By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
A few months after General Prayut Chan-o-cha staged a coup in May 2014, the Royal Thai Navy organised an official launch of a submarine squadron at its Sattahip base in Chon Buri province.
The event of course raised some eyebrows because the RTN doesn’t have a submarine. But the move was a strategic one, albeit more political rather than military. After all, the Thai Navy has high hopes that a regime change from civilian to military would fulfil their dream and ambition to have a submarine fleet.
Thailand is as much a “maritime nation” as it is a land-based one. It has 1,093km of coastline in the Andaman Sea, part of the Indian Ocean, with Myanmar and Malaysia as neighbours, and 2,055km in the Gulf of Thailand, which is part of the Pacific Ocean, having maritime borders with Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia. The area of both seas totals 320,000 square kilometres, including our exclusive economic zones.
Historically, Siam – as known in ancient times – was part of the “Maritime Silk Route”, and Ayutthya became a vibrant economic trade hub. The RTN’s official headquarters on the bank of the Chao Phaya River is reminiscent of the old glory.
Indeed, the Thai Navy did have a fleet of four submarines during 1938-1951, the first Southeast Asian nation to possess this kind of military hardware. They came from Japan and were named HTMS Matchanu, HTMS Wiroon, HTMS Sinsamut and HTMS Play Chumpol.
However, the submarines were decommissioned after a coup attempt in 1951 by young naval officers. The incident was infamously known as the “Manhattan Rebellion” since it took place during the launching ceremony of a new ship named Manhattan. The incident ended as a humiliation as the RTN was subjected to a scale-down. Many units and their officers, whether they were involved or not in the coup attempt, were dismantled, removed or transferred to the army and air force.
Flash to the present, and the RTN in the past several decades has sought to redraw Thailand’s maritime security ambitions. According to official documents, it is vital to upgrade the country’s maritime security to protect Bt24 trillion worth of sea interests in the Gulf Thailand and the Andaman Sea. Moreover, there are 15,000 commercial vessels plying the Thai seas.
While Thailand’s Defence Ministry produced many white papers which discussed regional security concerns, the possession of three submarines has never been part of any Thai security strategy, said military affairs expert Paul Chambers.
“The need for submarines is peculiar as Thailand has not had any since 1951. The Cold War is over. Why are subs suddenly necessary now? I do not see them as a need to fulfil regional security objectives,” said Chambers, who is a lecturer at the College of Asean Community Studies, Naresuan University.
Recent efforts to acquire submarines were made in 1995, a decade after the Cold War, when a plan to buy Gotland-class submarines from Sweden’s Kockums failed due to accusations of corruption. But the RTN received a few frigates as consolation.
In 2011, the navy almost got 206A-class submarines from Germany, when the military-backed government under Abhisit Vejjajiva was in power and General Prawit Wongsuwan (now the second most powerful man in the country after the prime minister) was the defence minister. However, both the political and economic situation was unfavourable and the project failed to win a final approval.
Nevertheless, the search for submarines continued. As the plan to topple a civilian government under Yingluck Shinawatra was being hatched, the navy steamed ahead in building a command centre for a submarine fleet and a centre for submarine warfare training in 2013. The centre also has a simulator for submarine operational training. These facilities at Sattahip Naval Base cost nearly Bt1 billion.
In the meantime, the navy contacted some builders and considered a number of designs, including China’s Type 041 Yuan Class, Russia’s Project 363 Kilo Class, Germany’s Type 209/1400, Sweden’s A26 and South Korea’s HDS-500 RTN, according to an IHS Jane’s report.
Officials were dispatched to visit manufacturers in those respective countries. Internal and behind-the-scenes lobbying was intense from all sides, and what followed were charges of corruption and accusations that Thailand was going to buy substandard submarines.
With a budget of Bt36 billion, local media reported, the navy initially preferred two German-made Type-209 submarines, but a final call from China offered three Yuan-class subs with additional weapons and training thrown in as part of the deal – a choice which Prime Minister Prayut called “Buy two, get one free”.
The Bt36-billion cost of the submarines, which can be used for 30 years, is equivalent to only 0.006 per cent of the Bt24-trillion worth of interest in Thai seas, the RTN website pointed out.
Another reason is that the kingdom needs to modernise its underwater operations since the Thai Navy had no experience in submarine operations for more than 60 years since its fleet was decommissioned.
While experts on security and international relations said the proposed Thai submarine fleet means nothing in terms of sea power balance, the RTN said it needs submarines because some neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia have them.
Indonesia and Malaysia has two each, while Singapore and Vietnam have six each, a naval official said, and added that even Myanmar planned to have four submarines in the next decade. None of these countries pose any maritime security threat to Thailand, however.
The Cold War is long over, but maritime security concerns stem from tension in the South China Sea due to territorial disputes and contested fishing exploitation. So Vietnam and Malaysia’s rationale for purchasing the submarines is widely attributed to the maritime threat posed by China in the contentious sea.
Indonesia is not a claimant but the archipelago says its acquirement of submarines is to protect its maritime resources while deterring Australia and Malaysia, two nations with which it has maritime territorial conflicts.
Singapore has submarines for deterrence and to protect its commercial fleets in the Straits of Malacca, where pirates are an ongoing threat.
