14 Desember 2009

Thailand’s Armed Forces Modernisation Plans (2)

14 Desember 2009

Gripen of the Royal Thai Air Force (photo : Saab)

Royal Thai Air Force

The RTAF has four Air Divisions, each responsible for a geographic area. The air force was fortunate in that it inherited American-built infrastructure from the Vietnam War era after U.S. forces departed in 1976. In equipment terms, the RTAF’s most newsworthy event is the order of twelve JAS-39 Gripen multirole fighters in February 2008. This is proceeding in two batches for budgetary reasons. Thai pilots departed for training in Sweden in the summer, with the first fighter expected to arrive in January 2011. 701 Fighter Squadron will operate the Gripens at the coastal airfield of Surat Thani to allow coverage of the Sea of Andaman and the Gulf of Thailand. A new temperature controlled hangar is being constructed to counter hot and humid conditions there.

Final agreement on the purchase of the second batch of six Gripens was originally scheduled for early 2010. However, this $447 million transaction will be delayed to 2011 or 2012 after budget cuts came into effect. In May, Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan referred to this deferral - “As and when the economy improves and the country is in a position to earmark the budget for security-related procurement, the fighter jets will be bought and deployed.” Certainly, a fleet of just six Gripens would be woefully inadequate, causing Air Chief Marshal Ithipor Suphawong to state: “This affects the potential of the armed forces because they need weaponry. If we must defend the nation with weapons that cannot match [our enemies’] or are outdated, nobodywill have respect for us.”

F-16 of the Royal Thai Air Force (photo : ktbedy)

The midlife upgrade of up to 60 F-16A/B fighters will probably be delayed a year too, although the Gripen deferral makes their modernisation to extend their service life till2025 even more urgent. As a stopgap measure, the RTAF announced it was delaying withdrawal of F-5E/F fighters until the middle of next decade, instead of in 2011. Additionally, 15 F-5T Tigers were recently upgraded by Elbit in Israel.

The other major project to greatly enhance Thailand’s military capability is a Saab S100BArgus Airborne Early Warning & Command (AEW&C) aircraft with Erieye Side-Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR). The AEW&C is expected in 2012, a full year after the first Gripen, as well as an accompanying Saab 340 for training purposes. The Erieye gives a 360° detection range of 350km against enemy fighters. This is an impressive capability, making Thailand the second Southeast Asian country to field an AEW&C capability. Phase 2 would have seen Thailand order a second AEW&C but, as part of reordered priorities, the new government decided against it. Staying with Saab, Thailand ordered the Swedish company’s StriC for its air-defence command-andcontrol system to contribute to Thailand’s effort to form a network-centric force.

F-5 of the Royal Thai Air Force (photo : DefenseIndustryDaily)

In terms of helicopters, the RTAF will take delivery of three Sikorsky S-92 Superhawks in2010 for royal-family use. In addition, four H-92 helicopters are likely to replace UH-1Hs in the Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) role, although this $149 million procurement has been delayed at least a year.

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