SSK - Submarines

Thailand is the only major naval power in Southeast Asia that does not operate submarines. The Thai navy wants submarines, and even already has a logo for their anticipated submarine squadron. By 2013 neighboring Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore all had submarines, and Vietnam had placed orders for six Kilo-class submarines from Russia. Thailand was left in league with poor countries in the region such as Cambodia and Burma which cannot afford submarines, and also land-locked Laos, which couldn't possibly need them.

The Gulf of Thailand´s water is possibly too shallow for submarine operations, but surely also too shallow for effective anti-submarine warfare. The Baltic and the Gulf of Thailand have much in common. The average depth of the Baltic is a bit deeper (180 ft) versus an average depth of about 120 ft, but the Baltic deeps are much deeper (1500 ft versus 320 ft maximum depth). The Gulf of Thailand sees heavy input from freshwater rivers which forms a low salinity layer (roughly 3.15%) down to 150ft and a high salinity base (3.4%) in the depths. The Gulf of Thailand also has extensive shallows and coral reefs.

Many skeptics believe that Thailand does not need submarines, nor even one. It has been standard practice with the Thai submarine program ever since it was originally floated in 1959, proposals are floated and subsequently suspended and revived several times until cancelled. It was revived (and canceled again) in 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2003, and 2009.

Four Japanese submarines were purchased by Thailand prior to World War II. The four submarines were: H.T.M.S. MATCHANU, H.T.M.S. WIRUN, H.T.M.S. SINSAMUT, and H.T.M.S. PHLAI-CHUMPHON. The submarines were designed and built at the Mitsubishi Naval Dockyards. All four submarines were delivered to Thailand on 19 July, 1938. The four submarines were active until their decommissioning in 1951. The H.T.M.S. MATCHANU was roughly equivalent in size to the German Type II submarine. Of note, is the fact that the sail and gun of the H.T.M.S. MATCHANU are preserved at the Royal Thailand Naval Museum.

The RTN has had its budget doubled since 1986 and submarines currently top the navy's wish list which Thailand operated before the Second World War. In the late 1990's Thailand came close to procuring conventional submarines, with the German Type 209 and Swedish Type A-19 Gotland-class on the shortlist. It has been reported that the navy has examined second hand Israeli Gall-class boats and Russian Amur-class attack subs. Israel, which has done a lot of defense contracting business with Thailand, reportedly offered the RTN two second hand Gall subs at an inexpensive cost. Sources said the Israelis offered the "very cheap" subs as training vessels while new subs with SIGINT capability were under construction. In addition, sources report that the Russians made a very attractive offer to sell its Amur class submarines.

The Scorpene design has its origins in a proposed French replacement for the old Daphne (S-60) class submarines, which were reaching the end of their operational lives and had limited effectiveness. The Scorpene hull form started tank testing in August 1993. Thailand asked for full details of the class in pursuit of its perennial requirement for up to four coastal submarines. The Cabinet approved the Thai submarine requirement in April 1995 and gave authorization to initiate a competitive selection process. The Scorpene was a favored candidate at this time, but the program was suspended again the following March and finally canceled in May 1996.

Dutch submarine builder RDM agreed that while the Thai navy submarine requirement has many "offs" in its long "on'off" history, it is probably "off" as of May 1997, since the new defence budget did not allow for submarine procurement. However this situation changes every few weeks. RDM was collaborating with Britain's VSEL to offer the Moray design for export.

As of 2001 the Royal Thai Navy wanted three billion baht to pay for the lease of two diesel-powered submarines. Under its proposal, the cost would be spread over fiscal years 2002-2004. In March 2001 Thailand's defence minister Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh blocked the navy's proposal to lease two submarines for training, saying the navy must come up with a less expensive scheme. Chavalit agreed in principle with the three-billion-baht lease proposal, but felt the project could be shelved for the time being due to budget constraints. This upset Adm. Prasert Boonsong, the navy commander-in-chief, and senior naval officers. Chavalit feared approval of the scheme would subject him and the government to criticism. The defence minister suggested that the navy seek defence training co-operation from neighboring countries instead. He was convinced there was no way to find a budget, so he suggested the navy ask China or other European countries for use of their submarines for training.

