Decision looms on fighter jet funding

F-35A fighter jet. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)
F-35A fighter jet. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

The House committee scrutinising the 2023 budget bill will decide on Wednesday on a request by the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) for a budget to fund its F-35A fighter jet procurement scheme.

Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, vice chairman of the committee, said on Tuesday the panel is split over the issue after reviewing the RTAF’s appeal and documents, in which the air force insists the budget request is valid but has agreed to have it slashed by 50%.

The RTAF is seeking 758 million baht from the 2023 coffers for the F-35A fighter jet procurement scheme estimated at 7.4 billion baht. The remainder would be carried over until fiscal 2026.

A sub-committee on durable products, state enterprises, ICT equipment and revolving funds recently reached a unanimous decision to exclude the air force’s request from its 2023 spending plan.

It said it arrived at that decision because it did not receive any confirmation on whether the US Congress would approve the sale. The appeal submitted to its chairman was reviewed by the House panel on Tuesday.

Mr Somchai said air force representatives did not show up in person to defend the request and sent documents instead. Nonetheless, the RTAF said it could accept 379 million baht due to the current economic situation.

Early in the day, RTAF commander ACM Napadej Dhupatemiya urged the House committee to accept the appeal. Speaking in Chiang Mai, he insisted on the transparency of the procurement scheme as the aircraft would be procured under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme.

However, he said the air force needs an initial sum before proceeding to discuss details of the purchase deal with the US. If the RTAF is not granted allocations from the 2023 budget, the letter of offer and acceptance (LOA) with the US for the procurement cannot be arranged.

“Simply put, we can’t walk in empty-handed and ask to buy,” he said.

ACM Napadej said the aircraft, which rank as the world’s top fighter jets, are expected to be in service for decades, citing the F-16s procured under the FMS programme that have been in service for almost 40 years.

“I do hope that the House committee will see all these elements and approve the scheme,” said ACM Napadej.

The air force chief stressed that the air force is not seeking an extra allocation of budget to fund the scheme, and it plans to buy more jets in a second third phase. If things go as planned, it will have a fleet of 12 F-35A jets by 2032.

When asked if Congress would likely approve the sale, he said: “It is difficult but there is a possibility. The most important thing is support from the government and the public.”

If rejected, the air force will return the funds to state coffers, he said.

ACM Napadej expressed interest in procuring F-35A jets to replace the force’s ageing fleet of combat aircraft last December.

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