President Carter's airlift -- and slower sealift -- of $3.5 million worth of arms to Thailand are being called "obviously too little, but possibly not too late" by specialists on Southeast Asia here.
Small arms, artillery, ammunition, and an improved model of the old US Patton tank are being sent to the Thais following the attack last week by Vietnamese troops against Cambodian refugees in Thailand and against Thai villages.
The immediate airlift to Bangkok, the Thai capital, by six or seven Air Force C-141 cargo planes -- at a cost of $1 million -- and the much longer sea voyage for the tanks responds to Thailand's recent urgent requests under its 1954 defense agreement with the US, Carter administration spokesmen said.
"The shipments may help to bolster Thai morale, and perhaps even symbolically warn the Soviets that we don't like their encouragement of Vietnamese adventures in Thailand," said one senior military analyst.
"What they certainly won't do is protect Thailand against any major attack or invasion. The arms and ammunition will be put to use immediately. But the tanks will get there far too late to be of any help in the immediate future."
Under the US foreign military sale program, Thailand was granted $40 million in credits for fiscal 1980, with current deliveries running to about $45 million. The fiscal 1981 request was for $50 million.
Thailand's scrappy 216,000-man armed forces (including a land army of 145,000 and an air force whose most advanced planes are about 30 Northrop F-5 fighter and ground-attack aircraft) are mainly US-supplied. But they also have some British-made equipment, including armored vehicles.
Although Vietnamese troops were not reported operating inside Thailand as President Carter announced the emergency package July 1, a State Department spokeman said "There are significant numbers of Vietnamese troops moving in Cambodian near the border."