Thailand’s submarine fleet, however, cannot be a strategic consideration in the context of the on-going tension in the contentious South China Sea as the issue is not relevant to this country, said David Shambaugh, distinguished visiting professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Thailand initially purchasing one out of three Chinese-made submarines would also not have any significant impact on regional security, he said.
“I think the Thai military wants to impress upon other militaries that Thailand can buy new tanks, new aircraft and new submarines. As such, the subs are part of an overall plan to ‘awe’ other Asian countries. Of course, such ‘awing’ is clearly favoured by the senior military brass, who love to have such toys,” said Chambers of Naresuan University.
It was on April 18 that the cabinet quietly approved the navy’s proposal to spend Bt13.5 billion to buy a single S26T submarine from China Shipbuilding & Offshore International (CSOC). The ship, to be built by CSOC’s subsidiary China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), is a derivative of the Yuan-class vessel for export only.
While other sources said the S26T for Thailand will be based on the Type-039A SSK of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, also referred to as the Yuan class, a Thai Navy document indicated that the Chinese collaborated with Sweden to develop the subs based on Russia’s Kilo class.
It is a fairly recent design. First commissioned in 2008, the 79-metre-long submarine has a displacement of 2,600 tonnes. It features an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system as an auxiliary system to regular diesel-electric power, enabling it to operate for longer periods under water as compared to ordinary diesel-electric submarines.
Set up in 1999, the CSIC is the largest state-owned ship building enterprise in China, and the S26T is only one of a variety of naval vessels under construction. With the contract being secured on May 5, the Thai Navy is only the second customer after Pakistan to openly announce the purchasing of such subs.
The navy did not provide any other specifications for the submarine, but information on the Internet and company’s brochure says the warship can dive to a maximum depth of 300 metres. The sub’s sprint speed is said to be 18 knots and its safe operational depth is put at 60 metres. With the AIP, it can stay submerged for 21 days. The submarine has torpedoes, guided weapons and anti-ship missiles, according to documents.
With unclear specifications, security experts took to social media to criticise the purchase and question the Chinese submarines, saying they are of poor quality and unsuitable for operation in the seas surrounding Thailand.
In fact, the navy does not seem to have had a favourable experience with Chinese hardware, as its two frigates bought from China – the HTMS Chao Phraya and HTMS Naresuan – commissioned more than two decades ago, have required a good deal of money to upgrade and maintain.
Thailand, like other Asean militaries, buys military equipment from multiple suppliers. While this is hardly a very smart strategy in terms of weapons systems integration and maintenance, it does not pose a strategic problem, said professor Shambaugh, who is also an expert on China affairs.
“Chinese weapons may not be of a quality and calibre as Western [US, UK, France] or Russian weapons, but they may be appropriate in terms of cost for countries such as Thailand,” he said.
The Yuan-class 039A, as the S26T is based on, is a large conventional submarine. While officials in Thailand are debating whether it can be operated effectively in the Gulf of Thailand – which is relatively shallow with an average depth of 50 metres – experts said it is no more manoeuvrable in shallow water than other large conventional submarines such as the Kilo. If the Thai Navy truly wants to invest in an effective, efficient coastal submarine, it should look at submarines like the German Type-205 and 206, which have a displacement when submerged of less than 500 tonnes, they said.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit tried to say that the submarine would also be operated in the Andaman Sea, which has an average depth of 1,000 metres. While the Yuan-class submarine fits the Andaman Sea, the Thai submarine centre is located in Sattahip in the Gulf of Thailand. It would be complicated for the navy to operate only one submarine in both shallow and deep seas, which are separated by land. With the submarine averaging four knots in speed, it would take nearly two weeks for a round trip of 1,200 nautical miles between the Gulf of Thailand, around the Malay Peninsular and passing through the Straits of Malacca to the Andaman Sea.
Such procurement of expensive military hardware during an economic downturn has also given rise to the question on whether it is a burden on the national budget. While the military government isn’t scoring high over its economic performance, the defence budget has grown steadily over the past years since the military seized power. The country’s Gross Domestic Product grew slightly from 0.9 per cent in 2014 – when the military staged the coup – to 2.9 per cent in 2015 and 3.2 per cent last year, according to the Asian Development Bank. The defence budget was Bt202.2 billion in 2014 and grew 5 and 7 per cent in 2015 and 2016, respectively. The Defence Ministry received a budget of Bt 210.7 billion this year.
The Navy said it acquired the submarine under its regular budget with no additional requests. The Bt13.5 billion for the first submarine would be divided into 17 instalments, beginning with Bt700 million this year; Bt2.1 billion would be paid annually from next year to 2023. There would be neither an additional budget burden nor financial impact on other expenditure of the Navy and the Defence Ministry, said Rear Admiral Grisdaporn Bhundhoombhoad, director-general of the Naval Acquisition Management Office.
Despite being aware of Thailand’s deteriorating economic situation, senior military leaders are prioritising military budgeting now because they know that when the armed forces return to the barracks, it might be in a more limited position to acquire enormous amounts of military hardware, said Chambers.
“Actually, the military budget has increased annually since the 2006 coup. Why stop now? For economic reasons? Each annual military budget increase represents a snowball effect, which is hard to stop in later years – it is self-perpetuating,” he said.