Thailand has attracted a lot of international news coverage in the past year, but generally for the wrong reasons. Political turmoil and mass protests finally saw Abhisit Vejjajiva installed as prime minister on 17th December 2008. In March, he then withstood massive street protests demanding his removal. The following month, the East Asian Summit in Pattaya degenerated into a debacle when protestors stormed the venue and international leaders had to be rescued by helicopter. Another embarrassment was the treatment of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. The Thai military was roundly criticised for detaining these ethnic-minority refugees on an Andaman Sea island, before allegedly casting them adrift with limited supplies. Amidst such domestic turmoil, the Royal Thai Armed Forces (RTARF) have been attempting to modernise, with some limited success.
With a population of 64 million, Thailand is slightly larger than Spain in land area. Deposited in the heart of Southeast Asia, Thailand shares a northern border with Myanmar, eastern borders with Laos and Cambodia, and Malaysia lies to the south. With the Andaman Sea to the west and the Gulf of Thailand in the east, Thailand also shares maritime borders with India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Thailand is unique in that it is the only Southeast Asian nation never to have been colonised by European powers. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-serving monarch, has reigned for 63 years and provides a much-needed sense of stability in the Kingdom. He is also the nominal Head of the Armed Forces. The RTARF’s role is to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Thailand, as well as ensuring public order, something it has been preoccupied with in recent times. The Royal Thai Army (RTA) is the largest military branch with approximately 190,000 soldiers. The Royal Thai Navy (RTN) possesses 74,000 personnel, while the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) totals around 43,000.
Challenges to Modernisation
The global recession has hit Thailand hard, though not as severely as the debilitating 1997 Asian crisis. In May 2009, the RTARF suffered a 10 percent budget slash for the coming financial year, from approximately $5.1 billion down to $4.5 billion. Budget cuts will primarily hit future projects with delays. However, to pay for acquisitions already scheduled, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) asked the government for an extra $90.5 million, of which $18.2 million would go to this year’s programmes. This request was duly approved, and the extra funding enables the military to embark on a $298 million spending spree through to FY2012, mostly to replace obsolete equipment.
The Thai-Cambodian border is a constant source of friction due to rival territorial claims, and tensions escalated following UNESCO recognition of the ancient Preah Vihear temple in July 2008. Shots were fired on 3 October 2008, and again on 14 October, resulting in half a dozen deaths. After a ninemonth standoff, a further exchange of gunfire occurred on 2 April 2009 with another five or so soldiers killed. The Thai-Cambodian border is not fully demarcated, partly because of mines littering the area, but in May the two countries began surveying parts of their border. Unfortunately, talks have not resolved the rancour thus far.
Despite a sharp decline over the past year, the Golden Triangle remains an important centre of opium production. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates five percent of global opium production stems from the Golden Triangle, with Thailand serving as an important trafficking route. The rugged Myanmar border, adjacent to drug-exporting fiefdoms like that of the United Wa State Party, is particularly troublesome. The RTA formed the Phra Nuang Task Force to patrol this border where ethnic refugees and illegal crossings are commonplace. Drugs have led to endemic corruption and manipulation of the law in the region, reaching the point where former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared, “The drugs problem is a threat to national security.”
Thailand is also saddled with a bloody Islamic insurgency in the ethnic-Malay provinces on the narrow Kra Isthmus. The bloody separatist conflict in the three southern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala constitutes the kingdom’s greatest threat. A recent count listed 155 military personnel killed, plus 1,600 insurgents dead and 1,500 captured.
However, 2,729 civilians have also died thus far in this secessionist conflict that surged after January 2004. Thailand has tended to use military force to quash southern violence, but a heavy-handed response and wide-ranging emergency powers have exacerbated the problem rather than resolved it.
