Thailand History

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Although other Western nations--notably Britain, West Germany, and Italy--have provided Thailand with moderate amounts of military aid, the chief source of armament and training assistance since 1950 has been the United States. From 1950 through early 1976, the substantial majority of United States aid was in the form of grants under the Military Assistance Program (MAP). Additional aid was offered in the form of Foreign Military Sales (FMS) credits, part of which carried United States guarantees of payment to American commercial suppliers if necessary.

The goal of United States assistance was to strengthen Thailand’s military capability through buildup and modernization of its equipment, improvement of its operational tactics, and increased training for its personnel. As the communist-supported insurgency became a potential threat to the kingdom’s political stability in the 1960s, increased military aid was channeled to support the Thai internal security forces in their counterinsurgency actions. To assist the Thai in meeting requirements for military aid and to supervise the United States program in the field, increasing numbers of American military specialists were assigned to the Joint United States Military Assistance Group (JUSMAG) in Bangkok.

During the Second Indochina War (1954-75), the United States and Thailand negotiated an unsigned agreement to permit American naval and air units to use Thai territory. Although units of the United States Navy operated from modern facilities established at Sattahip on the Gulf of Thailand, the vast majority of American-occupied bases in the country were used by combat squadrons and supporting units of the United States Air Force. In addition to a number of intelligence outposts scattered about the North and Northeast, there were seven air bases from which United States aircraft flew combat missions against targets throughout Indochina.

These bases were at Udon Thani, Nakhon Phanom, Nam Phong, Nakhon Ratchasima, Ubon Ratchathani, Ta Khli, and Ban U Taphao. Constructed at a cost to the United States of several hundred million dollars, most of the facilities were former Thai installations that were modernized to accommodate the American squadrons. After completion of the renovation and expansion work by Thai civilian contractors, the bases had permanent buildings, sophisticated ground support equipment, and runways capable of accommodating modern combat aircraft. During the height of the war the bases were used by more than 500 American airplanes, including several squadrons of B-52 heavy bombers of the Strategic Air Command. At some of the bases, facilities were shared with training units of the Royal Thai Air Force.

Thai reaction to the United States military presence was mixed. Senior Thai officers tended to believe that the presence of the United States combat squadrons provided assurance against potentially aggressive designs of communist countries in the region. Some in the government, however, were concerned that the installations would invite hostile political or military action against Thailand. The presence of roughly 45,000 United States servicemen also had a pronounced socioeconomic effect--one that was increased by the large number of American personnel who came to Bangkok on rest and recreation leaves from the Vietnam combat zone.

A phased withdrawal of the American presence began in 1969, when United States participation in the war in Indochina decreased, and it proceeded through the early 1970s as internal political tensions rose in the Thai kingdom (see Thailand in Transition , ch. 1). By late July 1976, at the request of the Thai government, the last of the United States air and naval units had departed. The facilities at Sattahip and the seven air bases were turned over to the Thai government, with much of the sophisticated ground support equipment removed. Considerable controversy ensued between Thai military and government officials over the future of the abandoned network of airfields. Ultimately the military retained control over the bases, even though most were in excess of their needs and of the government’s ability to pay for upkeep. Nakhon Ratchasima alone had cost the United States approximately US$2.5 million a year to maintain. Consolidating the equipment left by departing United States units in accordance with government-to-government agreements, the Thai air force assumed use of some of the installations.

After 1976 MAP aid to Thailand declined, and FMS credits increased. By 1979 Thailand had been dropped from the United States shrinking list of grant aid recipients. But later that year, after Vietnam invaded Cambodia, President Jimmy Carter expedited delivery of approximately US$400 million in arms and military supplies that the Thai government had under contract from American companies. This action set a precedent for expedited equipment deliveries on a periodic basis to demonstrate American support for Thailand in the face of the Vietnamese threat in Cambodia. In the mid-1980s, as the country was increasingly caught between economic retrenchment and the need to upgrade its defense capabilities, the United States Congress approved resumption of a limited military grant aid program for Thailand.

Beginning in the early 1980s, the country hosted a series of joint Thai-United States military exercises. A major annual combined exercise called Cobra Gold, as well as many smaller exercises, served to enhance relations between the two countries’ armed forces. All four United States services sent troops to take part in the exercises, which were designed as training vehicles for both countries.

In 1986 the United States and Thailand agreed to establish a war reserve weapons pool in Thailand. This concept was first raised by a former Thai supreme commander of the armed forces, General Saiyud Kerdphon in 1982, and the proposal received bilateral support during a meeting between Prime Minister Prem and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger in April 1986. As the plan was formulated, these war reserve stocks were designed to improve Thailand’s ability to withstand aggression and were to be used only in the event of a "nation-threatening emergency."

According to United States government statistics, between 1950 and 1987 the United States provided Thailand with more than US$2 billion in military assistance. Approximately US$1.2 billion was in the form of grant aid and covered arms purchases, training of military personnel, and transfer of excess items from the United States military equipment inventory. The remainder--almost US$1 billion--was made available in the form of FMS credits to be applied against commercial sales of military items from American manufacturers. The FMS credit program was expected to continue into the 1990s.

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