Remaking the Royal Thai Navy for the Covid-19 pandemic era

The Covid-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for the Royal Thai Navy to launch reforms while other navies in its near-strategy environment are weakened by internal vulnerabilities, better positioning itself to generate future strategic and operational gains

Hadrien T. Saperstein
February 18, 2021
Remaking the Royal Thai Navy for the Covid-19 pandemic era
A Thai Royal Navy officer wearing a protective mask in February 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE/Diego Azubel

The global Covid-19 pandemic has now raged for more than a year. While in the early days of the pandemic the Royal Thai Government had some initial successes in managing the health crisis, it is nevertheless duly failing to manage the ongoing economic and latest health crises. 

These twin failures have had serious repercussions for Thailand’s security realm. The economic downturn forced the Royal Thai Armed Forces to postpone key military procurements and cancel operational training with foreign militaries. More poignantly, the Royal Thai Navy’s (RTN) four priorities have taken a particularly hard hit by delaying payments for two submarines from China and slowing foreign direct investment into the much-hyped Eastern Economic Corridor.

In view of the present political and strategic context – Thailand’s enhancing defence ties with China, along with the RTN’s concerns towards the growing number of submarines across Southeast Asia, especially Myanmar and Malaysia – it does not presently appear like the RTN will renege its pre-pandemic acquisition programme of large, expensive naval assets and construction of their respective dockyards. 

If anything, the Cabinet has doubled down on accelerating spending of sizeable budgetary expenditures amid these aforesaid crises. The more recent announcement by Anek Laothamatas, Minister of Higher Education, Sciences, Research and Innovation (MHESI), about the development of a new space programme and construction of space shuttles and spaceport for the purpose to orbit and explore the Moon within seven years’ time is one of many examples

However, the “Long Covid” base case scenario – where neither the coronavirus nor its wide-ranging impacts disappear in short order – frames Thailand’s near and medium term. The widespread hope amongst the population that Thailand’s (middle income with priority access) vaccination programme timeline may be the country’s salvation is now found to be misplaced in the face of the latest reported herd immunity projections, which range broadly from the middle of next year at the earliest to seven years at the latest.

The RTN should recognise that the days of introducing new large naval acquisition programmes is unsustainable for the near-term

As a result of this base case scenario the post-pandemic funding climate will be precarious for small navies across the Indo-Pacific region, and even more pronounced in the Thai context where the navy and air force receive only one dollar for every two dollars that the army receives (so-called, 2:1:1 ratio). 

In light of these circumstances, the RTN should recognise that the days of introducing new large naval acquisition programmes is unsustainable for the near-term. As Collin Koh wrote recently: “new acquisition programmes [by Southeast Asian navies] will be difficult to get off the ground, even if there might be pressing maritime threats that can justify major new purchases.” 

Yet ideologically divesting from the introduction of large, expensive naval procurement programmes actually provides the RTN with an opportunity to undertake some deeply necessary reforms that should have materialised some years ago. In the same ways that it previously implemented a set of necessary reforms at the turn of the global financial crisis in 2008, the RTN needs to perform pandemic-driven internal changes in an endeavour to be better positioned to generate future strategic and operational gains in the near to medium-term.

First Reform: Separate the Navy and Coast Guard Into Two Entities

As partly argued elsewhere, the RTN needs to rehash the debate (1989, 1992, 2017) about the Royal Thai Fleet (RTF) – the naval warfare command arm of the RTN – relinquishing control of the Coast Guard Squadron (CGS). 

This recommendation is not made lightly, for, in a previous era, this debate sharply polarised the RTN officer corps. On one hand, the integrationists preferred that the RTN keep the CGS under its direct operational and material control, while, on the other hand, the separationists aspired to divorce the two entities. Although in the first three rounds the integrationists more or less ended up winning the debate, this time around the separationists must come out on top. 

This reform offers several benefits. Foremost, it positively increases Thailand’s overall maritime security situation considering that certain tasks are traditionally performed more effectively by coast guards rather than navies, like maritime security and border surveillance. 

Moreover, this will allow the CGS to rebalance its relationship between capability (quality) and capacity (quantity), which currently favours the former and not the latter. Case in point, the RTF will at times dispatch a large Krabi-class Offshore Patrol Vehicle (OPV), which essentially holds the newest armament and propulsion engines in the fleet, rather than a smaller-sized M36-class patrol boat to complete the minimal task of “presence.” This was a frequent point of criticism towards the Thai submarine purchases, that, due to their high-operational costs for basic maritime security operations, like anti-piracy, seaborne terrorism or natural disaster management, the RTN would be overspending a disproportional amount of its yearly funds. 

Additionally, along with allowing the RTN to better manage below-the-threshold of warfare attacks (e.g. hybrid maritime operations/warfare), possessing separate entities will permit the navy to preserve the longevity of the equipment over their lifetime. This is expressly prescient knowing that the naval operational tempo will only accelerate over the coming years as the maritime domain once again becomes increasingly tied to a state’s survival with the rise of sea levels, discovery of new offshore oil and gas fields, and deep seabed mining

The RTN should grant permission for civilian oversight, either the parliament or an independent organisation, to oversee its acquisition programme

Finally, in focusing the RTN solely towards military operations, it effectively increases the professionalism of the personnel inside the naval organisation, even though, when compared to the Royal Thai Army (RTA) personnel at the junior and middle ranks is already somewhat more professional, howbeit, not systematically so in the admiralty.

Second Reform: Acquire Smarter Future Acquisition Mechanisms

The RTN also needs to acquire “smarter” future acquisition mechanisms or procedures in an effort to stop monetary wastage and prevent any further large-scale corruption. In this section, only the former is treated as the latter is already discussed elsewhere

Again, in light of the Long Covid base case scenario, the post-pandemic funding climate is going to be precarious for small navies across the Indo-Pacific region. Therefore, albeit arduously attained due to the current civil-military structure and last promotion cycle, the RTN should grant permission for civilian oversight, either the parliament or an independent organisation, to oversee its acquisition programme. 

In doing so, the newfound proper governance structures that would be introduced by this new oversight body would reduce the commonplace wastage and duplication efforts. As research shows, supportive independent oversight committees usually result in a “more efficacious and sustainable implementation of acquisition as well as maintenance, repairs and overhaul programmes.” 

For instance, at the same time that the RTN was in the process of acquiring submarines from China it was also attempting to produce mini-submarines domestically. It was only in the last two years that the programme was officially de-funded to guarantee that the necessary funds were available for the imported submarines. If an oversight body had been given authority beforehand, it is likely that the RTN would not have wasted valuable monetary funds and duplicated its efforts.

In the end, the global Covid-19 pandemic provides a tremendous opportunity for the RTN to launch necessary reforms while other navies in its near-strategy environment are similarly weakened by internal vulnerabilities. Indeed, if the RTN performs the two aforementioned pandemic-driven internal changes, it would be better positioned to generate future strategic and operational gains in the near to medium-term.

Hadrien T. Saperstein is a researcher specialising in Thailand’s maritime and space developments at the Asia Centre think tank in Paris, France. He has previously written for the Asia Centre, New Mandala and East Asia Forum, and others, on the Royal Thai Navy.

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