Army balloon deflated, QUESTIONS remain

opinion September 19, 2017 11:45

By The Nation

The surveillance dirigible that cost us at least Bt400 million provided zero assistance in calming the troubled South

Though the Army isn’t about to admit it blundered in purchasing an expensive surveillance airship in the first place, it is of course right to decommission the useless ornament, since maintenance costs would continue being prohibitive. Now we’d like to hear the rest of the story. If the ruling junta wishes to demonstrate its seriousness about reforming key institutions, this is a good place to start.

How did we end up paying so much for nothing more than a bag of air?

In 2009 the Democrat Party-led government of the day approved the Army’s request for Bt350 million to buy the airship from US-based Worldwide Aero Corp. It was to be used in observing insurgent |movements in the southern border provinces, then in the third year of a renewed and bloody insurrection. The ship itself cost Bt260 million and the rest was for cameras, including night-vision cameras, and the control system on the ground. Even at the time, critics were pointing out that the dirigible on its own could be had for Bt30 million-Bt50 million.

A more serious problem soon became apparent. The aircraft was supposedly designed to fly at 1,000 metres, well beyond the range of bullets from the M-16 and AK-47 rifles commonly used by southern insurgents. But when the airship arrived in June 2009, was sent to Pattani province that December and was tested for the first time on January 15, 2010, it could only rise to 300 metres – within range of those weapons.

In the seven years since, the airship has rarely been used in any sort of operation, but it’s cost the Army more than Bt50 million in repairs and maintenance. There was a  dangerous leak that required the ship to be completely refilled with expensive helium. There was even a crash in December 2012, fortunately without injury. And meanwhile there has never been a single report of the airship achieving anything along the lines of what it was intended to do.

No military personnel involved in the purchase have ever admitted responsibility in this significant waste of taxpayers’ money. General Anupong Paojinda, who was Army chief when the project was approved and is now Interior minister, will say only that he’s had |nothing to do with the airship since retiring from the service seven years ago. And Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who in his turn as Army boss sanctioned a Bt50-million repair job for the blimp, gets furious when reporters ask him about it.

The man currently leading the Army, General Chalermchai Sitthisart, is fundamentally doing damage control on the issue. He ordered that the dual-camera surveillance system on board be moved to another aircraft that can make actual use of it, as recommended by Internal Security Operations Command Area 4. He ordered that the trailer truck used to haul the dirigible around be auctioned off. (The Army will pocket the proceeds.)

The balloon was not the first boondoggle in the Thai military’s procurement of hardware. Even more embarrassing – because the world found out about it – was the costly GT200 bomb detector that security forces swore was delivering good results despite it being |little more than a plastic box. That was another Anupong purchase under Democrat auspices. Its maker was convicted of fraud in Britain. No one here has said anything further about it.