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F-16 Sale Tightens U.S.-Thai Arms Link : Joint Maneuvers Help Hone New Conventional-Warfare Skills

Times Staff Writer

The Thai military’s decision to buy 12 F-16 fighter-bombers marks a major step in its modernization program and continues the strong U.S. arms connection here.

The $318-milllion deal, completed with the signing of a contract June 20, caused some controversy in light of the Bangkok government’s budget deficit and the pressure on its foreign reserves. But air force leaders said they need the planes, and they prevailed.

Meanwhile, Thai navy spokesmen announced that annual amphibious exercises with the United States known as Cobra Gold are under way in southern Thailand. On July 12, as part of the monthlong war games, U.S. and Thai troops will stage a landing in Songkhla province, on the Gulf of Thailand. Taking part will be 3,200 Thais and 7,400 Americans.

Near Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, 260 fighting men from the two countries have just completed a jungle warfare exercise.

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About 20 joint exercises are held here each year, a sign of what a Western diplomat called a “pattern of closer cooperation, (a) “revitalization of the security relationship.”

The Thai armed forces, 235,000 strong, are undergoing a transformation--from a counterinsurgency approach to one designed to meet a conventional armed threat.

The Thais, the diplomat said, fought “very well at the small-unit level” in containing and eventually defusing a Communist-led insurgency here in the 1970s and early 1980s, with the help of an amnesty program and withdrawal of Chinese support for the guerrillas.

In equipping and training their armed forces for conventional warfare, the Thais are also making good progress, according to foreign military analysts here. “But they have a ways to go,” one conceded.

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Vietnamese Nearby

Paul D. Wolfowitz, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, told a Senate subcommittee earlier this year: “On its eastern border, Thailand faces a strong, active military threat from a combat-hardened Vietnamese army. This threat has prompted an overdue modernization of Thailand’s military forces.”

Wolfowitz was testifying on behalf of the Pentagon’s request for a modest increase in military sales credits for Thailand in the next fiscal year, from $95 million to $97.5 million.

The United States, whose security commitment to Thailand is based on the Manila Pact that established the now-defunct Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, has paid more attention to the Thai military since last winter’s strong Vietnamese offensive against Cambodian guerrillas along the Thai border.

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Wolfowitz and other officials in Washington have visited the border region this year, and Secretary of State George P. Shultz has scheduled a trip there in the second week of July.

During the Vietnam War, when major U.S. air bases were established here, U.S. arms aid poured into Thailand. In those years, the diplomat said, “there was unquestioning faith” in the American security pledge.

Three-fourths of the Thai army’s weapons and equipment is still U.S.-made--rifles, tanks, artillery--and the proportion is even higher for the air force. But since the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, some Thai officers are “judiciously skeptical” of the U.S. commitment, the diplomat said.

Neither country wants to see U.S. troops return here, and Washington has shown no indication of seeking any base arrangements. Still, the Thais realize that no country except the United States has the resupply capability to help them in an emergency.

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The F-16 fighter-bombers, the first sold to a Southeast Asian nation, are to arrive in 1988, and will reportedly be based at the old U.S. Air Force base at Korat. Pilots and crews will be trained in the United States, in 1986 and 1987.

The General Dynamics-built planes will give offensive skills to an air force now relying primarily on F-5E and F-5F interceptors.

The plane will offer the Thai air force the ability to “opt into current technology,” as the diplomat put it. He explained that once a maintenance and training program is established, it will be easier for Thailand to quickly increase the number of its high-performance aircraft if necessary.


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