The cabinet has agreed in principle to back the Royal Thai Air Force's plan to procure the first four jets in a squadron of new fighters for 13.8 billion baht in the 2023 fiscal year, starting October, a Government House source says.
"This resolution was reached at a meeting of the cabinet today [Tuesday] and the proposal was contained in a file that was stamped 'secret'," said the source.
The new squadron of eight jets will replace the F-16 ADF (Air Defence Fighter) jets that were decommissioned from Wing 1 in Nakhon Ratchasima in 2021, said an air force source on Tuesday ahead of the cabinet publicly releasing details of the resolution.
The 13.8 billion baht will actually come in a four-year tied-over budget spanning the 2023-2026 fiscal year budgets, said the source.
Although air force chief ACM Napadej Dhupatemiya has previously expressed a strong interest in US-made F-35 stealth jets, it remains to be seen whether that will be the make and model chosen for this purchase, said the source.
Two committees have already been set up to study which fighter planes to purchase and then how to best procure them.
The first committee is to be headed by ACM Thanasak Metanan, a deputy air force chief who is expected to be a strong contender for the air force's top job in the future, while the other committee is being led by ACM Phanphakdi Phatthanakun, the air force chief of staff, according to the source.
"Once again, there has been no indication that the F-35 will be the jet that is chosen," the source added.
Earlier last month, ACM Napadej said F-35s, manufactured by US defence giant Lockheed Martin, would be the best choice because their price has fallen considerably from the initial US$142 million (4.7 billion baht) figure bandied about when they first hit the market. Now, each plane can be had for $82 million, or just over half the earlier asking price.
The air force commander-in-chief also publicly stated that the budget planning for the acquisition of the F-35s will begin in the 2023 fiscal year, which starts in October, and the air force is prepared to answer all questions if it opts to press ahead with the purchase.
Given their technological advantages, the F-35 jets will suit the country's needs to enhance its airpower, a vital part of modern warfare, he said back in late December.
He said the F-35 jet procurement would be split into two phases of four.
However, despite ACM Napadej's interest, it will be the committee that has the final say, said the source.
The committee will consider whether these jets are a cost-effective solution in line with the current fight to get the economy back on track after a disastrous few years made worse by the Covid-19 situation, said the source.
ACM Napadej's talk of prices may well just have been a gamble to see how cheaply Lockheed Martin could be persuaded to sell for, rather than a blueprint of forthcoming air force spending, said the source, adding that there had been no contact with the US manufacturer since.
No one actually knows whether the US government will approve the sale even if that is the model eventually decided upon by the committee.
Nevertheless, the move would be in line with the air force's policy to strengthen itself in the face of what it perceives to be worsening regional conflicts.
The top brass are wary of accusations of negligence were they to be unprepared to defend Thailand or one its neighbours if the need arose, said the source.
The completion of this deal is expected to take between seven and 10 years from purchase to final payment.
Currently, the air force has two squadrons of 35-year-old F-16s, which are either stationed at Wing 1 in Nakhon Ratchasima or Wing 4 in Nakhon Sawan.