F-35 Jets: Thailand Places ‘Lowest Ever’ Order For Lockheed Stealth Fighters; Awaits Approval From US Congress

Thailand could soon become the next customer of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jets, as the country is determined to go ahead with the purchase if the United States approves it.

The Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) Commander-in-Chief ACM Alongkorn Vannarot said that the service has decided to acquire two F-35A fighter jets from the United States despite resistance from the opposition parties, Thai PBS World reported.

The RTAF Chief said that the country is currently awaiting a decision from the US Congress on whether the sale to Thailand would be approved.

However, he sounded skeptical and admitted that he wasn’t sure if the US Congress would approve the deal due to concerns surrounding the proliferation of US stealth technology.

Regardless, Thailand expects to get a response regarding the F-35 sale from the US between January and July next year. When asked whether the RTAF had a Plan B for Fighter jet purchase, ACM Alongkorn said: “No, we don’t. However, if there are any signs (as to how the US decision on the F-35 sale will turn, then we will assess what to do next.”

The RTAF operates a fleet of aging F-16 Fighting Falcons set for decommissioning in the next few years. The ACM emphasized that one F-35 fighter was equivalent to three F-16 fighter jets, which according to him, is why the F-35 stealth fighters were worth purchasing as a replacement.

While a decision from the US Congress will decide the RTAF’s fate going forward, it was earlier reported that the US had agreed to dispatch a team to evaluate the Royal Thai Air Force’s (RTAF) capability to operate and maintain a new generation of fighter jets.

In addition, ACM Alongkorn stated that the RTAF plans to purchase several other types of aircraft in the fiscal year 2023, including the DA42 surveillance aircraft, which is equipped with a special camera that can be used to solve flood problems, 12 T-6C training planes, and eight AT-6 aircraft to replace the aging L-39 fleet.

The ACM maintains that the RTAF’s procurement plan was carefully thought out, considering the budget constraints that must be managed efficiently, and that he can answer any questions from the public or political parties. He asserted that the country was tightening its finances to fund projects deemed most necessary, including fighter jets.

He said, “We are budgeting and slashing expenditures in other areas to ensure the Air Force budget is spent efficiently.” However, the decision to acquire the expensive F-35 fighter jets has become a sticking point in the country and has been opposed by the political opposition and the Thai people.

File Image: F-35

RTAF Wants To Go Against The Thai Mandate

The Thai cabinet authorized, in principle, the RTAF’s request to procure four F-35s for the fiscal year 2023 for $415 million (13.8 billion baht) in January 2022. The proposal was defended by the then Air Chief Marshal Napadej Dhupatemiya, who said that the RTAF’s aging fleet of American F-5s and F-16s needed to be replaced.

The RTAF is now talking about acquiring two F-35 fighter jets. Thailand’s House Budget Scrutiny Committee approved a budget of 369 million baht ($14.7 million) for the 2023 fiscal year to facilitate the RTAF’s acquisition of two F-35s after making several adjustments in the budget owing to a bleak economic outlook.

Thailand wants to buy variant A for conventional take-off and landing. These stealth combat aircraft will cost about 7.4 billion baht ($207 million) in total, and the payments are expected to be made in installments over four years.

The political opposition and ordinary Thai people believe this is wasteful spending, given that the country is suffering socio-economic troubles.

F-16 of the Royal Thai Air Force – Wikimedia Commons

The RTAF currently operates a fleet of F-16 Fighter jets like several other US allies, upgraded F-5 fighter jets, and JAS-39 Gripens. The Gripens, for one, are currently undergoing MS20 configuration upgrades to enhance their ground and air-to-air combat capabilities.

However, the RTAF has remained resolute in its decision as it looks at a future-oriented combat environment with a “Quality over Quantity” approach. Thailand’s Junta government is modernizing the country’s military while diversifying options to avoid being too dependent on any one country.

Besides buying the F-35 from the US, Thailand has also ordered submarines, frigates, and tanks from China. If the US Congress approves the sale, Thailand will become the second East Asian country after Singapore to operate stealth fighter jets.