The Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) has downplayed reports it is planning to acquire a new fleet of high-tech, expensive fighter jets, — the US-made F-35 stealth multi-role combat aircraft.
Air force commander ACM Maanat Wongwat said the air force has a policy of not purchasing “ready-made” aircraft, and the F-35 manufacturer has yet to sell its jet to a buyer who wants to participate in the development of the fighter jets’ software programmes.
“We are implementing a ‘purchase-and-develop’ policy in our procurement plans, which we intend to begin enforcing in the next 3-5 years,” said the air force chief, who took up the post this month.
A key requirement of the air force’s new policy, which it calls Concept of Project Requirements (COPR), says the air force will only purchase defence and strategic hardware if it is allowed to take part in the development of the software used to operate the products.
The air force hopes to gain from technology and expertise transfer in the process.
“We have to also put our own heart and soul into the weapons and military hardware that we’re going to buy,” said ACM Maanat.
“It’s not that the airframe isn’t that important, but the software is important too as it is the brain of a fighter jet. That’s why we have to take part in developing it.”
A source at the RTAF said the air force is preparing to set up a committee to draft the COPR for the purchase of a new fleet of fighter jets, which will be announced when the RTAF begins looking for potential jet suppliers.
As the air force chief said, one requirement is that the ideal supplier will have to allow the air force to jointly develop the software for operating the aircraft. Details are still being worked out.
These new fighter jets will be purchased to replace the old fleet of 102 F-16 fighter jets that have been in service for more than three decades, said the source, adding the fleet is kept and used by the 1st Wing Division in Nakhon Ratchasima.
“However, the RTAF won’t buy any new jets in the next two years, during which we will need to study and negotiate the COPR,” said the source.
Although the F-35 is an advanced fifth-generation aircraft that all air forces would want to have, the RTAF needs to take into consideration the jets’ specifications to see if the jets fit the needs of the Thai defence force.
As such, the source said, it is “highly unlikely” that the RTAF will choose the F-35s, considering their high operational cost.
The RTAF would be better off with Gripen E/F which relies on EW to remain stealthy and cost around $65 million to $85 million per unit depending on what bells and whistle you buy, said RTAF commander ACM Maanat.
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