Submarine base nears completion, Now navy 'Needs' a fleet

The Royal Thai Navy plans to complete the construction of a submarine squadron headquarters and training centre in March next year, despite not having any submarines in its fleet.

Submarine squadron chief Panu Punyavirocha

Construction on the project began last year at Chon Buri's Sattahip Naval Base. The navy is eyeing the purchase of at least three submarines as part of its next 10-year procurement plan.

Submarine squadron chief Panu Punyavirocha said the new headquarters will cost 540 million baht. About 200 million baht of that is being spent on the Submarine Command Team Trainer, which will include a crew training stimulator.

Former navy chief Adm Kamthorn Pumhiran ordered the submarine squadron to be formed in April 2011 in anticipation of the government's green light to purchase four used German submarines worth 7 billion baht.

The plan's cost-effectiveness and transparency were questioned, however, and in the end the government failed to approve the procurement in time for the purchase deadline set by Germany.

"Submarines are of strategic importance to Thailand," Rear Adm Panu said yesterday. He insisted submarines are unique compared to other armaments in terms of their strategic capabilities. If territorial disputes in the South China Sea escalate, sea transport in the Gulf of Thailand could be shut down with severe economic ramifications, Rear Adm Panu said.

"The navy must maintain its defensive capabilities to ensure the free movement of vessels in and out of the Gulf of Thailand under all circumstances. This is a matter of sovereignty and territorial integrity," the squadron chief said.

Submarines would also act as a deterrent to hostile parties seeking to encroach into Thailand's maritime territory, he said.

Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam have all commissioned submarine fleets and plan to procure more, Rear Adm Panu said, adding that there are now 19 submarines operating in neighbouring waters.

"Submarines are the invisible force of deterrence. They constitute a covert naval strength as they are nowhere to be seen but are present everywhere," he said.

Navy chief Narong Pipatanasai echoed the need for submarines.

"Although we don't have tens of billions of baht to spend on submarines, the navy must be prepared for when we will have them in the near future," the navy chief said, referring to the new training centre.

A Defence Ministry source said Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who doubles as defence minister, had instructed Supreme Commander Thanasak Patimaprakorn to devise a 10-year development plan for the armed forces.

The plan will sound out what armaments each branch of the military needs or wants.

Submarines will be included in the navy's 10-year plan, the source said.

Submarines will be important for maritime security when the Dawei deep sea port opens in Myanmar, with shipping lanes around the western coast expected to be bustling, the source added.

Rear Adm Panu said the navy needs at least three submarines, ranging in size from 500- to 3,000-tonne displacement. He dismissed concerns the Gulf of Thailand may be too shallow for submarines to operate.

He said several submarines from other countries had conducted drills in the Gulf.

"Those foreign navies probably know more than we do about the underwater terrain in the Gulf of Thailand," he said.

The navy has sent 18 officers for a 32-week submarine training course in Germany, and another 10 for a similar eight-week course in South Korea.

The navy plans to send more officers to attend exercises and seminars abroad to boost their knowledge of submarines, Rear Adm Panu said.

The new submarine training school will produce personnel with the skills to operate a future submarine fleet, he added.

About the author

Writer: Wassana Nanuam
Position: Senior news reporter