One problem for the government is identifying who to negotiate with, since separatist leaders remain shadowy. Despite a more conciliatory approach by the junta following the 2006 coup, violence continued to surge with beheadings, car bombs and Improvised Explosive Devices (IED). Muslim militants have been using larger and more sophisticated car bombs, with an average of one IED per month. This escalation invoked more aggressive government policies, and it was at this point there was a slew of military spending to more adequately equip troops. The military has historically employed passive techniques, with many soldiers rarely venturing outside their barracks. If they do, they often ride motorbikes with pillion passengers carrying M16s. However, Bangkok has begun refocusing its counterinsurgency approach, including increased surveillance and the holding of contested zones. The RTARF is set to adopt a more aggressive and mobile brand of security that penetrates all areas with a more visible presence.
Presently the RTA’s four regional armies rotate troops to the south in turn, but a new infantry division headquartered in Pattani is being established over a six-year period to serve exclusively in the south. The government is also pursuing economic plans and non-military programmes aimed at calming the region, although the process is somewhat of a hostage to Thailand’s political turmoil.
Royal Thai Army
The RTA is divided into four Army Regions – the First Army covers western, central and Bangkok regions; the Second Army looks after the northeast quadrant; the Third Army is responsible for the north/northwest; and the Fourth Army takes care of the south. In total the army has seven infantry divisions, one armoured division, one cavalry division, two Special Forces divisions, one field artillery division and one air-defence division.
The mainstay of the army’s armoured fleet are older-generation M48A5 and M60A3 Main Battle Tanks, backed by elderly vehicles like M41 tanks, M113 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) and Chinese Type 85 APCs. Thailand badly needs to modernise its armoured-vehicle fleet, especially in light of the armed struggle in the south. As a remedy, 96 BTR-3E1 8x8 APCs from the Ukraine are being produced after a contract was signed in mid-2008. The APCs will now employ American engines after Germany refused to sell Deutz engines because of Thailand’s political instability. The time needed to integrate the engines will delay the project by six months for delivery in late 2009 at the earliest. The RTA ultimately wants a total of 288 BTR-3E1s.
Reva 4x4 of the Royal Thai Army (photo : TAF)Another important deal was signed in mid- 2008 for approximately 87 South African REVA III 4x4 mine-resistant vehicles, each costing $310,000. REVA vehicles are now deployed in southern Thailand, offering troops much better protection. Additionally, the Thai Cabinet has approved the purchase of 1,474 replacement 2.5-ton Isuzu trucks.
The Army is beginning to replace old rifles with a first $34.5 million batch of 15,037 Israelimade TAR-21 Tavor assault rifles and 531 Negev light machine guns. This is the first stage in a programme to procure up to 100,000 rifles to replace the M16A1. The first Russian weapon ever to enter Thai service was the Igla-S shoulder-launched MANPADS anti-aircraft missile, with 36 received in 2008.
At one stage all UH-1H helicopters were to be replaced by 33 UH-60 Black Hawks, but the 1997 Asian crisis disrupted that plan and the figure was reduced to only seven UH-60Ls. The RTA still has a requirement for nine utility helicopters, and this has been partially fulfilled by a $150 million agreement for three UH-60L Black Hawks notified to the US Congress in August. The requirement for nine aircraft has been split into smaller lots to reduce budgetary pressure.
The MOD’s first ever aircraft order from Russia is a $57 million procurement of six medium-lift Mi-17V5 helicopters. Able to carry 30 troops, these are vital for operations in the south where jungles are thick and roads are few. Originally only three aircraft were required, but the RTA doubled the order, diverting money from refurbishing UH-1H helicopters.
Blackhawk of the Royal Thai Army (photo : Airliners)
The RTA is also seeking a new training helicopter to replace its 30 elderly TH-300 fleet. The Eurocopter EC-120 is considered a leading contender, and a first batch of twelve could be on the cards. The army has received one Embraer ERJ-135 aircraft for VIP transport, while the RTN also ordered one with a medevac capacity. The army subsequently ordered a second medevac ERJ-135 in January.
The Thai military opted for a novel aerialsurveillance solution when in May it bought an Aria International airship for use in the south. The $9.7 million manned blimp will be fitted with a surveillance system and advanced communications. Aria is also fitting military-grade cameras on RTA helicopters for interdiction of illegal immigrants, drug traffickers and terrorists.