Battle for Gripen Fighters

It is yet to be seen whether Cabinet will approve the budget for the Armed forces to buy more weapons before House dissolution, but the value of six new Gripen jet fighters that arrived in Thailand recently also raises interesting questions.

Approved by General Surayud Chulanont, the Bt19-billion Swedish-made fleet responds to and reflects Thailand’s current needs perfectly, especially when the country’s buzzwords are security, unity, sufficiency and education.

“The Bt19-billion payment isn’t just for six aircraft. It’s for the whole system,” was the message from Thailand’s first four Gripen pilots to finish the 10-month training programme in Sweden.

Security is the core purpose of the fleet. The range of the Gripens cover the scope of responsibility of Wing 7, Surat Thani Air Force base, to protect the South of Thailand, including natural resources in the Andaman and the Gulf of Thailand.

“This peaceful country’s need for state-of-the-art air-defence technology does not mean it wants to start wars or become a threat to its neighbours,” Wg Cdr Putthapong Phalajivin said.

Despite the compact size of each aircraft, the fleet works perfectly as a team. It is fit for purpose in an age when jet fighters no longer need to face each other and fight.

A special feature of these Swedish-made aircraft is the “data-link system”, which allows it to communicate with the station 500 kilometres away without having to use radar.

On-screen graphics also portray the overall situation as well as the positions of fleet members and counterparts at all times.

The fleet can work together with the Saab 340 Air Early Warning Erieye system that the Royal Thai Air Force has received from the Swedish government as part of the procurement programme.

In Southeast Asia, only Thailand and Singapore’s air forces are equipped with this kind of advanced surveillance system.

Gripen’s radar can detect and lock on to multiple targets at the same time.

This multi-role jet fighter can also switch smoothly to different missions, from air-to-air to air-to-surface, in just one button push.

“Gripen has all the features we need, and for money we can afford,” Wg Cdr Jackkrit Thammavichai, squadron commander, said.

Against other options such as the Russian-made SU 30 and US-made F16, the compact aircraft has much lower costs of operation and maintenance.

Jackkrit used the metaphor of buying cars. “We are not buying a big and luxurious car and spending all the money we have just to purchase it. With the high maintenance cost, if the car breaks down, we cannot afford to fix it; then we have to park it at home,” he said.

Moreover, the aircraft can be loaded with all the US-made weapons in Thailand’s inventory.

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