Thailand plans to delay the purchase of an additional six Saab Gripen fighters because of a deepening economic crisis, and its air force chief has warned the move could leave gaps in the country's national security.
The Thai government has cut its defence budget for the next fiscal year to 151 billion baht ($4.38 billion) from 171 billion baht. Most of the cut was from money set aside for the follow-on Gripen order, with the defence ministry suffering most as the government tightened belts all around to fund an economic stimulus package.
The Royal Thai Air Force had wanted to take delivery of the second batch of fighters from 2013, and the deal would have been similar to one last year for six Gripens and one Saab 340-based airborne early warning aircraft.
Saab is scheduled to deliver a first batch of six Gripens from 2011, but the delay in buying the rest hampers the service's plan to form a full squadron by 2015 to replace some of its Northrop F-5Es.
"This affects the potential of the armed forces because they need modern weaponry," Air Chief Marshal Itthaporn Subhawong told the Bangkok Post. He says he will take the issue up with the government, adding: "We must explain what is essential, and need a review from the government. Weapons result in national security. Without strong defences, neighbours will not have respect for us."
Others point out that the move will result in higher costs for the air force because it will be more expensive to maintain a smaller fleet of fighters. "It may not affect air force operations as the country still has the F-5s and [Lockheed Martin] F-16s to protect its skies, but it will certainly increase the costs in the near term," says one source.
The decision puts further pressure on Abhisit Vejjajiva's Democrat Party, which has had to borrow up to 270 billion baht to prop up Thailand's reeling economy and may need more help.
The government also relies on the armed forces for its legitimacy, having taken power earlier this year after an army coup toppled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 and the two governments that followed fell when the military withdrew its support.
Thailand's army also requires new utility and attack helicopters. Earlier this year, the armed forces ordered a third Embraer ERJ-135 regional jet for VIP transport and medical evacuation missions.