Subs plan tests navy to sink or swim
The navy wants to splash 36 billion baht on three Chinese submarines to defend our shores, but not everyone's convinced
published : 9 Aug 2015 at 04:24
newspaper section: Spectrum
writer: Nanchanok Wongsamuth
It has been 64 years since the Royal Thai Navy decommissioned their four submarines in 1951, but when they first expressed their desire to purchase a new fleet from Sweden in 1995, they ended up empty-handed due to insufficient funds.
“It has always been the navy’s dream to perform operations on air, surface and underwater,” said security analyst Surachart Bamrungsuk, who is also the author of the 1996 book Submarine: the expansion of sea power in the Asia-Pacific. “But it didn’t directly address the needs [of the strategic environment].”
Twenty years later, Mr Surachart, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s political science faculty, maintains the same position he held back then: submarines are not a necessity.
The navy’s plan to purchase their much-wanted submarines resurfaced after the May 22 military coup last year, amid speculation China would win the deal to build and supply submarines to Thailand, given the military government’s strengthening relations with Beijing.
The 36-billion-baht plan, which was scheduled to be put to the cabinet last month, has been suspended. But the navy has not yet abandoned it. Two weeks ago, in what appears to be an attempt to drum up public support, the navy released a nine-page white paper on the need for submarines.
Since the navy’s submarine procurement committee voted to buy three Chinese-made submarines, armed forces leaders from Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to assistant navy commander Adm Narongphon Na Bang Chang have provided consistent justification for the purchase: Thailand needs submarines to make other countries “stand in awe”.
The message is repeated throughout the white paper released on July 30. The first few paragraphs quote a statement made in 1915 by Prince Mahidol Adulyadej, the father of both King Rama VIII and the current King: “If we have S [submarines], our enemies will take that into account when they prepare an army to fight Siam. In order to avoid the dangers, they will avoid sending in large ships to fall into the target of S.”
Critics last month widely condemned the notion of spending 36 billion baht on submarines. In a counter move, the white paper — ordered by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan — was distributed to the media and posted on the navy’s official Facebook page.
The nine-page document includes five arguments to support the purchase of the vessels. But sceptics, and even supporters of the project, are warning the five-point reasoning behind the proposals is too weak.
The white paper said the navy must urgently procure submarines because “all our neighbouring countries already have submarines”, and even if Thailand buys them now, they won’t be operational for another seven to 10 years.
“Since submarines are able to avoid detection from underwater … the enemy will be nervous and in awe of us all the time,” the white paper said.
Part of the reason the proposal has come under fire is that the Gulf of Thailand is too shallow for submarines to operate efficiently. In the white paper, the navy argues that even though Thai territorial waters are on average only 50 metres deep, this will not hinder submarine operations because planes cannot see below 20m.
The paper illustrates its point by including a graphic showing the height of a submarine (15m), compared to the 50m sea level.
Mr Surachart, however, points out that modern submarine detection is easily carried out via anti-submarine warfare aircraft. Thailand owns two P-3 anti-submarine warfare aircrafts and eight anti-submarine warfare helicopters.
NO IMMEDIATE THREAT?
While Thailand is not involved in territorial conflicts at sea, the navy’s white paper reasons no one can guarantee if or when maritime tensions could escalate.
As Mr Suchart writes in Military Professionalism in Asia: Conceptual and Empirical Perspectives, Thailand has not faced a major threat to national security since the end of the Cold War in Southeast Asia, which was marked by the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia.
“Although there has been no immediate threat to national security in this era, the military is still concerned with its modernisation programme,” he said.
But the utilities of submarines go way beyond combat, and Anthony Davis, a regional security analyst with IHS-Jane’s, argues Thailand should have started sub procurement processes 10-15 years ago.
The navy’s white paper does state that submarines could help protect Thailand’s 24-trillion-baht marine assets, including natural resources, the freight shipping sector, coastal industries and tourist destinations.
But it fails to highlight their use as tools in monitoring “non-traditional” threats — such as people, weapons and drug smuggling, and risks facing the fisheries industry — which Mr Davis regards as among the main threats Thailand faces today.
“Submarines in times of peace are effectively spies, and can be used for intelligence gathering, monitoring maritime traffic and even inserting special forces into a hostile landing point,” he said.
“There’s far too much emphasis in this debate on war-fighting, and it’s simply wrong-headed. For the Royal Thai Navy, real war-fighting is not a very high probability. The need to counter non-conventional threats at sea is a daily reality.”
Over the next 30-40 years, threats in the maritime domain will become increasingly more important than land and air issues, due to the growth in maritime trade and energy transport, as well as the increase in non-traditional risks, Mr Davis said.
In terms of geography, Thailand is connected to the Gulf of Thailand on the east and the Andaman Sea and Strait of Malacca on the west. The Gulf of Thailand leads to the South China Sea, while the Andaman Sea leads to the Bay of Bengal.
“The Bay of Bengal in the next 10-20 years is going to see much more maritime rivalry than any time in the modern era,” Mr Davis said. “The Thai navy can’t afford to think in terms of just the Gulf of Thailand. It obviously has much wider responsibilities.”
But Mr Surachart believes using submarines to perform operations in the open sea might draw the country into unnecessary conflict.
Since Thailand has no interests beyond its territorial seas, the best option is to steer clear of maritime posturing, he said, while Thai waters can be protected with surface ships and aircraft surveillance.
Despite having coastline on both sides of the country, Mr Surachart said Thailand is not a maritime nation in geopolitical terms.
“Right now there is no maritime conflict in the open sea, such as the Spratly and Paracel islands disputes,” he said.
'TOYS FOR THE BOYS'
On Dec 4, 2007, a day before his 80th birthday, HM the King gave a speech focusing on the idea of a self-sufficient economy. The speech included a warning for leaders to think twice before making large-scale purchases.
