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Navy stranded without submarine or frigate amid budget crunch

Written by World Events

Amid the uncertainty and delay in its submarine acquisition, the Royal Thai Navy suffered another setback when its slim hopes of procuring a frigate were dashed by lawmakers. 

A House of Representatives ad hoc committee on the budget rejected the Navy’s proposal to buy the warship, citing budget constraints and a poor procurement plan.

Defense Minister Sutin Klungsang said his government was not able to arrange enough budget for the Navy to purchase a 17-billion-baht frigate to replace its aging fleet in fiscal year 2024.

The national defense budget would have been too high, as the Navy continues to remain interested in the submarine project, he said.

Government MPs, mostly from the ruling Pheu Thai Party in the House budget committee, voted against the Navy’s frigate proposal. In contrast, opposition MPs backed the frigate plan. They argued that it was necessary to ensure maritime security and ensure economic benefit for the country.

The Defense Ministry had proposed a 198.3-billion-baht budget for the military for fiscal 2024, up 2 per cent over the 194.4 billion baht arranged by the military-backed government under General Prayut Chan-o-cha last year.

The Navy had sought a 17-billion-baht budget for five years to procure a 4,000-ton frigate that would have required a payment of 1.7 billion baht in the first year.

Navy vs Air Force

When asked if the Navy would have a chance to submit its proposal for consideration in the next fiscal year, Sutin said the Air Force had already submitted a proposal to procure 12 new fighter jets that might cost 19 billion baht.

Admiral Adung Phan-iam told reporters that the Navy would leave the final decision to the defense minister on whether it would be possible to arrange the budget soon, or perhaps in fiscal year 2025 or 2026.

The proposed frigate would have been the most advanced warship to be commissioned in the Thai fleet with stealth technology, an anti-drone system, and a three-dimension radar.

Under the offset policy to promote economic linkage to the domestic shipbuilding industry and job creation for the Thai economy, it would have been the first frigate to be built in Thailand by a consortium of Thai shipbuilders, according to the House’s chairman of Military Affairs Committee Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn from the opposition Move Forward Party.

“We [the Move Forward Party] chose the frigate over the submarine because it would be more useful for marine security and beneficial to the economy,” Wiroj told reporters.

The Navy still needs to rely on foreign suppliers for combat management systems. Several defence equipment manufacturers from Germany, Italy, Turkey and South Korea were interested in the new frigate project, sources said.

Aging frigates

The Thai Navy is in need of at least eight frigates to fulfill its defense mission and protect national security and interest in the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, while neighboring countries, notably Singapore and Malaysia, were increasingly building their sea power, according to a senior naval official.

The country also has a maritime dispute with Cambodia over 26,000 square kilometers in the Gulf of Thailand with abundant petroleum resources, he said on condition of anonymity.

The Thai naval fleet, however, has only four aging frigates in service to provide security and safety in both seas.

The oldest frigate, HTMS Rattanakosin, was scheduled to be decommissioned in the next two years. HTMS Naresuan and HTMS Taksin are both 30 years old. Ideally, the Thai Navy should not commission warships older than 30 years in service, he said.

The latest one is HTMS Bhumibol Adulyadej, built by South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co Ltd, commissioned in January 2019.

In cooperation with South Korea, a similar frigate in the same class was supposed to be built in Thailand with a technology transfer clause in the contract after the delivery of HTMS Bhumibol Adulyadej. The Navy, however, changed its plan to acquire a submarine from China.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and his Defense Minister Sutin had earlier confused its plan with a proposal to swap the problematic submarine, stuck over a contractual disagreement, with a Chinese-made frigate Type 054A. The Navy reportedly rejected the idea and insisted on having a submarine and a frigate.

Submarine stalemate 

Sutin said the Thai Navy would likely go ahead with the controversial submarine project as the working group to review the procurement would conclude a study soon.

“It would be a submarine for sure but we have no idea from where it would come,” he told reporters, “Let the panel conclude its work first.”

Procuring a Yuan Class S26T submarine from China ran into technical problems as the Chinese manufacturer, China Shipbuilding & Offshore International Co, Ltd. (CSOC), failed to get the German MTU 396 engine installed in the sub as stipulated in the contract, due to EU regulations.

In early February the minister set up a working group chaired by his advisor, Somsak Roonsita, a former secretary-general of the National Security Council, to study the problems and make recommendations to the government within 30 days.

The panel included representatives from the Navy, the Finance Ministry, experts, and politicians from the government and opposition. The Navy likely insisted on going ahead with the project, substituting the German engine with a Chinese-made CHD620 engine. Many members of the panel, however, wanted to shoot the project down and seek compensation from the Chinese supplier, a source close to the panel said.

“The problem is that the Thai Navy has already accepted that the engine issue was a ‘force majeure’ and allowed the Chinese to delay the project,” the source said, “meaning we cannot blame China for such a failure to demand compensation or secure a return of our down payment.”

The Thai Navy announced a plan to procure three attack submarines in 2015 when Thailand was run by a military regime under General Prayut Chan-o-cha. The 13.9-billion-baht contract to purchase the 2,550-ton, 77.7-meter long S26T submarines signed in May 2017 was about to expire by December 31 last year.

The Thai government has already paid more than 7 billion baht, or 63 per cent of the total cost of the project, before realizing that the Germans have declined to supply the engine to the Chinese shipbuilder for military use.

The Navy also has spent more than a billion baht building infrastructure and facilities such as docks, maintenance shipyards, torpedo warehouses as well as command and communication stations.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk

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