RSAF gains deeper insights into F-35's capabilities at Ex Pitch Black
// Story by Koh Eng Beng
// Photos by Kenneth Lin and courtesy of RSAF
During a mission at Exercise Pitch Black last week, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs) flew against a dedicated adversarial team with up to two times more aircraft than usual, but they were still able to effectively target and take down all of the enemy aircraft.
Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF's) F-15SG pilot MAJ Arumugam Sivaraj, who was part of the adversarial team, said: "Through this, we can actually see how capable the F-35s are."
The F-35 JSFs are fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft and have been earmarked to replace the RSAF's F-16s after 2030. Four F-35Bs are expected to be delivered to the RSAF around 2026 for training and evaluation.
Meanwhile, training alongside the F-35s at exercises such as Ex Pitch Black has given the RSAF a deeper understanding of the aircraft's capabilities.
Apart from the F-35s from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and United States Marine Corps (USMC), Su-30s from India and – for the first time – Eurofighter Typhoons from Germany and the United Kingdom, and Mitsubishi F-2s from Japan are also taking part in the large-scale multilateral air combat exercise.
The RSAF's A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (A330 MRTT) aircraft also successfully carried out air-to-air refuelling with the F-35s at the exercise.
Through these joint training, the RSAF is able to understand how the stealth fighter performs on its own, interoperates with other assets, and how it can be a force multiplier in a large force exercise, said Major (MAJ) Zhang Jian Wei, Branch Head, Next-Generation Fighter Project Office.
The exercise is ongoing in Darwin, Australia from 19 August to 9 September, and involves over 90 aircraft from 17 nations.
"Not only have we gained deeper insights into the aircraft's capabilities, we've also understood how it can better interoperate with our existing platforms, such as through the successful air-to-air refuelling of the F-35s by our A330 MRTT," said the 37-year-old.
"Notwithstanding the operational insights, we've also learnt about and observed the maintenance and engineering requirements of the platform," he added. MAJ Zhang was giving an update of the RSAF's evaluation of the F-35s to the media on the sidelines of Ex Pitch Black.
MAJ Zhang said that the F-35 is a stealthy aircraft that any adversary would find challenging to detect, track or target. It carries advanced weapons and comes with advanced sensors. It also has the ability to fuse information from these advanced sensors to provide a holistic picture to the pilot.
"This aircraft is really a next-gen capability," MAJ Zhang, who is an F-16 pilot.
"It has the ability to also interoperate effectively with other current-generation platforms," he said, adding that this is a key value proposition of the F-35.
"Ultimately, the ability to fight effectively is not because of any single platform – the key value proposition of this aircraft right now, as we know, is in its ability to interoperate effectively with other current-generation platforms."
Captain (CPT) Anneliese Satz, an F-35B pilot from the USMC, who carried out an air-to-air refuelling with the RSAF's MRTT at Ex Pitch Black said the process was smooth.
When asked what is the key advantage that an F-35 has over a conventional fighter aircraft, she said the fifth-gen fighter is more competitive especially in air-to-air, as well as air-to-surface missions.
"So just having the aircraft available to us has given us an edge overall in our capabilities, especially when working together with fourth-gen or even with other fifth-gen aircraft."
Evaluating the F-35
The RSAF inked the agreement for the initial purchase of four F-35Bs in 2020. Since then, the RSAF has had access to F-35 information and facilities that are exclusive to F-35 users.
For example, RSAF personnel get to train on high fidelity simulators capable of replicating the actual capabilities of an F-35. They also have professional exchanges at conferences with F-35 users worldwide.
These have helped the RSAF in its evaluation efforts of the F-35 while it waits for delivery of the aircraft in 2026.
MAJ Zhang said the data from the simulator training were corroborated with information from other F-35 users, as well as the aircraft performance from exercises such as Ex Pitch Black.
"Suffice to say, we're happy with the performance of the aircraft," he said.
When asked if the RSAF had studied how other F-35 operators used the aircraft in real operations, MAJ Zhang said the RSAF was not privy to classified information, but it had heard good reviews of the aircraft's performance in operation.
"We don't have any other further information on that. But what we know is that it is a combat-proven platform, as it has been already flown in many operations."
More evaluation opportunities will be lined up in the coming months and years, he added.
"We will continue our evaluation efforts to ensure that we only induct the most capable and cost-effective capability to meet the defence needs of Singapore."