SINGAPORE moved a step closer to inking a deal to upgrade its ageing fleet of F-16 fighter jets, after the United States State Department approved a US$130 million (S$173 million) arms sale.
The latest agreement, announced by the Pentagon's Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) on Thursday, is in addition to a US$2.43 billion package that was first announced in January last year.
The total investment, if it happens, will be the largest and most ambitious yet in the 46-year history of the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).
It will allow Singapore to fit its F-16s with new radars, laser-guided bombs and smart cluster bombs - one of which is enough to strike an area the size of 20 football fields.
These upgrades are likely to extend the lifespan of the F-16s and make them operationally relevant for the next 20 years.
Also included in the package are training, aerial refuelling and logistical support services.
American defence contractor Lockheed Martin is most likely to carry out the upgrades.
According to Thursday's DSCA statement, the latest proposed sale "contains additional requirements not previously identified" in a notice issued in January last year to the US Congress highlighting the billion-dollar deal.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen had announced in Parliament in 2013 that the RSAF was looking at upgrading the F-16s to "extend their lifespan".
The Defence Ministry (Mindef) said last night that the latest congressional notice "is not a formal contract of purchase".
Its spokesman said: "Programme negotiations are still ongoing, no contract has been signed and Mindef will ensure all our operational requirements are fulfilled before committing to the upgrade programme."
The spokesman added that value for money and long-term programme reliability are key factors, among other requirements. "Mindef is mindful of our responsibility to spend carefully and wisely," she said.
The DSCA, which oversees US weapon system sales abroad, also said on its website that the latest round of proposed upgrades "improves both the capabilities and reliability of the RSAF's ageing fleet of F-16s".
The newly upgraded F-16s will enhance the RSAF's ability to defend its borders and contribute to coalition operations, the US agency added.
"The RSAF will have no difficulty absorbing this additional equipment and support into its armed forces."
The latest add-ons to the F-16 upgrade package do not come as a surprise to defence expert James Hardy, who said they were incremental upgrades.
"There are small adjustments after the RSAF reassessed what the F-16s really need. They also want to put in the newer generation or most up-to-date operating systems to allow Singapore to do more high-level training," said Mr Hardy, the Asia-Pacific editor of IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
The F-16s have been deployed in most, if not all, of RSAF's war games at home and overseas. Ace pilots from the RSAF's aerial display team, the Black Knights, also fly the F-16s to perform aerobatics.
This article was first published on May 9, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.