Thailand’s military is facing a series of practical and political difficulties in its procurement processes to upgrade its air force and navy assets.
The Thai military’s plans to acquire the two most complex and expensive weapon systems in its history face a triple whammy.
The first obstacle is acquiring engines for the three Chinese-made submarines on order. The second is obtaining funding for and approval from the U.S. to buy a handful of F-35 stealth fighter aircraft. The third is public and political opposition to both purchases, which makes them politically toxic.
The submarine deal has had a controversial and troubled history. In 2017, the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) signed a contract with a Chinese company to buy three S-26T submarines (the export variant of the 039A Yuan-class) for US$1.03 billion. China had beaten out the competition with a seemingly irresistible offer: three submarines for the price of two, including combat systems and crew training, plus generous financing terms.
Critics of the deal not only questioned the cost of the submarines but also whether they were necessary. The RTN countered that it needed the boats to keep up with its Southeast Asian counterparts. In 2018, the keel of the first submarine was laid down in Wuhan with delivery scheduled for 2023.
In 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a spanner in the works. As the Thai economy contracted, critics of the government again took aim at the costly submarines, forcing Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha to announce that the down payments for the second and third submarines would be postponed. Although he said the submarine programme remained on track, his decision cast grave doubts on the future of the second and third boats.
Then, earlier this year, a more serious problem came to light. An MP belonging to the largest opposition party, Phuea Thai (a reincarnation of the Thai Rak Thai party led by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who the military ousted in 2006), revealed that delivery of the first submarine would be delayed because Germany had refused to supply the engines.
Although the German company had long supplied diesel-electric engines to China’s navy, Berlin had, for reasons unknown, decided to tighten a three-decades-old EU arms embargo on Beijing.
Crisis talks between the state-run Chinese shipbuilder and the RTN soon commenced.
Thailand initially played hardball, insisting that China supply the German engines stipulated in the contract. Bangkok also rejected an offer from Beijing to transfer two second-hand Song-class submarines as a stop-gap measure until the S-26Ts could be delivered.
Prime Minister Prayut even warned that he did not rule out axing the deal if China could not resolve the engine problem to the navy’s satisfaction.
But as it became clear that Germany would not relent, the Thais softened their stance and started talking to the Chinese shipyard about alternative engines.
This month, the RTN agreed to examine a Chinese proposal to use an improved version of the domestically-produced CHD-620 diesel-electric engine. The Thais are scheduled to complete their assessment of the engine by mid-September. If the CHD-620 meets the navy’s specifications, China will send one of the engines to Thailand for testing.
In short, given the problems facing its submarine and fighter programmes, Thailand may well end up with one under-powered submarine and no F-35s.
If the engines are deemed unsuitable, the navy maintains that the contract could be terminated. But as that would deal a huge blow to Thai-China relations, it seems likely that the RTN will be forced to accept the new engines, even if they are suboptimal.
The other defence procurement project which has run into problems is the Royal Thai Air Force’s (RTAF) ambitions to procure fifth-generation stealth fighters from the U.S.
Late last year, Air Chief Marshal Napadej Dhupatemiya announced that he wanted to buy F-35 combat jets to replace the RTAF’s ageing fleet of F-16s.
Instead of a full squadron of 12, Napadej said eight would suffice because they could be paired with military drones. He reckoned each plane would cost around US$70 million, down from over US$100 million.
Although the jets are not as controversial as the submarines, critics have questioned the price tag and whether Thailand needs them.
In January, the cabinet approved a budget of US$413 million for four F-35s and in July, the defence ministry requested US$209 million to buy two F-35s in 2023. But a parliamentary budgetary oversight subcommittee packed with Phuea Thai MPs rejected the request on the grounds that there was no evidence that the U.S. Congress would approve the sale. They argued that the money could be better spent on pandemic recovery measures.
A few weeks later, however, defence officials went back to parliament and asked for just US$21 million; grudgingly, MPs approved half that amount.
To say that the F-35 programme faces significant hurdles would be an understatement. Getting parliament to approve the full budget will be an uphill battle, especially as the F-35 programme is viewed by the opposition parties as a good way to needle the government.
Napadej has indicated that to save money, the RTAF could buy unarmed F-35s and equip them with its own weapons － weapons Thailand does not produce.
The U.S. embassy in Bangkok says the Thais have not raised a possible sale with them. If and when they do, the request would have to be approved by the Pentagon, the State Department and Congress. Given the Thai military’s close ties to the PLA (as highlighted by the on-going Falcon Strike exercise), that is not a given.
In short, given the problems facing its submarine and fighter programmes, Thailand may well end up with one under-powered submarine and no F-35s. It’s certainly no way to run a serious procurement process.
Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.