Thai generals’ shopping list of planes, tanks and subs

Photo: WikiCommons/ Goverment of Thailand
Photo: WikiCommons/ Goverment of Thailand

Defence spending in Thailand has surged over the last decade, during which the military has seized power twice.

The junta-picked National Legislative Assembly has proposed US$7 billion for defence in the 2019 fiscal year – a US$1-billion increase since the 2014 coup.

Big purchases – many from China – have drawn criticism in a country riddled with inequality, corruption and still beset by an insurgency in the deep south.

Here are some of Thailand’s military acquisitions and their eye-popping price tags:

DEEP WATER

In 2017, Thailand approved the purchase of the first of three Yuan-class submarines from China at US$393 million each.

The junta defended the move, called it a bargain for the Thai navy, and said it was needed to safeguard resources in the Andaman Sea. A submarine training centre sits outside Bangkok with a simulator but no actual subs.

Talks are also underway for China to construct a military hardware repair facility in Thailand.

The submarine plan stirred comparisons with the aircraft carrier Thailand bought from Spain in the 1990s – now a white elephant that sits at port and has no planes.

NEW TANKS

Thailand’s military gave itself a new year’s gift of more than a dozen VT-4 Chinese battle tanks worth 2.2 billion baht (S$95 million).

In 2017, the junta approved the US$58-million purchase of 10 VT-4s, which itself followed deals to procure 28 of the model. The defence minister said the VT-4s would replace Thailand’s ageing US-made M41 tanks that had been in use since World War II.

The Thai army has rarely used tanks in recent years, except for deployments during street protests.

FLYING HIGH

China is not Thailand’s only military supplier.

Bangkok announced in 2017 its air force would get eight South Korean-manufactured jets in a US$2.6-billion splurge, adding to four others snapped up in 2015.

Those four T-50TH Golden Eagles are worth around US$110 million and were delivered last year, manufacturer Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) said on its website.

KAI also said the eight advanced trainer jets would arrive by 2020.

US DEALS

The US government has sold approximately US$437 million of major military hardware to Thailand through Foreign Military Sales (FMS) since 2014, a figure that does not account for direct commercial sales.

“Thailand is one of our oldest partners in Asia, and our broad cooperation continues on issues that benefit both our countries, the region, and beyond,” the embassy said in a statement to AFP.

Thailand is a longtime US ally but ties were briefly strained after the 2014 coup.

President Donald Trump warmed things up when he invited coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha to the White House in October 2017.

But US arms sales – including Black Hawk helicopters reportedly purchased in 2017 – have not made as many headlines as the big China buys.

AN ARMY PARK

Not all military-backed projects have focused on arms.

Less than a year after the royalist junta took over, it built a park glorifying seven ancient Thai kings near the seaside town of Hua Hin.

Each bronze figure is 14 metres high.

But Rajabhakti Park, which opened in 2015, became mired in corruption allegations over-inflated costs linked to the project – from the trees to the public toilets. The statues themselves were said to cost around US$1 million each.

The graft claims were rejected and the government said funds to build the project were donated by the public and private sectors.

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