On June 19, Thailand received the third Sukhoi Superjet 100 originally ordered from the Russian manufacturer back in 2014. Though the development was a consequence of a previous deal already inked and the delivery was expected, it nonetheless once again put the spotlight on the ongoing defense cooperation underway between Thailand and Russia, and the opportunities and challenges therein.
As I have noted before in these pages, Thai-Russian defense collaboration is not new, with Thailand never shying away from fostering ties with other powers for its defense needs despite its alliance with the United States. But substantive cooperation between the two sides has been on the uptick in recent years, as Thailand looked to boost relations with other nations following a coup in May 2014 and Russia eyes an increasing presence in the Asia-Pacific, including Southeast Asia.
To be sure, the collaboration explored between the two sides – whether it be specific arms sales or broader areas like defense industry collaboration – has in some cases been slow to manifest and in other cases not done so at all. But there have been some notable gains as well, whether it be the inking of a military-technical cooperation agreement or deals on defense equipment including assault rifles (See: “What’s in the New Russia-Thailand Military Pact?”).
While the headlines on Russia-Thailand defense ties often focus on items such as helicopters or aircraft, one of the deals that had also been inked was for the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) to receive Superjet Sukhoi 100s (SSJ100). The SSJ100, a twin-engine regional jet which has been characterized as a major civil aircraft program within Russia’s aerospace industry, has been developed in partnership with other international partners, with the maiden flight test officially dated back to May 2008.
Thailand’s original order was placed back in 2014, making Bangkok the first foreign customer of that version of the SSJ100 despite some concerns on the specifics of the deal. SCAC has since claimed that it has delivered over 100 aircraft in several versions to customers in Russia but also to other customers in regions around the world such as Central Europe and Central America. Thailand’s original had since seen the first two of the three aircraft subsequently delivered to Thailand in July 2016.
This week, Russia-Thailand defense cooperation was in the spotlight when Thailand received the third and final Sukhoi Superjet 100 on June 19, with additional modifications relative to the two previous jets received. According to a statement by Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company (SCAC), the delivery saw the aircraft flown from the Zhukovsky production facility in Islamabad, Pakistan to Bangkok where it joined the RTAF fleet.
The statement also acknowledged that continued improvements were being made to the aircraft in line with customer requests. Despite the fact that the transfer has been seen as an example of Russia-Thailand defense cooperation, the SSJ100 has in fact seen its versions encounter their fair share of challenges over the years since its development that has required subsequent modifications and upgrades along the way.