May 5, 2017

Thai Army versus Navy Controversy over the Chinese Submarine Purchase

Thailand’s ruling military junta has been talking about the pending Chinese built submarine purchase for just under two years. However the latest media coverage appears to have been whipped up by the Thai Army in part to remind the Thai Navy of the Army's dominance in the junta-government.

The Thai Army see themselves as the elite saviours of Thailand when civilian governments fail to govern effectively – which the Army sees as occurring often - gauged by the number of Army coups in Thailand. The Washington Post reports that  Thailand has had 11 + (1 in 2014) = 12 successful coups and 7 attempted coups since 1932.

Thailand’s most influential English language newspaper, the Bangkok Post, reports Army General (“retired”) Prayut, who is also the Prime Minister, expressed disapproval of the Navy's openness. He accused the Navy of divulging too many details of the Thai Government's submarine decision-making in the Navy’s early May 2017 press briefing on the 3 Chinese S26T submarines for Thailand project.

According to the prime minister, no other country has ever had to disclose this much information about military hardware procurement as Thailand just did.” This is hardly correct. The US government releases 1000s of pages of detailed costs and technical details for acquisition and building its much more sensitive nuclear submarines (SSNs, SSGNs and SSBNs).

The Army rulers of Thailand may also wish to distance themselves from the public criticism and accusations of corruption the Navy is receiving over the pending submarine purchase.

The Thai Navy may see submarines as high priced assets (costing US$ 1 Billion total) that signify the Navy’s importance. The subs could one day be seen as replacing the basically unused Thai carrier HTMS Chakri Naruebet as symbols of prestige.

Thailand is criticized for its coups and now for choosing Chinese submarines. But who can legitimately judge Thailand? The US has been critical of the latest Thai coup (of 2014) and the US has frozen just under US$5 million aid money to Thailand. With an unscrupulous property developer for a President the US can hardly claim moral exceptionalism or superiority over any country the US criticizes.
China’s mass productions of submarines and part Chinese government funded price reductions allows China to produce submarine cheap enough for non-wealthy governments, like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Thailand to buy. But it is in Chinese political influence over these countries and extra downstream costs (like spares, maintenance and overhaul) that reaps benefits for China.

Anonymous has located interesting comments in that:

"The “submarines from China are inferior to submarines competing in almost every dimension."

-    The size of Taiwan's Yuan class variant S26T hull will be too big. It is designed for a minimum of depth of 60 meters, while the average depth of the Gulf of Thailand is 25 to 40 meters.

-     the “speed and operating distance of the Chinese submarines is 18 knots maximum for only 10 minutes and operating distance of only 8,000 miles. While other subs of other nations have maximum speeds greater than 20 knots for approximately one hour and operating distances of more than 10,000 miles.

-    Chinese submarine operational lives are only 25 years - less than the 40 years lives of subs from other nations.

-    Along with Chinese submarines being lower priced than competitors comes questions whether the quality of Chinese subs is also low.

In terms of possible usefulness of Thailand's future submarines, according to the esteemed South Pacific island publication,

“Thailand is not involved in disputes with China and other Southeast Asian countries over the South China Sea but it does have a dispute with Cambodia over their maritime border in a gas-rich part of the Gulf of Thailand." Thailand also has maritime borders in the Indian Ocean - an Ocean with more usefully deeper waters than the too shallow waters of the Gulf of Thailand.

Above and below are images of the Thai S26T submarine - future variant of the Yuan class.

By Pete and Anonymous


Anonymous said...

Hi Pete

I think that hull strength of export version of Chinese submarine is weaker than that of domestic version [1] and that safety margin is smaller than German submarine. In terms of submariner’s safety, western submarine such as TYPE 209 seems to be better than Chinese submarine.
Test depths of Type 039A and S20 submarine are 400m and 300m, respectively according to “General characteristics” and “Export variant: S20”


Peter Coates said...

Hi Anonymous

Yes China is more likely to use lower yield steel for its export subs (to Thailand and Pakistan) than steel used for deeper dives for the PLA-N's own subs.

Also Thailand may be happy with less depth for cheaper subs. This is particularly noting Thailand's main point of geopolitical tension (probably) for the next 10-20 years is the very shallow Gulf of Thailand .

For China there is also the risk that Thailand will again become pro-US. This may include the risk Thailand will hand Chinese pressure hull steel details over to the US.



Anonymous said...

Low yield steel is fine since even at periscope depth, the sub may hit the bottom in the Gulf of Thailand. So it is likely operating as a low observable surface ship.