Who botched the Ukraine tank deal?

opinion April 11, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

4,644 Viewed

As China fills gaps in Thailand’s military arsenal, it would be nice to know who requisitioned the dud bomb detectors, the airship and those other tanks

Setting aside any argument over the need for the 10 battle tanks that Thailand has just purchased from China, the question lingers as to who bears responsibility for an earlier blunder over an order of tanks from Ukraine.

The Cabinet has approved the Bt2-billion purchase of the 10 tanks from China, says Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, to replace Thailand’s World War II-era M-41 tanks bought from the United States 60 years ago. What should not be forgotten while this is occurring is that the hunt for replacements – 49 are needed in all – has been going on for years. Ukraine was the original source chosen, offering T-84 Oplot MBTs (Stronghold main battle tanks). 

Ukraine’s state-owned firm Malyshev failed to deliver its promised fleet of T-84s on time in 2011, so Thailand’s military-led government last year terminated the US$241-million (Bt8.3-billion) contract. General Prawit acknowledges that the Malyshev factory in Kharkiv did provide Thailand with “about” 20 T-84s, past deadline. The deal was soured nevertheless, so the Army turned to China and agreed last year to procure VT-4 tanks produced by China North Industries Corp.

The VT-4, sometimes designated the MBT-3000, is of recent manufacture, developed specifically for export through a firm called Norinco. Thailand might be the first customer whose purchase has been publicly announced. What we’re getting is an improved version of the VT1A and similar to the Type 99G tank currently used by the People’s Liberation Army, except that its capabilities in terms of sighting, propulsion and guns are considered “downgraded”.

Last week’s Cabinet approval was in fact for the second batch of VT-4 tanks from China. Under previous commander-in-chief General Teerachai Nakwanich, the Army purchased 28 of them. Current Army chief General Chalermchai Sitthisart bought more to form an armoured cavalry battalion. Another 11 are to be delivered at a later date.

Thailand liked the price China was offering. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said it was a third the amount typically quoted by Western countries. That favourable aspect combined with the Thai military’s concern about being unprepared for battle – not that there are any battles looming – might suggest there’s nothing more to this deal. But it’s difficult to dismiss the suspicion that buying tanks from China signals a strategic pivot away from the United States, Thailand’s long-time treaty ally. Ties with Washington have been strained since the 2014 coup brought sharp criticism about democracy being denied here.

Thailand being a sovereign state, the government and military are under no obligation to tell the world overtly whether China or the US is our best friend. They need only answer to the Thai taxpayer – and the taxpayer would like to know what happened with the Ukraine deal and who was responsible for its failure. If it were the only instance of the military flubbing hardware procurement, interest might not be so keen. But no one is going to forget the millions wasted on the GT-200 “bomb detectors” that detected nothing and on an airship meant to patrol the restive South but unable to do so safely.

Prime Minister Prayut last year assigned General Wissanu to see about securing compensation from the distributor of the GT-200, who’d been jailed for fraud in Britain. The con man was ordered to pay his duped victims the equivalent of Bt375 million. Thailand is not on any repayment schedule, and nor have its taxpayers ever learned who decided to buy this worthless gadget that endangered lives. The Bt450-million airship, meanwhile, has been decommissioned, and no one seems prepared to question that stupid idea either. 

Now the Ukrainian tanks have gone silent, too, even as the rumble of approaching Chinese VT-4s grows louder.