Without much warning, the Thai Navy recently (September) signed a contract with China to purchase a Type 71 LPD amphibious ship. These 25,000 ton vessels cost about $240 million and Thailand is the first export customer for an “export version” that is said to be
about ten percent
The navy defended this purchase by pointing out that the four older, and much smaller, amphibious ships the navy had were in need of replacement and this LPD offered more capabilities. The navy admitted that this LPD, like the little-used aircraft carrier the navy bought, would only find it useful only for disaster relief and not much else.
This is not the first major purchase of Chinese warships. In 2017 the Thai Navy ordered three diesel-electric submarines for $1.3 billion but only the first one was actually on order. Actual purchase orders for the other two were expected in 2021 and 2022. If all three subs were actually bought Thailand would be making payments into the late 2020s.
The military dominated Thai 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 the 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 these additional defense spending involved corruption opportunities because buying stuff that is not needed is nothing new. In the 1990s 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 the carrier and the expensive ship 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 rest of the navy. 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. Elections were held in early 2019 but the military had managed to change the constitution in an effort to give the military more power when an elected government is in charge. Even with the new constitution the results of the 2019 elections indicated most Thais are angry at the military and this latest order for an amphibious ship does not improve Thai public opinion towards their military leaders.
The LPD is definitely a more practical purchase than the submarines. China has five Type 071 ships and the latest one entered service in January 2019 and two more are under construction. The first one arrived for duty in 2007 and by the time the second one entered service in 2011 the Chinese apparently realized they would need more than the four they originally planned to build. Meanwhile China is also expanding its marine force from three to seven brigades. It is thought that the Thais may get one of the two under construction so the deal can be completed as quickly as possible before a Thai government hostile to China gains power.
The 071s are LPD (landing ship dock) type vessels and were the largest ships in the Chinese Navy until the first aircraft carrier entered service in 2013. But while Chinese aircraft carriers are still a work in progress work was quickly found for the LPDs right away. This makes Chinese neighbors uncomfortable.
These LPDs are 210 meter (689 foot) long, 25,000 ton amphibious ships with a flight deck for up to four helicopters and a flooded well in the rear for landing craft. It normally carries four hovercraft in the well and two smaller landing craft suspended on davits. The ship can carry up to 800 troops (500 are more common) and up to 20 armored vehicles. Max speed is 46 kilometers an hour with a cruising speed of 33 kilometers an hour. At that speed a Type 071 can stay at sea for up to 60 days. The 071 class ships are similar to the American 25,000 ton San Antonio class or the French 21,500 ton Mistral class. The 071s have the smallest crew (120) compared to 180 in the Mistral and 396 for the San Antonio.
Armament consists of a 76mm gun, four 30mm anti-missile autocannon, and four 18 tube decoy/chaff dispensers (for anti-missile work). Each 071 cost less than half what a San Antonio or Mistral cost.
The 071s have had some interesting adventures early on. In 2010 China sent the first one (the Kunlan Shan) to join the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. The Kunlan Shan went to Somalia without a lot of troops or any armored vehicles. But there were two Z-8 helicopters on board, each capable of carrying up to twenty troops, and the landing craft could be used to go after pirates. Some naval commandos were probably on board as these troops have been seen, several times, practicing landing on cargo ships (via helicopter or small boats).
The Kunlan Shan was the largest Chinese warship to be sent on anti-piracy duty. The previous five rotations (each four months long) only included frigates and destroyers. The appearance of the second LPD in the South China Sea made Vietnam and the Philippines nervous that China might be ready to seize possession of some uninhabited islands that all these nations claim. But the Chinese also found the LPD useful for handling the situation in the South China Sea and for disaster relief missions. These proved very popular with the distressed locals and Chinese diplomats.
Now that it is clear that China will soon have seven (and possibly even more) of these LPDs it is clear that these ships will be crucial in establishing and supplying small outposts in the South China Sea and elsewhere off the Chinese coast where there more disputed islands. The recent appearance of 071s in the Indian Ocean indicates Chinese amphibious ambitions have a very long reach indeed. When not being intimidating, the 071s stand ready to help out in natural disasters in the region. In both cases the 071s show countries in the region that China now has a large fleet and can be your friend or the neighbor who quickly invades you from the sea.
India will not be pleased to see the Thai navy using a Chinese LPD and submarines. Most of the Andaman Islands are owned by India. The southeast Thai coast faces the Andaman Sea and is called the “Andaman Coast. Thailand owns six small nearby islands that are part of the Andamans. These are a string of nearly 600 islands (most uninhabited) that are closer to Thailand than to India. The islands extend south nearly to Indonesia and thus cover traffic coming through the Malacca Straights. In light of that China is again proposing to fund the construction of the 135 kilometer Kra Canal that would cost $30 billion and connect the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. The canal through the narrowest part of Thailand has been proposed for centuries but the expense and lack of sufficient economic incentive thwarted all earlier efforts. The emergence of major economies in East Asia (China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) have changed that calculation. A canal would shorten voyages between East Asia and point west by 2,200 kilometers (two days at sea) compared to going through the Malacca Strait. This makes it worthwhile for about 30 percent of the current Malacca traffic, especially large tankers or container ships, to pay a large canal transit fee (over $100,000 for a large vessel). It works for the Panama and Suez canals, although those two save ships much larger amounts of time (to go around the southern tips of South America or Africa). But the Malacca Strait handles a much larger percentage (about half and two-thirds of all tanker traffic) of world sea transport traffic.