11 July 2024

Thailand’s defense budget for fiscal year 2025 shows no initiatives towards military reform and modernization due to the high spending on personnel, which leaves insufficient funding for defense technology, according to members of Parliament who took part in a budget debate over the past week.

The Defense Ministry had requested a budget of 200.9 billion baht for national defense and security matters, up 2.6 per cent from 195.7 billion baht the previous year.

The military budget amounts to 5.3 per cent of the total government budget of 3.7 trillion baht proposed for fiscal year 2025, according to a Budget Bureau document.

The Thai armed forces would spend more than 106 billion baht  — more than half of the total defense budget — on salaries, allowances, and welfare of troops, rather than investing in strengthening the armed forces’ capacity, according to opposition MP Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn of the Move Forward Party.

It is obvious that the military gives top priority to the well-being of high-ranking officers, providing them 550 million baht for their luxury cars, while the budget for repairing and maintenance of equipment to maintain the military’s capability saw only a slight increase, he said.

The Army requested an allocation of only 195 million baht to repair its armored vehicles used for military operations along the border with Myanmar, he said, and added “perhaps less than two-thirds of the armored vehicles are ready for the operation”.

The problem of too many generals

The opposition has accused Defense Minister Sutin Klungsang of neglecting the government’s plan to reduce the number of generals, notably those in inactive positions such as specialist advisors.

A 2.5-billion-baht reduction in expenditure on personnel in fiscal year 2025 was a natural adjustment due to the retirement of senior officers, said Wiroj.

“Retirement is a normal situation, and not an initiative of the minister to scale down our army,” he told the House of Representatives. 

The Thai military has faced criticism for having too many generals in service without clear tasks and duties. The military has declined to disclose the exact number of officers having the rank of general. The number of generals in service is estimated at 1,200.

The Defense Ministry, in 2008, had planned to reduce the number of generals in the position of specialist advisor from 752 to 384 by 2028.

Under the plan, 433 of them remained in service this year. There are also 965 generals in many positions at military units, according to an army officer.

Wiroj blamed the minister for not allocating a budget for early retirement packages as an incentive to phase out the generals. Sutin argued that his government did have such a package but declined to reveal it to the House. 

The opposition suggested that the government undertake a drastic restructuring of the military by combining or merging units having overlapping tasks to downsize the entire armed forces.

Chayapol Sathondee, a Move Forward Party MP, suggested that the government seriously consider restructuring the military administration to cut the budget and human resources.

The Thai military should not have the Defense Ministry’s Office of Permanent Secretary and the Royal Thai Armed Forces Command perform the same administrative duties, he said.

“If we can combine the two departments, the government would save 7.6 billion baht annually,” he said.   

Slow in deploying drones

The opposition urged the government to allocate more budget for investment in new technology to modernize the armed forces and make them fit to respond to new security threats, notably along the border with Myanmar and Malaysia where transborder crimes such as trafficking in persons and drug smuggling were active.

The Thai military did not have a comprehensive plan to commission a sufficient number of unmanned aerial vehicles, although such a technology has been widely used by militaries around the world for a long time.

“Even drug smugglers are flying drones to monitor the movement of Thai troops before sending their goods across the border, so why does our military continue to rely on troop patrols?” said Wiroj, and recommended that the military install artificial intelligence-operated surveillance cameras along the border.  

The army has requested only 105 million baht in the budget this year for its 700-million-baht plan to acquire 10 UAVs, and only 81 million baht for its 540-million-baht anti-drone system, he said.

“I was informed that the army has yet to develop a doctrine for drone operations,” said Wirjo, who is chairman of the military affairs committee.

The army badly needs such a doctrine as it operates drones made by several producers including Chinese, Israeli, and Turkish, he said.

Chayapol blamed the government for allocating too little budget for research and development of defense technology, which amounted to only 0.37 per cent of the total defense budget.

The National Security Council has not projected any major military threat and likelihood of wars in the near future, therefore Thailand did not have to purchase or collect more military hardware, he said. “It’s a good time for research and development for modernization of the military,” he said.

Sutin said he was considering the establishment of a cyber-command to cope with new threats and technology warfare by the beginning of the new fiscal year in October but did not disclose the budget and personnel for the project.

Local production of defense hardware

Sutin said his government also paid more attention to the development of the defense industry as he had learned that the domestic industry was capable of producing good quality military hardware for export.

“The problem is our military rarely uses locally made equipment. I instructed all branches and units to consider using more Thai-manufactured hardware,” he said.

The Defense Ministry has two agencies for development of the defense industry: the Defense Industry and Energy Center under the office of the ministry’s permanent secretary, and another one is the Defense Technology Institute, a public organization.   

The DTI has requested 998 million baht for fiscal year 2025, up from 848 million baht in the previous year. Of the budget, 293 million baht, or one-third of the total, would be allocated for expenditure on its personnel and 628 million baht for research and development, according to a Budget Bureau document.

Offset policy

While the Navy failed to submit its request for a budget for the controversial submarine and a planned frigate project in the coming fiscal year, the Air Force managed to secure a 19-billion-baht budget for 12 new fighter jets to replace its aging fleet.

The opposition MPs said they would not oppose the project but urged the Air Force and the government to enforce an “offset policy” to have direct or indirect economic linkage and technology transfer for the development of the domestic defense industry.

“Please do not spend tax money simply to purchase warplanes. The government should think about the development of our economy and industry for the benefit of the civilian population,” said Wiroj.    

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk