Thailand Celebrates First Decade of Gripen Operations
On 7 July 2021 the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) marked the tenth anniversary of operations by its Gripen fighter fleet, at Surat Thani Air Base. Thailand has a unique status as not ‘just’ a Gripen customer but also as the owner and operator of a complete integrated air defence system delivered from Sweden by Saab which gives Thailand a world-class level of capabilities.
This system combines a squadron of Gripen fighters with Saab 340 Erieye airborne early warning aircraft, all integrated with a secure national datalink system that connects assets in the air, on land and at sea. This system was developed, supplied and supported by Saab, and Thailand relies on it every hour of every day to coordinate operations across its entire territory.
Saab has been present in Thailand since the mid-1980s supplying key equipment such as Carl-Gustaf infantry weapons, Giraffe radars and RBS70 missile systems. A Saab office was established in Bangkok during 2000, which coincided with the first steps in Thailand’s planning to modernise its air defences. In 2004 an RTAF pilot team arrived in Sweden to evaluate Gripen at Wing 7, Såtenas. The team’s positive analysis and a great deal of supporting effort within FMV, Saab and many others led to a government-to-government agreement between the two countries to acquire an integrated air defence solution from Sweden.
Gripen and Erieye
Known as ‘Peace Suvarnabhumi’ the contract came into effect in 2008 and was split into two parts; six Gripens were delivered in 2011 followed by a further six in 2013. The first Gripen flew at Surat Thani in March 2011 and thanks to the extensive pilot and ground crew training already completed in Sweden the RTAF was able to declare an operational force of six aircraft just four months later, in July 2011. The first Erieye had already arrived in December 2010 so its advanced capabilities were also available to support the Gripen force and the national authorities.
Since those early days Thailand has gone on to add new capabilities to its aircraft, new weapons -including precision strike, and has expanded and upgraded the command-and-control network. The RTAF’s Grioens are flown by 701 Sqn, part of Wing 7 at Surat Thani, a strategic base in Thailand’s south. From there they provide a permanent Quick Reaction Alert capability for the entire southern region and are regularly deployed for operations and exercises around the country.
Exercise Pitch Black
RTAF Gripens frequently deploy for international exercises and even air shows. For example, in 2018 701 Sqn celebrated its milestone of 10,000 Gripen flight hours in Australia during Exercise Pitch Black. RTAF Gripens have always produced high sortie rates and the squadron is renowned for delivering 100% operational availability when required.
The FMV and Saab team that delivered Peace Suvarnabhumi to Thailand did so on time and on budget and has continued to support and sustain an independent air power capability over a distance of more than 8,000 km. Thailand clearly values its Swedish air power solution and the coming implementation of the latest MS20 capability upgrade further secures the future.
A ceremony to mark the tenth anniversary of operations was scheduled to be held on 7 July at Surat Thani but, while the date remains in the history books, the event has been postponed as a precaution during the pandemic. Despite this, many years of hard work and dedication on all sides have ensured 10 years of successful Gripen operations in Thailand, with many more to come.
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