Air Force Modernisation Gathers Pace


China’s continuing threat to Taiwan and its pressure on islands in the South China Sea, plus North Korea’s long-range missile threats to South Korea and beyond, has led many Asia-Pacific armed forces to reassess their own capabilities and requirements.

Thailand is not a claimant in the South China Sea but it is concerned about the region’s increasingly tense relationship with China. However, this did not prevent it taking part in the sixth China-Thailand joint air combat exercise, Falcon Strike 2023 earlier this year when People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) trained together in the 21 day exercise.

in late May 2023, the RTAF said the United States had denied its request for Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fighter aircraft. The US said it rejected the request because of production constraints – stating that it could not deliver the F-35 to new buyers for at least 10 years based on current production rates and orders – but also because Thailand lacks readiness to receive the F-35. This is exemplified by the need to improve everything from the quality of its airfields and air base security to maintenance and pilot capabilities.

However, the RTAF has taken delivery of Textron Aviation 12 T-6C Texan II advanced trainers supplied under a $162 million contract signed in October 2020. They were assembled in Thailand. In September 2023 the RTAF also took delivery of three Dominator XPs, purchased from Israel’s Aeronautic Systems for $27 million. The unmanned MALE platform is based on the manned Diamond DA42 Guardian, five of which are operated by the RTAF in the ISR role.


Indonesia is the big-spender in the region having recently signed or agreed to the purchase of 42 Dassault Rafale, 12 second-hand Dassault Mirage 2000-D/ED and 24 Boeing F-15EX fighter aircraft. Indonesia also plans to field 24 Sikorsky S-70M Black Hawk helicopters, two Airbus A400M Atlas airlifters and 12 Turkish Aerospace Industries Anka MALE UAVs. It has also taken delivery of three Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules transport aircraft.
Two Fani-class minesweepers have been commissioned and Indonesia recently held a keel-laying ceremony for the first of two Red White-class frigates based on Babcock’s Arrowhead 140 design.

South Korea

South Korea is projected to spend approximately $16.8 billion on procuring various types of military fixed-wing aircraft over the next ten years, comprising a mix of domestically developed platforms such as the Korean Aerospace Industries KF-21 and additional Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs to the 40 already delivered.

KAI has secured a contract to sell 18 FA-50 Fighting Eagle fighter jets to Malaysia, with delivery to begin in 2023. and the company signed a 10-year integrated procurement contract with Airbus Helicopters in August 2023 for the production of 300 helicopters including the Light Armed Helicopter (LAH) and the KUH-1 Surion.


Driven by military modernisation programmes to protect its sovereignty and address security threats such as piracy and terrorism, Malaysia’s defence budget is expected to reach $6.2 billion in 2028. The country’s pursuit of advanced platforms, includes the acquisition of littoral combat ships (SGPV-LCS) and littoral mission ships (LMS) built by Boustead Naval Shipyard in Parek, and KAI FA-50 light attack aircraft. In October 2023, Malaysia awarded a $100 million contract to Turkish Aerospace for three Anka MALE UAVs for the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF).

The Philippines

The Philippines’ Department of National Defense is preparing a new set of specifications and quantity requirements for the country’s multi-role fighter (MRF) programme, which will be presented to President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. for approval. The terms of reference (TOR) for the project have been released, and once approved, they will be included in Horizon 3 of the Armed Forces of the Philippines $833 million modernisation programme. Contenders for the MRF programme are expected to include the F-35A Lightning II and the Saab Gripen E.

by David Oliver