Thailand has a 3,219km coastline hosting isolated beaches and islets that offer havens for smugglers and gunrunners. Cambodia is an epicentre of illicit arms trading, and many transhipments funnel through Thailand. The RTN operates numerous patrol craft to counter such criminal activity, plus river patrol boats to secure inland waterway (for example, there are 75+ boats on the Mekong River). The First Naval Area Command (NAC) covers the Eastern Gulf of Thailand; the Second NAC is responsible for the Western Gulf of Thailand; and the Andaman Sea is patrolled by the Third NAC. Naval vessels are supported by two air wings.
The RTN possesses a number of amphibious vessels able to insert Marine Corps (RTMC) personnel in trouble spots. The RTMC, headquartered at Sattahip Naval Base, has six infantry battalions and a strength of 20,000. The RTMC is heavily involved in countering the southern insurgency, and is set to receive twelve BTR-3E1 vehicles. Keen to develop its amphibious capability and to update craft dating from WWII, the RTN commissioned ST Marine in Singapore in mid-November 2008 to build a $131.7 million Endurance-class Landing Platform Dock (LPD). Although two are required, funding for only one 141m LPD has been released thus far. This type of multipurpose vessel will be useful for disaster relief. At the same time, Thailand ordered two LCMs and two 13m LCVPs from ST Marine, plus another two 23m LCUs from an undisclosed manufacturer. The LPD should be delivered in 2012.
Thailand’s largest naval vessel is the 11,400-tonne HTMS Chakri Naruebet, Southeast Asia’s only aircraft carrier. Purchased from Spain when Thailand’s economy was booming in the 1990s, it carries six helicopters and six AV-8S Matador jump-jets. In actual fact the carrier should be viewed as somewhat of a white elephant - it spends most of its time in port as it is expensive to operate, and crewmen need to be drawn from other vessels.
Midlife updates to two Chinese-manufactured Naresuan-class frigates (based on the Jianghu-class Type IV) are being delayed for now. The upgrade of four Chao Phraya-class frigates (Jianghu class) is unaffected though, where Chinese C-802A anti-ship missiles will replace older C-801 missiles. The frigates’ radar and electronic warfare systems will also be upgraded, and there is interest in Chinese LY-60 Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM).
Nearly half the RTN’s 130 vessels are USbuilt, though many smaller coastal patrol vessels are constructed locally as Thailand develops a sustainable shipbuilding industry. In September, the government rubber-stamped the $48 million construction of one T.994 patrol vessel by the RTN Dockyard, while two more (T.995, T.996) will be produced by Marsun Shipbuilding. These ships improve upon the earlier T.991-993 design, being a bit larger and with rearranged weapon configurations that include a DS-30MR cannon and OtoMelara 12.7mm Naval Turret. The RTN also recently inducted four new vessels similar to the Swedish CB90 into its Naval Special Warfare Unit. The first of their kind in Thailand, they can attain speeds of 42 knots.
The 90m OPV has designed by BVT for Royal Thai Navy (image : Thales)
An important domestic project is a partnership between Bangkok Dock and the British BVT Surface Fleet. On 30 June, a $85 million contract was signed for the design of a 90m Ocean Patrol Vessel (OPV) suitable for protecting Thai waters, as Thailand looks to secure its coastal waters. These OPVs will also form the nucleus of a coast guard under RTN command. Based on an existing BVT design, the first craft will be built at the RTN’s Mahidol Dockyard, with construction commencing in the final quarter of 2009.
Thailand increasingly finds itself surrounded by submarines from the likes of Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, and this has prompted renewed Thai interest in submarines. Such an acquisition plan has lain dormant since 1996 when the idea of acquiring two to three diesel-electric submarines was scuttled. Surrounded by submarines, an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability becomes increasingly significant - the RTN already operates six S-70B-7 Seahawk helicopters, and on 22 September the government approved an upgrade of their ASW capability. The first phase of this two-year Foreign Military Sales (FMS) package will see three naval helicopters equipped with L3 Communications’ AN/ASN-15 Navigational Computer Sets and Dipping Sonar buoys. The US also approved the sale of six MH-60S helicopters, so the RTN will take delivery of the first two in 2010 for the SAR role.
Thailand’s place in the future
Thailand has been raising its profile in international security missions, with
around 800 UN peacekeepers flying to Darfur in mid-2009. The kingdom maintains close military links with the USA, and it engages in two major bilateral exercises each year - Cobra Gold and CARAT. Thailand has proven to be a willing supporter of the US Global War on Terror, and probably as a result of sending troops to Iraq, it was granted “major non-NATO ally” status in 2003. This engenders greater monetary. support in equipment and training. However, there is no likelihood of U.S. troops getting involved with counterinsurgency support on the ground as they do in the Philippines.
A novel plan has been mooted to build a canal across the Kra Isthmus as an alternative to the Malacca Strait chokepoint. China has already offered to help fund and construct such a $20-30 billion canal, which would substantially reduce shipping times. A Thai canal would certainly enhance Thailand’s role as a logistical hub, but at this point it remains a mere notion. In the meantime, Thailand has enough to do in establishingstability within its own borders.