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Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen: Risk of conflict in next decade has become 'non-zero', Singapore needs a strong SAF

Sustained defence spending is most effective means of building strong military, as Singapore be buying 8 F-35A jets to bolster air force

Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen (left) said the city-state will be buying eight F-35A fighter jets (right). (PHOTO: MCI/Lockheed Martin)
Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen (left) said the city-state will be buying eight F-35A fighter jets (right). (PHOTO: MCI/Lockheed Martin)

SINGAPORE — With geopolitical tensions and conflicts simmering around the world, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen has revised his assessment that today's generation in Singapore will not see regional or even global conflict. Now, he believes the risk has become "non-zero" in the next decade.

Speaking during Ministry of Defence’s (MINDEF) Committee of Supply (COS) budget debate in Parliament on Wednesday (28 February), he referred to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas wars, as well as the trade war between the United States and China, which could grow to more areas in the name of national security.

"I can assure this House that surprises and unintended consequences are in store - some linked, others completely out of the blue. When the ambient temperature of geopolitics rises, sparks and fires will arise from multiple sources," he said.

"The risk of regional and even global conflict even in the next decade has become non-zero. I do not make this assessment lightly."

Dr Ng said that, compared to the Pioneer and Merdeka Generations, this current generation of Singaporeans have more to protect, and more resources to do so. He stressed that the government, MINDEF and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) do not plan on the basis that we can depend on another country to come to our rescue.

"If Singaporeans will not or cannot defend Singapore, there is no backstop. That is the simple truth. A strong SAF acts a deterrence against aggression towards us and keeps adventurism at bay," he said.

Defence budget held steady in recent years

Thanking the House for supporting MINDEF's budget every year, Dr Ng emphasised that sustained defence spending is the most efficient and effective means of building a strong military over the long term.

He added that, around 20 years ago, Singapore was spending about 5 per cent of its GDP on defence. Nowadays, even though total government spending as a percentage of GDP has risen, the city-state's defence budget has held steady at around 3 per cent.

INFOGRAPHIC: MINDEF
INFOGRAPHIC: MINDEF

The fall as a percentage of GDP was not because SAF cut back on what was necessary to defend Singapore, but because of sustained spending to build a strong military over the long term.

"Today, we reap dividends of the sums we put in steadily over the past 20 years. And if we continue to invest wisely, we will reap more dividends in the future," Dr Ng said. "Steady long-term defence spending enables platforms and capabilities to mature over the necessary timeline to produce results to enhance synergy and reaps efficiencies."

Overall, MINDEF’s expenditure will hit S$20.2 billion in the 2024/2025 financial year, up 2.5 per cent from the previous year.

F-35A jets will complement F-35Bs

During the COS debate, Dr Ng told Parliament that the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) will be buying eight F-35A fighter aircraft, complementing the previously-announced purchase of 12 F-35Bs.

These fifth-generation stealth planes have been proven on the battlefield, with over 900 F-35s having flown in operations that included strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and reconnaissance missions to locate and identify surface-to-air missile sites of Russian units in Ukraine.

The two F-35 variants have different strengths that will bolster the RSAF’s capabilities. "The F-35As are designed for greater endurance – they have the ability to carry payloads of higher capacity. They complement the F-35Bs’ short take-off and vertical landing capability," Dr Ng said.

The eight F-35As will arrive around 2030, while the delivery of the first four F-35Bs is expected in 2026, with the other eight in 2028. With this F-35 fleet replacing the air force's ageing F-16 jets, Dr Ng said they will put the RSAF in the "premier league".

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