Noise annoys: Thailand, China to move air exercise over complaints

Special to BenarNews
Noise annoys: Thailand, China to move air exercise over complaints Chinese J-10 fighter jets perform during a media demonstration at the Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Nakhon Ratchasima province, Nov. 24, 2015.

The “Falcon Strike” joint air force exercise between Thailand and China will be relocated as of next year from the current site, officials said, after nearby residents complained about noise during the twice daily drills.

The government in Udon Thani, the Thai province where the drills started on Sunday and will last until Aug. 24, have received complaints from residents about noise pollution, an official said, adding that the exercise was also “paused for one day” on Thursday and will resume on Friday. The site of this year’s drills between the Thai and Chinese air forces had served as a U.S. air base during the Vietnam War.

“The joint exercise will be held in Nam Pong air base, Khon Khaen province, for the next two years,” said a Thai Air Force official on Wednesday who was not authorized to speak to foreign media and wished to remain anonymous.

“Falcon Strike” joint exercises have been held since 2015 but were suspended in 2020 because of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, China sent six J-10C/S fighter jets, two JH-7A bombers and one Shaanxi KJ-500 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, said the source.

This is the first time that China’s air force has sent its JH-7A fighter-bombers to take part in the exercise.

For its part, Thailand deployed five Saab JAS 39 Gripen multi-role fighters, three Alpha Jet attack aircraft, and a Saab 340 AEW&C.

In total, 18 aircraft are taking part in the drills, and they’re “making a lot of noise,” said the unnamed air force official.

Analysts said the Royal Thai Air Force did not send U.S. made F-16 fighters to the drills as it seeks to buy advanced F-35 aircraft from the U.S.

The exercise includes “training courses such as air support, strikes on ground targets and small and large-scale troop deployment,” according to China’s defense ministry.

Thai and Chinese air force personnel participate in “Falcon Strike 2022” activities at the Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in Udon Thani province, Thailand, Aug. 14, 2022. [Royal Thai Air Force]

Former US air base

The Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, where the drills are being held, was a U.S. Air Force frontline facility from 1964 to 1976, at the peak of the U.S.-Thailand military alliance.

During the Vietnam War, up to 80 percent of all USAF air strikes over North Vietnam and Laos originated from air bases in Thailand, according to a U.S. Congressional Record from Nov. 1, 1967.

Since about 2001 Thailand “has tended to follow a foreign policy of hedging or creating balance between the U.S. and China,” said Paul Chambers, a Thailand-based military analyst.

“Especially since the 2006 coup, Thai governments have sought to offset military procurement, joint military exercises,and military training with the two countries,” Chambers told Radio Free Asia, an online affiliate of BenarNews.

“The U.S. will be watching the exercises but will view them understanding Thailand’s hedging policy,” he said.

Since the Thai military increased its power after coups in 2006 and 2014, Bangkok bought tanks, armored personnel carriers and entered into a controversial multi-billion-dollar contract to procure submarines from China. 

China’s arms exports to Thailand increased five-fold between 2014 and 2018 compared with the preceding five years, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden.

Interest in US-made F-35

The Thai air force expressed interest in buying some F-35 stealth fighter jets to replace its aging fleet of F-16A/B Fighting Falcons, but Washington so far seems reluctant to consider the purchase, fearing the fighter’s sensitive technologies could be compromised by China, its biggest military and strategic rival.

The drills in Thailand follow a Chinese military week-long air-naval exercise around Taiwan in response to a visit to the island by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Responding to criticism that the “Falcon Strike” could make it harder for Thailand to get access to U.S. advanced military technology, A.V.M. Prapas Sonjaidee, spokesman for the Royal Thai Air Force, on Tuesday said the drills are a regular practice held publicly.

“It is common for soldiers around the world to train together, to share experiences and learn from each other,” said Prapas, dismissing concerns about the possible F-35 procurement.

“The Air Force exercises actually will likely strengthen the arguments of those U.S. officials that Washington should sell F-35s to Thailand,” Chambers said.

It was during the Trump administration that Washington “resurrected arms sales to Thailand,” he said. 

He added that in his opinion, since the Biden administration has continued to prioritize geopolitical interests over other factors, such as human rights values, in its decision to continue sending arms to Thailand, “that sale will likely happen.”

Pimuk Rakkanam in Bangkok contributed to this story.


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