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  • ANALYSIS: How Gripen became prize Thai fighter

ANALYSIS: How Gripen became prize Thai fighter

Last year brought twin milestones for the Royal Thai Air Force’s fleet of Saab Gripen C/Ds, with the service having marked a decade since ordering the Swedish-built fighter, and completed its first 10,000 flying hours with the single-engined type.

In late November, FlightGlobal was among a select group of media invited to make a first-of-its-kind visit to Thailand’s Surat Thani air base since the nation introduced its latest combat additions over seven years earlier.

Located a flying distance of approximately 530km (980nm) south of Bangkok, the city of Surat Thani is usually a stopping point on the tourist trail heading for popular Thai island destinations such as Ko Samui. Occupying the western side of its international airport, the air force’s 7 Wing includes its Gripen-equipped 701 Sqn, nicknamed “Shark”, and its 702 “Orca” squadron, which operates six Saab 340s. Acquired from Sweden and also independently, these are used in the airborne early warning, electronic intelligence and transport roles.

Bold acquisition

Following a selection decision made in 2007 and an initial production award placed the next year, a first batch of six Gripens – two single-seat Cs and four D-model trainers – were delivered to Thailand in February 2011.

Bangkok had also considered replacing its oldest Northrop F-5s by buying more ­Lockheed Martin F-16s or acquiring Sukhoi Su-30MKIs, before signing a government-to-government deal via Sweden’s Defence ­Materiel Administration (FMV).

A follow-on contract was signed in 2010, leading to a further six Gripen Cs arriving at Surat Thani in two batches during 2013.

Under the framework of its Peace Suvarnabhumi programme, Thailand also received a trio of Saab 340s, ­enhanced command and control equipment, a national datalink capability, plus personnel training and an initial package of in-service support.

Sweden has also supplied Thailand with a new national command and control centre, to support its adoption of a network-centric operating model. Its provision of the Thai-owned and -controlled Link T datalink is a critical element of its integrated air-defence network. This enables Gripen pilots to receive secure information uplinked from a ground station, while its two Erieye airborne early warning radar-equipped Saab 340s relay surveillance data via downlink.

The fighters are armed with Raytheon AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-120 Amraam air-to-air missiles, while the service has also recently received its first Diehl Defence IRIS-T short-range weapons. As part of its Peace ­Suvarnabhumi II acquisition, Bangkok became the lone Asia-Pacific-region customer for Saab’s RBS15 anti-ship missile. Its aircraft also are capable of using unguided and laser-guided bombs.

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Craig Hoyle/FlightGlobal

In common with its fellow Gripen export customers the Czech Republic, Hungary and South Africa, Thailand’s instructor pilots and other early adopters of the type received training in Sweden. Thirteen of its pilots and 60 air force technicians gained such instruction through the initial programme phases. Martin Mann, the FMV’s programme director, Gripen for Thailand, notes that Stockholm has provided more than 100,000h of training to its customer to date.

Technology transfer

While neither of its contracts contained industrial offset packages, Thailand has also received technology transfer in areas including electronic warfare, datalinks, avionics and logistics, and 63 Thai personnel have been funded through scholarship programmes in Sweden.

Despite its small fleet size, the Royal Thai Air Force passed the combined 10,000 flight hours milestone after a little over seven years of operational use, during which time its Gripens have provided a permanent quick reaction alert (QRA) capability for the south of the nation. Roughly once per month, ­several of 701 Sqn’s aircraft are deployed to other bases around Thailand for joint training with other units flying F-5s or F-16s, and it has also participated in several multinational exercises.

701 Sqn commanding officer Wing Commander Kritsana Sukdee describes the unit as “small, but powerful”, as represented by its Tiger Shark emblem. He also points to the importance of regular joint training with other Thai air force squadrons, noting: “there is everything you need to win the war.”

Flight Fleets Analyzer shows the service’s combat inventory also includes 53 F-16A/Bs, aged between 22 and 36 years, and 35 F-5B/E/Fs, ranging between 30 and 40 years old.

