Royal Thai Air Force Commander-In-Chief ACM Chalit Phukphasuk gave the interviews to Bangkok Post about the Gripen program.
The news article also unveil the future of RTAF F-16 fleet.
Wings of change
Turning away from US F16s and opting for Swedish fighter jets marks a big change in air force thinking, writes Saritdet Marukatat and Wassana Nanuam.
ACM Chalit gazes fondly at a model of the Gripen 39 multi-purpose fighter at air force headquarters.
Volvo cars on the streets, Ericsson mobile phones in people’s hands and, soon, Gripen jets in the sky. Consumers are already familiar with many Swedish products, which are renowned for their durability and simplicity. And now the air force has a liking for Swedish fighter jets.
When the first of the new Gripen 39 C/D planes reach Thailand in 2011, it will be the first time in modern history that the air force’s frontline combat aircraft have not been made in the United States. In the past the army and the air force have relied on tanks and planes made in the US.
The air force has opted for the multi-purpose Swedish aircraft, which was chosen over Russia’s SU-30 jets because of several factors besides the price tag. One option the air force had before deciding on the Swedish fighters was to upgrade its F16 fleet.
The Gripen jets use shorter runways for landing and takeoff than the American planes, air force chief Chalit Phukphasuk said.
They can fly up to four hours after refuelling in the air, they give the air force real time operation with data links to central command and they fit in with the intentions of Thailand.
Special bonuses that also come with the 19-billion-baht deal for six of the multi-purpose Swedish planes include guaranteed spare parts, training, another aircraft equipped with an airborne early warning system, scholarships for Thai pilots and a transport plane.
Under the deal sealed between the Swedish firm and the Thai air force in Stockholm on Feb 9, four two-seater Gripen jets and two one-seater jets will be delivered in 2011. Another six will be purchased in the future.
However, the deal has met with criticism over the apparent rush for approval before the retirement of the military-installed government of then prime minister Surayud Chulanont. Gen Surayud’s cabinet agreed in principle to the deal in October last year and officially approved it in January, a month before it stepped aside for the elected government led by the People Power party.
When Gen Surayud took the helm as government leader, the army also pushed for the purchase of armoured vehicles from Ukraine.
But ACM Chalit, who chaired the now-defunct coup-making body _ the Council for National Security _ after army chief Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin stepped down, dismissed the criticism. The arms purchase was a long-term plan as the country needed new planes to replace the old, Vietnam-era F5 fighters, he argued.
An independent security source said the Gripen deal underlined the need for Thailand to end the domination of military equipment from the US, which is Thailand’s key security ally.
”The freeze in defence assistance after the coup was a factor. It made the top brass realise that it is time for diversification,” said the source. The US ban was affecting the nation’s security, its ability to defend itself.
”The temporary ban on defence aid definitely was a factor”.
The Gripen jets will be replacing the US-made F5 fighters which are gradually being phased out. The last F5s will be retired in the same year the Swedish planes arrive. Thailand’s first squadron of 12 F16 jets were purchased from the US in 1988, followed by further orders of new and refurbished F16s. By 2039 they will all be retired, according to the air force leader.
The six Gripen planes will be stationed at Surat Thani air base where the F5s are being decommissioned. ”Gripens are more suitable for operations over the sea,” said ACM Chalit.
The location where the new jets will be stationed is very important.
The fighters, which will be equipped with air-to-ship missiles, will be the main protector of the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea. They will also be available for the southern provinces where the insurgency has disrupted security since 2004.
”Gripens will be a cover for the Thai navy,” he said. ”They will not be here as part of an arms race. They will be here for defence purposes.”