted in 2008 for a requirement to supply advanced jet trainers, and a final choice will be made in 2009, he says. Singapore has already evaluated the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 and the Korea Aerospace Industries/Lockheed T-50, with an evaluation team to be sent to the UK during October to review BAE Systems' Hawk 128.

Singapore is starting to consider whether it should invest in a replacement or a mid-life update for its fleet of Fokker 50 maritime patrol aircraft, which otherwise must be retired starting in 2015. In 2006, Singapore received a briefing on the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, which is also a candidate for the US Navy's Broad Area Maritime Surveillance programme, while Ng says Boeing's optionally manned concept using the Gulfstream G550 "might" cover his air force's requirements.

However, despite Boeing having labelled Singapore as a candidate to buy its C-17 airlifter, the air force has "not a whole lot" of interest in the aircraft, Ng reveals. The service plans to operate its Lockheed C-130s for the next 10 to 15 years, and is comfortable with replacement options that would include the Airbus Military A400M and the US Army/Air Force-operated Joint Cargo Aircraft, he says.