Thai Navy's $250m submarine plan scuppered

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 14, 2012 The Thai Navy's desire to have a submarine fleet has existed for as long as the doubts surrounding the submarines' real-life strategic utilization. Over the course of 2011, it appeared that they came one step closer to realization when the Thai government was reportedly ready to earmark $681 million dollars for a submarine fleet and was ready to buy decommissioned submarines from the Germans. The number of the soon-to-be purchased subs varied somewhere between two and the maximum of six.

With the change of government in August last year the plan was in jeopardy - even a small glimmer of hope was shattered thanks to a mix-up by prime minister Yingluck. Nevertheless, the Navy was still gunning for a purchase and still in late February, defense minister Air Chief Marshall Sukampon Suwannatat threw his support behind the project.

However, today...

Navy chief Admiral Surasak Runroengrom conceded yesterday the Navy would no longer push for the purchase of four used submarines with a Bt7.6 billion [$250m] price tag from Germany.

"The deadline for purchase passed on February 29, and the Navy will not seek to keep the buying option," he said.

Surasak said the Navy had done its best but failed to push through plans for the deployment of the submarines.

Following a series of reviews, Defence Minister Sukampol Suwannathat reportedly finalised his decision to scuttle the project. He has yet to instruct the Navy on whether to come up with a spending plan for new submarines.

"Navy torpedoes Bt7.6-billion submarine project", The Nation, March 14, 2012

Industry sources say that two have been already purchased by the Columbians and that there was tough competition over the remaining four. It appears that in this particular case Thailand has been out-bid by other countries interested in the 35-year old diesel submarines, as the anticipated price tag has risen from THB 5.5bn [$180m] to THB 7.6bn [$250m] within a few weeks.

This setback for the Thai Navy comes during a time of an apparent arms race in the region, as several other neighbors such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam will buy or already have bought submarines. It seems for the navy the only way to "gain respect from the others", as uttered by the then-navy chief back in 2010, is to buy some impressive hardware. Whether or not any of them will be seen in practical use is a whole different story, but given its dodgy equipment procurement history (here and here), that has never stopped the armed forces from going on shopping sprees in the past.

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