For a brief period in the late 1990s, Thailand was the only country in southeast Asia that possessed one of the world’s ultimate symbols of military strength: an aircraft carrier.
Its carrier, the HTMS Chakri Naruebet, was meant to be a source of pride for Thailand and symbolise the developing country’s power.
But that was before the late 1990s Asian financial crisis. Bangkok’s grand plans for its carrier were significantly hobbled as a result of the region’s economic downturn. Commissioned in 1997, the same year the financial crisis struck the country, the Chakri Naruebet — which means “Sovereign of the Chakri dynasty,” the Thai monarchy’s ruling family — was mostly consigned to sitting in port due to funding shortfalls.
There are several aircraft carriers in service with Asian militaries, as China, India, Japan, and South Korea have carriers of different sizes. Not wanting to be left out, Singapore is on its way to constructing a carrier, too.
All this competition has only made Thailand’s once-proud carrier look like a bizarre microcosm of the country’s dysfunction, rather than the symbol of growing national prestige that it was intended to be.
According to The Diplomat, Thailand’s AV-8S Matador (Harrier) accompanying jet fleet was withdrawn from service in 2006, leaving Bangkok with an aircraft carrier without any actual aircraft. Thailand experienced a military coup that same year, along with a second one in 2014.
Thailand ordered its aircraft carrier from a Spain-based shipbuilder in 1992. The vessel was commissioned five years later, in 1997
Almost immediately, Thailand ran into budget constraints. The Chakri Naruebet was in port far more often than it was at sea. In 2006 its associated air wing was withdrawn. The Harriers that used to be deployed to the carrier are now over 30 years old, and Thailand was the last country in the world to fly first-generation Harrier airframes.
Even while operational, the carrier is tiny compared to the larger vessels that India and China posses, not to mention the US’s super carrier fleet. It’s now the smallest functioning aircraft carrier in the world. Here’s how it compares to the USS Kitty Hawk:
The Chakri Naruebet was built to carry 9 Harrier aircraft and 14 helicopters, along with a 605-person crew. Many of the aircraft are now decades old, and the carrier reportedly doesn’t have a functioning anti-aircraft defence system.
Despite its shortcomings, the Chakri Naruebet has proved useful in humanitarian missions. The Diplomat notes that the carrier was used after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as well as in rescue operations after flooding in Thailand in 2010 and 2011.
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