Insiders’ thoughts on the Thai junta’s submarine deal

Citing arms race in Southeast Asia as a primary reason, the Thai junta has embraced a plan to equip the Royal Thai Navy with submarines. However, many wonder if the extra 36 billion baht in military spending could be a burden to the struggling Thai economy when it could be spent on other necessities.

Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, the Defence Minister, on 1 July 2016, announced that the ministry has finalised the plan to procure three submarines from China for the Royal Thai Navy, pleasing the Submarine Division under the Royal Thai Navy, which has not had a single underwater vessel for the last 63 years since the unsuccessful attempted coup d’état by navy officers in 1951.

According to Admiral Kraisorn Chansuvanich, submarines are needed to add to the marine defence capabilities of the Thai Navy since many of its neighbours, such as Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia, have submarines although it will cost the country about 36 billion baht or 1.026 billion USD. Under the current plan, the first of the three submarines will be bought with the 2017 fiscal budget while the rest will be pay via installment for the next 10 years.         

For the junta’s top brass, having submarines could add an ‘awe factor’ to the Thai military. Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta leader and Prime Minister, on 7 July told the press that “they [submarines] are not for battle, but so that others will be in awe of us.” Many high-ranking junta officials have expressed the same favourable view of the plan. However, the policy to spend 36 billion baht under the current economic downturn and earlier rumours that the junta might scrap the universal public healthcare system have raised many eyebrows.

To know the insiders’ ideas on the plan, Prachatai interviewed two Royal Thai Navy officers, one of whom is a retired Rear Admiral, about whether they agree or disagree with the junta’s submarine policy. As the two asked Prachatai not the reveal their names out of privacy concerns, we will simply refer to them as a Navy Officer and Rear Admiral.  

 

Do you think it is worthwhile for Thailand to buy submarines?

Navy Officer: I think there are many things to consider when it comes to buying submarines. Firstly, we need to think about the defence strategy of the country, where the Thai military has always maintained that it takes a defensive stance rather than an offensive one. So, now we have to think about what sort of military functions these submarines would serve. In fact, the main purposes of having submarines are for offensive military operations because they do not serve much of a defensive function. They can be used to fend off other submarines and warships, but more than that, they are for offensive combat. So they are not very suitable for the defensive strategy of the country. Secondly, we need to think about the situation and environment in the Thai military. Submarines are very costly items to acquire, of course, and after purchase the maintenance costs are also very high. Currently, in the military, weapons maintenance is still lacking. Adding submarines to this task would only make things worse. Therefore from this point of view, they are not very suitable. It would be more useful to buy surface ships.

Rear Admiral: Of course it is worth it. It’s only a matter of time. If we do not buy them now, it would be more difficult to buy them in the future. Buying submarines is not easy and we need at least about ten years of preparation to buy them. So, if we don’t do the deal now and buy, maybe in ten years’ time it would be even more costly to buy submarines. Submarines are very useful weapons for protecting the nation. For example, during the Falklands War between the UK and Argentina [2 April-14 June 1982], when the British Navy realised that Argentina had some old submarines, they had to add many more ships and airplanes to guard their main warships. This of course added much more to the financial burden of the British to run the war. Moreover, the British Navy had to waste a lot more time in preparation for war as well. In the Thai context, about 90 per cent of the nation’s international trade is seaborne. Therefore, if we have problems with our neighbours and they try to cut off our trade access, we can really use submarines to our advantage because they have to make much more effort to fend off the threat from submarines. In addition, submarines are also the most effective weapons to counter submarine attacks in the region.           

The Royal Thai Navy made proposals to buy submarines under civilian governments many times before, but they were not approved by the cabinet. Why has it picked up steam again under the junta?

Navy Officer: I’m wondering about that myself in fact. The latest attempt to buy submarines prior to this was by the Thai Navy about three years ago under a civilian government. At that time the proposal was to buy second-hand submarines from Germany which would cost 7.6 billion baht. But the cabinet scrapped the plan and resorted to spending the budget on frigates instead. This time, however, the budget has gone up for the three brand-new Chinese submarines.

