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Thailand’s Aircraft-Less Aircraft Carrier

The aircraft carrier is the ultimate symbol of military strength. Enormously large and with a full fleet of combat aircrafts on its deck, they are floating airbases free to move about in the open ocean, ready to engage with enemy states. A nation equipped with an aircraft carrier has the power to project its military might beyond its shores. They are the flagship of a navy’s fleet.

Aircraft carriers are prohibitively expensive which is why very few nations have them. On last count, there was forty-two active aircraft carriers on duty, operated by only fourteen countries of the world. Nearly half of them are operated by the US Navy, of course. Japan and France have four each. Egypt, Italy, and Australia have two. The rest—Russia, the UK, Brazil, South Korea, India, China, Spain and Thailand—operate one each. Nine more carriers are currently being fitted out and two more are undergoing sea trials. Singapore is going to get one soon, and so is Turkey. Dozens more are being planned.

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Thaliand’s only aircraft carrier, HTMS Chakri Naruebet, in the South China Sea in 2001.

All these nations have the means and the need for a modern carrier. The US needs them to invade other countries. India, China and South Korea have some bad neighbors. Japan and France still have nightmares from the Second World War. Britain, being an island nation, needs a powerful navy. The exception is Thailand.

Thailand has had a functioning navy since the late 19th century, but the country has been involved in global conflict only a handful of times. Then known as the Kingdom of Siam, Thailand played one of the least-known roles in the First World War. It was dragged into battle during the Second World War, and during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, Thailand offered ground forces. That pretty much sums up Thailand’s military history. There is no reason—it appears—for Thailand to own a modern aircraft carrier. Yet, it does. Weirder still is the fact that Thailand's lone aircraft carrier, the HTMS Chakri Naruebet, hasn't had any airplanes on it since 2006.

The HTMS Chakri Naruebet was procured by the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) and put into service in 1997. Built by a Spanish shipbuilder, the relatively small Chakri Naruebet was supposed to conduct search and rescue missions across southeastern Asia. The carrier originally did have a couple of ex-Spanish Harrier aircraft and the RTN planned to have a number of helicopters on the deck as well. But the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis threw cold water over those ambitions. By 1999, only one Harrier was operational because the Thai government didn't have enough money to pay for the upkeep of the planes and the training of personnel. Eventually, the entire fleet was grounded. The carrier itself was confined to the port most of the time.

Chakri Naruebet did play its intended role on several disaster relief operations, including in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, and in response to flooding incidents in 2010 and 2011.

Today, the Chakri Naruebet sails once per month as training exercise, and occasionally ferries the Royal Family of Thailand. Now that’s a very expensive Royal Yacht.

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HTMS Chakri Naruebet (top) with the United States Navy supercarrier USS Kitty Hawk. Notice the difference in size. The Chakri Naruebet is the smallest functioning aircraft carrier in the world. Its flight deck is so short that only the Harrier jet, capable of vertical takeoff, can use the flight deck.

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