Indonesia, Thailand seek new fighters

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Indonesia and Thailand are making moves towards acquiring new fighter jets, although industry sources say that any procurement is unlikely to begin until the start of the next decade.

Thailand is the likelier of the two South-East Asian countries to make the first move, with its air force chief saying the service is seeking $1 billion over the next five years to buy new helicopters and aircraft. The priority, Air Chief Marshal Chalit Pukphasuk says, is to replace the kingdom's two fleets of Northrop F-5Es that have been in service since the 1970s and are due to be decommissioned around 2011.

While a competition is not officially under way, aircraft manufacturers have held informal talks with Bangkok for the initial sale of up to 12 fighters. However, Chalit rules out Russia's MiG-29, which is in service with neighbours such as Malaysia, saying: "You wouldn't want a fighter jet that your neighbours have more experience on. You would want one that is a little bit more advanced than what your neighbours have."

Saab, producer of the Gripen, is believed to be one of the frontrunners because of the growing defence ties between Sweden and Thailand. The company is seeking its first Gripen sale in Asia, and industry sources say that it is offering Thailand a competitive package that includes cheap loans. Others are not resting on their laurels. Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin's F-16 are also likely to be considered and both companies will look to capitalise on long-standing defence ties between the USA and Thailand. The Sukhoi Su-30 and Dassault Rafale could also take part in a tender.

Indonesia is also looking to refresh its air force, and the service's chief of staff says the country wants to replace the Rockwell OV-10 Bronco, BAE Systems Hawk 53, F-5 and possibly upgrade its F-16A/Bs. Among the aircraft being considered are the Aero Vodochody L-159, Chengdu K-8 and Korea Aerospace Industries KO-1B turboprop trainer.

"A team has already conducted a study and provided some input which we will submit after 2009," says Marshal Herman Prayitno. "The air force still has to consider the capability of the new aircraft. We hope they could perform various missions, especially to replace the ground attack role of the OV-10, the ambush function of the F-5, as well as the trainer function."

The problem, however, is financing. While the Indonesian economy has been growing over the past few years, poverty alleviation remains a government priority. "It might be difficult for the government to justify spending a billion dollars on new aircraft when sections of society are still struggling," says an observer.