Rear Admiral: I think it’s because under civilian governments, politicians usually ask for some favours from the military when it comes to acquiring things. Politicians in a civilian government usually take time to negotiate to ask for this and that from the military. If you want submarines then you need to give them something in return, if not in financial terms, then by putting their people in high positions here and there. But now, we are under a military government who don’t want any personal favours and truly care about the nation.      

As an insider, do you think that the majority of Royal Thai Navy officers would agree with the proposal?

Navy Officer: Well, ideas among navy officers regarding the plan are quite clearly split between those who agree with the plan and those who do not, and neither side holds a majority because they are roughly the same in number. The officers who disapprove of the plan think that buying submarines is too costly for the military and the maintenance costs would be expensive as well. Those who think that we should have submarines on the other hand tend to reason that we should have them because some of our neighbouring countries have them and our military strength should be able to match that of our neighbours.

Rear Admiral: There are some who disagree with the plan of course, but I think the majority of Thai navy officers agree with the plan.  

The PM recently said that we should have submarines so that other countries should be in awe of us, so in comparison to other ASEAN countries, where do you think our navy stands when it comes to its naval force?

Navy Officer: Among the top actually. Some might even say that the Thai Navy is ranked above all our neighbours’ naval capability. Thailand is the only country that has an aircraft carrier [HTMS Chakri Naruebet] in this region.

Rear Admiral: Well, even without submarines, we are among the top. But our neighbours such as Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia have all acquired submarines now and we are falling behind because the threats from submarines are really grave. We are not trying to justify the purchase of submarines with this very fact and play the game of whose horse is bigger of course, but having submarines can really add to our power to negotiate with our neighbours, be it politics or economics. History has taught us that if the Thai military is not strong then no one would listen to us.   

Do you think the bilateral deal to buy submarines from China would have geopolitical implications in the region?

Navy Officer: One interesting thing about this is that in this region [ASEAN] two of our neighbours, the Philippines and Vietnam, are quite clearly having conflicts with China regarding its territorial claims in the South China Sea. I’m not sure if the Thai government’s decision to buy submarines from China would be related or have any implications for the territorial conflict between China, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Geographically Thailand is not involved in the conflict of course, but according to my observation, since the coup d’état Thailand has been increasing its ties with China. So I don’t know if there is some sort of hidden agenda behind this submarine deal.

Rear Admiral: Well people can look at this from various sorts of angles, but for me it might be a way of balancing power in the region as well. Currently, the stock market in China has been under attack by US speculators. In addition, the Americans have been sending some of its navy around the South China Sea. So wars nowadays are waged not only by arms, but also by economic manoeuvres. But arms and economic strength should go hand in hand to keep the balance of power.          

Some people said that the Gulf of Thailand is way too shallow for submarines to navigate and that it would be easy to spot submarines because of its limited depth. What do you think about this argument?

Navy Officer: I think this argument is not very solid. Personally, I don’t agree with the plan to buy submarines, but even though the most important feature of the submarines, which is to hide, might not be exploited to its highest potential in the Gulf of Thailand, it will still be very difficult to locate submarines. It will take at least nine helicopters to find any and only an aircraft carrier the size of HTMS Chakri Naruebet would be able to do that. Moreover, as I mentioned before, submarines are weapons for offensive military operations, so they are not going to be used only to protect the Gulf of Thailand when the need arises.

Rear Admiral: It is not that easy to locate submarines. The water in the Gulf of Thailand is not as clear as water in a swimming pool of course and its depth is enough for submarines to operate. Moreover, they will be deployed in the Straits of Malacca if there is any marine threat, which is an area where the ocean is very deep. It’s not like we are going to deploy submarines in the shallow water off the coast of Hua Hin and Pattaya [well known beach resorts in Prachuap Khiri Khan and Chonburi Provinces].