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Chinese VT4 battle tanks for Thailand, a long saga

The CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) threat weighing on the head of countries dealing with Russia causes serious concerns to many countries allied of the US, not only for military supplies. How to deal with countries which not only procure Russian, but also Chinese, weapons? Several Southeast Asian countries do purchase Chinese equipment in varying quantities. Thailand is a major customer of them.

Chinese VT4 battle tanks for Thailand a long saga
Norinco VT4 (MBT-3000) of the Royal Thai Army (Picture source: Thai video)

More than political considerations, Thailand is managing its supply sources with financial wisdom and constraints. More attention should be given to the complexities in accessing preferred arms suppliers, geopolitical disturbances elsewhere affecting equipment availability, and, due to the restricted defense budgets limiting acquisition choices, the hardware prices, or cost-effectiveness of the equipment, and availability matter immensely, as written by Olli Suorsa Koh Swee Lean Collin in The National Interest. While not necessarily representing the “best-in-the-market” options, the final procurement decisions have, still, represented the pragmatic “fit-for-purpose” alternatives. Thailand’s media-frenzy decision to buy Chinese equipment to fulfill part of the Royal Thai Army and Navy’s modernization plans is a case in point.

The Royal Thai Army’s (RTA) plans to acquire new battle tanks to replace some of its already decades-old M41A3 Walker Bulldogs, M48A5 Pattons, and M60A1/A3 Pattons. The figure mentioned by some sources is 200 tanks. Replacing the aging American equipment with new American main battle tanks has been considered as prohibitively expensive. Moreover, as the military-led coup took place in May 2014, ousting a democratically elected government, the subsequent sanctions closed Bangkok’s access to much of the Western weapons manufacturers.

As Thailand’s access to the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in the West became severely restricted, Bangkok sought alternative, trusted options, namely Russia and Ukraine. In 2011, the Royal Thai Army ordered 49 Ukrainian-made T-84 Oplot-T MBTs, worth $240 million dollars, to replace M41A3 Walker Bulldog light tanks. By 2015, however, the RTA had received only ten Oplot-Ts and, due to the Ukrainian manufacturer’s continuing difficulties in implementing the contract, Thailand declined further deliveries in April 2017. The Russian takeover of Crimea and hostilities in the eastern Ukraine caused economic challenges to Kiev, putting the fulfilment of the Thai contract in jeopardy. The RTA was then forced to look again elsewhere to buy the needed tanks.

In December 2015 and February 2016, Thai delegations visited Russia to conduct first-hand assessment of the T-90MS MBT marketed by Uralvagonzavod. As the Thai army opened the tender once more, China’s NORINCO made its offer in the form of the VT4 (MBT-3000) as a credible alternative. Ultimately, the price and availability of the equipment led to Bangkok’s final decision. Despite the attractiveness of the Russian offer in terms of capability, the price tag proved too high. After many failed or incomplete acquisition attempts, the Chinese offer—the VT4—emerged as the most cost-effective alternative.

After the contract was approved in early 2016, the first batch of twenty-eight VT4 MBTs, worth $150 million, was delivered to Thailand in October 2017, and destined for the 3rd Cavalry Division. Following the delivery, the RTA got a green light from the cabinet to procure a second batch of ten VT4s, for $58 million. The third batch, intended for a full, 49 MBT-strong battalion, still awaits cabinet approval. NORINCO’s VT4 provides the RTA with the required capability at an attractive price tag. Offering excellent cost-effectiveness and acceptable quality, the Chinese VT4 will likely fulfil the equipping needs of several more RTA divisions in the quest to complete its modernization program.

To address quality concerns regarding Chinese hardware, Beijing offered to build a major maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility in Khon Kaen, Thailand. The new facility will allow Thailand’s local industry to assemble, produce and maintain Chinese land equipment for the RTA, and involves technology transfers to the country’s emerging defense industry.


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