Royal Thai Navy eyes two more Chinese-made submarines despite Covid-19 pressure


The Royal Thai Navy (RTN) has secured approval from the House of Representatives to procure two additional S26T diesel-electric submarines (SSKs) from China, despite earlier indications that the acquisition could be deferred due to the economic challenges wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic.

RTN officials told media during a 24 August press conference in Bangkok that it will provision for the planned procurement – which would cost about US$714 million and likely dependent on final approval from the Thai Cabinet – in a seven-year period between 2020 and 2026 using funding allocation from its annual defence budget.

The RTN had earlier awarded the China Shipbuilding and Offshore International Company (CSOC) a US$430 million contract in May 2017 to supply the first S26T SSK, which is already under construction at CSOC’s Wuchang Shipbuilding subsidiary in Wuhan and is expected to be delivered between 2023 and 2024.

The service had also expressed its desire to acquire two more S26T SSKs in the early when it signed the contract for the first boat, with delivery expected by 2026.

S26T capabilities

The S26T SSK is derived from the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s Yuan-class (Type 041). According to company specifications, the submarine displaces 2,550-tonnes at full load and measures 77.7 metres in length, 8.6m in beam, and has an above-water height of 9m.

The boat can be operated by a standard crew complement of 38 personnel, although it also features a large accommodation space with 46 bunks as well as a separate commanding officer’s quarters, which enable all crew members to have their own berthing space for increased comfort during extended missions.

CSOC also quotes a maximum underwater speed of 17 knots, dive depth of up to 300m, and an operating range of over 260 nautical miles on battery power. The boat is also claimed to offer a maximum endurance of 65 days at sea and can transit distances of up to 8,000nm when alternating between surface and underwater cruising.

RTN spokesperson Vice Admiral Prachachat Sirisawat told media in April that about US$130.28 million – about 33% of the navy’s planned modernisation funds for 2020 – would be re-allocated to support a national economic stimulus package aimed at mitigating the impact of Covid-19.

Geostrategic realities

Despite the controversy surrounding its submarine acquisition programme, the RTN has maintained that these platforms are necessary to safeguard Thailand’s national interests in the immediate region. Many regional countries have invested significantly to acquire new submarine capabilities or to boost existing fleets in recent years with the navies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam already operating modern SSKs. Elsewhere in the Asia Pacific, other submarine operators such as Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea are also recapitalising existing fleets with new and more capable platforms.

by Jr Ng