THE ROYAL THAI Air Force's (RTAF) plans to purchase new fighter aircraft are under threat with the election of a new coalition civilian Government, and a possible shake-up of Thailand's military leadership.

Thailand's main opposition party, Chart Thai, defeated the Democrat Government of Premier Chuan Leekpai in elections on 2 July, and has emerged as the leader of a new coalition Government.

Thai military leaders have said that they will accept the electorate's choice, despite a long history of overthrowing past governments. The last army-led coup in 1991 ousted the Government of Premier Chatichai Choonhavan, after it was discredited by widespread corruption.

It is unclear what changes the new coalition Government will make to the exiting military hierarchy, may of whom, including air force commander-in chief ACM Siripong Thongyai, were appointed by the last Administration. The military by tradition is reshuffled in October of each year, by which time Siripong will have held the position for two years.

Bangkok based observers suggest that Siripong may be replaced by either RTAF assistant commander-in-chief ACM Kriangkrai Sinthavanond or chief of air staff, ACM Amorn Naewmalee. Other candidates include deputy commander ACM Charoon Vuthikarn and assistant commander ACM Samart Sodsatit.

The air force had been due to select its next new fighter in early June, but deferred a decision until after the election. Candidates for the order are the Dassault Mirage 2000-5, the Lockheed Martin F-16C/D, the McDonnell Douglas F-18C/D and F-15, the Mikoyan MiG-29 and the Sukhoi Su-27/35 (Flight International, 31 May-6 June, P14).

A final selection will need to be made soon, if initial funding is to be included in the next defence budget, to be set on 1 October, say local defence sources. Past practice, however, suggests that any change in air force leadership will almost certainly prolong and complicate any decision making.

Industry sources point to the RTAF's drawn-out purchase of six Alenia G.222 transports, as the result of Siripong's replacement in 1993 of former commander ACM Gun Pimarnthip (Flight International, 27 July-2 August 1994).

Source: Flight International