Expert: ShinSat sale allows S’pore to spy on Thailand

Jim Pollard
The Nation

Expert says takeover should be blocked or Thailand would have to spend billions to ensure signals are not intercepted

Singapore’s takeover of the Thaicom satellite and AIS mobile phone company is a “tragedy” for Thailand’s defence communications network and should be blocked if possible, a top Australian defence analyst said yesterday.

Deal of the Century

Professor Des Ball said the sale of the ShinSat satellite and AIS to Temasek would end up costing Thailand billions of baht – which would be the price of having to launch a new satellite to ensure the Thai military’s signals could not be intercepted.

“It’s not in Thailand’s interests to allow Singapore control of such a critically important communications system, through the satellite and mobile phone company,” Prof Ball said in an interview in Bangkok yesterday.

“That’s why they [the Thai Army] are now talking about their own satellite and using [two-way] radios – their system has been compromised.”

Professor Ball, from the Australian National University in Canberra, is a world authority on signals intelligence. A regular visitor to Thailand and Southeast Asia, he has strong links with the Thai military.

Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said yesterday the government would solve the problem in the long run – by either buying the [ShinSat] stake back or launching a new satellite. “We have to think about this in various aspects, not only security, but also commercial,” Surayud told reporters.

“Further, we don’t know whether the current stakeholder wants to sell to us.”

The government had no plan to launch a new satellite in the short term, but the Information Communications and Technology Ministry was likely to launch its own satellite late this year, he said.

Prof Ball said Australia went through a similar debate five years ago when Singtel purchased the Optus mobile phone company. He was one of a series of analysts who publicly opposed the takeover. The Australian government eventually allowed the sale to go through, partly to ensure continued close cooperation with the island state, but Australia had to spend a huge sum on fibre-optic cables to avoid use of the Optus satellite and ensure its defence communications were secure.

Part of the problem, Ball said, was “Singapore have a track record of taking advantage of information for commercial and political purposes” – as did the US, and former Soviet Union.

Singapore had “listened to and photographed Australian military facilities”, which had created diplomatic rifts, he said.

“They have a history of abusing their access to training in other facilities abroad.

“That is not what friends are supposed to do – they abused their friendship,” Ball said.

But remarks made recently by Army chief General Sonthi showed it was very clear Thailand was aware of the problem posed by the Shin takeover, he said.

The sale of ShinSat to Temasek had “given Singapore direct access to the Royal Thai Army’s satellite communications”, Ball said.

“They are going to have to have their own independent system, otherwise they hand their military and very sensitive [data] traffic to Singapore on a plate.

“It’s a tragedy they’ve handed that away with the Shin deal and will now have to redesign their own system.

“If they could get out of this [Shin] there are national security reasons why they should. If not, they’ll have to spend billions [of baht] – or hundreds of millions of dollars – to redesign another satellite system. Launching a new satellite could cost US$250 million.

“If I was in [Thai] Army HQ [headquarters] I’d be trying to get out of this [Shin] deal as quick as I could.”

Singapore already had an extensive array of satellite listening facilities, from a major base on Sentosa Island to listening equipment at the Thai Army base in Sai Yok – which Prof Ball said appeared to be “primarily focused on Thailand” – judging by the types of antennae he had seen there in recent years.

There were both HF (High Frequency) and VHF (Very High Frequency) antennae at the Singaporean compound at RTA base in Sai Yok, but he believed “the VHF is predominantly listening to Thailand” within a radius of 100-150km. A priority target might be a military base such as the Ninth Division and its associated units at Kanchanaburi.

Ball presumed that Thai military data sent via the Thaicom-3 would be encrypted – “so that’s not easy [to decode ] … it depends on the level of encryption and the Singaporeans’ ability to access this stuff.

“The Thaicom-3 satellite system carries a considerable amount of military and non-military [data] traffic. And in a sense, AIS and the mobile phone system is the same issue – it’s the ability [of Singapore] to monitor the mobile phone traffic devices from that satellite.”

Thailand’s communications experts were “very switched on” and among the leaders in Southeast Asia, Ball said. “And Thaicom-3 is one of the most advanced in Asia.

“These guys know how your circuits flow better – probably better than anyone, other than the Singaporeans. They would have been aware of this [problem] from the start.”

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