‘Not Out Of Reach’: F-35 Stealth Fighter Jets Most Lucrative Option For Royal Thai Air Force – Commander

The Royal Thai Air Force is planning to purchase US-made F-35 stealth fighter jets along with Boeing Loyal Wingman to bolster its national defense.

The Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) is searching for a new fighter to replace its aging F-5 and F-16 aircraft, which is nearing the end of its service life.  

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Many countries are looking to buy stealth fighters to help bolster their defenses as contemporary warfare evolves. After Switzerland, Finland recently announced the purchase of 64 F-35A fighter jets at $9.5 billion to replace its aging combat planes.

The F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft is on display during the inaugural
The F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.

The Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF)  commander-in-chief ACM Napadej Dhupatemiya said that the service needed new fighters since the F-5 and F-16 had been in service for more than three decades, resulting in higher maintenance costs and safety concerns, reports Bangkok Post.

The F-35 fighter planes, made by American firm Lockheed Martin, have emerged as an attractive option, now that costs have dropped to $82 million (2.7 billion baht) per plane, down from $142 million when the model originally came out, Dhupatemiya added. 

Thailand has a fleet of Saab Gripen fighter planes as well. The Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) celebrated the tenth anniversary of its Gripen fighter fleet’s operations at Surat Thani Air Base in early 2021.

With the Swedish Gripen fighter costing $85 million, Napadej believes Lockheed Martin’s fighter is not out of reach. The F-35’s price might be cut to $70 million per unit based on negotiations.

Erieye AEW
The ‘Peace Suvarnabhmmi’ project for Thailand saw the delivery of an advanced air defense system that integrated Gripen fighters and Erieye AEW in a secure, high-speed national datalink network. (SAAB)

The funding for new aircraft is likely to be allocated in the fiscal year 2023, which will begin in October 2022. A committee will be created to oversee the procurement of new fighter jets. 

Napadej highlighted that the Thai Air Force is not just purchasing new weaponry, but rather guaranteeing security to the people and the country. The air force plans to acquire the aircraft in phases due to budget constraints caused by the pandemic. 

The service is likewise interested in modern air operations, particularly the Loyal Wingman unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which was developed jointly by the Australian Air Force and Boeing. He emphasized that the Air Force does not require a whole fleet of F-35 fighters. They may only operate eight to twelve jets, with drones flying alongside the manned planes.

The Air Force will submit a proposal to the Prime Minister and Defense Minister. The F-35 aircraft will be deployed with the 1st Air Wing in Nakhon Ratchasima if permitted, he said.  

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter 

The F-35 demonstrates America’s finest stealth aircraft technology. The powerful electronic warfare suite on the F-35 can enable seamless interoperability among alliance users, which could worry Beijing.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter plane has been ordered by four American allies in the region: Singapore, Japan, Australia, and South Korea. Singapore has chosen the F-35 to replace its fleet of Lockheed Martin F-16C/D fighters after a rigorous review process.

File Image: F-35-pilot-training-at-Nellis-AFB

The US State Department approved Singapore’s request for 12 F-35Bs in early January 2020, with four confirmed and an option for eight more.

Singapore’s Ministry of Defense previously said in a statement that the F-35s were purchased for its own defense deterrent, not to target or ally itself with any one country. Singapore has further dismissed claims that it is siding with the United States against China. 

“Singapore, unlike other Asian countries that have purchased F-35s, is not a treaty ally of the United States. While Singapore has permitted the use of several of our military facilities for US ships and planes, this is not in response to recent developments. It’s a long-standing agreement that began in 1990,” according to the Ministry of Defense.

File:F-35..jpg - Wikimedia Commons
F-35 – Wikimedia Commons

Japan has earlier ordered 42 F-35As, and the Japanese government authorized an increase in the purchase to 147 aircraft in December 2018, which would include 42 F-35B Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing aircraft (STOVL).

In July 2020, The US State Department gave its approval to a Japanese purchase of 105 F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters and related equipment. There are 63 F-35As, 42 F-35Bs, and 110 Pratt & Whitney F135 engines in the authorized package.

Under a $6.4 billion contract signed in 2014, South Korea ordered 40 F-35A fighter jets for the Air Force. The country’s weapons procurement office revealed in 2019 that South Korea has initiated the second phase of its plan to buy stealthy fighter planes, code-named F-X III, by obtaining 20 additional F-35s. 

Australia is also in process of procuring 72 F-35A fighter jets to replace its F/A-18A/B Hornets. Forty have already arrived, with the remaining ones due to arrive in late 2023.

Countries are seeking technology to defend their territorial claims in the face of Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific. According to a report in China’s state-run Global Times, “the US F-35 friend circle” in the region posed no danger, with Chinese analysts claiming the F-35 is no match for China’s fifth-generation stealth fighter, the J-20.

It is yet to be seen how China reacts when the American allies in the region start flying their F-35s or carry out air patrol exercises.