Why does the US want access to U-Tapao for NASA? – Part 1 : History of U-Tapao
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Why does the US want access to U-Tapao for NASA? – Part 1 : History of U-Tapao

The US Defence Department wants to use U-Tapao military airport in Rayong, Thailand for its Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief centre. NASA wants to use U-Tapao to conduct climate research flights in August and September 2012. These are two separate requests. The reason BP mentions that is one will definitely involve the US military and US military personnel and craft; whereas NASA is a civilan agency with their own aircraft. This post will mainly focus on the use by NASA.

From a NASA Planning Document dated September 29, 2010 (PDF) entitled “Southeast Asia Composition, Cloud, Climate Coupling Regional Study (SEAC4RS) Planning Document”:*

Basing the aircraft in Thailand is optimal for achieving science objectives with a preferred base in Surat Thani, Thailand…, although options in Bangkok….are also under consideration

Deployment sites and flight space considerations: Figure 11 defines nominal operations from a deployment to Surat Thani, Thailand. Possible deployment to Bangkok would compromise as much as one-fourth of the  flight hours should Myanmar deny overflight to reach the Bay of Bengal. Even if based in Surat Thani, successful science flights will require negotiation of airspace controlled by as many as 12 countries and 17 separate FIRs (Flight Information Regions). These requirements and priorities are presented in figure 12. The possible use of suitcase locations is also under consideration to extend the reach of aircraft across the Southeast Asian domain (e.g., Kathmandu and Manila). Given the need for three transit flights to reach Southeast Asia, a total of 154 flight hours is required for each aircraft to complete the deployment. This would be divided into roughly 10 hours of test flight, 24 hours of transit flight in each direction, and 96 hours of science flight which would allow for 12 science flights of 8 hour duration. The total length of the deployment would be 40 45 days across a yet to be determined window in the August-September timeframe.

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BP: From the map, you can see why NASA choose Thailand as it is right in the center. The plane goes in the air and then returns to the base each day. Having Thailand as the base makes it possible to cover many more countries than say if it was the Philippines. Nevertheless, NASA later changed their preferred base. From the NASA site on the current project:

Southeast Asia Composition, Cloud, Climate Coupling Regional Study (SEAC4RS) will take place in August and September of 2012. This deployment will address key questions regarding the influence of Asian emissions on clouds, climate, and air quality as well as fundamental satellite observability of the system. Science observations will focus specifically on the role of the Asian monsoon circulation and convective redistribution in governing upper atmospheric composition and chemistry. Satellite observations suggest a strong impact of the Asian Summer Monsoon on Tropopause Transition Layer (TTL) composition and a direct relationship to surface sources including pollution, biogenic emissions, and biomass burning. Attention will also be given to the influence of biomass burning and pollution, their temporal evolution, and ultimately impacts on meteorological processes which in turn feed back into regional air quality. With respect to meteorological feedbacks, the opportunity to examine the impact of polluting aerosols on cloud properties and ultimately dynamics will be of particular interest.

To accomplish the goals of SEAC4RS, multiple aircraft are required. The NASA DC-8 will provide observations from near the surface to 12 km, and the NASA ER-2 will provide high altitude observations reaching into the lower stratosphere as well as important remote sensing observations connecting satellites with observations from lower flying aircraft and surface sites. A critical third aircraft needed to sample convective outflow and slow ascent of air above the main convective outflow level (~12 km) has been identified as the NSF/NCAR GV (HIAPER). Participation by the GV will be through a collaboration in which the DC-8 will participate in the NSF-sponsored DC3 mission.

Basing the aircraft in Thailand is optimal for achieving science objectives with a preferred base in U-Tapao, Thailand.

BP: One can imagine reasons for not being in the South – just imagine the paranoia about the Deep South – but more importantly also that U-Tapao has the facilities given it is already used by the US military and hence getting contractors to fuel planes and service planes would be significantly easier – see below for more on that. Having said that, there is no clear reason listed for the change.

U-Tapao is an airport, located close to Pattaya and Rayong, that is used by civilians and the military. Below is an excerpt from a 2005 WikiLeaks cable:

¶1. (C) The Royal Thai Naval Air Station at Utapao represents the most strategically significant location in Thailand, and one of considerable importance regionally. In the past several years Utapao has been used to support OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM, OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM and various smaller contingencies. Most recently, while serving as the regional hub for the U.S. led OPERATION UNIFIED ASSISTANCE (OUA), the value of our nearly unfettered access to the facility was once again clearly demonstrated.

