Navy's 'toys' indefensible

Navy's 'toys' indefensible

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, the minister for defence, has confirmed the Royal Thai Navy will spend 13.5 billion baht for one Chinese-made submarine, delivery guaranteed in 2017. Plans to spend 27 billion baht for two additional subs have been approved in principle. It is a disappointing rejection of both public and expert opinion that opposes the long drawn-out plan to equip the navy with submarines on every conceivable ground imaginable.

The weak defence of this purchase alone should be grounds for immediate cancellation of the order. Over many years, the navy's plea to resurrect a submarine force has boiled down to a single reason: neighbouring countries have submarines. This justification is entirely unremarkable. Other countries have their own reasons for obtaining and maintaining certain items for their defence.

That other countries have submarines can have no real bearing on Thailand. If Southeast Asia were under threat of international war, Thailand might need such weapons. If cross-border tensions were high, and perpetually on the verge of clashes, subs might be a legitimate consideration. But there is no arms race in the region, no palpable threat of war -- nothing to justify taking 40 billion baht from the public coffers to begin a brand new military branch.

A look at recent history is helpful. At one time, the navy argued it needed an aircraft carrier. The purchase of Chakri Naruebet from Spain was a poor decision. Commissioned as the "flagship" of the navy in 1997, the carrier cost 8.4 billion baht just to build. It was outfitted with Harrier jets and helicopters, none of which can fly today. The flagship vessel has been docked at Sattahip port almost continuously and its prime function these days seems to be as a tourist attraction, unless modified for use in disaster operations. Contrary to military assurances and pre-purchase promises to the public, it is not needed for the nation's defence.

Then there is the army's dirigible, which has gone down like a lead balloon. The Aeros 40D Sky Dragon cost 350 million baht. The nation was assured by defence planners that it was absolutely necessary for missions over the deep South, where it would fly 550km at 85kph to keep armed separatists under surveillance. It has not flown a single useful mission and has broken every promise of every military planner who claimed it was a vital, strategic necessity for national defence.

A purchasing exercise cheaper than these, yet arguably worse, was the hoodwinking of the military by foreign scammers. The Royal Thai Army, during the last coup regime in 2006-7, purchased hundreds of fake "bomb detectors". Because it was so thoroughly and risibly cheated, the army has never allowed a full accounting of the cost, in baht and in human lives. Rough estimates put the economic cost at around 500 million baht. Once again, as with the aircraft carrier and dirigible, assurances by military planners were completely wrong.

If anything, the reasoning from the planners for purchasing the submarines is actually weaker. The cost, the shallow Gulf and the lack of an enemy are just some of the obvious problems in the use of these diesel subs.

It is becoming more difficult by the day to shake the thought that the coup of May 2014 was more about the coup-makers than the nation. The junta, the prime minister and every ministry has refused to engage the public on every decision -- political, social and economic. The purchase of these costly boats for the navy are often derided as "toys for boys". The lack of credible justification for the purchase of yet more non-strategic hardware makes that tough to refute.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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