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Thai Air Force Weighs Options Between F-16 and Gripen to Modernize Aging Fleet

In a bid to revamp its aging fleet, the Royal Thai Air Force is deliberating between two contenders for its next-generation fighter jets: the US-made F-16 or the Swedish Gripen. This decision comes after the setback last year when the Air Force’s initial choice, the advanced US F-35, was not secured.

Air Chief Marshal Punpakdee Pattanakul, the commander-in-chief of the Air Force, disclosed that the plans for acquiring 12 new fighter jets would be outlined in the upcoming White Paper on the long-term air defense strategy, set to be released by the end of February.

Factors such as aircraft efficiency, capacity, budget appropriateness, and procurement transparency will heavily influence the decision-making process. The public will be provided with a detailed explanation regarding the chosen option.

While the budget allocation for this acquisition remains undisclosed, initial estimations suggest a request of at least 19 billion baht from the government for the first batch of jets. Due to financial constraints and economic downturns, the procurement plan is slated to unfold over three phases across 12 years, with four jets to be acquired in each phase. The first batch is anticipated to be ordered in fiscal year 2025, with delivery expected by 2028.

The current Thai Air Force fleet comprises five types of fighter jets, some of which date back to the Cold War era. Among them are the Alpha Jet, F-5, F-16 OCU (Operational Capability Upgrade), F-16 MLU (Mid-Life Upgrade), and Gripen. Aging aircraft like the F-5, commissioned in 1978, and the Alpha Jet, in service since 2000, are slated for decommissioning by 2030. Similarly, plans are in place to retire the F-16 OCU by 2028 and the F-16 MLU by 2032.

The decision between the F-16 and Gripen involves careful consideration of technical specifications, cost, and geopolitical implications. The F-16 Block 70/72 by Lockheed Martin comes at a price of US$63 million per unit, while the Saab JAS 39 Gripen E costs US$85 million per unit. The relationship with the manufacturing countries, the US and Sweden, will also be factored into the decision-making process.

Operational independence is another critical aspect. The Thai Air Force values the data-link system for communication, particularly concerning modifications. While the US restricts modifications to its data-link system, Thailand has collaborated with Saab to develop the Link-T system, offering greater flexibility and integration possibilities.

In terms of regional implications, the Thai Air Force’s modernization efforts are not expected to significantly alter the regional balance of power. Neighboring countries like Singapore, Myanmar, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos each have their own air power capacities, with Singapore possessing the most advanced F-35 jets among them.

As Thailand navigates its path towards modernizing its air force, careful deliberation and strategic planning are paramount to ensure the nation’s defense capabilities align with its long-term security objectives.

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