Thailand’s Spending Spree

This is an article published in our November 2017 Issue.

The purchase of more Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50 Golden Eagle aircraft is set to make this the Royal Thai Air Force's fast-jet trainer for the foreseeable future.

by Andrew Drwiega and Dr. Lee Willet

With the Thai government being controlled by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), in other words the military, spending on a range of hardware across all services has increased, a trend that looks set to continue.

The 22 May 2014 coup by the Royal Thai Armed Forces, led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, Commander of the Royal Thai Army (RTA), not only gave the military authority over the whole country, it also gave them full control over their own budget.

Since 2016, this new military government has placed additional focus on the procurement of armored vehicles, helicopters and frigates to counter southern insurgency and strengthen its current military units.

On 27 February this year, Thailand’s Ministry of Defence launched its 10-year military development programme entitled Modernisation Plan: Vision 2026. It lays down three objectives: improve preparedness; enhance military capabilities; and finally modernise its structure.

However, defence commentators have highlighted the observation that there appears to be an unclear strategy in terms of coordinating equipment types and linking acquisition to strategic requirement. One aspect that is clear, is the continuation of the campagin to defeating the ongoing insurgency in the south of the country near the border with Malaysia.

Thailand has endured a long-burning insurgency in the south, largely personified by Pattani separatists, since the last century, but this became more active and violent after the millenium. Although largely contained in three provinces (Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat) bordering Malaysia, incidents have also occured outside of this area around Thailand. More recently in May three pipe bombings occured in serveral areas of Bangkok, including a military hospital.

Financially, the Modernisation Plan sets out to increase existing defence spending which is around 1.4 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to 2 percent of GDP by 2020. In 2018, the defence budget is predicted to be close to 1.5 percent of GDP which is in the region of $6 billion.

The US Department of Commerce’s website reveals that “an estimated 48 percent of the defense budget is assigned to the Royal Thai Army, another 19 percent is given to the Royal Thai Navy and 18 percent is for the Royal Thai Air Force.”

The Royal Thai Army

It was reported by the Interfax-Ukraine agency that the Royal Thai Army has already accepted at least five batches of Oplot-T modernised main battle tanks (MBT) supplied by the Morozov Design Bureau and built at the Ukranian Malyshev Plant in Kharkiv. A derivative of the Soviet era T-80 tank, a standard weapons configuration would include a KBA-3 125mm smoothbore gun, a KT-7.62 (PKT) coaxial machine gun and a KT-12.7 anti-aircraft machine gun. Ammuntion types avialalbe include high explosive fragmentation (HE-FRAG), armour-piercing fin-stabilised discarding-sabot (APFSDS), high explosive anti tank (HEAT) and gun mount (GM) rounds. The Thai Army requirement is for at least 49 Oplot-T MBTs.

As deliveries have been slow due to Ukraine’s ongoing battle with the Russian backed insurgency in Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, this perhaps explains why the Thai Army has now turned to China for a quicker procurement of additional Chinese made VT-4 tanks (previously MBT3000) built by China North Industries Corporation (Norinco).

Like the Oplot-T, the VT-4 has a 125mm smoothbore cannon which can also fire high explosive squash head (HESH) rounds as well as APFSDS, HEAT and HE rounds. General Chalermchai Sitthisart, Commander-in-Chief, Royal Thai Army, revealed on 11 October that around 28 or the expected total order of 38 VT-4s would be delivered by the end of the year. The order was stated to be $148 million (Bt4.9 billion).

At the same briefing with media, General Chalermchai also said that Thailand would buy 34 VN-1 armoured cars from China with an order value of $68 million (Bt 2.3 billion). He said that Thailand’s buying decisions were not a matter of alliances, but that the tanks and vehicles represented a more cost-effective option for the country.

Indigenous industry is also being involved in the modernisation process. Panus Assembly, an mainly automotive company based in Panusnikom province has rebuilt and modernised a Cadillac Gage V-150 4×4 light armoured vehicle (LAV) for the Royal Thai Navy (RTN). This vehicle was originally designed as an amphibious armoured car. The 16 ton vehicle, previously damaged during an insurgent operation, has had numerous improvements added to it. These include thicker armour on the underside which has been increased to 16mm, and 12mm armour on the sides and upper surfaces. There is also a new 8.9 litre Cummins ISL Euro 3 350 hp engine giving a top speed of around 110 km/h. The automatic transmission has been upgraded to an Allison 4500 with six gears.

