05 November 2009

Uncertainty Surrounds Thailand's F-16 Upgrade Plan

5 November 2009
Thailand has an active fleet of 57 F-16 fighters (photo : Australian DoD)
Thailand is completing a structural upgrade programme for its Lockheed Martin F-16A/B fighters, but there is still no indication on when a planned mid-life upgrade programme will begin.

A Falcon Up modernisation programme for 57 aircraft was completed in February, and the first to go through the separate Falcon Star upgrade effort was delivered in 2008. Officials from Thai Aviation Industries, which is responsible for the upgrades, say it is still not clear when the latter project will be completed.

A mid-life upgrade has also been mooted previously, and Lockheed officials have been involved in discussions with the Thai government. But budget constraints and a lack of clarity on what exactly the customer wants to do mean that this will not be decided in the near term, say industry sources.

"The priority for the Thai government is the purchase of the [Saab] Gripens, and a follow-on order for the fighter," says one source. "They have been happy to do the structural upgrades on the F-16s, but there really isn't any money for a mid-life upgrade in the defence budget. Funds are tight for defence projects in this financial crisis, with the government concentrating on welfare programmes and pump-priming the economy."

Another source says the delay stems from uncertainty over what would be included as part of the next modernisation effort.

"There are many variations to the mid-life upgrade, and several options that are available," the source said during the Defence & Security Asia 2009 exhibition in Bangkok. "The avionics is normally a priority. The radar can be changed, while the aircraft could also be re-engined. These are things that the Thais have asked about several times, and Lockheed and other suppliers have responded."

However, the source adds: "It is not clear what exactly they want to do. Until there is clarity on that - and I think we are a long way off from reaching that stage - a mid-life upgrade is just not going to happen."

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