Commander-in-Chief of the Navy Adm. Prasert Boonsong stated in September 2001 that he was looking for submarines with about 10-15 years of life left. Prasert noted that Italy had offered two submarines. Information has also been received by Thailand on the two Zwaardvis class boats brought to Malaysia by RDM Submarines in 2000, though Prasert said these boats were considered too big and expensive to maintain.

In HM the King's 80th birthday speech in 2007, King Bhumibol used his birthday eve speech to admonish the navy for recently expressing the wish to buy a submarine. His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Tuesday called for national unity in a classic birthday-eve speech that covered a wide range of topics including global-warming, the wisdom of buying submarines and his reason for wearing a pink jacket recently. The King noted that submarines were unsuitable for Thailand, as the Gulf of Thailand is a notoriously shallow body of water. The cabinet meeting on 23 September 2009 approved a budget of almost five billion baht for the army to buy new weapons, including a submarine, and 81 million for the police to buy equipment for controlling riots and protests. Government spokesman Supachai Jaisamut said the Ministry of Defence will have 4.99 billion baht to purchase weapons and vehicles from 2009 to 2012. These include a submarine, coastal patrol vessels and Seahawk helicopters.

By 2010 the navy is looking into the feasibility of buying submarines for military and economic security reasons. A feasibility committee has been set up to study submarine technology. The navy will push for the purchase of the submarines, priced at 20 billion baht each, when there is enough money available. Navy chief Kamthorn Pumhirun said the submarines would help strengthen the economy. They would help safeguard the country's natural resources, fisheries, oil exploration, export cargoes and tourism.

On 01 January 2010 Navy Commander-in-Chief Admiral Kamthorn Pumhirun has stressed the necessity of the navy to purchase new submarines and develop the navy in many aspects this year despite budget constraints. Admiral Kamthorn stated that the navy would develop its personnel, study more technology, conduct both domestic and international training sessions, and give humanitarian assistance efficiently up to the budget it had. He stressed that Thailand must purchase more armaments, including new submarines to protect the country, not because the military wanted to collect them.

The navy chief explained that the four old ones were decommissioned and could no longer be used. He added that other ASEAN members, including Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia had submarines in possession while Vietnam would buy six submarines from Russia. He claimed that Cambodia might have a submarine before Thailand since the country allocated 20% of its GDP for national defense.

Admiral Kamthorn expressed belief that owning submarines would be a tool to help create balance in the region and could increase the negotiation power for national strength because he perceived that having a strong military could lead to a healthy economy. He added that at least three or four submarines would be needed for the mission of the Thai navy.

The navy chief regarded that a submarine was not expensive at all compared to the national GDP since it would cost about 20 billion THB but he admitted that the navy could not specify when to propose such a purchase. He said the navy used to think of purchasing second-hand submarines instead, which would cost less than 10 billion THB each.

In March 2011, a senior officer from the RTN told Jane's that the Thai government had agreed to buy two second-hand Type 206A diesel electric submarines from Germany, for a bargain price of about $220 million. There was reportedly an agreement in principle, with funding expected in the FY 2012 defense budget. The German submarines have a usable life of only six to ten years, compared with new submarines which could operate for three decades.

On 21 April 2011 it was reported that Thai Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon said the Royal Thai Navy was considering purchasing two South Korean submarines. The defence minister's proposal for two new Hyundai-built Type U-209 Class diesel-electric submarines could cost over THB40bn ($1.32bn) and would require a tied-over budget spanning years. But if it cost more than 40bn-50bn baht, the government may not approve it and the Navy will end up without any submarines.

On 22 April 2011 navy chief Admiral Kamthorn Poomhiran said the navy wanted to buy six used Type U206A submarines from Germany, because they are most suitable for its needs. Adm Kamthorn said the Type U206A submarine is most suitable for the Thai navy because it is small and agile, with a displacement of only 450 tonnes. Moreover, the six submarines would cost the navy only 7.7 billion baht.

On 25 April 2011 the decision to purchase 6 submarines from Germany was described by the Royal Thai Navy as needed to protect the Thai seas and create balance in the military arena in the ASEAN region. The meeting held by the Ministry of Defense, chaired by Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, Defense Minister, was told that the purchase of the submarines worth 7 million THB would still need to be deliberated. The Ministry Spokesperson Col Thanathip Sawangsang said the entire process would take approximately two years. He also added that submarines manufactured in Germany were of great standards and technologically enhanced to suit the geography of Thai seas.

