SINGAPORE, March 1 — Singapore will buy eight more F-35 stealth fighters, eventually replacing its older F-16s and putting the Singaporean air force “in the premier league” as regional threats grow, the city-state’s defence minister said this week.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) would buy F-35As — a larger, longer-range variant of the Lockheed Martin Corp LMT.N jets — to complement the 12 F-35Bs it has already ordered.

The first F-35Bs will be delivered to Singapore in 2026, Ng said.

The B model is capable of taking off and landing vertically, a crucial part of operating off ships, or in places without traditional runways.

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“The F-35As are designed for greater endurance and have the ability to carry payloads of higher capacity,” Ng said in explaining the decision to parliament. “They complement the F-35Bs, which have short take-off and vertical landing capability.”

The purchase, and long-term replacement of its several dozen F-16s with F-35s starting in the mid-2030s, show the RSAF has noted the growing capability of China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force, which has begun flying advanced aircraft such as the J-20B, said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“This elevates Singapore even further ahead of other South-east Asian air forces,” Davis said, adding that with Australia, South Korea, Japan and the United States also flying F-35s in the region, there were opportunities for common maintenance and support arrangements.

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Ng did not disclose the cost of the purchase during remarks to Singapore’s parliament on Wednesday. The F-35 unit price can vary depending on customer and model; last year the US Department of Defence awarded a US$7.8 billion (RM36.97 billion) contract to Lockheed Martin for 126 F-35s.

Lockheed Martin declined to comment on the unit price or total value of the deal, saying in a statement it was “honoured that the Singaporean government has selected the F-35A as part of the RSAF’s future fighter aircraft fleet”.

Singapore’s Ministry of Defence did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Thousands of F-35s are in service with the United States and its allies globally.

Singapore’s defence budget will increase 2.5 per cent in the next fiscal year, to S$20.2 billion (RM71.15 billion), Ng said.

“The risk of regional and even global conflict even in the next decade has become non-zero,” Ng told parliament. “I do not make this assessment lightly.” — Reuters