Asia Defense

What’s Next for Thailand’s New Mini-Submarine Quest?

While it is still early days, Bangkok has shown some signs of making inroads.

What’s Next for Thailand’s New Mini-Submarine Quest?
Credit: Flickr/Prachatai

Last week, a British engineering group announced that it had won the contract to help Thailand design its midget submarines. Though few specifics have been publicly disclosed thus far, the development has nonetheless put the spotlight once again on Bangkok’s decades-old aspirations in this domain.

As I noted before in these pages, over the past few years, Thailand has made some notable advances in terms of realizing its decades-long aspiration to acquire submarines. The most headline-grabbing of these was the approval of a deal to purchase submarines from China, initially concluded back in 2015.

In July, on a separate note, news publicly surfaced that the current Thai government under Prayut Chan-o-cha was moving forward with a new project to design a so-called “midget” or mini-submarine, which had been in the works since late last year.

At the time, the suggestion was that the planned construction of a prototype, a vessel in the unofficially named “Chalawan Class,” would take approximately seven years, with a surface displacement of 150-300 tons, a crew of 10, and a range of 300 nautical miles. But few additional specifics were offered, and it remained to be seen how quickly Thailand would move to turn this idea into reality.

Last week, we saw another development in Thailand’s midget submarine quest when U.K. engineering group BMT won the contract to help design it for the RTN. The official announcement came from BMT in a statement issued on October 17.

According to BMT, under the new contract, which was signed in September, it will provide assistance to the RTN during the design phase of the project as an overseas independent consultancy. BMT said it had been contracted “to recommend submarine-specific engineering management best practice to help the RTN minimize risk during the design phase.”

Few additional specifics were provided on the nature of BMT’s work, including the specific value of the contract. But the work is due to be completed in the first quarter of 2019, suggesting that Thailand continues to want to move quite quickly on this within the broader context of its long-held submarine ambitions.

As I have noted before, the extent to which Bangkok will actually be able to do so remains to be seen. There have been a range of challenges getting in the way of inroads in the past, and some of them remain today, including cost issues and domestic political transitions that could affect the speed at which certain defense projects can move through.