Thailand’s Military Crisis?

A spate of mishaps has raised questions over the way Thailand’s military is spending its money.

The inherently risky nature of military operations means that all armed forces suffer unavoidable accidents. But a spate of mishaps, such as the three helicopter crashes suffered over the past week by the Royal Thai Army, tends to point to more systemic problems.

The crash of an RTA Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk on July 19 was followed within days by the loss of two Bell 212 Hueys involved in the subsequent search and rescue mission along the Burmese border in Phetchaburi. At least 17 people died in the three incidents.

As tends to happen when a country’s military experiences a string of failures—bad weather was blamed for two of the crashes, and technical problems for the third—the top brass responded by calling for urgent investment in new equipment. Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has remained fairly inconspicuous since Thailand’s watershed election in early July, said publicly that the RTA required 36 new helicopters to continue operating safely. Gen. Prayuth said he would pass this request to the new government as soon as it was in place, adding that the previous Democrat Party administration had failed to come up with the money for new helicopters despite being made aware of the pressing need.

The Thai situation is reminiscent of the air-worthiness crisis experienced by the Indonesian Air Force in 2009, when a string of crashes killed 130 military personnel and turned the country’s poor standard of military equipment into a national scandal. These events gave Jakarta some political leeway to start increasing funding to the military and to invest in replacement transport aircraft.

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However, Thailand’s situation is very different from that of Indonesia. The Indonesian military has been chronically underfunded for decades, as well as suffering from long-standing arms embargoes that have only recently been lifted, whereas Thailand has always had a healthy defence budget by regional standards, especially since the military coup in 2006. In fact, the Thai defence budget doubled in the three years since the military takeover and now stands at $5.6 billion for 2011, a similar level to the entire defence budget of Indonesia, which has four times Thailand’s population.

While it’s true that some defence projects were put on hold in 2010 due to the global financial crisis, it seems a bit rich for Gen. Prayuth to blame the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva for withholding military funds during a period when the military itself was in charge of defence policy, and much of the rest of government besides. The question, then, is why the RTA is suddenly in urgent need of helicopters when it has always been amply funded and in a position to set its own priorities.

While the Black Hawk whose crash initiated the crisis was only a few years old, the Hueys that make up the backbone of the RTA’s rotary capability have in many cases seen 30 years’ service. The Thais have long been aware of these issues, however, having requested three new Black Hawks from the United States, worth $235 million, the day before the first of the three crashes. Huey upgrades have also been on the army’s agenda for a long time, although the previous army chief, Gen. Anupong Paochinda, decided against upgrading 15 of the RTA’s ageing Hueys in 2008 in order to invest in three new Russian Mil Mi-17 helicopters instead.

Gen. Prayuth’s urgent appeal for 36 new helicopters is therefore somewhat disingenuous. He may of course be testing the water, waiting to see how the new prime minister—which will presumably be Yingluck Shinawatra—responds to the demand. Prayuth applied similar pressure in another of his few public outings since the election, when he called for a military man to be named defence minister, despite having previously agreed not to make such interventions.

What ordinary Thais, not to mention the soldiers who have to fly in the army’s ageing Hueys, must be wondering is what exactly the country’s well-funded army spends its money on. The costly counterinsurgency in Thailand’s deep south is one thing; the establishment of a new cavalry division in the far north, a pet project of former army chief Prem Tinsulanonda, is another. These two concerns alone are soaking up billions of dollars, many would argue needlessly.

However, a broader explanation is that when the military effectively sets its own budget and determines its own priorities, the taxpayer gets very poor value for money and the armed forces themselves don’t always get investment in the things they really need. The problem for Thailand is that these are policy areas that Yingluck’s incoming administration, for all its ambitious campaign promises, will not dare to go anywhere near.