¶2. (C) In addition to supporting contingency operations, approximately 30 U.S. military aircraft routinely transit Utapao monthly, and the base is central in supporting an average of 40 joint and combined exercises conducted between United States and Royal Thai Armed Forces (RTARF) annually. There are also commercial pressures on Utapao that will likely grow in the future, including booming business in the nearby Eastern-Seaboard industrial zone, international charter flights, the base’s use as a commercial aircraft diversion airfield, and civilian competition for control of airfield operations.

¶3. (C) Although successive Thai governments have been responsive to U.S. requests to use Utapao, we cannot take for granted the access we have enjoyed to date. Despite the high tempo of U.S. activity in Utapao, we have offered very little in the way of lasting facility improvements or maintenance that would provide mutual benefits and be supportive of our strategic objectives regarding expanded access and influence.

The Bangkok Post in an editorial:

There should be no hesitation about the Nasa missions. The US space agency’s climate studies are ongoing, and there is nothing new or sinister about the request to use U-tapao. Indeed, Nasa has a long-standing arrangement to use U-tapao. The naval air base was a standing alternate landing strip for the US space shuttles, now discontinued. U-tapao, improved to its current standards during the Vietnam War, remains the longest and most open airstrip anywhere on this side of the world.

In the event, no space shuttle ever used U-tapao. But Nasa’s standing contract with the government and the Royal Thai Navy was only one such deal between Washington and Bangkok.

It is difficult to think of more constructive projects than a disaster relief centre and a regional climate study _ whose results must be made public. For certain, opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva is correct that the proposed disaster centre should be put to parliament. But then, Mr Abhisit has not expressed opposition to either plan. Barring some unknown and troubling issue which could still arise, these proposals should sail through so authorities can get back to considering important national matters.

John Cole and Steve Sciacchitano for Asia Times Online in an article entitled “Baseless controversy over Thailand’s U-Tapao”:

In 1997, the US switched management of the U-Tapao fuel stocks from US government to Thai civilian contractors, a role currently served by Thai Airways International in concert with Thai state energy company PTT. The USAF enlisted refueler was also removed and replaced by Thai contractor personnel. For many years, a single US contractor working for the Thai Navy lived in a trailer on the flight line who acted as a trouble shooter and liaison for arriving US military air crews.

That said, there are currently no US military personnel stationed at the base, which only employs Thai civilian contract labor to provide refueling and other ground handling tasks to US military aircraft transiting the facility. Presently over 100 US Air Force aircraft transit the Thai Navy owned and operated facility each month after receiving landing clearances and approvals from Thai officials.

…There are currently no USAF maintenance or other support personnel or facilities stationed at U-Tapao.

Airy conspiracy theory

One of the concerns frequently mentioned in Thai press coverage is that the U-Tapao HA/DR [humanitarian assistance and disaster relief] initiative is actually cover for secret new US intelligence operations targeting China. If so, the suspected operations will be open to public scrutiny: U-Tapao now serves as a busy civilian airport, as well as a stopover for US military aircraft.

Charter flights from Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia frequently use the base. Three commercial Chinese airlines, namely China Airlines, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines, make regular use of U-Tapao’s facilities. Literally hundreds of tourists pass through the airport daily and it is no longer the semi-isolated, secure military facility it once was.

BP: Not wanting to get on topics in future posts, but actually it is not just the HA/DR centre which is linked with an intelligence gathering operation, it is NASA too. The idea that the NSA, the actual agency that collects foreign communications and foreign signals intelligence and operates spy planes, would allow their planes into such a non-secure facility and allow Thai officials to inspect the planes and the equipment on them is simply insane. NSA is not going to let them near the inside of any real spy planes.** If the planes don’t have specialized eavesdropping equipment then what use will they be? Google Earth already gets you satellite images and the Americans have many of their own satellites. The conspiracy theory is so thin it is laughable.

*In case, you are thinking that September 29, 2010 on why the timing. Well, the day before GISDTA, Seo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency, a public organization under the Ministry of Science & Technology, signed a letter of intent with NASA to cooperate on airborne missions.

**Just witness what happened with the American EP-3E Aries II reconnaissance plane on an eavesdropping mission that crashed in China in 2001 – see New Yorker article by Hersh- where the Americans wiped the software and were meant to destroy all the equipment with hammers, axes – which is the standard operating procedure – but after concerns that the Chinese may be reverse-engineer the operating system which may still have been able to be retrieved, the Americans replaced the operating system at a cost of hundreds of millions. Now, for the NASA flights to be part of some secret intelligence collection operation, NSA or a similar agency would have to secretly lend NASA spy planes and those planes will be able to be accessed by foreign nationals including all the university personnel from universities around the world including Thai academices. There is just no way it will be allowed as the risk of the Chinese gaining access to the plane is too high.

h/t to PPT for the Wikileaks cable

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