Friday, September 12, 2008

Thailand Plans $191.3M Arms Purchase


Published: 12 Sep 15:32 EDT (19:32 GMT)

BANGKOK - Thailand's military, still standing watch over the kingdom's political upheaval, has been cleared to purchase thousands of Israeli assault rifles and a Singaporean warship.

Embattled Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who doubles as defense minister, approved a package of defense modernization deals with his Cabinet on Sept. 9. In total, the package is worth an estimated $191.3 million.

Most of the package is devoted to a $152.8 million Singapore Technologies-designed amphibious frigate. The Royal Thai Armed Forces will also buy thousands of Israeli assault rifles and Russian shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

"The Cabinet has been lenient with military requests this year in particular," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political and security analyst with Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "The last thing Samak needs right now is disgruntlement in the military."

Cabinet documents obtained by Defense News say that Thailand's military will contract with Singapore Technologies to buy one large, amphibious frigate - called a landing platform dock ship - for transporting cargo and troops.

However, the papers don't specify an exact model. The frigate will be paid off in installments through 2011.

Thailand has also inked a contract to buy 15,037 Tavor TAR-21 assault rifles from Israel. This $30.1 million buy will boost the Thai military's total stock of the bullpup-design rifles to more than 30,000 - replacing many of the Army's aging rifles.

That purchase is coupled with a $4.4 million order for 531 Israeli Negev light machine guns, raising Thailand's stock to more than 1,100. These will be partially paid for from a special budget tied to securing the violence-scarred Malaysian border, where separatist Muslim insurgents continue to target soldiers and civilians. Russia will also supply 36 Igla-S shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles to Thailand - with seven launching mechanisms - for nearly $4 million.

The contracts, which Thitinan described as "scattered," suggest the Thai military lacks a "coherent long-term procurement strategy," he said.

In December, when a military council still led Thailand after former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's 2006 coup, it announced a similar round of purchases. In addition to overall modernization plans for each service, the military announced plans to buy Saab Gripen fighter jets, Chinese surface-to-surface missiles, armed personnel carriers and more.

"It's been a hodgepodge package in the last few years," Thitinan said.

The new package appears in part to address some of Thailand's topical needs, with the Negev light machine guns intended to fight the kingdom's gruesome southern insurgency. The amphibious frigate, according to Cabinet documents, will provide quick disaster relief. Singapore's fleet of landing platform dock ships - all built by the same Singapore Technologies firm - were among the many vessels delivering medics and supplies during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The deal, a modernization boon to Thailand's military, was inked under a shroud of political unrest. To approve the package, the prime minister and his Cabinet convened many provinces away from their Bangkok compound, still occupied as of Sept. 12 by protesters demanding Samak's resignation. At one point 10,000 deep, the protesters transformed the prime minister's stately grounds into a grungy campsite ringed with razor-wire and makeshift barricades.

After Samak issued a state of emergency on Sept. 2, no soldiers were dispatched to the compound, and many questioned his sway over the military.

Gen. Anupong Paochinda, the Royal Thai Army's commander in chief, has insisted that restoring peace through the military is not the answer. Still, Thai military leaders took a similar public stance just before they ousted previous Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra two years ago.

Relations between Samak and the military remain "smooth and close," said government spokesman Nattawut Saikua. But he added: "I say this realizing the leader of the last coup said many, many times he would not seize power."

However, Samak's tenuous hold on the prime minister's seat is not expected to affect the military's new arms package

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