The modernisation of a Royal Thai Navy Cadillac Cage V-150 by Panus Assembly may lead to the company receiving a contract to transform the entire fleet of 24 vehicles to the new HMV-150 standard.

The vehicle has been redesignated as an HMV-150, and the company hopes that the RTN will be sufficiently impressed by the improvement made that it will want the other 24 V-150s to be similarly modified.

The Thai Army is also looking to upgrade its attack and utility helicopter fleets. While no decision has been announced regarding the attack helicopters, Bell Helicopter has been particularly keen to offer its AH-1Z Cobra which is currently replacing its predecessor, the AH-1W, in the United States Marine Corps (USMC). The RTA also operates a small number of AH-1F Huey Cobras. However other challengers are said to include a broad range which covers all bases politically and includes the Leonardos AW129 Mangusta, Russian Helicopters Mil Mi-28, China’s CAIC Z-10, and the Boeing AH-64F Apache.

AH-1Z Viper
Bell Helicopter would like the Royal Thai Army to keep using its Cobra attack helicopters through the acquisition of the latest AH-1Z Viper.

The utility fleet is wide and varied. Having relied on Bell UH-60s and Bell 212/412s for many years, there nevertheless seems to be opportunity here for other types such as Leonardos AW139, of which the Army now operates 10 helicopters in a VIP role. Other modernised helicopters being considered also include the Sikorsky UH-60M to go with its existing fleet of UH-60L/Ms.

The Royal Thai Navy

With naval power emerging as a major lever in the international strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region, a number of smaller regional navies are finding their position in this balance pulled in different ways. Such pulls principally are between the United States and China, although other actors such as Russia and the major European powers have some leverage.

Thailand is one of the ten Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states. The ASEAN countries, as an holistic entity and as individual members, find striking this strategic balance between China and the United States particularly challenging. As China becomes a major global strategic and naval power with particular interest in southeast Asian waters such as the South China Sea, so the United States looks to work ever more closely with regional navies to counter-balance Beijing’s growing strength and influence.

The construct of the RTN reflects this balancing act, with platforms and equipment procured from both East and West. However, the RTN’s planned purchase of three Chinese Type 041/S26T Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines (SSKs) arguably points to the emerging direction of Thailand’s strategic focus.

Submarine capability

According to media reports, in April 2017 the Thai government formally approved the purchase of the first Yuan-class boat. In July 2016, Thailand had revealed its commitment to the programme for the first time; this followed reports in June 2015 that Thailand’s naval procurement committee had provisionally selected the Chinese option. Each submarine is reputed to have a price tag of around $355 million.

US and Royal Thai navy platforms transit the Andaman Sea during Exercise ‘Sea Guardian’ in 2017. Royal Thai Navy assets pictured are the Type 25T frigate HTMS Naresuan and the Khamronsin-class patrol ship HTMS Longlom. In recent years, the ‘Sea Guardian’ exercise has focused on anti-submarine warfare serials.

The debate over whether Thailand would pursue a submarine programme included discussion of whether European companies would pitch in to the bid process. Germany’s thyssenkrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) and France’s Naval Group, both have had recent success in selling submarines in the region. South Korean ship and submarine builder DSME could also have been a contender, and is already delivering a future frigate for the RTN. Thailand’s selection of a Chinese submarine, however, could be seen as a tipping point in Bangkok’s strategic focus, in the direction of Beijing.

Thailand’s decision to invest in a submarine capability reflects another key regional issue, that of the growth in strategic, operational, and procurement focus on undersea warfare. Many navies are seeking to boost capability in this area. In military and wider strategic terms, the possession of a submarine brings significant punch and profile.

While Thailand has no strategic stake in any territorial disputes in and around the South China Sea, its national interest in securing sea lines of communication and resource access, as well as meeting other national needs, creates a natural desire to play a role in security matters in the South China Sea and round towards the Malacca Strait. The other navies indigenous to this part of the world – Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Singapore, alongside China – are all building robust submarine capabilities. The RTN’s three new boats certainly will not be alone in the region.

Thailand also has direct interests in the Indian Ocean. Here, submarine activity is growing, too. Almost all of the world’s major navies – France, India, the United Kingdom, the United States, and now China (but not, at this stage, Russia) – are operating boats in the region.

The RTN’s presence in the Indian Ocean demonstrates Thailand’s desire to play a role in strategic affairs beyond its own waters. RTN ships have contributed to the US-led CTF 151 Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) counter-piracy campaign off Somalia.

Surface force

Thailand’s intent to support international operations at distance will be underpinned going forward by the purchase of the DSME-built DW3000 F frigate. In January 2017, the company launched the first of a planned pair of platforms, following a $410 million contract signed in August 2013. According to reports, DSME said that the 122 metre, 3,650-tonne frigate, based on South Korea’s KDX-1 destroyer, will undergo sea trials before scheduled handover in 2018. The new ships will provide a boost for the RTN, with its frigate fleet currently based around four relatively old vessel classes.

The ships’ equipment fit also reflects a global trend that is seeing frigates re-positioned towards the higher end of the operational spectrum, with the platforms having surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missile and close-in weapons system requirements alongside the traditional frigate fit of a helicopter and a gun. Most striking, perhaps, is the requirement for a towed array sonar, reflecting the Asia-Pacific anti-submarine warfare (ASW) focus. A number of these systems will come from Western suppliers.

The Asia-Pacific ASW emphasis is also reflected in Thailand’s reported interest in a maritime patrol aircraft (MPA). Media reports have noted Japan’s Kawasaki P-1 and the Airbus Defence and Space C-295 as possible contenders. Perhaps the focus on Western options here can be explained in part by a relative lack of comparable Chinese capability.

In 2016, during Exercise Sea Guardian in the Andaman Sea, a US Navy (USN) P-8A Poseidon MPA joined USN and RTN surface ships for ASW trials.

Maritime security

The counter-piracy risk for Thailand is prevalent not just in the Indian Ocean, but closer to home in and around the Gulf of Thailand, the South China Sea, and the Malacca Strait. Here, the RTN has joined forces with the Indonesian, Malaysian, and Singaporean navies to improve at-sea co-operation.

The Royal Thai Navy amphibious ship HTMS Anthong, pictured in the Gulf of Thailand in 2016. Large-deck amphibious platforms can support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations, as well as higher-end tasks such as projecting ground forces ashore from the sea.

The RTN’s ability to provide constabulary capacity to contend with counter-piracy requirements is strengthened by the presence of a large number of patrol craft within its force structure. Perhaps the most prominent patrol platforms are the two 90 m Krabi-class offshore patrol vessels (OPVs). The first ship was delivered in 2013. A contract for the second was signed in January 2016; according to Jane’s, its keel was laid in June 2017: launch is scheduled for 2018.

A number of navies across the Asia-Pacific region are also investing in large-deck platforms designed to support tasks across the operational spectrum, from amphibious tasks at the higher end down to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations at the lower end. Such large-deck ships, with the well-deck and helicopter capacity they bring, provide significant operational output. The RTN also has invested in this capability, with its single Endurance-class landing platform dock (LPD), Anthong, entering service in 2012.

The Royal Thai Air Force

On 1 August the Thai government approved the upgrade of four Northrop F-5s flown by the Royal Thai Air Forces (RTAF) 221 Squardon at a cost of around $91 million. The upgrade will reportedly add around 15 years to the service life of the aircraft, extending it to the early 2030s.

The F-5 upgrade will include new communications and avionics suites, a Link-T tactical datalink together with Rafael’s Litening III targeting pod, Skyshield electronic jamming pods, Python-4 and I Derby beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles, and Elbit’s DASH helmet-mounted display system.

The RTAF also operates 16 Lockheed Martin F-16A/B Fighting Falcon and has 11 JAS 39C/D Saab Gripens (a twelfth aircraft crashed during an airshow at the beginning of the year) with ambitions to purchase a further six Gripens.

Training aircraft have also been on the military’s shopping list. In July the government stated that approval had been granted for the Cabinet on Tuesday approved a purchase an additional eight Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50TH Golden Eagle fighter training aircraft from South Korea. This trainer was selected in preference to the Chinese Hongdu L-15 trainer. The cost of the purchase is $266 million (Bt8.8 billion) and the aircraft will be added to four T-50s that the RTAF ordered in 2015 making a fleet size of 12 aircraft.

The purchase of more Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50 Golden Eagle aircraft is set to make this the Royal Thai Air Force’s fast-jet trainer for the foreseeable future.

The Golden Eagles would replace up to 40 existing Czech-made Aero Vodochody L-39ZA/ART Albatros jets which feature Elbit avionics.

Evidencing the Thai government’s wish to be seen as neither favouring military hardware suppliers in either the East or the West, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha commented during the announcement: “You can see that we are not tied to one particular country [in terms of weapons procurement].”

by Andrew Drwiega and Dr. Lee Willet