US frozen out of defence deals
Long-time hardware seller bypassed for Russia, China
The military regime's major defence acquisition programmes over the past two years suggest the regime is "liberating" itself from a pact with the United States and gearing towards partnership with China, Russia and European countries.
But criticism is growing in the way the armed forces' weapon purchase plans seem to be proceeding with such ease under the regime.
This could trigger a question of transparency even though the acquisition programmes are in compliance with the 10-year defence development plan and will come under government-to-government deals.
Moreover, the country's defence spending this fiscal year is huge, accounting for 207.7 billion baht, or 7.6%, of overall budget spending. The sum is a 7.3% increase, or about 14.76 billion baht, on the 2015 fiscal year.
Under the procurement plans, the army has chosen to buy helicopters and main battle tanks from Russia, China, Italy, and not the US — Thailand's long-time supplier. The navy has vouched for the Chinese-made submarines while the air force has picked South Korea-made T50 TH trainer jets, instead of American-manufactured Textron AirLand Scorpion.
It is believed the regime is seeking to expand defence ties with Russia and China and Europe, and reduce armament dependence on the US because of the latter's pressure on the military government.
Since seizing power two years ago, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon has led military top brass to China four times. He has visited Russia twice, once with the leaders of three armed forces and the other time with Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has recently made visits to China and Russia to discuss defence deals.
"I came to Russia with seven cabinet ministers, which is unprecedented. It speaks volumes about Russia's importance," Gen Prayut was quoted as saying to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medevev during their meeting.
Gen Prayut also announced the country would expand military and security cooperation with Russia that would cover procurement of military hardware.
A source in the army said the army has decided to buy a dozen MI-17 transport helicopters from Russia, instead of Black Hawks from the US as in the past. A Black Hawk is more expensive. The MI-17 planned procurement is a part of the army's helicopter purchase plans.
According to army commander Teerachai Nakwanich, the army's helicopter purchase proposal is only about 50% of what the army really needs.
As for armoured vehicles, the source said a procurement committee is considering T-90 tanks from Russia. The army had earlier purchased 28 of China's VT4 tanks. The delivery is expected in two years.
However, the decision to buy the Chinese tanks has drawn criticism as they are a new model, with Thailand being the first to test their capability. Gen Teerachai has defended the army's choice, saying the tank's price and specifications will meet both the budget and current requirements.
The air force's decision to purchase T-50 TH training aircraft from South Korea is also seen as a shift from US dependence.
A source in the air force said a batch of four T-50 THs will replace the Czech Republic's L39 planes which are 20 years old. The T-50 TH aircraft also come with fighter capability. The navy's plan to procure three S26 T Yuan Class submarines from China for 36 billion baht is also being closely watched now the regime is deepening relations with China.
The closer ties are marked by last year's joint exercise between the Chinese and Thai air forces.
A source in the navy said Gen Prawit once told the navy he would allocate funds from the central budget to subsidise the procurement plan but backed off out of fear of being criticised. The navy was asked to draw up a new budget spanning 11 years and using its own funds.
Gen Prawit said the government is willing to expand military cooperation with every nation with a focus on research and development in the defence industry.
"We are friends to every nation. The US is a long-time ally. China is an ally in the region. Russia also makes an approach. We are attractive," he said.