Air Defense: Skyguard In Wonderland

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October 15, 2018: In Thailand, the army received four Skyguard 3 short-range mobile anti-aircraft systems in mid-2018. Skyguard was ordered in late 2015, shortly after a military coup. At times like that, the Thai military updates their wish lists and gets what they can before democracy returns. Each Skyguard system consists of a towed radar/fire control unit and two towed twin-35mm autocannon. The radar system has a range of 20 kilometers while the 35mm autocannons are effective out to four kilometers and missiles (is used) out to seven kilometers. The 35mm shells used by the cannon carry explosive warheads each containing 152 sub-projectiles specially designed to penetrate and disable or destroy aircraft as well as UAVs, cruise missiles and even smart bombs. The fire control system can calculate where a target is going to be and automatically fire a burst of 25 shells that will fill the path of the target with nearly 4,000 sub-projectiles.

Skyguard was originally developed by a Swiss firm in the 1970s and has been updated and continues to sell ever since. A German firm merged with the Swiss developer of Skyguard in 2009. Skyguard is mainly the fire control system and it normally uses 35mm autocannon (developed in the 1950s) and a number of different short-range missiles. Skyguard has been used in more than thirty countries for short-range air defense of key installations.

After the 2015 0rder Thailand sought to purchase the Skyguard option of towed container launchers for short-range heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles. That order was denied because the Swiss had enacted laws prohibiting sales to nations involved in civil war. Thailand has had separatist and Islamic terrorist violence in its three Moslem majority provinces since 2004. That conflict was fading fast by 2015 (and continues to do so) but the Swiss still considered it a civil war under the terms of their arms export laws, which were more strictly interpreted after 2015. The law allows delivery of already ordered items and the provision of tech support and spare parts. The military government has turned to China for more weapons purchases.

Thailand has other problems with importing weapons, the main one being the fact that the Thai military took over the government in 2014 and has a short time to order new stuff. The military used “cleaning up corruption” as one of its justifications for taking power in 2014. To the surprise of no one, the military government proved quite corrupt and the military response was to try and suppress embarrassing news of this. The censorship and failed efforts to curb corruption were disappointing to many Thais. An early 2018 opinion poll showed that 20 percent of Thais believed the corruption problem could be handled if a government made enough of an effort. For most Thais, the military is seen as all talk and little action in the anti-corruption department. That same opinion poll also revealed how difficult the corruption problem is. Thus the poll revealed that 48 percent of Thais believed the corruption problem cannot be fixed because it is so deeply ingrained in Thai culture.

Most Thais remember that in all the post-World War II coups (1951, 1957, 1958, 1971, 1976, 1977, 1991 and 2006) the economy improved after the military took over. But after the 2014 coup, there was no similar boost in economic activity. Accepting major investments from China did not help as much as expected. Worse, the increased presence of the Chinese was not welcome. Many Thais fear greater Chinese influence in the economy will hurt Thailand in the long run. In late 2016 the American government decided that the military government might be around for a while and changed its foreign policy so that it could maintain the long-term links the two countries have while continuing to pressure the generals to allow elections and democracy. Even the Thai generals have come to realize that getting too close to China is not beneficial for Thailand, or the military, in the long run.

Most Thais prefer to maintain the alliance with the United States rather than do more business with China. It was the American connection that made Thailand a popular (and profitable) place for Western (especially American) firms to set up Asian manufacturing operations in the 1960s and ever since. Thailand became one of the most prosperous nations in the region with per-capita GDP increasing tenfold from 1960 to 2016. Thais expect this to continue but instead Thai GDP growth has fallen behind all of the neighbors since the 2014 coup. The army realized the economic problems could not be ignored. Unemployment is still low but income was declining as are opportunities for getting better jobs. As far as the economy goes everyone else in the region is doing better and the military cannot hide that or explain it away.

As a result of all this, the military is obliged to restore democratic rule in 2019 and elections will be held in early 2019. Whenever there is a coup the military budget increases as the military tries to order as much new gear as they can before democracy, and less military spending, returns. The problems with the Swiss export controls (and similar ones from other Western nations) led Thailand to seek more new weapons from China. For example in September 2018 construction began on the first of three Chinese submarines ordered by the Thai Navy 18 months ago. That deal was not explained in much deal other than that the three subs would cost $1.3 billion and only the first one was actually on order. Actual purchase orders for the other two were expected in 2021 and 2022, when an elected government would be back in charge. If all three subs were bought Thailand would be making payments into the late 2020s. The military government got a lot of criticism for this deal, especially from retired generals and admirals who were unafraid to point out that the military had more pressing and practical needs (like new patrol boats and helicopters for the navy) than submarines. Officially the navy defends the purchase as necessary because Thailand has to defend its Andaman Islands and all its neighbors have submarines. But Thai naval officials admit that most Thai coastal waters are too shallow for most submarine operations.

Historians point out that every time there is a military government the military takes advantage of it to get major purchases made. Every year since the 2014 coup the military budget has increased. Some of the additional defense spending involved corruption opportunities because buying stuff that is not needed is nothing new. That was demonstrated in the 1990s when a military government approved the purchase of an aircraft carrier that became infamous for never having anything to do and absorbing so much of the navy budget to maintain that the admirals gradually diverted money away from more urgent needs. The carrier was such an expensive ship to operate that it spent most of its career (which has not yet ended) tied up in port without any aircraft or even a full crew. In the spirit of that carrier, the Navy has long sought money for submarines. In mid-2016 the Navy revived its plan to buy three submarines from China. The navy had first proposed this in June 2015 but withdrew the proposal a month later because of so much opposition. Most Thais oppose the navy submarine proposal and believe that the $1.3 billion needed to buy the three Chinese subs would be better spent on updating the navy coastal forces to improve security along the coasts. The sad shape of many Thai warships, especially the sole aircraft carrier, is a national embarrassment. Each of the three Chinese submarines costs more than the carrier did. Another factor (that can get you arrested if discussed openly in Thailand) is the Chinese frequently using bribes to expedite major weapons sales.

Since 2014 the military government has used its dictatorial powers to get the constitution changed and give the military permanent political power. This will make it easier for the military to block actions (by elected leaders) that it does not like and make it much more difficult to change the constitution. While this might mean fewer military takeovers in the future it increases the possibility of a civil war to limit military and royal power for good. This threat was believed to have been taken care of in the 1930s by a fortuitous compromise. The current king and military leaders are not in a compromising mood like their counterparts were nearly a century ago.

There have been eleven military governments in the last four decades and 19 coups or attempts since 1932. The monarchy tended to remain neutral in these disputes but clearly favored democracy over a military dictatorship. The royal family, the Chakaris, was founded by a general who seized the throne in 1782 partly to bring peace in a time of great chaos. Since then the Chakaris have survived by avoiding stupid mistakes. That may be changing as the current military government is creating more problems than it is solving and Thais fear the new (since 2017) king will be the opposite of his father and end up being one of the “bad kings” and perhaps even the 10th and last king of the Chakari dynasty. That is something most Thais want to avoid because their particular form of monarchy and, since the 1930s, constitutional democracy, has generally been good for the country. The government has kept the country out of major wars. This included World War II, where the government managed to avoid Japanese conquest by maintaining “cooperative neutrality.” Even back then the Thais had a reputation for being tough negotiators, even with powerful nations they want to (or must) cooperate with. The Chinese, like the Americans and Japanese (especially during World War II) learned it was better to negotiate with the Thais than trying to bully them. The Thai military understands this applies to them as well.

 


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