Military deals need scrutiny

Military deals need scrutiny

On this date each year, the military marks the Royal Thai Armed Forces Day with pomp and pageantry, with soldiers marching to showcase the forces' strength and solidarity. In the past couple of years, the celebration has improved for the better, with more social campaigns incorporated into the activities for the day, in an effort to keep the military relevant to society in the modern age.

However, one thing has remained the same -- with each passing year the armed forces have continuously failed to improve their procurement process, which has been much-criticised over the years for being too expensive, or even useless.

The year began on a somewhat positive note, with navy chief Adm Somprasong Nilsamai saying that he would drop the funding request for two Yuan-class S26T submarines, citing the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The navy had repeatedly asked for the budget since the submarine programme was announced.

It was the first time the navy has decided to not ask for funding since it announced its plan to procure submarines a few years ago.

That said, just a few days later, the air force asked the government for 13.8 billion baht to buy US-made F35 stealth fighter jets to replace its ageing fleet.

While the government was forced to borrow 1.5 trillion baht to deal with the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic and people are struggling with the rising cost of living, the air force was planning to purchase new jets.

Needless to say, the news upset the public and damaged the armed forces' image.

Air force chief ACM Napadej Dhupatemiya reportedly explained that the purchase is rational as the manufacturer agreed to give more than a 50% discount.

Make no mistake, the armed forces are entitled to buy weapons as long as they are indispensable to national security. Sure, the armed forces need to continuously modernise their capabilities with the latest technology, but this does not mean a blank cheque to buy anything they want without public scrutiny.

The problem is that the armed forces have been carrying out their procurements like it is nobody else's business. The selection of weapons and vendors are done internally, so public scrutiny of their plans can only happen much later -- that is, when the military forwards its budget request to the House committee tasked with overseeing arms purchases.

This explains how high-profile scandals, like the purchase of the useless GT200 bomb detectors, or the equally pointless surveillance airship, could have taken place in the past.

Since the military became more involved with politics, following the coups in 2009 and 2014, Thailand's defence budget has increased by more than 1% each year, with little public scrutiny. It is not a secret that the government and MPs sitting in the House's committee overseeing the budget often yield to demands of the armed forces, which often cite national security reasons to get the green light.

The military needs to revamp its arms procurement process by making it more transparent. It must communicate better with the public by justifying the rationale behind its purchase plans. It should also involve academics, experts and members of civic society to take part in the process.

While it is good to see soldiers donating blood, building houses for the poor and evacuating villagers in flooded areas, the armed forces won't be able to stay relevant without adjusting to be more responsive to public sentiment.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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

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