BANGKOK, Thailand -- America and Russia are competing to sell expensive, high-tech warplanes to Thailand, sparking debate among Thai politicians and air force officers over which combat aircraft are better.

"It's not a good thing to depend on one provider of military equipment," Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told reporters earlier this week, prompting widespread speculation that he will lessen Thailand's traditional dependence on U.S. F-16 jet fighters in favor of Russia's Sukhoi SU-30s.

A switch to Russia would mean a commercial loss to several U.S. corporations including Texas-based Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Sechan Electronics, and General Electric which builds, arms and maintains F-16s.

"The government must heed what the air force needs," said Air Force Commander-in-Chief Chalit Pukpasuk, according to Thursday's (Dec. 22) Bangkok Post.

"The air force will select only one type which meets our needs, and propose it directly to the government. The prime minister will not pick the type," Chalit insisted.

Chalit was described as having "already made clear his stance, saying the Russian planes are too big, and the air force does not need jets that are so fast."

The Russians, however, could clinch a deal worth 500 million U.S. dollars, heralding Moscow's first major military agreement with Thailand.

"We signed a memorandum for 12 Sukhoi-30MKMs during President Vladimir Putin's [Dec. 14] visit to Malaysia," said a senior official at Irkut, the private company which makes SU-30s, the Moscow Times reported on Monday (Dec. 19).

Putin was in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, for an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.

A Putin-Thaksin deal could include a barter sweetener, allowing Thailand to offer chicken and agricultural products as partial payment.

Thai officials immediately played down the unconfirmed Moscow Times report.

"There was no signing of a memorandum in Kuala Lumpur, there was just some discussion," Prime Minister Thaksin told reporters on Monday (Dec. 19).

"This should not cause problems with the U.S., from which we have bought much of our equipment," Thaksin said.

Thai media is currently comparing the American and Russian warplanes, to determine which is best for Bangkok's relatively modest needs.

"Why is Thaksin So Fond of Russia's Jets?" a Nation newspaper headline asked, suggesting Thailand's squadrons of F-16s should not be augmented with Russian planes.

Current negotiations with the U.S. involve an undisclosed number of F-16s, possibly including second-hand aircraft used in Afghanistan.

"I think that if they [Sukhoi] are bought, they can be in use for only 10 years at most. Repairing them is out of the question. That will be bad, as they will be grounded," former air force chief Pong Maneesin told reporters.

The Russian planes guzzle fuel, and would require Thailand to spend years training pilots and engineers, and reorganizing maintenance procedures, Pong warned.

Bangkok's choices also include Sweden's JAS-39 Gripen combat aircraft.

Russia, meanwhile, has already sold warplanes elsewhere in Asia, including China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Buddhist-majority Thailand's biggest security threat is its failure to crush minority Islamist insurgents in the south, where more than 1,200 people have perished during the past 18 months.

The foreign-made warplanes do not appear aimed to tackle the separatists' threat, but would empower this Southeast Asian nation's external fighting ability.

Thailand suffers occasional border clashes on its western frontier, where Burma's military regime and minority ethnic guerrillas have been skirmishing among themselves for the past 50 years.

Thailand has tried to maintain good relations with Burma. Also known as Myanmar, Burma was denounced in January by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice as one of several "outposts of tyranny".

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld reportedly tried to sell F-16 warplanes capable of firing Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs) to Thailand in June, two days after he lashed out at China for upgrading its own military.

In 2003, Washington delivered at least eight AMRAAMs to Thailand, because of "an imminent threat" posed by Russian rockets offered to China and Malaysia, according to weapons monitors.

Thailand halted its purchase of eight F/A-18 combat aircraft in 1998 after Bangkok's economy crashed.

Much of Thailand's air force's capability, training, spare parts, maintenance, logistics, and bases are linked to the U.S., dating back to Bangkok's alliance with the Pentagon during the U.S.-Vietnam War.

U.S. President George W. Bush arranged for Thailand to become a "Non-NATO ally," further integrating Bangkok's military into American and European systems.

Washington and Bangkok conduct frequent joint military exercises, including an annual Cobra Gold -- America's biggest combined military exercise in Asia -- which includes several neighboring countries.