U.S. Blocks F-35 Sales To Thailand: Is Ukraine Posture To Blame?


Given the state of the world, you are forgiven if you missed the news that the U.S. has, for the second time in a year, exerted its authority to deny access to one of its homegrown weapons systems. You’ve heard of Ukraine’s yearlong and ultimately successful bid to add F-16s from neighboring countries to its defenses (and offenses) against Russia. The U.S. initially balked at the idea but relented last week. What slipped under the radar was that a few days ago the U.S. denied Thailand the ability to buy F-35s.

The decision raised eyebrows on defense blogs and publications because Thailand has historically got whatever it could afford for air power from the U.S. because of its strategic position in Asia. The arrangement works for the fiercely independent Thais and helps keep their regional rivals (particularly Myanmar) in check. Their air power is also a significant speed bump in the way of any aggression in the region by China or India, which is one reason the U.S. has been generous with the approvals to buy F-16s, F-15s and F-5s among others. Most of its 500 aircraft are American.

The other reason is that Thailand is essentially a low-labor-cost branch plant economy for virtually every Western name brand you can think of. Everyone from Ford to BMW builds vehicles there and most of Michelin’s aviation tires are made there.

I spent a week in Thailand on a media junket eight years ago to see the country’s fledgling aviation industry (went to the Michelin plant) and one of our hosts was the recently retired head of the Royal Thai Air Force. Weeranan Hansavata (a big AVweb fan by the way) gave us pretty generous access to the goings-on at a base outside of Bangkok, where, among other things, the Air Force’s fleet of F-16s was undergoing a block upgrade. The tech was top secret so we were kept at a distance and there was an American gatekeeper from Lockheed Martin making sure that everything was just so.

It was clear the relationship with the U.S. was strong but not taken for granted. So what’s changed? Thailand is a monarchy and when I was there the military had just taken over the government in a bloodless coup. The lack of democracy is a sore point but it’s not like the U.S. hasn’t dealt with similar political discomfort before in other countries. The official line is that the U.S. isn’t satisfied the secrets of the F-35 are safe with Thailand. That came as a surprise because Thailand is considered a major non-NATO ally of the U.S.

There are ways to safeguard the technology secrets but I wonder if the denial of access to those secrets had more to do with Ukraine than anything else. Thailand has a policy of official ambivalence toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. would prefer its allies be on board with rousting the Russkies from Ukraine and this might be the face slap that others with like-minded sentiments might notice.

Thailand will look elsewhere for modernizing its Air Force, but the U.S. decision almost certainly means any state-of-the-art solutions from NATO countries are out of the question. The U.S. has offered modernized F-16s and F-15s to the Thais but if they really want to keep somewhat current they’ll have to look to Russia or, more likely, China. Either of those choices would further sour what has been an uncomfortable but mutually beneficial relationship and potentially open up a new weakness for Western influence in Asia.

But it may not be high tech weaponry and high stakes geopolitical gamesmanship that dictate where Thailand looks for security. Thailand is enduring a Russian invasion of its own. Since it hasn’t condemned the military invasion of Ukraine, Thailand remains open for tourism to Russians. As one of the few tropical paradises available to winter-weary Russians, the country has been inundated with pasty white throngs from there.

Despite its reputation as a sin bin, the people of Thailand are generally very conservative and principled and they’re getting fed up with the debauchery, rudeness and generally despicable behavior of Russian louts who apparently make American and European revelers look like Girl Scouts.

Maybe these things aren’t so complicated after all.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. Wow, you mean that there are tourists that are more ill-mannered and ignorant of local customs than Americans? 😉

  2. A lot of countries are trying to play both sides, but that balancing act is getting harder. Choices have consequences…..

  3. The king, who is in command of all the armed forces, officially appointed his dog an Air Marshal. I can see why one would be hesitant about sending new aircraft there. (Mind you there are plenty who think the F35 is a dog, so maybe it would have been a match in heaven.)