By ThaiPublica, originally published in Thai on October 10, 2012

A big procurement project of 2 frigate ships for 30bn Baht ($977m) has drawn criticism against the Royal Thai Army and has also raised the question of its necessity and its usefulness amidst the exorbitant price, considering the aftermath of the failed procurement of 6 decommissioned submarines from Germany for 7.6bn Baht ($250m), which was the highest priority of the Royal Thai Navy until it was eventually shelved. When the Royal Thai Navy ordered the HTMS Chakri Naruebet from Spain in 1992, the country’s only aircraft carrier planned as the Navy’s fleet command center, the price then was only 7.1bn Baht ($231m).

On September 18, 2012 the cabinet of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has approved the budget to buy frigates weighing 2,000 to 3,500 tons for 30bn Baht, after it was submitted by “Big Oh” - Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwanatat, Defense Minister. The Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Navy, Adm Surasak Rounroengrom (“Big Roun”) has assigned a fellow Class 13 graduate from the same army preparatory school, “Big Jieb” Adm Jakchai Poocharoenyos (Royal Thai Navy Chief-of-Staff) to head the project.

In the planned time frame, the navy wanted to have the approval for the frigates before the end of the fiscal year 2012 [September 30, 2012] in order to regain leverage over the internal balance of power after the failed submarines procurement and also to replace the soon-to-be-decomissioned frigate HTMS Phutthayotfa Chulalok.

The procurement of the frigates will supposedly take place in two phases: in the first, one frigate for 15bn Baht ($488m) during the fiscal years of 2012-2016 and during the second phase, another one for 15bn Baht during the fiscal years of 2014-2018. Also, the currently active frigate HTMS Naresuan is being upgraded in three phases, with budget commitments during the fiscal years of 2011-2014, 2012-2014 and 2013-2015. Currently, the Thai navy has two frigate fleets with 11 and 6 ships each.

The procurement committee has decided that the new frigates would be from Germany, since they are known for their well-built, high quality ships for a good value. But the navy would have to push for German frigates even more when submitting the request to the Ministry of Defense. The first hurdle there, “Big Tuey” Adm Chaiwat Bukkaratna, Adviser to the Minister of Defense and overseeing this very procurement, will approve it.

But there are also rumors that the “Big Boss” [possibly the Defense Minister?] wants to have frigate from China instead, which worries the navy officers in charge, since they fear the Chinese ships would be of bad quality and corrode within a few years. The HTMS Naresuan and the HTMS Taksin were procured from China and then commissioned in 1995, but are now in process of being repaired after growing corrosion and upgraded for total budget of 7bn Baht ($228m).

This coincides with rumors that the “Big Boss” [most likely Defense Minister Sukhumpol] has ordered the navy to change the procurement of submarines into the procurement of frigates instead. If they would have insisted to buy a new submarine, the price would have been about 15bn Baht ($488m), same as a frigate ship. But that would still have proven problematic and it could have ended in the same fate like the German second-hand submarines.

This wouldn’t have boded well with Defense Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat, who decided to stop the procurement process for the six decommissioned Type U-206 A submarines from Germany worth 7.6bn Baht ($250m) in total by not submitting the proposal to the cabinet for approval. Apart from letting the bidding deadline pass and other “technical problems”, Sukhumpol has ordered Adm Surasak Rounroengrom to look into other types of submarines and prepare the procurements of new submarines instead.

However in that case, he would have been accused to have deliberately scrapped the procurement process in order to purchase new submarines from Korea or China. In order to avoid this problem, Sukhumpol thus has altered to procurement to the two frigates instead.

A high-ranking navy source told ThaiPublica:

“Since the navy has been given a budget of 30bn Baht, we could go ahead and buy two new submarines. However, the higher-ups in the Ministry of Defense have stopped the submarine procurements and have changed the procurement to two frigates, [...] because if we would have searched for new submarines, we would have been criticized why we have stopped bidding for the German second-hand submarines and have been accused of ‘hidden benefits’. If the navy’s necessity for frigates is real, why has this been kept secret for so long with only a few high-ranking officers in the know?

This coincides with the state visit of Sukhumpol and his advisers to Ukraine in October 9-15, 2012, also including a visit to Austria to build the relationship between both countries’ armed forces.

The trip to Ukraine also includes a factory tour of the T-84 OPLOT tanks, of which the Abhisit administration had approved the procurement of 54 tanks worth 7bn Baht ($228m) in order to strengthen the armed forces. The tanks are excepted delivered in 2013.

Translated by Saksith Saiyasombut
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