Thailand has an 1,800 nautical mile coastline to protect, with responsibility resting mainly with the Royal Thai Navy (RTN).
With a fleet of over 130 mainly modern vessels, including a small aircraft carrier, 15 frigates and corvettes, and six missile-armed fast attack craft, the RTN is one of Southeast Asia's larger, and better-equipped, maritime forces.
The RTN's major warships are potent symbols of national sovereignty, and regularly provide a high-profile Thai presence in regional exercises with foreign navies.
Also, they sometimes venture further afield on defence diplomacy missions.
Regional concerns are mounting, though, over maritime territorial sovereignty, offshore resource protection, resurgent piracy, terrorism, search and rescue, and, in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, disaster relief.
In response, the RTN has switched its acquisition priorities from deep-sea warships with surface, underwater and air warfare capabilities, to offshore patrol vessels (OPV), suitable for cost-effective patrol, enforcement, response and surveillance duties.
Three locally-built Hua Hin-class OPVs entered service with the RTN in the early 2000s, while in 2005/2006 the RTN commissioned two 96-metre Pattani class OPVs, constructed by Hudong Shipyard, in Shanghai, China.
96-metre Pattani-class OPV
Now, British Shipbuilder BVT Surface Fleet has forged an alliance with Bangkok Dock, for the construction of an advanced OPV for the RTN. Bangkok Dock will build the ship at their dry dock facility in the Thai capital, to a design supplied by BVT.
The design of the helicopter-capable, 90-metre, OPV will be based on that of the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard's (TTCG) three new ships, which are at present in build in UK.
This new class is a development of the British Royal Navy's River class ships, as, incidentally, are the trio of new ships, also currently being built by BVT in Britain, for the Royal Navy of Oman.
The TTCG vessels, which are set for busy operational lives combating the international trade in illegal narcotics, will each be armed with one 30mm cannon, backed up by machine guns. They will be able to operate an Agusta Westland AW-139 medium helicopter from a 20-metre flight deck, and will carry a high-speed RIB for interception and boarding duties.
Long range offshore surveillance will be enabled by the Scanter 4100 radar system, and the advanced Ultra Osiris mission management system will be fitted.
The TTCG ships will be powered by twin MAN 16v 28133D diesels, producing 7.2MW, and linked to controllable pitch propellers to enable a top speed of about 25 knots. The specifications for the RTN ship are likely to be similar to those of the TTCG vessels.
The BVT-Bangkok Dock venture will involve the transfer to Bangkok Dock of BVT technology, design and construction skills, and may include some British-built modules.
Follow-on vessels of the same type may later be built by the Thai company.
This new OPV deal is in accord with BVT's strategy of establishing itself as a major player in Asian warship construction. The main aim is for the company to compete much more effectively, in the potentially highly lucrative regional naval market, by taking advantage of Asian business costs, which are far lower than those in Europe. Local construction will also strengthen BVT's hand in negotiations with prospective customers, which nowadays often include demands for both technology transfer, and offset contracts.
Incidentally, British-designed warships have been built in Thailand before. The three RTN anti-submarine corvettes of the Khamronsin-class, and the similar, but far less heavily armed, Royal Thai Police patrol ship ‘Srinakarin’ were all completed locally, in the 1990s, to a design by Vosper Thornycroft, a company which has since been acquired by BVT.
The Hua Hin-class OPVs were also built to a design based on that of the Khamronsin.
The BVT-Bangkok Dock contract underscores Thailand’s policy of acquiring warships from diverse sources. The RTN has, over the years, commissioned vessels designed and built in China, Europe and the USA, as well as indigenously-constructed craft.
This policy avoids the perils of over-reliance on a small number of suppliers, but can pose maintenance challenges.
BVT's Asian expansion ambitions are not just focused on Thailand, though, and there have been reports that the company is negotiating with both the Indian and Malaysian shipbuilding industries.
The Indians are reportedly particularly interested in importing BVT's expertise in modular shipbuilding techniques, to be used in the construction of a new class of advanced OPVs for the Indian Coast Guard.
Modular building, involving of more than one yard in the build of a ship, so as to take advantage of a geographical spread of skills, and costs, is now not uncommon, and is not confined to the construction of merchant vessels.
For instance, the building of the Royal Australian Navy's new landing ships, and guided missile destroyers, is to be split between yards in Australia and Spain.
For some years, a project for the construction, by BVT, of two upgraded Lekiu guided missile frigates for the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) was in gestation. The plan was for construction of the warships to be shared between UK and Malaysian yards, using modular techniques. The enhanced Lekiu project though, seems recently to have been halted, probably for financial reasons. BVT is instead reportedly offering OPVs, to be built mainly in Malaysia, with British assistance.
Another possibility for BVT is the modification and sale to the RMN, of the three Seawolf missile-armed Bendahara Sakam-class corvettes, completed by BAE Systems for the Royal Brunei Navy in 2003-2004, which are currently languishing alongside in UK.
Following a complex contractual dispute, the Bruneians finally took ownership in 2007, but immediately put them up for sale.
These compact but heavily armed warships could represent an economical alternative to new-build vessels to satisfy the RMN's need for an expanded deep sea presence, but they are not ideally suited for sustained offshore patrol work, particularly as they do not have a helicopter capability. Furthermore, other countries, including Algeria and the UAE, are thought to be interested in acquiring them.