By Staff Writer
The Royal Thai Armed Forces is moving ahead on its modernisation plans with several military procurement programmes initiated in the past several years to further upgrade the capability of its armed forces. This is in line with Thailand’s economic growth that is back on track, sufficient enough to trigger annual increases in the defence budget and expenditure on arms procurement.
The country’s Ministry of Defence introduced nine military reforms and restructuring plans for the 2017-2026 period. The plan emphasises research and development programmes along with focus on purchases of munitions, weapons, high technology electronic devices, and telecommunication systems. To further increase military capabilities, the Thai military will invest and develop additional defence technology and defence intelligent systems such as the Common Operation Picture (COP), the Network-Centric Operation (NCO), and the Message Text Format (MTF). The Thai military will also focus on the procurement of helicopters, armoured vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), surveillance equipment, and frigates that will strengthen current military capabilities.
Increased Defence Budget
According to analysts, Thailand has witnessed defence growth of 5.53% during 2015-2019 and will reach a value of $6.9 billion in 2019. The country has continued to have one of Southeast Asia’s highest levels of defence spending and the trend is expected to continue over the forecast period, with the country’s defence expenditure projected to grow at a CAGR of 4.25% and reach $8.6 billion by 2024.
As noted, Thailand’s homeland security (HLS) budget increased at a CAGR of 6.69%, and has reached $6 billion in 2019. During this period, the country’s HLS budget is projected to increase from $6.3 billion in 2020 to $7.7 billion in 2024, – a CAGR of 5.04%. The expected increase in funding for domestic security will cover important infrastructure upgrades and overhauls for areas such as airports, ports and harbours, and mass transportation systems throughout the forecast period.
Thai Military Modernisation
The modernisation plans for the Royal Thai Armed Forces have been laid out for all the three services. It is projected that the Royal Thai Army (RTA), Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF), and Royal Thai Navy (RTN) will receive new equipment in line with the country’s defence modernisation drive. With defence budget keep on increasing for the past five years, the Thai military is expected to receive a large flow of deliveries of key systems and equipment.
In September 2019, the Royal Thai Army (RTA) is stepping up purchases of US weapons with a deal for eight Boeing AH-6i light attack/reconnaissance helicopters inked at an estimated cost of $400 million. The AH-6i Little Bird helicopters will replace RTA’s ageing fleet of seven AH-1F Cobra helicopters as part of a broader military modernisation programme. According to the Thai government, these helicopters will provide light attack reconnaissance for close air support to Special Operation Forces, Stryker infantry soldiers and border guard units. In addition to the eight aircraft, the government has requested to buy 10 M299 Longbow Hellfire Launchers and 50 AGM-114R Hellfire missiles, along with 10 M260 rocket launchers and 200 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) guided rockets.
Earlier in the same month the Royal Thai Army has officially received the first batch of Stryker armoured infantry carrier vehicles from the US Army. In a ceremony held at the RTA headquarters in Bangkok, the US Army handed over 10 Strykers to Thailand. The Thai Army is scheduled to receive 60 US-made Stryker armoured vehicles. The US Army will also provide RTA with technical assistance to maintain and overhaul the vehicles. The armoured vehicles boost the capabilities of the mechanised units and expedite the process of transporting infantry to critical battlefield positions. The delivery of the armoured vehicles is part of a previously announced foreign military sales purchase agreement. The sale was approved by the US State Department in July.
The Royal Thai Navy (RTN) has commissioned its second Krabi-class missile-capable offshore patrol vessel (OPV) late September 2019. The vessel, HTMS Prachuap Khiri Khan, was inducted in a commissioning ceremony at Sattahip, Chonburi province. HTMS Prachuap Khiri Khan was built locally just like first ship of the class, HTMS Krabi with technology transfer from the United Kingdom. The class is based on the British River-class OPV design in use by the Royal Navy. It underwent its ceremonial launch at RTN’s Mahidol Adulyadej Naval Dockyard in August 2019. First-of-class HTMS Krabi was commissioned by the RTN in August 2013.
Also earlier in September, it was reported that Thailand will buy a variant of a Chinese warship that can carry hovercraft, amphibious assault vehicles, tanks and helicopters. The RTN signed a contract with China on Sep 9 for the acquisition of a Type 071E design Yuzhao-class landing platform dock (LPD). The agreement, inked with state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) involves delivery of the amphibious transport vessel, although the RTN has yet to divulge costs, delivery dates, or onboard systems. It was reported the estimated cost was about $200.7 million, with a construction process unfolding over three years. The 25,000-ton Type 071E is the export variant of the Yuzhao-class already operating with China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy. Beyond the traditional military amphibious role, Thailand uses such amphibious ships for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions. The current flagship LPD for the RTN is the 462-foot HTMS Angthong, an Endurance-class vessel ordered from Singapore’s ST Engineering in November 2008 as a replacement for the service’s US-built landing ship tanker.
It was reported in a local press statement in October 2019 that the RTAF is not planning to acquire a new fleet of high-tech, expensive fighter jets including the US-made F-35 multi-role combat aircraft. According to Air Force commander ACM Maanat Wongwat, the Air Force has a policy of not purchasing “ready-made” aircraft. He also added that the service is implementing a “purchase-and-develop” policy in their procurement plans, which will begin in the next three to five years. A key requirement of RTAF’s new policy, which it calls Concept of Project Requirements (COPR), says the Air Force will only purchase defence and strategic hardware if it is allowed to take part in the development of the software used to operate the products. The RTAF hopes to gain from technology and expertise transfer in the process. It was also reported that the Air Force is preparing to set up a committee to draft the COPR for the purchase of a new fleet of fighter jets, which will be announced when the service begins looking for potential jet suppliers. These new fighter jets will be purchased to replace the old fleet of 103 F-16 fighter jets that have been in service for more than three decades.
The Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) has received two new H225M multirole utility helicopters from Airbus at the end of October 2018. Since 2012, the Air Force has placed orders for a total of 12 H225M long-range tactical transport military helicopters as part of the service’s fleet modernisation programme. The two 11t-category twin-turbine helicopters have been delivered by the company to the Thai Air Force under a contract signed in 2016. The helicopters will be added to RTAF’s existing fleet of six H225M aircraft, which are currently deployed to carry out missions such as troop transport as well as combat search and rescue.
The RTAF currently operates 11 Gripen C/D fighter jets, bought from the Swedish government and manufactured by Saab. The Air Force lost one Gripen in a 2017 and will need replacement soon. With 11 jets left, it is more difficult to accomplish both training and maintenance according to the Air Force. Although the nation also operates Northrop Grumman F-5s and Lockheed Martin F-16s, Wing 7’s Gripens are the Royal Thai Air Force’s premier fighters, used primarily for air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, and for secondary missions such as reconnaissance. The Thai government is also considering an upgrade of the RTAF Gripens’ software suite. The jets are currently configured to the MS19 standard, but the potential upgrade to MS20 would bring the jets into the most advanced configuration for the Gripen C/D.