Army chief defends decommissioned Bt350-million surveillance airship
By The Nation
BANGKOK: -- Army commander-in-chief General Chalermchai Sitthisart said on Thursday a Bt350-million surveillance airship had been officially decommissioned after the airship reached its expiration date.
Chalermchai was replying to reporters at the Army’s Command and General Staff College after being asked to comment on criticism about alleged wasteful spending on Army procurements for equipment that proved to be of limited value.
Chalermchai said the airship had reached the end of its term of operations because it was made of canvas, but the accompanying surveillance camera system could still be used. However, the Army did not plan to buy a new airship to replace the old one.
The Army chief said the surveillance camera system would be dismounted from the airship and installed on another aircraft based on a decision by the forward command of the Internal Security Operations Command Area 4. The forward command was studying the issue in detail, Chalermchai said, adding that it would be unsafe to the airship at present.
“Its usage will have to be modified because the expensive part was the camera system,” Chalermchai said.
“No new airship will be bought, but we will adjust the use of the camera system, as it is expensive and the brains of the surveillance system. Now we are testing it on another aircraft.”
Asked whether decommissioning marked the end of the airship monitoring programme in the southern border provinces, Chalermchai replied: “Yes. But other parts can be used on another aircraft.”
The Army chief added that the trailer truck that hauled the aircraft would be sold in an auction to be held by the Army Transport Department to benefit the Army. He said it would be a waste to leave the trailer unused.
Asked whether the surveillance airship project had been a “complete waste”, Chalermchai said it had still been functioning when he carried operations in the deep South in 2011.
Critics have said the airship was a graphic example of wasteful military procurement, exemplified by the purchase of handheld bomb detectors from Britain that proved to be useless.
The airship project had a total budget of Bt350 million. The airship cost Bt260 million while the camera system, ground support equipment and other expenses cost Bt90 million.
The airship was commissioned in 2009 but it suffered a leak and was required to be refilled with expensive helium, so it was subsequently stored in a hangar at the 15th Infantry Division in Pattani’s Nong Chik district.
When Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha was Army chief, the Army hired a firm to provide maintenance for the airship for Bt50 million a year, after which it was subsequently used sporadically.
However, there was additional criticism that the airship flew lower than was safe, making it an easy target, so it was eventually put in storage again until its term of operations expired.
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