Thai Air Force reveals new wish list, jets and drones

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — The Royal Thai Air Force laid out its future ambitions in a document released Feb. 29, with anti-drone systems, new fighter jets and medium-range air defense systems among the most pressing concerns.

The 74-page white paper, which the agency presented during its annual symposium this week and is based on a similar document published four years ago, details planned supplies through 2037.

“The Air Force knows [the importance of] Long-term development planning and spending the national budget to achieve maximum value,” said the service’s commander, Air Marshal Panpakdee Pattanakul.

Indeed, part of the White Paper’s raison d’être is to stake claims to long-term funding as its aircraft stocks age. For example, the 2020 edition reported that the fighter fleet had an average age of 26, a number that continues to rise.

But the government’s procurement process is disjointed, according to Greg Raymond, an expert on Asia-Pacific affairs at the Australian National University. He cited factors such as political instability, inadequate strategic planning, annual rather than multiyear budget measures, and weak political oversight that allows each armed service to make its own decisions.

In the latest white paper, the Air Force prioritizes an intermediate-range air defense system with a range of at least 30 nautical miles from FY2025 through FY2028. Then, from FY33 through FY37, the service plans to conduct a second phase for a medium or long range air defense system.

From FY28 to FY32, the force plans to purchase a short-range air defense system with guns, missiles, and lasers. Drone countermeasures are also being believed, and a nine-year project to procure them is set to begin in 2025.

The service is also considering 12-14 new fighters to replace the Korat-based 102 Squadron’s F-16s. Procurement is scheduled to take place from year 25 to year 34, two years later than originally planned. The squadron’s F-16s from the late 1980s are due to be retired by 2028.

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Two candidates have emerged for the aircraft requirement: Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70/72 and Saab’s Gripen.

“We are confident that the F-16 Block 70/72 will complement the RTAF’s existing F-16 fleet and deliver the advanced 21st century security capabilities and performance needed to meet Thailand’s most pressing defense requirements,” he said Lockheed spokesman to Defense News.

Thailand ordered its first Gripen C/D fighters in 2008. Following a January 2021 contract, the aircraft were upgraded to what the manufacturer calls the MS20 configuration.

Robert Björklund, who markets the Gripen in Thailand for Saab, told Defense News that the existing fleet is integrated into the Link T data system provided by Saab and that the aircraft provides its user with “a very wide range of weapon options , including the highly effective RBS15 anti-ship missile.

A second 12-14 fighter replacement project is planned for FY31 through FY35 to replace 211 Squadron’s F-5E/F aircraft at Ubon that are due to retire around the end of the decade. An identical number of fighters are required to replace the 403 Squadron’s F-16A/Bs at Takhli from FY37 to FY46.

Thailand strives to maintain relations with several competing nations, including the United States, China, Russia and India, the white paper notes. Thailand previously bought equipment from China, including armored vehicles, air defense systems and a submarine.

Asked if the Royal Thai Air Force would consider buying a Chinese fighter such as the J-10CE, Raymond said the service values ​​its relationship with the US and its like-minded allies too much to do so. He noted that Thai-US relations have been “largely stabilized”, despite the latter refusing the former’s request to buy F-35A jets last year.

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“They would not like to see themselves placed abroad [circle] as far as not getting invites for things like [exercise] Pitch Black in Australia. I tend to think they would probably be more cautious about acquiring Chinese aircraft than the Thai Navy is about acquiring a submarine,” he said.

The white paper also describes an effort starting this year to refurbish C-130H Hercules transport aircraft. The 2020 version recommended the agency buy 12 replacements, but that idea was dropped.

In terms of pilot training, last year’s delivery of 12 T-6TH trainers allowed the Air Force to retire its Pilatus PC-9 fleet last month. New Zealand’s CT-4E trainers are due to retire in 2031, so core trainers will be needed from FY33. New lead fighter trainers are also sought from FY25, with Thailand already using the South Korean T-50TH in this role.

The new white paper also emphasized unmanned technologies. An ongoing effort is the M Solar X unmanned drone developed by Thailand. Loitering munitions are also scheduled for purchase through 2026, as are medium combat drones from FY26 to FY29 and high-altitude pseudosatellites from FY24 to FY35.

The Air Force also reported procurement programs for micro- and nano-drone swarms from FY26 and a research and development effort for armed tactical drones from FY29.

And two Saab 340B Erieye airborne early warning aircraft are set to receive improved command and control capabilities, with their tail-mounted radars replaced. This will take place from FY26 to FY29.

The government’s FY24 defense budget bill calls for a fund of 198 billion baht (US$5.5 billion), of which $1 billion is for the Air Force. The agency has already applied for about $530 million for an initial batch of four fighters.

Gordon Arthur is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. After 20 years working in Hong Kong, he now lives in New Zealand. He has attended military exercises and defense exhibitions in about 20 countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

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