Pointing to the high operational demands that are placed on the Gripen unit, Wing 7 deputy commander Group Captain Prachya Tippayarat proudly says: “Everything is on our shoulders.”

“For us as operators, the aircraft is very good, and we would love to have more,” says Tippayarat. Referring to Bangkok’s uncertain budget plans, he adds: “It’s just a matter of when.” Such an acquisition would be likely to include a replacement for one Gripen C, which was lost with its pilot during a crash in January 2017.

Democratic return

Thailand’s procurement plans are unknown, with the nation having been under military rule since a coup d’etat staged in May 2014 following a period of political instability and public protests.

The outcome of free elections currently expected to be conducted in the first or second quarters of this year is likely to influence potential future business opportunities for Saab and other Western suppliers. Faced with restrictions on sales due to its period of military rule, the nation has since 2014 ordered equipment including submarines, tanks and air-defence missile systems from China and Russia.

Mann indicates that the nation is interested in potentially boosting the size of its Gripen inventory, noting that Bangkok’s early discussions around a purchase more than a decade ago explored multiple fleet-size options, ranging from the 12 aircraft ultimately acquired to twice this number.

However, a more immediate priority for the nation is likely to be pursuing a ­programme to update its current aircraft from their MS19 operating standard to Sweden’s improved MS20 configuration. Thai personnel were briefed about the update’s capabilities in 2017, while attending a multinational Gripen User Group meeting in Hungary. “Headquarters is working hard on that at the moment,” says Tippayarat of the potential development.

Saab believes an MS20 upgrade could be on the cards, with Robert Bjorklund, its head of Thailand and Vietnam, describing a positive decision as “a matter of when”.

While declining to comment on the status of any discussions with the nation, Mann notes: “They are quite well aware of the advantages of MS20. It is a substantial upgrade of the capability.” Benefits include the option to introduce new weapons, potentially including MBDA’s Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile, plus a digital close air support function which would increase interoperability with army units.

Sweden’s support contracts with Bangkok for the Peace Suvarnabhumi programmes spanned operating periods running from 2008-2012 and 2011-2015, with these now continuing under multi-year rolling ­extensions. Mann describes the arrangement as a “firm, fixed-price for a fixed number of flight hours” per year, with the FMV ­responsible for spares provision, and in-­service support delivered by local maintenance, ­repair and overhaul firm Thai Aircraft Industries (TAI).

Mann adds that there are now only three Swedish personnel supporting logistics and planning at Surat Thani; down from a ­one-time commitment of 12-13, including ­pilots, who supported the air force’s introduction of the type.

Spare parts held at Surat Thani are stored in an FMV-controlled facility, while others are flown in as required on commercial flights. The only exceptions have been when what Mann describes as “difficult or sensitive items” – such as air-launched weapons – have been transferred from Sweden. On two occasions, this has involved the nation drawing on its involvement in the NATO Heavy Airlift Wing to deliver equipment using Boeing C-17 strategic transports.

Maintenance is performed at the base, with the aircraft kept inside a hangar overnight due to the humid environment. “We have had very high availability of the aircraft – some days they have 100% available,” says Mann. Referring to the delivery of QRA cover, he adds: “They haven’t missed a single day since going live in 2011.”

In a notable demonstration of its high fleet availability, Thailand had all 11 of its Gripens operationally available throughout the duration of the Royal Australian Air Force-led Pitch Black exercise, staged from late July through mid-August 2018. Bangkok sent ­almost 200 personnel and six jets to Australia for four weeks, while simultaneously ensuring the continuous provision of air-defence cover from Surat Thani.

Strong performance

“We were there not only to train, but to test our air force,” says Sukdee of the service’s second Gripen deployment to a Pitch Black-series event, following a debut appearance in 2014. Its deployed aircraft were employed primarily for air-to-air operations during the exercise, although around 20% of their use was in support of air-to-surface scenarios, ­involving simulated use of the type’s ­Rafael Litening targeting pod.

In all, more than 140 aircraft from 15 ­nations were involved in the exercise.

