Air force also targets An-74s as VIP transports as it requests Black Hawk information from Washington

Thailand's air force is preparing to acquire up to 16 search-and-rescue (SAR) helicopters, plus two Antonov An-74s to be used for VIP transport duties. The air force has requested price and availability information from the US government for four, eight or 12 SAR-configured Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawks, but plans to acquire 16 aircraft in three or four batches over a 20-year period.

Thailand could acquire the Black Hawks through foreign military sales channels without issuing a formal tender, but an air force source says US, European and Russian systems will be considered.

The long-delayed acquisition will probably be funded with cash, starting with the budget for the fiscal year starting in October 2005. Deliveries could begin in 2006, with the selected aircraft to replace the air force's 21 Bell UH-1 SAR platforms. Israel Aircraft Industries will by year-end upgrade 19 of these with improved navigation and communication equipment, and a further modification is being considered for next year to provide them with night flying capability.

Non-US manufacturers are preparing to provide information on alternatives to the Black Hawk, including AgustaWestland with the EH101 or Bell/Agusta AB139 and Russia's Kazan and Ulan-Ude factories, promoting the Mil Mi-171. The Russian concerns exhibited at last week's Heli-Asia 2004 conference in Bangkok to further their sales campaigns to the Thai air force and other government agencies.

A barter deal tentatively forged between Russia and Thailand earlier this year to provide Mi-171s for medical evacuation, firefighting and SAR duties appears to have collapsed, with an agreement for two An-74s understood to have replaced the helicopter pact. However, both Kazan and Ulan-Ude still hope to sell several Mi-171s to Bangkok next year, and additional barter deals are possible with Thailand keen to trade excess chicken meat for aircraft.

Russia is considering accepting chicken meat unsold after last year's bird flu epidemic in exchange for six Sukhoi Su-30 fighters and up to 10 single and six twin-engine helicopters - potentially Kamov's Ka-226 and the Mi-171. But the air force source says the proposed Su-30 deal is unlikely to advance, as the service does not want another fighter type added to its diverse inventory of three Lockheed Martin F-16, two Northrop F-5 and one Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet squadrons.

The latter two types will be retired within the next decade, with the F-16s to undergo upgrade to extend operations for the next 20 years before the introduction of a new-generation fighter.


Source: Flight International