Subs or choppers? Thailand's military build-up hits a snag

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 4, 2011 The Nation wrote last week:

The Cabinet on Tuesday approved the naval proposal to buy six U-206 submarines, worth Bt6.9 billion, from Germany, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said. (...)

The approval came as the last minute before the deal would expire on September 30.

The six submarines would be decommissioned by the German Navy. Four would be refurbished before the deployment in the Gulf of Thailand and two are slated for spare parts.

"Purchase of six used submarines approved: Yingluck", The Nation, September 27, 2011

Back in January, the Thai Navy voiced interest in buying two used submarines from the German Navy at an estimated cost of 6-7 billion Baht (US$195m - $228m). Over the course of the year the offer has increased to buy six submarines for about $257m from Germany, while there was a competing offer from Korea (source in German here). With this planned purchase, the Thai Navy is meant to launch its long-held ambitious plans to set up a submarine fleet, despite the doubtful strategic utilization. For one,  the Gulf of Thailand is said to be too shallow for submarines.


Leaving the [cabinet] meeting, Yingluck appeared slightly confused when asked if the Cabinet gave the green light to separate military plans to buy the German submarines and US-made Blackhawk helicopters.

"I don't recall that. The Cabinet discussed 37 points today [yesterday] and had no reservation. Regarding the submarine plan, it has been approved. But for the Blackhawks, there's some issues about the price that requires a discussion with the Budget Bureau," she said early yesterday afternoon.

However, about two hours later, after the prime minister's words had been reported by the online media, deputy government spokesman Chalitrat Chantharubeksa walked through the afternoon rain to the Government House press room to correct the prime minister's statement.

He said that the Cabinet did not consider the submarine-purchase plan yesterday.

"The prime minister may be mixed up between submarines and helicopters. In fact, she referred to helicopters," the deputy spokesman said, adding that the Army request to buy eight French-made helicopters was approved by the Cabinet. "She thought the question was about the eight helicopters."

He also joked that the inaccurate media reports stemming from the prime minister's "mix-up" might have "caused the Navy to be happy".

"PM's submarine 'mix-up'", The Nation, September 28, 2011

That is, of course, a completely different subject. As the Thai military has suffered the loss of three Bell 121 Huey helicopters within just over a week in July, killing a total of 17 people, the military officials have grounded all helicopters of that type and demanded new ones. That now seems to be the case - unless the government got something mixed up again...!

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and now also on his public Facebook page here.