The King cautioned leaders to purchase naval vessels that suited the nation's needs.
He also cautioned against the purchase of submarines, warning they could get "stuck in the mud".
With Thailand’s economy plunging, public opinion towards submarine purchases has been largely negative. In 2011, the navy looked into the purchase of six German-made submarines at a cost of 7.7 billion baht. However, the project was rejected by the Yingluck Shinawatra government.
“The timing could not have been worse in terms of the military coup, which opens the door to the standard accusation of ‘toys for the boys,’ ” said Mr Davis.
“But the navy is seen as the poor boy of the Royal Thai Armed Forces in terms of procurement.
"Traditionally the army has been the senior service with the air force close behind.”
The armed forces received four presents after the 2006 military coup, including a Gripen aircraft, Ukraine tanks, the famously trouble-plagued Aeros 40D Sky Dragon airship and the GT200 bomb detectors.
Mr Surachart reasons the latest coup is reason enough for the navy to want “a large-scale arms purchase of their own”.
The navy said the 36 billion baht for the submarine purchase would come from their annual budget, to be paid in instalments over seven to 10 years.
“If the government does not approve this submarine procurement project, the navy will have to develop its fleet from this budget anyway,” the white paper said. “But we will switch from seeking arms to other types of equipment such as a frigate or anti-submarine warfare aircraft, which will not enable the navy to complete its mission, because there are no arms that can replace the operations of a submarine.”
Gen Prayut last month voiced support for the navy’s plan to purchase submarines, saying it would be better than leaving state money to be misappropriated by others.
But Mr Surachart argued purchasing submarines during an economic downturn should be out of the question.
“Today they’re saying that they don’t have the money to help farmers,” he said. “[Buying the submarines] would damage the image of the military regime, with people believing public money is not being used to take care of the nation and its people.”
“In public administration, there is no such thing as turning an organisational budget into a personal budget, which can be used for whatever purpose,” said Mr Surachart. “A public budget is taxpayers’ money.”
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
A total of six countries offered to sell submarines to Thailand: China, Russia, Germany, France, Sweden and South Korea.
While China proposed three submarines with a range of weapons such as anti-ship cruise missiles and torpedoes for 12 billion baht each, the other countries offered only two submarines with no weaponry for reportedly the same price.
The navy’s white paper stated that since the purchase would be made on a government-to-government basis, the quality of the submarines is guaranteed by the Chinese government.
Mr Davis said China has arguably offered a good deal in terms of the price and more importantly training, on-board weapons and after-sales service, which has long-term political and strategic implications.
"You have here an ongoing relationship which in a very real way will lock the Royal Thai Navy and People’s Liberation Army Navy together to a certain level,” he said.
“Chinese equipment might not be technically as sophisticated, but if you’re starting new, you don’t need state of the art,” he said. “In this regard, there are real questions being raised over just how easy it will be for the Vietnamese navy to absorb six new Russian Kilo-class subs in just a few years.”
But he cautioned that if the purchases are made for the wrong reasons, such as political factors and vanity — "everyone else has got them so we want them" — there is a worrying possibility the submarines will not be used in the most effective way.
“With the example of the Chakri Nareubet in many people’s minds, the Royal Thai Navy does have an unfortunate history to live down,” he said, referring to the controversial flagship aircraft carrier which has no aircraft.
While it may be true that Thailand is behind its Southeast Asian peers in terms of submarine technology — Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia already own submarines — Thailand has the second-largest naval force in the region. The country has 44,011 personnel working across naval aviation, coastal defence and the marines. Indonesia comes in just ahead with 45,000 forces, according to 2012 data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance.
THE LOVE AFFAIR
Although Gen Prayut has denied the deal with China is the result of stronger military ties between Bangkok and Beijing, Mr Surachart argued the submarine project is a reflection of the strengthening relationship between the two countries since last year's coup, marked by a simultaneous shift away from the US.
“Thailand is trying to show that if the West is against the military regime, the state will have to ally with China, similar to how [Myanmar] did after the 1988 coup,” Mr Surachart said.
But former foreign minister Kasit Piromya does not believe a strategic shift to closeness with China is part of any bigger plan.
“I don’t think the Foreign Ministry and National Security Office in Thailand have been talking about shifting the policy direction,” he said at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand last week. “Things are being done on a case-by-case basis.”
Mr Kasit added this government is more reactive to criticism and soft sanctions from the US than its predecessors. The Chinese have responded by making attractive offers to Thailand, he said, such as the submarines.
Thammasat University political science lecturer Pongkwan Sawasdipakdi said the government’s decision to side with China is a direct response to US critiques of the coup and the human rights situation in Thailand.
But she said the policy objective behind the shift is unclear.
“The Thai government may have forgotten the Cold War has ended and the same strategic calculations do not work any more," she said.
“The US will never fully abandon Thailand politically or economically, but Thailand is no longer in a strategically significant location, at least not on the same level as Vietnam, Myanmar or the Philippines. That means trying to grab attention from the US by siding with China will not work.”
Ms Pongkwan said the Chinese submarine purchase would not add significant weight to already improved diplomatic relations with Beijing. But there is uncertainty over whether the deal with China has been cut in exchange for investment or aid.
“The question is: Do Thai citizens have the right to know about the deals and negotiations the government has conducted with China, especially when it includes the use of such a big budget?” she said.
White elephant: The HTMS ‘Chakri Naruebet’ is Thailand’s first and only aircraft carrier, but it has no aircraft. Critics say it was a waste of state cash.
Pride of Siam: Submarines HTMS ‘Matchanu’ and HTMS ‘Wirun’ were in service from 1938 to 1951.