Washington has rejected Thailand’s request to purchase F-35 Lightning II fighters, reportedly due to the Royal Thai Air Force’s lack of capacity to operate the planes. But there is more to the decision than meets the eye.
Eighteen months after the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) announced its intention to purchase the U.S.-made F-35 Lightning II, Washington has turned down the request for the country’s most advanced fighter jet for export.
The decision was not unexpected. Washington broke the news to Bangkok diplomatically, but the significant subtext here is Washington’s disapproval of the Thai military’s close ties with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA)
When the RTAF said it wanted to buy the F-35 in December 2021, its procurement plan struck many as ill-conceived.
Instead of a full squadron of 12 jets, the RTAF said it would make do with eight and pair them with unmanned combat vehicles. But while the major powers are developing such combat drones, this is currently beyond the means of Thailand’s fledgling defence industry. Defence analysts’ eyebrows were raised higher when the RTAF said that to cut costs it would arm the planes itself, even though Thailand has no experience in producing missiles, let alone the high-tech ones that that would be required for the F-35.
Moreover, critics of the armed forces — who, since seizing power in 2014 have awarded themselves huge budgetary increases — questioned why Thailand needed such advanced warplanes when the country enjoys a relatively benign strategic environment. Consequently, a skeptical parliamentary budgetary oversight committee packed with opponents of the military only gave the RTAF US$10 million as a down payment on two of the US$80-100 million planes. Rejection by the US seemed a foregone conclusion.
America let its treaty ally down gently. In rejecting the RTAF’s request, Washington cited the air force’s lack of infrastructure, training and security systems required to operate the planes. It also pointed to the 10-year waiting list for the F-35.
However, an unspoken factor in America’s decision-making was almost certainly the Thai armed forces’ close relationship with the PLA. America only sells the F-35 to its closest allies and partners, such as fellow NATO members, Israel and, in the Indo-Pacific, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Singapore. None of these countries have close ties with the PLA (or the Russian armed forces).
The U.S. did not dash the RTAF’s hopes completely. Washington said that it was willing to revisit its decision in 5-10 years’ time, giving the Thai air force time to correct the shortcomings identified by the US. In the meantime, America was happy to sell the RTAF 4.5 generation aircraft such as the newest versions of the F-16 Falcon and F-15EX Eagle II. Reading between the lines, that implies the US would only be willing to provide the RTAF with F-35s if the Thai armed forces dilute their relationship with the PLA over the coming decade.
… an unspoken factor in America’s decision-making was almost certainly the Thai armed forces’ close relationship with the PLA. America only sells the F-35 to its closest allies and partners, such as fellow NATO members, Israel and, in the Indo-Pacific, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Singapore. None of these countries have close ties with the PLA (or the Russian armed forces).
America’s F-35 snub is Thailand’s second major arms procurement debacle.
The Royal Thai Navy’s 2017 deal with China to supply three submarines hit a major snag last year, when Germany refused to supply the Chinese company building them with engines. The Chinese offer to supply domestically-produced engines has been met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm by the navy’s top brass.
These developments occur at a sensitive time for Thailand’s military, whose proxy political parties were roundly rejected in the May 14 general election. Worse still, the winning Move Forward Party (MFP) has been deeply critical of the military. Its policies, ranging from the abolition of conscription and the appointment of a civilian as Thailand’s defence minister to personnel downsizing coupled with a significant cut in military spending, could seriously shackle the Thai military.
MFP has attacked both the F-35 and submarine programmes on the grounds that budgets should be allocated to enhance spending on social security, healthcare and economic recovery schemes in the face of the pandemic and rising living costs.
MFP has been particularly vocal in expressing its disapproval of the submarine deal. In December 2022 alone, the MFP made reference to the submarines on at least two occasions. It expressed concerns about the “whitewashing” of Chinese engines after the navy released a related infographic. Again, following the sinking of HTMS Sukhothai in the Gulf of Thailand during bad weather, the MFP questioned whether poor maintenance of the corvette had anything to do with how a sizeable chunk of the navy’s budget has been poured into the submarine programme.
Beyond military matters, the MFP had criticised Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha administration’s reliance on the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine and has, now more than ever, stressed the need to reduce the country’s economic dependence on China.
MFP’s foreign policy approach rooted in principles of human rights and justice is also an antithesis to China’s non-interference policy and aligns more closely with America’s stance. It is therefore expected that the MFP-led government will steer Thailand away from China and into a closer relationship with America, ultimately strengthening the US-Thai alliance which has been treading water for some time.
Nevertheless, the swing towards the US might be smaller than anticipated. It must be remembered that the MFP did not win decisively in Thailand’s recent election. If the party wishes to cobble together a functioning coalition and complete its term without running into a “political accident”, a compromise with the conservative establishment is required. A dramatic shift in Thailand’s foreign policy over the next four years is thus unlikely.
This then suggests that despite bold declarations, the MFP-led government will be pressured to accept at least one submarine — equipped with whatever engine — so as to preserve cordial relations with China.
Tita Sanglee is an independent analyst and a business owner based in Khao Lak, Phang Nga province, Thailand.
Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.