Thailand reckons F-35A will be cheaper than Swedish JAS-39 Gripen E

This is a statement that must have hurt Saab's headquarters in Linköping. According to the comments reported by the Bangkok PostThai Air Force Chief of Staff Air Chief Marshal Napadej Dhupatemiya has reportedly said he was prioritizing the acquisition of 8 F-35A Lightning IIs to replace part of the F-5s and F-16s oldest of the Royal Thai Air Force, rather than acquiring a second Gripen squadron from the Swedish Saab, of which 7 JAS 39C aircraft are however already in service with the N ° 7 squadron of Surat Thani. He thus takes the direct opposite of his predecessor, Air Chief Marshal Maanat Wongwat, who in 2019 excluded the F-35A from options to replace the Thai F5 and F-16. As for the main argument put forward by ACM Napadej, it is none other than budgetary.

Indeed, according to the Thai general officer, the F-35A is now offered at a unit price of $ 82 million, far from the $ 142 million requested when it was put on the market, and should even go down to 70 m $ in the months and years to come, while the Swedish plane is, for its part, offered at 85 m $ per unit, with no hope of seeing its unit price drop in the near future. In fact, he intends to include in the 2030 budget, which will be established by October 2022, the funds necessary to acquire 8 F-35A from the United States, suggesting that he could also take one option out of 4. additional devices, at the end of a study carried out in the meantime by a panel intended to justify the request for investment of the air forces. Beyond this ambition, ACM Napadej also intends to get closer to Australia to possibly participate in the Loyal Wingmen program led by Canberra with the support of the American Boeing.

Brazil remains the only export customer of the JAS 39 E / F Gripen NG to this day.

Still, several aspects are puzzling in the statement of the Thai general officer. In the first place, there is no guarantee that Washington will authorize the export of its F-35A to Bangkok. Indeed, Thailand, even if it was a very faithful ally of the United States during the Cold War, and in particular during the Vietnam War, is also an important client of the Chinese defense industry, with in particular recent acquisition of S26T submarines or the VT4 heavy tank order. In addition, the Thai Gripen have led exercises directly with the air forces of the People's Liberation Army, in particular by confronting the Chinese Su-27 and J-10. It seems unlikely that the US authorities will allow the export of their precious technological jolly to a client so close to Beijing, unless Bangkok is able to give very serious guarantees in these areas.

Furthermore, there seems to be no guarantee that the price of the F-35A can drop further beyond its current threshold. The arrival of the new Block IV standard, and the replacement of components produced in Turkey, tend to increase the production costs of the device, while significant inflation in the United States, even if it is expected to decrease. normalize during the year 2022, would tend rather to pull prices upwards, or at best to offset the productivity gains hoped for by the transition to full industrial production of 160 devices per year, against 145 for 2021. At this point Therefore, if we take into account the additional costs applied to the Swiss contract, the inflation taken into account for the next 10 years and applied to the acquisition cost would be of the order of 3,5% to 4%, and not in favor of a decrease in prices.

The Thai Air Force now employs 7 JAS 39C and 4 JAS 39D two-seat training

The fact remains that beyond the arguments put forward, and the hypothetical export authorization given by Washington to export its F-35A to Bangkok, the statements of ACM Napadej Dhupatemiya resonate as a huge blow for Saab, after the great disappointment of the Finnish arbitration in favor of Lighting II, and not of the Gripen E / F of its Swedish neighbor and ally. Like the users of F / A-18, it seems in fact that several air forces which had initially chosen the Gripen when the aircraft came out, are abandoning its new generation version in favor of the F-35A, as is the case today in Thailand, and also as it seems to be the case in the Czech Republic. Stuck between the F-35 on one side, the Rafale and the F-16Viper on the other, the new Swedish fighter, on which Saab based immense hopes, seems today unable to convince, including in Europe, due to a unit price insufficiently differentiating from other aircraft, leaving Saab with the Swedish and Brazilian air forces as its only customers, and no new export contracts signed for more than 6 years. It is difficult to know, under these conditions, what will be the future of the Swedish military aeronautics industry in the years to come, after such a hard blow.

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