Thailand in Market for German Subs

At the front of the Thai navy museum at Samut Prakan, some 20 miles downriver from central Bangkok, the conning tower and fore deck of a submarine appears to break through the manicured lawns and move purposefully towards the busy Sukhumvit Road.

The blue-grey steel structure is all that remains of His Thai Majesty's Ship Matchanu and Thailand's submarine service, a four-boat flotilla purchased from Japan in 1938 and decommissioned in 1951. The submarines were never in action against an enemy. Their finest hour instead came when their engines provided intermittent power to Bangkok's tram system after the city's electricity supply was disrupted by allied bombing raids towards the end of World War II.

In late March 2011, 60 years on from the decommissioning of the Matchanu and the other three boats – a full cycle in the Buddhist calendar – the Thai government announced plans to acquire six 30-year old surplus German navy submarines at an initial cost of around US$257 million. The small diesel-electric U-206A class boats were built for service in the confined seas of the Baltic, making them seemingly ideal for operations in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Thailand.

The purchase price of boats is merely the start of what would prove a costly and protracted development program to rebuild the Royal Thai Navy's submarine force. If the U-206s are purchased the navy will then have to build at least two bases for the boats - one on the Gulf of Thailand and the other on the Andaman Sea. Each boat carries a crew of around 25 personnel, with a minimum of two plus crews per submarine. An entire support and maintenance infrastructure will have to be developed, trained and deployed at both bases. If all six boats are made operational – allowing one at each base to be always ready for sea, a second on stand-by and a third undergoing maintenance - this implies the creation of submarine arms of at least 2,000 personnel, with the recurring costs this implies.

The utility of submarines to Thailand is disputed, not least by the country's King Bhumibol Adulyadej. In December 2007, in response to the navy's annual demand for submarines, the king noted in his birthday address that the boats were unsuitable for the country as the Gulf of Thailand was to shallow for them operate and that they may become stranded in the mud. The navy politely responded by saying the monarch's advice would be considered in any future plans to acquire submarines.

The strategic purpose of the boats is also contested. Thailand has extensive maritime interests, including offshore natural gas fields and a huge fishery, as well as unresolved boundary disputes with neighbouring countries. These roles are already being met by surface warships and land-based aircraft, which offer effective and proportionate means to patrol Thailand's territorial waters and offshore extended economic zones. In addition, surface vessels have enabled Thailand to participate in such international operations as the present anti-piracy mission in the Indian Ocean and off Somalia.

Further, Thailand's most credible external threats to national sovereignty relate to disputed land boundaries with Burma, Laos and Cambodia. Unresolved maritime boundary disputes with Cambodia and Burma occasionally flare up, but are unlikely to result in anything more than a display of overt naval power by Thailand – a function submarines are singularly ill-equipped to achieve.

If the deal goes ahead it will mark the culmination of the Thai navy's persistent efforts to re-establish its lost submarine arm. In recent years the navy's senior brass have routinely made an annual funding bid for submarines, mainly basing their arguments on the steady increase in undersea capabilities by Malaysia, Singapore and more recently Vietnam.

This desire to join Southeast Asia's sub club has drawn widespread condemnation in the Thai media, where it has been characterised as extravagant, strategically irrelevant and linked to the forthcoming elections. The latter criticism rests on the theory that buying ageing German U-boats would appeal to the nationalist vote, concerned that the country was falling behind regional neighbours in terms of naval prowess.

Other less charitable views are concerned that the proposed submarine purchase offered handsome 'commissions' to those involved in the deal, with the timing linked to officials hedging their bets against an unfavourable outcome in this year's proposed elections and the destabilising consequences that are likely to follow – whatever the outcome.

This explanation is plausible given the record of past defence procurement decisions that offered little additional capability to the armed forces – and in some case placed military personnel in danger – while raising widespread suspicions that individuals had benefitted greatly at the expense of public funds.

Some of the Thai armed forces' previous eccentric purchasing decisions have invited ridicule and rage in equal measure. These include buying a US$11.5 million US-manufactured airship intended to serve as an intelligence-gathering platform in the country's deep south, where a bitter insurgency involving Muslim separatists, criminal groups, the security forces and hapless civilians has taken more than 4,400 lives in past seven years. The idea of monitoring the southern provinces from a quiet and economical blimp is sound enough, but the airship's failure to ascend beyond rifle shot range and the steady escape of its helium gas rendered it unserviceable.

The airship, however, represented a model of procurement practice compared to the acquisition of more than 500 British-made 'explosive detectors,' reportedly at the cost of around $40,000 per unit. Investigations by foreign and local scientists and media organisations quickly concluded that the devices were not merely useless but extremely dangerous to troops or police using them as they offered a false sense of security.

Accusations of fraud were made against the manufacturer and corruption against those in Thailand who had ordered the device, but a few years on no obvious progress has made in ascertaining either charge.

The navy's past judgment is also in question. In 1997 the navy took delivery of the Spanish-built aircraft carrier Chakri Naruebet. The ship cost some $336 million, with its six-strong AV8 aircraft (the US version of the British Harrier vertical take-off fighter) adding a further US$75 million or so. The aircraft are now unserviceable and the carrier is occasionally used in humanitarian missions – most recently to rescue tourists stranded by heavy rains on islands in the Gulf of Thailand in late March 2011. Paying for and manning the Chakri Naruebet remains a considerable drain on the navy's resources, which will be further strained when HTMS Angthong, an amphibious support ship now under construction a Singapore yard, joins the fleet in 2012-13.

There is every likelihood that the U-boat deal will go ahead, with the equally probable result that within a decade or so the submarines will be perpetually tied alongside at the Sattahip base, perhaps next to the by then immobile Chakri Naruebet carrier. One of them may even have joined the Matchanu on the lawns of the RTN museum at Samut Prakan, a source of excitement for small boys and a symbol of hubris for the navy.

Gavin M. Greenwood is a security consultant with the Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates firm.