The Royal Thai Navy was to conduct further feasibility studies before presenting the purchase request to the Defense Ministry for consideration and to get the approval from the Cabinet as soon as possible. But the navy's 7.7-billion-baht plan to procure six second-hand, U-206A submarines made in Germany failed to reach the cabinet meeting on 03 May 2011, due to Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan's decision.

On 20 September 2011 Defence Minister Yutthasak Sasiprapa rejected the navy's plan to pay 7.5 billion baht for six used submarines from Germany and questioned the cost-effectiveness and transparency. He said a defense scrutiny committee he appointed had resolved to return the project to the navy for review. Gen Jongsak Panichkul, adviser to the defence minister, chairs the committee, which also includes former navy chief Adm Prasert Boonsong. "I want a review on the cost-effectiveness," Gen Yutthasak said. "The past government approved the establishment of a submarine fleet and the recruitment of personnel has been completed but transparent procurement has yet to be done."

On 03 October 2011 Newly-appointed Navy Commander-in-Chief Admiral Surasak Runroengrom pledged to perform his duty to the best of his ability, affirming that the project to procure submarines will be pushed forward. The Royal Thai Navy organized a ceremony for outgoing Navy Chief Adm Kamthorn Phumhiran to pass on his duty to his successor, Adm Surasak, whose appointment officially came into effect on 1 October following His Majesty the King’s endorsement. During the ceremony, Adm Surasak announced that he was honored to be given the position, adding that he would fully devote himself to the responsibility at hand. He also promised to strengthen the Navy, collaborate with other armed forces on further development of Thai troops and uphold the monarchy above others.

As for the procurement of the long-awaited new submarines, the incoming commander-in-chief asserted that he would press on with the project in an attempt to enhance the Navy’s efficiency in protecting national marine resources. On 25 January 2012 the Defense Ministry held a ceremony to congratulate and honor Air Chief Marshal Sukampol, the new defense minister. He said he would re-examine the Navy's submarine purchase plan and make clarifications to the public.

Thailand‘s navy acknowledged that it had dropped plans to purchase four second-hand German submarines for an estimated 7.6 billion baht (250,000 dollars). "The deadline for the purchase has passed (on February 29) ... and the navy will not seek to keep the buying option," Navy Chief Admiral Surasak Runroengrom told The Nation newspaper 12 March 2012. Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat had reportedly nixed the deal after several reviews of the navy‘s submarine purchase plan.

The Royal Thai Navy secured 13.5 billion baht in January 2017 to purchase a Chinese-made submarine. It was expected the vessel would be ready to enter service in six years time. Navy spokesman ACM Jumpol Loompikanon said the money has been included in the 2017 Budget Bill approved by the National Legislative Assembly.

The purchase of the Yuan Class S26T, the first of three Chinese-made submarines which the navy intends to acquire at a total cost of 36 billion baht, should be made this year, he said. If all goes to plan, Thailand will have its first submarine in service since the early 1950s, he said.

Four small Japanese-made submarines purchased in 1938 were decommissioned in 1951.

The Chinese S26T craft has a submerged displacement of 2,600 tonnes and is equipped with an air-independent propulsion system that allows the submarine to stay under water for up to three weeks at a time. The first submarine will cost considerably more than the other two -- which will be purchased later -- because the 13.5 billion baht will also cover weapon system costs, training courses for the crews, visits by Chinese personnel and various maintenance costs. Procurement of the first Chinese submarine will be conducted in a government-to-government deal after the cabinet gives its final approval to the contract.

The navy's intention to purchase new submarines, a proposal it has made under successive governments, sparked public debate. Many people think they are unnecessary and would be a waste of money. Other critics have even questioned whether the Gulf of Thailand is deep enough for submarines to operate in. The navy responded to these remarks by claiming it needs to protect the national interest and match the naval defence capabilities of neighboring countries. Malaysia now had two submarines, while Singapore had four and was about to purchase two more. Vietnam had six and Indonesia was in the process of replacing two old German-made submarines with three new ones from South Korea.

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