- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2000

BANGKOK Thailand's plan to purchase of 16 used American fighter jets for $130 million has sparked a bitter guns-or-butter debate in this cash-strapped nation that is only beginning to recover from a regional economic crisis.

Supporters of the deal say the fleet of secondhand F-16s, which will streak across the tropical sky at 1,500 miles per hour, are needed to keep Thai defenses strong in a region wracked by ethnic tensions.

"As we cannot afford to buy new jets, we decided to buy the used F-16s which are still in good condition, and very efficient, and can be used for the next 15 to 20 years," said Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, who also serves as defense minister.

"It's crucial that the Thai air force remains strong, so we cannot allow it to go underequipped," Mr. Chuan said.

Thailand's Cabinet recently approved the purchase, even though the last time this Southeast Asian nation fought a major battle was more than 25 years ago alongside American troops in the Vietnam War.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Congress agreed to the Thai purchase.

But the pending deal has elicited a barrage of criticism from those who argue that aerial bombardment cannot solve military threats to Thailand, which typically consist of small-scale raids by guerrilla groups that operate in dense jungle border areas.

Moreover, they say the country can ill afford the F-16s, even with a hefty discount for purchasing used models.

"Budget realities have forced the armed forces to reduce the role of many of their whiz-bang fighting machines to token appearances," the respected Bangkok Post newspaper said in a recent editorial.

"Funding another costly weapons system when more fundamental, if less glamorous, needs are apparent, flies in the face of the government's stated goal of improving governance within the public domain."

An editorial cartoon illustrating the page was more blunt. It showed the prime minister grinning inside the cockpit of a giant F-16, in front of three impoverished Thai villagers, dressed in rags.

The cartoon's caption said: "Another squadron of toys to play with."

Critics claim the money would keep more Thais alive if spent on AIDS, drug addiction and for the military an improved defense on the ground against Burmese, Laotian and other foreign dissidents who have staged small but bloody terrorist assaults in recent months.

Warplanes would be essentially useless against the occasional gunfire that erupts along Thailand's borders because it quickly subsides, thanks to long years of peace and improved regional relations, they add.

For example, F-16s would be unable to stop battle-hardened, minority ethnic Wa guerrillas based in Burma, who have turned northwest Thailand's border into a sieve for hundreds of tons of methamphetamine, critics say.

Because of the 1997 economic collapse that began in Thailand and spread throughout Asia, Thailand backed out of an earlier agreement to buy eight F-18 Hornet warplanes from the United States.

Since 1987, the United States has shipped $3.4 billion worth of arms to Thailand, according to the Federation of American Scientists, a lobbying group that is critical of U.S. weapons sales.

These include a $177 million telecommunications control system, more than 100 tanks at $1 million each and a $50 million Westinghouse air defense system, according to the FAS.

Washington prizes Bangkok as its closest ally in troubled Southeast Asia.

By treaty, both nations would defend each other in case of attack. Thousands of U.S. troops jointly train with Thai forces each year.

The F-16 Fighting Falcon, built by Fort Worth, Texas-based Lockheed Martin, is extremely deadly in both air-to-air, and air-to-surface, attack. Depending on configuration, the bubble canopy, shark-nosed jet can fire 12,000 pounds of bombs, rockets, cluster dispensers, Maverick, Durandal and other attack missiles, plus Sidewinders for defense.

America has built more than 4,000 F-16s, keeping more than 2,000 for the U.S. Air Force and selling about 2,000 to various nations.

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