Thai army under fire for S$13.5 million faulty blimp

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's army came under fire Monday (Sept 18) for its US$10 million (S$13.5 million) purchase of a faulty blimp that was finally dumped after eight hapless years, the latest scandal over military spending in the junta-run country.

The kingdom's defence budget has nearly tripled over the last decade, a period where the military has seized power twice.

Pricy purchases - such as US$1 billion set aside for Chinese submarines - have frequently been met with criticism from a public feeling the pinch of a flagging economy.

The latest target of ire, the Aeros 40D "Sky Dragon", was purchased in 2009 for the purpose of surveilling an insurgency flaring in Thailand's far south.

But the 46.6m airship spent most of the past eight years grounded and plagued by a series of malfunctions, leaks and the costly helium refilling.

In 2012, it crash-landed into a rice field when the pilot lost control while on a patrol mission, according to local media.

After news leaked of its decommissioning last week, activist Srisuwan Janya submitted a letter urging the Office of Auditor General (OAG) of Thailand to investigate why taxpayer money was wasted on the airship.

"We are asking the OAG to launch an investigation against a former army chief... the cabinet and other officials involved" in the controversial purchase, Janya told AFP.

Army chief Chalermchai Sittisart tried to temper the discontent by promising to make use of the airship's expensive cameras.

According to officials, the blimp's tarpaulin exterior had expired after eight years in the tropical climate.

But criticism of the purchase, and additional money spent on its ultimately ineffective maintenance, flared online where Thais voiced anger over other examples of seemingly wasteful military spending.

The most infamous is the military's multi-million-dollar purchase of bogus bomb detectors - known as GT200 - that led to the detention of scores of innocent people a decade ago.

Two British fraudsters were jailed in 2013 for making millions from selling the GT200 and similar devices to governments including Thailand, Mexico and Iraq.

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