For 701 Sqn, other similar activities have ­included taking part in the Cobra Warrior, Cope Tiger and Thai Boomerang exercises, and the unit also has trained alongside Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-11 fighters from China’s ­People’s Liberation Army Air Force on three occasions.

Tippayarat notes that experience gained during such manoeuvres has proven the ­benefits of Thailand’s Link T datalink, which is also currently being integrated with its F-5 fleet by TAI. “It doesn’t matter which exercise we go to, we see everything that happens around us: we can see the friendly force and the enemies,” he notes. While the nation’s F-16s use the US-supplied Link 16 standard, he adds: “we have no problem working with two links. It is better for us to have both, as we can stand on our own, but also fight with ­another partner.”

While Thailand’s current cohort of Gripen pilots transitioned to the type after previously reaching combat-ready status on the F-5 or F-16 – a conversion process which Sukdee says lasts ­between six and 12 months – its in-country training path is being simplified. Thanks to the air force’s ongoing introduction of a dozen Korea Aerospace Industries T-50s, ­future pilots will transition to the Swedish fighter directly after flying the advanced jet trainer. There is no shortage of potential recruits, according to Tippayarat, who notes: “Everyone wants to fly Gripen.”

Bangkok’s satisfaction with its Swedish-supplied integrated air-defence system could eventually lead to follow-on business for Saab. Noting that the company has not secured a so-called “mega-deal” in the region since its last Gripen deliveries to Thailand, head of Saab Asia-Pacific Dean Rosenfield says he views the nation as representing a further opportunity with the type.

The company, which is also present in Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and China for non-military systems only, is ­currently also eyeing fighter opportunities with Manila and New Delhi. The operational experience gained by 701 Sqn at Surat Thani could be a supporting factor in any future sales success.

“Eleven air forces came here in 2017,” Sukdee says, and two Brazilian air force pilots are currently nearing the end of a three-month detachment in order to learn about the logistics demands faced by the Thai service.

With 10,000h of operational experience already gained by the Royal Thai Air Force and the service having flown its Gripens alongside other prospective users in the Asia-Pacific region, Saab’s lightweight fighter could yet succeed in securing further buyers locally.

How Thailand’s air-defence network thrives on more than Swedish fighters

In addition to supplying the Royal Thai Air Force with a squadron of Gripen fighters, Sweden’s Peace Suvarnabhumi deals with Bangkok also involved the transfer of three Saab 340 twin-turboprops drawn from its own military inventory.

Supplied to Thailand as a “no cost option” via Sweden’s Defence Materiel Administration (FMV), this package included two examples equipped with Erieye airborne early warning (AEW) radars, plus another for transport/training use.

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A first AEW platform and the transport were flown to Surat Thani air base in southern Thailand in December 2010, with the second Erieye arriving in mid-2012. A ground command and control system was transferred in the first quarter of 2011, with work performed to modify a trio of Thai radio and radar sites with datalink equipment. The limited geographical coverage enabled by this update was subsequently expanded, with Saab also supplying a more comprehensive national command and control infrastructure. Martin Mann, the FMV’s programme director, Gripen for Thailand, describes this as an integrated air-defence system spanning the whole of southern Thailand.

More recently, Thailand has doubled the size of its Saab 340 fleet, independently acquiring a further three examples. Two are configured for electronic intelligence (ELINT)-gathering duties, with the other a transport. Its ELINT aircraft are understood to have been prepared by national maintenance, repair and overhaul specialist Thai Aircraft Industries (TAI), using mission equipment from Israeli suppliers.

The twin-turboprops are operated by the air force’s 702 Sqn, nicknamed “Orca”. Its AEW assets – which have a five-strong crew of two pilots, a radar operator, radar technician and an aircraft technician – relay information to a ground station using the Swedish-supplied Link T system. Derived from Stockholm’s national datalink standard, but owned and controlled by Thailand, this is also used for uplink to the Gripen, and is now being installed on the air force’s aged Northrop F-5s.

TAI provides in-service support for all six of the air force’s Saab 340s, with Sweden responsible only for mission system support on the AEW examples. However, Bangkok could potentially ­consider a future upgrade to the type’s capabilities.

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