Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Thai Thunderbirds: Thailand’s Expansive UAV Fleet

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are not new to Southeast Asia. Thailand acquired an unmanned reconnaissance capability already in 2001, when the Royal Thai Army purchased four IAI Searcher Mk. II reconnaissance UAVs from Israel. Several more drone acquisitions would follow (mainly from Israel) in the following decades, ultimately resulting in the expansive unmanned arsenal in service with the Royal Thai Army, Air Force and Navy today. This meanwhile also includes an increasing number of locally-designed UAVs or types produced under license from China.

The largest and most capable of these is the D-Eyes 04 based on the CY-9 UAV by China's Beihang University, which could eventually replace the Army's aging IAI Searcher Mk. II UAVs. [1] Thailand is also believed to be interested in the larger TYW-1 strike-capable reconnaissance UAV which was developed by Beihang University as well. Cooperation with China has so far allowed Thailand to license-produce a number of advanced weapon systems, including the Thai Army's DTI-1/1G guided MRLs, in deals that would otherwise be unattainable from other countries.
Despite operating a great number of UAVs in most size and range classes, an armed drone capability is still lacking in the inventory of the Thai Armed Forces. In 2019 Thailand's Defence Technology Institute (DTI) revealed an armed version of the U-1 'Sky Scout' known as the U-1M 'Sky Scout-X'. This small UCAV was shown armed with two Thales FF-LMM guided bombs with a maximum range of 6km. The actual range is likely somewhat lower when deployed from the U-1M 'Sky Scout-X', which flies at a lower altitude than most UCAVs. Whether this type is set to actually enter service with any of the branches of the Thai Armed Forces is currently unknown.

In December 2021 it was announced that the Royal Thai Navy is looking to acquire four MALE UAVs. [2] The Israeli Heron TP and Hermes 900 and the Chinese Wing Loong II UCAV appeared to be the favourite candidates, with an order for nine Hermes 900s announced in July 2022. [3] A visit by a Thai delegation to Baykar Tech in June 2022 could also indicate a concrete interest in the company's Bayraktar TB3. [4] The TB3 has been designed with maritime operations in mind from the onset, and could also operate from the Thai Navy's Chakri Naruebet aircraft carrier, which currently has to make do without any aircraft. The Thai Navy has already experimented with using smaller VTOL UAVs from the carrier's 175m long flight deck in 2021. [5]

The D-Eyes-04 UAV based on Beihang's CY-9 design.

(Click on the UAV to get a picture of them in Thai service)  

Surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles - Operational / On Order

VTOL Surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles - Operational


Target drones- Operational

Surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles - Prototypes

Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles - Prototypes

VTOL Surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles - Prototypes

Through its existing inventory of Israeli UAVs and an increasingly sophisticated local technology base that seems poised to further expand its current capabilities (for example through cooperation with Beihang University of China), the future of unmanned aerial capabilities in Thailand seems bright. A future acquisition of Hermes 900s, MALE UCAVs and the license production of larger Chinese types, perhaps combined with an acquisition of UCAVs from Türkiye, could allow Thailand to propel itself to the front of unmanned capabilities in Southeast Asia – an impressive feat.

A Thai delegation member is presented with a Bayrakar Akıncı model from Baykar Tech's CEO Haluk Bayraktar during a visit in June 2022.

[1] Royal Thai Army developping D-Eyes 04 MALE UAV https://www.airrecognition.com/index.php/news/defense-aviation-news/2021/november/7852-royal-thai-army-developping-d-eyes-04-male-uav.html
[2] Thai Navy Seeking Long-Range Maritime Surveillance Drone https://www.thedefensepost.com/2021/12/30/thailand-maritime-surveillance-drone/
[3] Thailand to Buy Israeli-Made Hermes 900 Drones https://www.thedefensepost.com/2022/07/04/thailand-israel-hermes-drones/

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