U.S. Air Force Makes First Ever F-35 Deployment to Brunei as Neighbouring Singapore Expands Acquisitions

The U.S. Military on March 1 made its first ever deployment of F-35 fifth generation fighters to Brunei, with two of the aircraft from the 356th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron based at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska visiting to Rimba Air Base, the headquarters and main operating base of the Royal Brunei Air Force. This coincided with a visit to the country by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Jedidiah Royal, as well as Air National Guard assistant to the commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces Major General Mark Weber. Images of the deployment were subsequently released on March 4. Brunei has for decades hosted the largest British military presence east of the Persian Gulf, and after gaining independence from British rule in 1984 remained closely aligned with the Western Bloc. The country’s armed forces almost exclusively deploy equipment from Western countries, ranging from Swiss-built Pilatus PC-7 Mk.II turboprop training aircraft to Finnish M591 sniper rifles, making it the only regional state other than Singapore in which arms from Western adversaries such as Russia, China and North Korea have not made market inroads.

The deployment of F-35s to Brunei comes as the aircraft have seen their presences expanded globally, in particular in areas of strategic significance to geopolitical conflict with Moscow and Beijing ranging from the Arctic and Eastern Europe to the East China Sea. It also came two days after the Singaporean Ministry of Defence’s announcement on February 28 that the country would expand orders for F-35 fighters by 66 percent with the acquisition of its first F-35A fighters. Developed under the Joint Strike Fighter program, the F-35 has a longer range than other U.S. Air Force fighters except the F-15, and was designed primarily for air to surface missions against well defended airspace. It is one of just two fifth generation fighters both in production and fielded at squadron level strength, alongside the much larger Chinese J-20, with rapid expansion and modernisation of the J-20 fleet significantly increasing the importance of the F-35 to the U.S. Military’s position in the region.  

With Washington prioritising the expansion of strategic and security ties with countries across Southeast Asia since the early 2010s, when the Obama administration launched the Pivot to Asia initiative aimed at isolating China and building up U.S. forces in the region, Brunei and Singapore are considered among its most politically dependable partners. The United States also significantly expanded security cooperation with Brunei’s closest neighbour Malaysia from 2023 under the new administration of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, which unlike its predecessors which balanced between Beijing and Washington in their ongoing conflict, has been strongly supportive of American geopolitical objectives in the region.