Saab Gripen Wins Thai Fighter Deal
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Thailand will buy 12 Swedish-built Saab Gripen multirole fighters and two Saab Erieye Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft for a total of $1.1 billion, ending the four-year debate over how the country would replace its aging F-5 fighters.
The Oct. 17 announcement was made by Air Chief Marshal Chalit Pookpasuk, who is also the acting chairman of the Council for National Security (CNS), the military junta that overthrew the civilian government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006.
“We have taken into consideration the aircraft we have, and we have processed this matter over a long period of time,” Chalit said. “We proposed it through the Defense Ministry.”
The military-controlled Thai Cabinet approved the plan.
The new Gripens will replace about seven Vietnam-era F-5A/Bs in the Royal Thai Air Force.
Thailand also has 30 F-5E/Fs bought during the 1980s and 1990s. Of those, 15 have been upgraded into F-5T Tigris variants, armed with Rafael Python air-to-air missiles.
The Air Force has been debating replacement of the F-5s since 2003. Other contenders included U.S. giant Lockheed Martin’s F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighter and Russian Sukhoi’s Su-30MKI.
The service also has about 50 F-16A/Bs procured over the past 15 years divided into three squadrons.
No contract has been signed, and Gripen sources said that it is a government-to-government deal being arranged by Sweden’s Defence Material Administration (FMV). Negotiations have not yet been finalized, they said, and no contract deals have been released.
Ulf Lindström, FMV press relations manager, confirmed the sale and stated Thailand would be procuring new Gripen C/Ds, not revamped A/Bs, as some media reported.
“We expect that the negotiations will start soon,” Lindström said. “We are now waiting for the formal contact from Thailand.”
Chalit said the purchase will be in two phases:
* Six Gripen fighters and one Erieye AEW aircraft for $600 million between 2008 and 2012.
* Six more fighters and one radar plane for $500 million between 2013 and 2017.
The first Gripens are expected to be delivered in 2010, with two-year maintenance and spare parts support packages. The first six fighters will be based at Surat Thani Air Base in the south, and the second batch will be based at Ubon Ratchathani Air Base in east-central Thailand.
From Surat Thani, the Gripens will conduct operations over the Andaman Sea, Gulf of Thailand and Strait of Malacca. Thailand has also been struggling to contain a growing Islamic insurgency by the Pattani United Liberation Party (PULO) and splinter groups in the south, and there have been decades-long insurgencies by heavily armed opium cartels in the north.
Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign affairs minister, welcomed the sale. “This decision once again confirms that Gripen is a world-class and cost-effective system. The selection of Gripen was made in fierce competition with advanced U.S. and Russian systems.
“We must now wait for the result of the formal negotiations that will now commence between the Swedish and Thai authorities,” he said. “When a formal agreement is in place, this will be managed in accordance with the appropriate export legislation, rules and regulations.”
According to a Saab news release, the Royal Thai Air Force needed a “true multirole/swing-role” capability.
“The new aircraft needed to be capable of joint operations and tactical data linking with allied ground, maritime and air forces, within an effective command and control system,” Saab said in the release. “In addition, the costs of operation, maintenance and through-life costs needed to be the lowest of aircraft of the same type.”
Current operators of the Gripen include the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Thailand’s military has been on a spending spree since the CNA coup. The military has increased the defense budget by 66 percent. Last month, Bangkok ordered Ukrainian armored personnel carriers, Israeli assault rifles and Chinese surface-to-surface missiles.
Chalit was named CNS acting chairman Oct. 1, replacing Army Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who retired from the military to become the deputy prime minister and is expected to run for prime minister in the December election.