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Interview with Gen Surayud Chulano

Subject: Interview with Gen Surayud  Chulanont 

Jane's Defence Weekly 

November 3, 1999 


BYLINE: Jim Wolf is a JDW Special Correspondent based in Hawaii 

Chosen to lead the Royal Thai Army (RTA) a year ago, Gen Surayud 
Chulanont is seeking to complete a major restructuring that has 
been under way for over a decade. 
"We've already started [this process] in the army," he says. "But 
we're still working on how we'll operate under a restructured 
Supreme Command, and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) should decide 
[on the broader plan] before year-end." 
The Thai armed forces launched a doctrinal shift in the early 
1980s, replacing their focus on counter-insurgency warfare with one 
concentrated on conventional operations. This saw the air force and 
navy gain more importance, while the army announced a restructuring 
plan based on a proposed cut in its force strength by half (Jane's 
Defence Weekly 19 August 1989). 
Previous army chiefs, perhaps less emphatically committed to 
change than Gen Surayud, allowed this plan to languish. Thailand 
outlined a revised version, now somewhat modified, in the 1996 
defence white paper (JDW 17 April 1996). 
"There are three factors behind the adjustments," says Gen 
Surayud, noting that the basic thrust is unchanged. "Threat 
assessment, personnel problems and the ongoing economic crisis 
[that arose in mid-1997]." 
Border security remains the army's main mission but the threat of 
full-scale conventional attack dissipated with Vietnam's withdrawal 
from Cambodia and attention has shifted to the stability of 
Thailand's western border with Myanmar. The main issue over 
personnel centres on the army's organisation - traditionally 
top-heavy with a surfeit of generals, special colonels and older 
non-commissioned officers (NCOs). 
"The Supreme Command has approved our proposal for an early 
retirement plan. About 2,500 officers and NCOs have volunteered to 
resign next [fiscal] year," says Gen Surayud on efforts to trim the 
senior ranks. Local analysts counter that the real need is for 
government-level action. This would adjust legislation requiring 
all personnel to serve until aged 60, which has distorted the rank 
system, and loosen salary constraints that force many military 
personnel to seek parallel employment. 
The economic crisis has, meanwhile, forced a rethinking on 
procurement plans as defence funding dropped by over one-third from 
its level two years ago. The revamped RTA will seek to improve 
mobility and firepower, with its regular strength reduced by 17% 
over the next eight years to 190,000 from the current 230,000. "We 
aim to accent combined operations and acquire a few new 
technologies, like some night-fighting capability and better 
[command, control, communications and intelligence] C3I," says Gen 
Surayud. "On a higher level, we are trying to operate more closely 
with the air force and the navy." The shift to combined operations 
began in June 1997, when the army formed its first rapid deployment 
force. The last of four such units, each of battalion strength, 
should become operational before year-end. For the RTA, such forces 
are linked to better border security rather than power projection. 
Joint operations, although still in their infancy, are central to 
the broader restructuring which still awaits MoD approval. This 
would see the creation of unified commands overseen by a Joint 
Chiefs of Staff committee, but effective implementation could 
remain an issue. 
The army chief takes a realistic view on funding constraints 
rooted in Thailand's economic downturn. "We know full well that it 
will be very difficult to procure new equipment," he says. The RTA 
has reacted by cancelling some programmes, such as the planned move 
to replace tracked armoured vehicles with wheeled platforms, and 
developing a new interest in upgrading existing equipment. 
Gen Surayud highlights three procurement priorities: a new C3I 
system; improved ground-based early-warning systems for border 
areas; and a life-extension programme involving nearly 100 Bell 
UH-1H tactical helicopters. "Our other equipment requirements are 
small-scale, such as 40mm grenade launchers," he says. 
Cost-cutting measures have been introduced to trim maintenance and 
operational expenditure, most notably by reducing combat-readiness 
requirements. In future, combat-readiness status should be linked 
to a massive revamp intended to forge a more effective reserve 
system. The army chief also points to long-term efforts that are 
under way aimed at reducing the cost of an all-volunteer force, an 
alternative to the limited national service system currently in 
place that is so far proving prohibitively expensive. 
One area planned for expansion is the RTA's rural development 
mission; Gen Surayud particularly points to the army's role in 
supporting royal-initiated projects. "The number of personnel in 
the [engineering] division will be increased, but it has not yet 
been decided by how many. The priorities are to strengthen [our 
activities] in the 2nd and 4th Army Regions [covering the northeast 
and the south, respectively]." 
Appointed by reformist Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, Gen Surayud 
is working towards the government's agenda by bringing greater 
professionalism to the army's procurement system. The main 
achievement of his leadership is that in a country known for its 
string of armed coups, most recently in 1991, he has steered the 
RTA from its long-standing involvement in politics and foreign 
policy to concentrate on military affairs. 
"We still have a long way to go," says Gen Surayud. "The [defence] 
modernisation programme launched nearly 20 years ago is only half 
- Robert Karniol JDW Asia-Pacific Editor 

ROYAL THAI ARMY Photo: R Karniol/Jane's

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