BANGKOK — Thailand’s military-dominated government is facing demands for an investigation into the army’s 2009 purchase of a $10 million U.S.-built surveillance blimp that leaked, crashed, rarely flew and ultimately was sent to be cannibalized for its $6 million infrared thermal cameras.
The big white balloon, which was to be used to hunt jungle-based Islamist guerrillas, has become a big white elephant, posing questions to a government dominated by the former army chief.
The U.S.-trained military seized power in a bloodless 2014 coup under Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, now the prime minister, and has successfully controlled most political opposition. But the Sky Dragon blimp fiasco has shed a harsh light on two of the junta’s senior military officers and others for the contract, maintenance budget and related issues.
The blimp acquisition raises questions about the military’s competence even as Mr. Prayuth plans a trip to Washington for a much-coveted Oval Office meeting with President Trump.
“Even though the airship was purchased when I was the army chief, the investigation needs to look at those who were involved, including receiving the vessel, making the contract and using it,” Gen. Anupong Paojinda, the interior minister, told reporters this month when asked about the 2009 contract.
One problem, military officials said, was that the helium-filled blimp’s tarpaulin exterior took a beating in Thailand’s tropical climate.
But Bangkok Post Editor Umesh Pandey wrote in a stinging column on Sept. 17, “How can Gen. Anupong say that he, or his officers serving at that time, should not be targeted?”
Gen. Anupong’s colleague Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon was defense minister at the time of the contract signing. Today, Gen. Prawit is defense minister and deputy prime minister. Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was prime minister when the contract was signed and attended the official hand-over ceremony in 2010.
“Is it not the norm now, that those in positions of power are to be prosecuted for dereliction of duty?” Mr. Umesh wrote. “Why are Gen. Anupong and his buddies trying to shy away from being investigated?”
It is not the first case of questionable military purchasing decisions. Some Thais recalled the military’s multimillion-dollar deal for bogus bomb detectors, a counterfeit case that led to the detentions of scores of innocent people a decade ago, the Agence France-Presse news service reported.
Two British con men were imprisoned in 2013 for making millions of dollars from selling the GT200 detectors and similar devices to governments including Thailand, Mexico and Iraq.
Gen. Anupong and others denied direct involvement in the contract signing and financing. No one has been found guilty of any wrongdoing concerning the blimp.
The army bought the blimp for $10 million from Arlington, Virginia-based Aria International and reportedly spent an additional $1 million on helium and other maintenance to refill and repair the leaky Sky Dragon, which was manufactured by Aeros in Montebello, California.
After eight years of rare flights, the blimp was decommissioned and its valuable and sophisticated surveillance cameras were salvaged.
The five digital V-14MSII cameras on the blimp are so powerful that a “man in an apartment in Los Angeles would be extremely surprised to learn that we can read his computer screen from a moving helicopter flying past his window at around one kilometer from his building,” the V-14’s documentation said.
Those infrared thermal cameras were mounted on the airship, which has an enclosed aluminum alloy gondola underneath.
The Sky Dragon’s pilot was supposed to relay the cameras’ pictures to nearby helicopters, vehicles and buildings while coordinating assaults against Islamist guerrillas fighting for autonomy or independence. Thailand’s military has fought a grinding and inconclusive war along its southern Malaysian border against a Muslim insurgency that has killed more than 6,000 people since 2004.
The blimp fiasco is even more embarrassing because Aria International officials hailed the 2009 deal as giving Thailand the “poor man’s satellite.”
“There are actual ‘bad guys’ in the south of Thailand, and the army is actually working to catch them,” Aria International President and CEO Mike “Bing” Crosby said in a 2010 interview. Asked about the price, Mr. Crosby replied: “Airship equals $2.8 million. Cameras and downlink equipment equals $6 million.” The contract also included training, maintenance, construction of an airship hangar and construction of a 12-room hotel for the Aria staff at the army base near Pattani in the south, he said.
After ruptures and leaks kept the blimp grounded, the army in July 2010 reportedly asked the supplier for a replacement. Instead, the airship was repaired.
In 2012, the fat, oval-shaped blimp crashed while descending toward its hangar during Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s showcase visit to the south.
The attorney general’s office may study the case, officials said.
“The inspectors should follow up on the case and gather information and evidence about it,” said Auditor General Pisit Leelavachiropas.
If the attorney general finds problems with the contract, then the case could be forwarded to the powerful National Anti-Corruption Commission, which recommends punishments for violators.
A vocal political activist, Srisuwan Janya, petitioned the attorney general’s office last week to conduct an investigation and named several top officials and politicians linked to the blimp’s contract approval, financing and other decisions.
“I am asking the OAG to get to the truth of the matter,” Mr. Srisuwan said.
Saying it is hard to find out about other problems with military purchases, the Bangkok Post said in an editorial that the government and army needed to be more open.
“The army should make the process more accountable and transparent and ensure a thorough study is completed ,” the paper wrote. “Otherwise, such bad purchases will come back to haunt us time and again.”
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