Aircraft carrier debacle offers a lesson on the submarine

opinion May 02, 2017 01:00

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Will a new vessel we don’t need and can’t afford end up, like another infamous purchase, as a tourist attraction?



Further details have emerged from the Royal Thai Navy about its planned Bt13.5-billion purchase of a Yuan-class S26T submarine from China. But fundamental questions are still being ignored. And the irony was palpable when senior Navy officials chose HTMS Chakri Naruebet – Thailand’s only aircraft carrier – as the location for Monday’s press conference about the sub deal.

When the military staged a coup in May 2014 to topple the civilian government, the Navy was all but assured of realising its long-time dream to own submarine. Answerable to no voters, the military junta sanctioned the sub purchase at a Cabinet meeting a week ago. 

The approval revived old challenges to the procurement. Why does Thailand need a submarine, and how can we afford one when the country is lagging so far behind its neighbours in recovering from the global economic downturn? Security experts have questioned both the strategic reasoning for the purchase and the S26T’s technical capabilities.

The Navy and the government have said the sub is needed for deterrence and ensuring a balance of regional sea power. They say the submarine will help protect our vast resources and investments in both the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea. They point out that Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam each have at least one submarine. 

These justifications are all nonsense, along with the usual evocation of a desire for naval “prestige”.

Thai maritime security is under no threat from anyone and is unlikely to face one during the lifespan of this sub. That our neighbours have subs has no place in the reasoning. In fact, those involved in conflicts with Beijing over territories in the South China Sea are likely to take offence at Thailand buying its sub from China. Meanwhile the South China Sea disputes have no direct bearing on Thailand. Any limitation to the movement of our commercial fleets in that area could easily be overcome through diplomatic means.

Also, due to the high cost of the operations, the S26T we plan to buy would be of little or no use in the event of natural disaster or in fighting terrorists, pirates or smugglers. 

As for technical specifications, the Navy has not adequately explained if or how the S26T is the best value for money. It’s been reported that the Navy actually wanted to buy two German subs for Bt36 billion. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha then spoke of a “buy two, get one free” deal with the Chinese, but instead we’re getting just one. 

The S26T is a relatively new vessel and completely untested at sea. It’s a modified Yuan-class 039A built solely for export. Experts query whether it will be able to pull double duty in both the shallow Gulf and the deep Andaman.  

The issue landed us this week on the deck of HTMS Chakri Naruebet. The light carrier was built in 1997 for a reported Bt7.1 billion. It was supposed to be the Navy’s flagship, engaged in patrols and “force projection”, supporting amphibious operations and disaster relief and other humanitarian missions. But the financial crash that occurred immediately after its commissioning drained funds for operating the carrier and building the aircraft it was going to carry.

It has “seen action” only once, deployed from its year-round berth at the Sattahip naval base on the Gulf to assist in rescue and relief following the 2004 tsunami on the Andaman coast. But it took far too long getting to Phuket to be of any real use.

The Chakri Naruebet whiles away the years at Sattahip, a treat for tourists, a shame for Thais and a lesson in how not to procure military hardware.