SURAT THANI AIR FORCE BASE, Thailand, and WASHINGTON — The words “network-centric Air Force” are emblazoned all over the buildings that make up the Royal Thai Air Force’s Wing 7, located at Surat Thani Air Force Base, southern Thailand.

One could find it in conference rooms, in promotional videos created to highlight the wing’s significance and on a mural in one space where pilots grab coffee between briefings or sorties.

Wing 7 is known for being the home of Thailand’s 11 Gripen fighter jets, but its squadron commanders and pilots say the Thai military’s indigenous network, called Link T, is just as critical to the wing’s future.

Having “network-centric wings actually is kind of the big picture of the Royal Thai Air Force,” said Group Capt. Prachya Tippayarat, deputy commander of the RTAF’s Wing 7. “We had to start almost from — well, not from zero — but we had do something to be able to reach that [vision].”

Link T, a tactical data link manufactured by Saab and managed by Thailand, makes it possible for Wing 7’s Gripens and its two Saab 340 airborne early warning aircraft to share a common battlespace picture. Defense News visited the Wing 7 from Nov. 27-28 and accepted airfare and accommodations from Saab.

Now, the Thai military is working to expand Link T’s reach to make its major weapon systems more interoperable — a goal that might sound familiar to observers in the United States.

Top U.S. military leaders such as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson have rallied around the idea that future battlefields will require the services’ platforms to be networked together to seamlessly share data.

The Thai military’s work to link its own aircraft, ships and other weapon systems show that this is not a problem unique to the United States or NATO.

A Saab 340 airborne early warning aircraft, left, and Gripen C fighter jet sit on the ramp at Surat Thani Air Force Base in Thailand on Nov. 28, 2018. (Valerie Insinna/Staff)
A Saab 340 airborne early warning aircraft, left, and Gripen C fighter jet sit on the ramp at Surat Thani Air Force Base in Thailand on Nov. 28, 2018. (Valerie Insinna/Staff)

Thailand has close ties with its neighbors through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The country also has partnerships with China and the United States, and it conducts military exercises with both nations, such as the “Falcon Strike 2018” air force drills that occurred this September with China and the multinational “Pitch Black” exercise with Australia, the United States, Canada and others.

Because Thailand has good relationships with countries that may be competing or are adversaries with each other, protecting Thai sovereignty — and its information — is of primary importance to its government.

“We aim to have our own defense. We have to be able to stand on our own feet in defense of the country,” Tippayarat said. Link T gives the military “[a] link that we can use every time,” no matter what the situation or threat.

Link T is “easy to use,” he said. “We see everything that happens around us. … We can see a friendly force. We can see our enemies.”

The path to developing Link T began around 2008, as Royal Thai Air Force leaders began calling for a more digital air force that would be able to use emerging computer technology and understand English — which Thai service officials saw as fundamental so that foreign-derived technical publications and tactics could be understood by pilots and maintainers, Tippayarat said.

2nd Gripen E takes flight

Saab's second Gripen E aircraft has taken to the skies, setting the program up for deliveries starting in 2019.

The “network-centric Air Force” concept then evolved to include the Link T network, Gripen C fighter jets, Saab 340 early airborne warning craft equipped with Saab’s Erieye radar, and the various organizational and maintenance support needed to keep operations going, he said.

The Air Force plans to add Link T to its fleet of Northrop F-5s, and Tippayarat said some aircraft have already received that modification, although he could not say how many. The service is also planning to add the data link to other military aircraft, but the country’s F-16s will not receive that upgrade, but rather continue using the NATO standard Link 16.

That’s a good thing, Tippayarat said, because it gives the Royal Thai Air Force options on how much data it wants to share or safeguard, depending on the circumstance.

“We have no problem working with the two links. We see that as a strong point because if we have to do something on our own [without allies’ support], then we can use Link T,” he said. “Doesn’t matter when, how or whatever. We can use it on our own. And if we have to join with other coalitions, we have other [data links] — Link 16 for the F-16.”

Tippayarat wouldn’t go into details on the measures the pilots take to protect data when they conduct training with China, but did say it’s important to trust in partners while knowing the limits of what can be shared.

“We know what we are doing,” he said.

“The last three years that we train with them, of course it is eye-opening for us. We do feel privileged because not many countries in the world have a chance to do an air-to-air flight with the [Chinese] air force,” he said. “We learn from them a lot, and we hope that they learn from us also.”