Warplanes: Thailand Upgrades

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March 3, 2011:  Thailand has come up with the initial payment (over $200 million) to upgrade six of its F-16A aircraft. These are the oldest model, and many countries with the F-16A have found it worthwhile to upgrade these aircraft, rather than replacing them. Thailand is hoping to upgrade 18 of its 60 F-16A (Block 15) jet fighters via the Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) program. Two Thai F-16s recently crashed, and age was seen as a factor.

The U.S. Air Force developed the MLU in the 1990s, and it has mainly been used by foreign air forces with older F-16s. Aircraft undergoing MLU are thoroughly checked for any metal fatigue, with parts replaced as needed. Modern electronics and mechanical components are installed. Thailand is spending $39 million per aircraft, and the process will take three years, if the government keeps coming through with the money. The result will be a jet fighter that is more than twice as effective as it was before the MLU.

Meanwhile, Thailand is replacing its aging F-5 fighters with a dozen Swedish JAS-39 Gripen fighters. The main reason for the purchase, aside from the age (over 30 years) of the twelve F-5s, is the purchase of modern Russian fighters (Su-30s) by neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia. The Gripens cost about $55 million each (with spares, support and training.) The 14 ton JAS-39 is roughly comparable with the latest versions of the F-16. It is also used by Sweden, South Africa, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Thai pilots and maintenance personnel are already in Sweden, learning how to operate the aircraft. The first six have been delivered, but the second six will not all arrive until 2017. The slow delivery is because Thailand does not have the money to buy the aircraft all at once.

At the same time, two Swedish Erieye AEW (Aerial Early Warning) aircraft have also been purchased, for $170 million each. The system is a Saab 2000 airliner mounting a Swedish Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar (which consists of thousands of tiny radars that can be independently aimed in different directions). This is similar to the AESA radar used on the American JSTARS aircraft, enabling it to locate vehicles moving on the ground. The Swedish AESA is cheaper, because it's built like a long bar, mounted on top of the aircraft. This means the radar can only see, in a 120 degree arc, off both sides of the aircraft. A 60 degree arc in the front and back is uncovered. The radar can spot large aircraft out to nearly 500 kilometers, and more common fighter sized aircraft at about 300 kilometers. The Saab 2000 is a 22 ton, twin prop aircraft, with a cruising speed of 660 kilometers an hour. The aircraft can stay in the air about four hours per sortie. The radar can also spot ships at sea, and thus can also fill in for maritime reconnaissance.

 


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