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Thu, June 28, 2007 : Last updated 22:36 pm (Thai local time)

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Home > Politics > Military spending to soar a further 24%

Military spending to soar a further 24%

Crisis in the South opens a window of opportunity for defence chiefs

With a budget increase of 24 per cent to Bt143 billion for 2008, not to mention this year's Bt115 billion - a 33-per-cent jump over 2006 - morale is certain to be on the upswing in the country's armed forces.

It's a huge change from 10 years ago when the 1997 financial crisis spurred a 25-per-cent cut in military spending.

Several procurement programmes, including F-18 jet fighters, air defence systems and other upgraded projects had to be cancelled as the country struggled to pick up the pieces.

But for reformed-minded military officers, the 1997 crisis was a blessing in disguise. It was an opportunity to push for a leaner but meaner military force.

With more than 1,000 generals (Australia has four) running around all over the country, Thailand's armed forces were just too top-heavy, they said.

A master plan was pushed through in late 1999. Besides slashing nearly 80,000 personnel in 12 years, the plan also called for a more unified structure for the three armed services, the Office of the Defence Permanent Secretary and the Armed Forces Supreme Command. But nearly 10 years later, the Thai military has little to show for in terms of modernisation or downsizing.

A budget hike may bring smiles to the faces of the top brass but eventually, the military will have to take the bitter pill and carry out structural reform and reduce numbers.

According to a leading security expert at the Chulalongkorn University, Assoc Professor Panitan Wattanayagorn, the armed forces' current structure is too "labour-intensive".

They are going to have to move towards becoming "capital intensive", Panitan said.

In layman's terms, this means a bigger chunk of the budget must be allocated to improving military technology and machinery.

Under the current structure, about 70 per cent of the budget has been going on administrative costs, such as salaries, Panitan said.

Budget increases over the years went towards short-term needs, such as salary adjustment and keeping up with inflation - but not toward any meaningful long-term strategy aimed at enhancing military capability.

Ideally, this 70 per cent on funds going to administrative costs should be reduced to 40 to 50 per cent. This would, thus, permit more money to go toward modernisation and restructuring.

The three armed forces' staff colleges could be combined into one, while transportation and logistics could come under one roof.

Moreover, military-owned enterprises such as radio and televisions stations could be privatised. Transportation and non-military related details, such as security guards, could be outsourced to civilians, Panitan said.

But these are difficult tasks and ones that could create a great deal of bitterness. Time will tell if and when a new generation of more reformed-minded officers assume positions where they will have to come up with a new defence doctrine and security mandate.

Right now, the military is bogged down with the ongoing violence in the Muslim-majority South, where more than 2,300 people have been killed since January 2004.

Former Fourth Army chief retired General Kitti Rathanachaiya recently commented that soldiers assigned to the deep South are doing "police work" - collecting corpses and forensic evidence at crime scenes - instead of forming security grids for the entire region as a military force should.

Thailand's military strategists often defend their work in the region by insisting that the security threats resulting from the ongoing insurgency in the Malay-speaking South have been the "low level" kind that are more disruptive - not destructive - in nature.

But to the public, a threat is a threat - conventional or not.

No one is going to ask if expensive jet fighters or fancy helicopters will stop the daily attacks in the deep South. And so, amid this public anxiety over their safety, comes a window of opportunity to acquire more military hardware.

Don Pathan

The Nation

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