The acquisition of the 350-million-baht airship, of which the decomissioning was announced by army chief Gen Chalermchai Sitthisad on Thursday (Sept 14), has a long history.
It is one of the military equipment most criticised for being unworthy.
The army bought the controversial blimp when Gen Anupong Paojinda, who is now interior minister, was commander-in-chief. The purchase was subject to heavy criticism. Critics said it was too expensive and not worthy of investment. But, the army insisted it was operable and that every step taken to get was transparent. The then government was asked to buy it with a special method.
Asked about Gen Chalermchai’s revelation that the airship has been decommissioned, Gen Anupong said: “I don’t know. I have been out of the army for seven years. Ask the current army chief.”
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who succeeded Gen Anupong as army chief, also declined to comment on this matter.
The acquisition of the airship was approved in 2009 by the then Democrat-led government with a budget of 350 million baht under a procurement plan of the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc).
Of the total price, 260 million baht was for the balloon, 70 million baht for the day and night reconnaissance cameras, and 20 million baht for ground communication equipment.
The airship was intended to support the operations of government forces in solving the insurgency problem in the southern border provinces.
When it was first launched on Jan 15, 2010, technical problems were found on the airship. Observations were subsequently raised about its effectiveness and worth.
Later in March of the same year, the army conducted a test flight of the airship, but no reporters were allowed to observe. It was later reported that the airship could fly to the altitude of only one kilometre, lower than the stated specification of three kilometres. Therefore, the blimp could not be used for reconnaissance missions as the one kilometre altitude was too low to escape ground fire.
The specifications and effectiveness of the airship were then questioned by people in society. A question was raised as to whether the army had bought a second-handed blimp.
On May 27, 2010, an army committee signed to accept the balloon which was the main part of the airship. As for the fact that the airship could go up only one kilometre in the first flight, the then deputy chief of an army maintenance department said it was because the airship had been loaded with reconnaissance cameras and army personnel. The additional weight lowered its altitude.
The operations of the airships had then been kept a secret, but there were reports of its defective parts and leaks.
In September 2010, when Gen Prayut succeeded Gen Anupong as army chief, a company was hired for 50 million baht per year to keep the airship under maintenance. But there were reports of the blimps being inoperable and having frequently made emergency landings.
In November 2012, the airship had an accident while landing at its hangar after a mission to provide protection for the then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
In 2014, the airship made an emergency landing in a ricefield in Yarang district of Pattani due to a heavy storm and poor visibility. The airship, however, managed to safely fly back to its base.
On Sept 14, 2017, Gen Chalermchai announced the decommissioning of the airship, after eight years in use. He said the army does not have a plan to buy a new one. The airship’s components, particularly the canvas, have totally deteriorated. It is not in the condition to be reused or repaired becausing doing so would cost several tens of million baht and safety would not be guaranteed.
Its equipment would be moved to be used for other purposes, he said.