Bangkok, Thailand – The United States, in a move that surprised everyone, decided to turn down Thailand’s F-35 stealth fighter bid. The jet, produced by Lockheed Martin, is currently the most sophisticated fighter jet in the world. The U.S. cited concerns over complicated technical standards and training needs as a basis for their decision. This was a blow to Thailand, as the country had its heart set on significantly upgrading its old air force fleet using this advanced stealth technology.

The Most Advanced Fighter Jet in the world

It is equipped with stealth technology, state-of-the-art sensors, Short Takeoff Vertical Landing capabilities (STOVL), network connectivity, and information fusion, considered to be the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history, with a staggering estimated lifetime cost of $1.7 trillion for U.S. taxpayers. Each unit has an average price tag of $75 million, excluding the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine. Factoring in equipment for ground support, spare parts, and depot maintenance cost, the price for each unit could go from $110.3 million to $135.8 million, depending on the F-35 Variant. 

Due to the F-35’s sophisticated military technology, it is considered to be a sensitive export that the closest allies of the United States can only procure. The current list of countries in the Indo-Pacific allowed purchasing the stealth jet includes Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and Australia. This is due to the fear of the F-35’s advanced technology falling into the hands of hostile nations.

Thailand’s Current Air Force and Planned Upgrades

Thailand’s current air force fleet consists of 12 JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets, along with a number of aging U.S.-made F-5 and F-16 Fighter jets, among other fighter and support aircraft. They’ve allocated the equivalent of $400 million to purchase new jets to replace their older jets, expecting to replace them with the F-35. The U.S. denying their bid surprised many, including Thailand itself, due to the country being designated as a major Non-NATO ally by the United States in 2003. Thailand has used chiefly U.S. technology for its military since the Vietnam War, having hosted bases for the U.S. Navy and air force.

Thailand still needs and plans to replace its older jets as it has already resolved to modernize its fleets for national security. While the U.S. has decided not to sell F-35s to Thailand, they have offered the upgraded variants of the F-15 and F-16 models, which they promised could be delivered faster.

Security Concerns in Selling the F-35

The F-35 is the most advanced fighter jet the United States have in their arsenal. That said, they wouldn’t want its technology to fall into hostile powers hands. While Thailand is an important ally, previous events, such as the Thai military’s coups in 2006 and 2014, have concerned the U.S. and likely would have weighed in their decision on whether or not to sell sensitive technology to the country.

Now that the F-35 sale is off the table, Thailand will continue to look for other ways to modernize its air force. Despite the denied request, Thailand’s interest in the F-35 clearly shows its commitment to improving its military capabilities amid a rapidly changing global landscape.

Even though the F-35 deal didn’t work out, the U.S.’s offer of upgraded F-15 and F-16 models still stands as an attractive alternative. But there’s no denying that the failed F-35 deal is a lost opportunity for Thailand to take a big leap in its military modernization efforts.