At the end of March 2011 Jane’s reported that the Thai government had agreed to buy 2 of Germany’s retired Type 206A diesel electric submarines, for a bargain price of about $220 million. There was reportedly an agreement in principle, with funding expected in the FY 2012 defense budget. Changes of government, and the real commitment needed to have a submarine force, kept that report from becoming a reality.
The Thais remained interested, but international competition has emerged for the German boats, and the deal finally unraveled entirely. That leaves an interesting asset on the global market. At just 500 tonnes submerged displacement, the 48.6m long U206 boats are among the world’s smallest attack submarines:
These boats are on the market because Germany abruptly decommissioned all 6 of its U206As in June 2010, leaving that country with a fleet of just 4 modern U212A AIP boats. The move was undertaken as part of severe budget cuts, but the small U206A submarines were already slated for retirement between 2011-2015.
Thailand, in turn, as very limited budgets of its own to work with, which makes a second-hand sale attractive. The special forces and shallow-water capabilities of the U206As are also an excellent fit with Southeast Asia’s littoral environment. The Thais are thinking hard about the best ways to protect their offshore natural gas resources, in a region with territorial disputes aplenty, and a number of neighbors in Malaysia (Scorpene), Indonesia (U209), Vietnam (Kilo), China, etc. buying submarines.
Designed to operate in the Baltic Sea during the Cold War, the U206s’ design, 500t size, and materials reportedly give them exceptionally low acoustic and magnetic signatures, as well as great maneuverability that extends to very shallow waters. The submarines received refits in the late 1980s – early 1990s, adding the STN Atlas DBQS-21D sonar, new periscopes, a new weapon control system, a new ESM system for tracking enemy electro-magnetic emissions, and GPS navigation. A crew of 22 people commands the boat and its armament: 8 Atlas DM2 family torpedoes in 8 x 533mm torpedo tubes, plus up to 24 mines, carried externally. Maximum range is reportedly 4,500 miles, but only if restricted to 5 knots speed.
Their best modern counterpart is probably DCNS’ new 855t Andrasta Class, which has yet to find a buyer.
Contracts & Key Events
July 7/14: Sub squadron. Thailand officially inaugurates a submarine squadron at Sattahip naval base in Chon Buri province. All it’s missing is… submarines. They do have a German submarine simulator, which is reportedly linked to an anti-submarine simulator operated by Fleet Training Command. The Navy has also been sending people to Germany and South Korea for training. Sources: Bangkok Post, “Navy launches submarine squadron”.
March 13/12: Thais pass. Thai Navy Chief Admiral Surasak Runroengrom said they dropped plans to buy the 4 German U206 submarines, and let their option rights expire on Feb 29/12. Reports say that Thai Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat refused to approve the deal, after several reviews of the navy’s submarine purchase plans. Europe Online.
The announcement may prove very gratifying to some other countries. Colombia has already bought 2 of the 6 available pocket subs. Mexico has similar needs, against the name narco-trafficking targets. Taiwan could shore up its defenses and turbocharge a native submarine program if it strikes the right deal. Or, the stealthy, shallow-water U206s may find another global buyer who values their unique specialties, and has a near-term need.
Feb 25/12: Opportunity dwindling. Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat has agreed with the navy’s U206 proposal, and wants to submit it to the cabinet, but the opportunity may go away if the Thais don’t make up their mind fast. The Bangkok Post:
“ACM Sukumpol said it was a race against time as Germany, which makes the submarines, has given the government until the end of the month to decide whether to buy them or not… he supports the navy’s position that it needs the submarines… If and when the submarines are acquired, the navy will have to adjust its own budget to effectively maintain the upkeep of the submarines… However, since the cabinet has not yet approved the proposals, Germany has in the meantime sold two of the submarines to Colombia. The navy now hopes to buy the remaining four for 5.5 billion baht.”
Sept 20/11: New Defence Minister Gen. Yutthasak Sasiprapa and his defence scrutiny committee resolve to return the U206 buy to the Navy, for a review of its cost effectiveness. The German U206 offer expires on Sept 30/11, but the minister says that they will either extend the deadline, or the Navy would have to look at other new or used options. Meanwhile, existing recruits for the new force will continue to receive such training as the military can offer. Bangkok Post.
July 2011: Thailand holds elections, as planned. The result leaves Thaskin Shinawatra’s sister Yingluck and her Peu Thai party in power, with a rare absolute majority (265/500 seats). The party had campaigned on a platform of reconciliation for the events of 2006-2011, and the military and royalist forces accept the results. Peu Thai was not obliged to form a coalition government, but it subsequently entered into negotiations with a number of small parties, and brought the governing coalition to 300 seats.
April 19/11: Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon opens a can of worms by proposing that the Thai navy buy 2 new license-built U209 submarines from South Korea, instead of ordering 6 of the much smaller, used U206As from Germany.
The tradeoffs include BHT 7.7 billion for 6-7 years of service from small, 500t U206A subs optimized for the shallow waters prevalent around Thailand, vs. BHT 40 billion for 25-35 years of service from larger 1,200t U209 boats, but having only 1 boat available at any time. As a 3rd option, South Korea has reportedly offered 2 of their own 20-year old U209s for about BHT 15 billion.
With even the BHT 7.7 billion buy seen as likely to tax Thailand’s ability to fund and run a submarine force, the obvious obstacle to the Korean alternatives is price. Bangkok Post.
March 29/11: The Bangkok Post is less than impressed by the purchase, though the editorial shows a marked lack of understanding regarding the submarines’ actual capabilities. The editorial also claims a different deal: THB 7.7 billion (about $260 million) for all 6 of the U209As.
They are on solid ground regarding the operations and maintenance angle, however, when they say that THB 7.7 billion:
“…is just the starting price. There are additional costs – crewing and training, provision of docking and maintenance facilities, and the cost of regular maintenance itself just to keep them operational. It’s questionable if the Thai navy has any clear idea how much this will cost each year… Just look at the Chakri Naruebet aircraft carrier as a good example of why not. The ship has been docked at Sattahip naval base for most of this year, and most other years since it was purchased, during which time it has been turned into a tourist attraction, because the navy does not have enough money to put the carrier into service. And the Harrier jump jets that came with the ship are all grounded for lack of spare parts.”
March 23/11: Jane’s issues the initial report: $220 million for 2 U206A submarines.
The German submarines were reportedly picked over larger second-hand U209 boats from South Korea, and Type 039 Song Class submarines from China. Thailand is also said to have inquired about Sweden’s 1990s-era Gotland Class submarines, but the 2 Vastergotland Class boats recently sold to Singapore were apparently all the Swedes wished to part with. IHS Jane’s.