Thailand is Sending Submarine Crew to Train in China

Thai and US navy officers during a joint submarine drill in the Andaman Sea in 2017. Image: Royal Thai Navy

BANGKOK — The Royal Thai Navy on Thursday said the first group of Thai submariners would receive their training in China, where Thailand’s first submarine fleet in nearly 70 years are being built.

Navy spokesman Prachachat Sirisawat said the navy will select a group of sailors to take training courses in China within this year. Their training would be completed just in time when the first of the three submarines is expected to be delivered to Thailand in 2023.

“Candidates must be able to communicate in English and Chinese, as well as physically and metally fit to work within the confined body of submarines,” Vice Adm. Prachachat said in an interview.

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He would not say how many submariners would be trained, but said the training program would take two years to complete for each batch of crews.

The spokesman also confirmed the 22-billion baht deal to buy three brand-new submarines from China is sailing forward as planned. The acquisition was inked in 2017, or 65 years after Thai navy last had submarines under its command.

Three S26T submarines in total were commissioned at the price of two subs, according to the navy.

“The 3-for-2 deal is still on,” he added. “We proposed only two submarines under the agreement, but they gave us three in the price of two.”

A US-Thai joint submarine drill in the Andaman Sea in 2017. Image: Royal Thai Navy

Previous attempts by the navy to acquire submarines were met with criticism and eventually torpedoed. The opposition also lashed out at the latest submarine program when the House debated the budget for the 2020 fiscal year last week.

Future Forward MP Surachet Pravinvongvuth wanted the proposal scrapped, saying the submarines would not be able to dive through the Gulf of Thailand.

“The S26T submarine we ordered from China is not suitable for Thailand,” Surachet told the Parliament. “They normally operate at a depth of 60 meters, but the Gulf of Thailand is only 40-50 meters deep.”

But navy spokesman Prachachat disputed the lawmaker’s claim. He pointed to past visits by foreign submarines to Thai waters as proof that the subs can safely operate in the Gulf of Thailand.

Prachachat also said it is too costly now to scuttle the deal.

“The procurement would be made in accordance with our plan to acquire three submarines,” Prachachat said. “We already ordered the first one back in 2017, so two more submarines would reduce the overall administrative and operational costs of the program by billions of baht.”

After hours of debate, the Parliament on Jan. 8 approved the 125-billion baht defense budget by the votes of 247 for, 195 against, and 11 abstaining. The government’s victory also secured the fate of the 22-billion submarine program.

Thailand’s previous fleet of submarines was built by Japan in 1938. The four aging subs were decommissioned in 1951, the same year a group of navy officers attempted to launch a coup against the army-led junta.