Arms Race in the Sky?

Updated On: Dec 23, 2005

Recently, significant defence deals have been made in ASEAN, yet very little has been noticed or reported in the region and beyond.

On 19 December 2005, the news first broke from the Moscow press and then the international press that the Kingdom of Thailand had agreed to buy Russian air superiority fighters at an estimated total of US$500 million for its Royal Air Force. The report did not mention barter deals that are common of Southeast Asian negotiations, for example, Malaysia had bartered palm oil for its fighters from Russia.

The deals are quieter on the Thai government’s side. The Prime Minister of Thailand did not mention purchases of Russian helicopters but acknowledged the deal that involved 12 Sukhoi-30 Su-30 fighter jets. One reason for this low profile is partly because of the accusations by the opposition parties that the government had benefitted from the deal. The most strident critic of the Prime Minister attracted more than 40,000 people to an urban park and accused him of buying obsolete jet fighters from Russia to reap a kickback of 3.5 billion baht (US$85 million; 72 million bahts). (Su-30s are really hardly considered obsolete by most standards and are considered as formidable rivals of their American counterparts).

There are regional implications of this deal. First, the purchases tip the balance in favor of Thailand since Myanmar started purchases Chinese F-7M airguard fighters years ago in large quantities. The other strategic tilt in this deal comes with the arms augmentation program in Malaysia. which has been making a series of high profile purchases in recent years. The most recent of these were the Boeing cargo airlifters that are able to carry light tanks and battlefield equipment quickly to place for fast reaction forces and marines. These airlifters can be used for disaster relief and equally for deployment of shock troops for forward operations. This is in addition to the Su-27 fighters that Malaysia purchased from Russia and A/F-18 Hornets from the United States. The Thais are aware of such developments.

“This is good news for Russia, we haven’t sold a single cartridge to Thailand,” enthused Konstantin Makiyenko, deputy head of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, in comments for the Moscow Times Monday. “It also means that Russia has taken over the region — we have fighter jets in ChinaMalaysia,IndonesiaVietnam and now Thailand.” This statement is a clear indication of Russian intention to increase its arms sales in the region, especially after what they perceive as having lost out to the Chinese and the Americans in this highly-competitive business.

This may also tip the strategic balance in a region that is used to getting their arms from the US, specifically its allies like SingaporeThailand and the Philippines. TheMoscow media report said the deal is preliminary and was signed last week in Kuala Lumpur when both the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Thai PM were both at the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur. It said Russia has signed a preliminary agreement to sell $500 million worth of military aircraft to Thailand, and added it was “the first such deal with the traditional U.S. arms client.”


*Thailand Agrees to Buy Russian Fighter Jets in $500M Deal (Moscow News, Dec 19)

*Thai prime minister was criticized for buying Russian fighters (Pravda, Dec 19)

*Thai prime minister was criticized for buying Russian fighters (Thainews.net Dec 20)