By Thanapat Kitjakosol
The Royal Thai Army yesterday came out in defence of the controversial Bt350-million airship acquired to boost security measures in the deep South - and even if the "Sky Dragon" has not been grounded as reported, it will fly into an uncertain future.
The senior officer in charge, Lt Gen Kasikorn Kheereesri, denied the newly bought airship was being sidelined due to safety concerns.
However, criticism has been widespread over its suitability for the nature of anti-insurgency work in the region.
Moreover, its needs are substantial - a back-up system requiring a helicopter, a land vehicle, a ground command station and 55 officers.
The officer said no order had come from the Army grounding the airship. Yesterday high-power zoom cameras were being installed on it in preparation for a number of tests, including a possible flight today to check its engines and wireless signal connections between the cameras and ground control.
Worrawit Basu, a senator serving on the Senate committee on the military, said he had heard the airship was not fully operational because it still lacked certain key devices.
The US had prohibited their hand-over to the Army, he said. He said no evaluation had been undertaken to determine whether other devices could be substituted, and he questioned the financial wisdom of buying another airship.
"Bt700 million [the cost of two] is a lot of money. To build a prolonged peace process, there should be other and better ways to do it on such a large budget," he added. Srisomphob Jitphiromsri, a lecturer with Prince Songkla University, Pattani Campus, questioned the military value of airships in an insurgency like that in the deep South.
He said a single airship designed as an airborne surveillance platform would be useless in offensive operations, because more airships would be needed to ensure its maximum combat efficiency.
He said the public would liken the airship project to the GT200 explosive-detector controversy if it proved inefficient after a few months of use.
"If the number of attacks or ambushes are not reduced, it would raise questions over whether other alternatives or human measures would be more cost-effective and productive in winning over local residents - instead of an airship we pay Bt350 million for," he added.
Army commander Anupong Paochinda paid an inspection visit to the South and observed the flight test.
There are no reports about his feedback or opinion about the airship.
A source with the airship's operational support pondered its combat efficiency, saying the local landscapes comprised thick bushes and trees, unlike deserts in Iraq or Afghanistan where the US military used airships effectively in fighting off insurgents.
"The local insurgents in the South employ ambushes and hit-and-run attacks against targets, and they do not converge in large groups long enough to be seen by a wandering airship," he said.
The source claimed that the airship bumped the ground during a recent landing, but there was no damage to its airframe or engines.
"The incident may have led to this fresh criticism of the airship," the source added.
SPECIFICATIONS OF THE AIRSHIP:
The Aeros 40D S/N 21 (Sky Dragon) airship was manufactured by |US-based Worldwide Aeros.
It is 10.61 metres wide, 47.35 metres long and 13.35 metres high.
It can fly up to 10,000 feet and travel at a maximum speed of 88kph, with a cruising speed of 55kph.
Its operational range is 560 km.
HOW THE SURVEILLANCE WORKS: ?
A Bt260-million airship, which uses microwave and satellite signals to send data to a task force and the Army command centre, is equipped with two high-definition thermal-detecting surveillance cameras.
The 2.1-mega-pixel cameras, which cost Bt70 million, cover 360 degrees and take pictures of still or moving objects at any time of the day or night, as well as during bad weather. ?
Three HU-1H helicopters, one each for Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani provinces, support the airship's surveillance operations. ?
Twenty-six fixed command centres survey the three southernmost provinces. ?
A state-of-the-art mobile command-and-control vehicle named the Glizzly supports the airship's operations.
The Glizzly is a 22-tonne armoured vehicle with a 330-horsepower engine and which can reach 136kph.
Fifty-five officers are assigned to this surveillance system: four on command operations, 20 on air operations, 17 for ground operations and 14 for support operations.
March 10, 2009: The Abhisit Vejjajiva administration, with Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and Army chief General Anupong Paochinda, |approving Bt350 million to procure the airship from US-based Aria International for use in the South.
January 14, 2010: The latest of four flight tests is held in Pattani. The airship's mast is torn during landing.
This article was first published in The Nation/Asia News Network.