Singapore is poised to place an order for Lockheed Martin F-35s, with various reports suggesting that the most likely version is the F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing (stovl) variant being developed for the U.S. Marine Corps.

The country’s defense minister, Ng Eng Hen, has told Singapore’s parliament that the ministry of defense has almost completed its evaluation of the F-35 as a replacement for Singapore’s aging Northrop F-5s. He also says the country’s Lockheed Martin F-16s will eventually need replacing and the aircraft are already midway through their life.

According to the Aviation Week Intelligence Network database, Singapore has 38 Northrop F-5s/Ts and 60 F-16C/Ds. It also bought 24 Boeing F-15SGs a few years ago.

Singapore, which is a strong U.S. ally, already has official observer status to the F-35 program. It signed up as an observer in early 2003, along with Israel, which has since ordered F-35s. Various news reports, citing unnamed sources, say Singapore plans to place an order for the B model as early as this month.

This aircraft will give Singapore new opportunities with Stovl capabilities.

The Southeast Asian nation has a very small geographic area — the main island of Singapore is 42 km from east to west and 23 km from north to south — and it has very few air bases. But having a stovl capability would mean the Singapore air force could operate the aircraft from many more places. In fact, some of Singapore’s roads are already built in such a way so that, if need be, they can be quickly converted to a military runway in times of conflict.

In 2008, the air force conducted Operation Torrent, in which it converted Lim Chu Kang Road, in western Singapore, into a military runway and had Singapore air force F-16s take off and land on the road as a trial exercise. An F-35B aircraft is even more capable of doing this, although the road will need to be treated or resurfaced to cope with the heat generated from the aircraft’s engines.

Another factor that may have led Singapore to choose the F-35B is its interoperability with U.S. forces in Asia Pacific.

The U.S. Marines will be operating the F-35B and are expanding their presence in the region by building up a permanent presence, for example, at the Royal Australian Air Force’s base in Darwin, northern Australia. There is a possibility that some of the first F-35s operating in Australia will be U.S. Marine F-35Bs. Operating the same model as the U.S. Marines not only aids interoperability but also helps with product support.

Another advantage of the F-35B for Singapore and the U.S. is that it can take off and land from aircraft carriers and amphibious landing platforms.

While Singapore has made clear that it will be a Joint Strike Fighter customer, Ng’s public disclosure to parliament caught some industry observers by surprise. Singapore’s defense establishment, which accounts for about 26% of the government’s budget, is notorious for trying to keep procurement information secret. But times have changed because, generally speaking, Singaporeans today are more interested in the nation’s affairs. Ng may have made the disclosure to ensure the general public is more aware of the situation so that there is no great surprise or political backlash when the multibillion dollar order is made. The B-model is more expensive than the F-35A and F-35C.

Singapore also realizes that it needs to be more transparent with its defense purchases, to avoid unsettling its neighbors. Indonesia Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro told Aviation Week recently that Asian countries are modernizing their defense forces in line with economic growth. But he added that Asian countries need to be open about what they are doing and make their intentions clear. He specifically mentioned Singapore along with China, India and Indonesia. He warned that if nations fail to be transparent, it could potentially spark a regional arms race.