[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]

Jane's Intelligence Review - Burma'

Subject: Jane's Intelligence Review - Burma's armed forces: - preparing  for the 21st century

Jane's Intelligence Review

November 1, 1998

SECTION: ASIA; Vol. 10; No. 11; Pg. 28  

LENGTH: 3764 words  

HEADLINE: Burma's armed forces: - preparing for the 21st century  

BYLINE: William Ashton  

HIGHLIGHT: William Ashton examines the expansion of Burma's armed
forces,concluding that the regime may well become one of the
best-equippedin Southeast Asia.  

 Since the creation of the State Law and Order Restoration Council
 (SLORC) in 1988, the Burmese armed forces (or Tatmadaw) have been
 engaged in an ambitious expansion and modernisation programme.
 Despite the country's chronic economic problems, this programme is
 continuing under the SLORC's successor, the State Peace and
 Development Council (SPDC). The programme is unprecedented in its
 size and scope, and includes measures to improve almost all aspects
 of Burma's military capabilities.
 If it is successful, then by the turn of the century Burma will have
 one of the largest and best-equipped armed forces in Southeast Asia,
 with a greatly improved capacity to conduct both unconventional and
 conventional military operations. The Tatmadaw will thus be in a
 stronger position to dominate Burma's domestic political
 development. Its increased military strength and higher
 international profile, particularly its relationship with China,
 will also give Burma a greater potential to influence the region's
 wider strategic environment.  

 Since 1988, the Tatmadaw has dramatically increased in size.
 Estimates vary, but the number of Burmese men and women in uniform
 appears to have increased from around 186,000 in 1988, to between
 350,000 and 400,000 now. Senior Burmese officials have stated that
 the regime's ultimate goal is a well-equipped military machine of
 about 500,000 by the turn of the century.
 This dramatic increase in manpower is being achieved by a variety of
 means, including propaganda campaigns in the state-controlled news
 media, financial and other inducements for new recruits, various
 kinds of conscription and other forms of coercion. Also, under the
 current military regime, a career in the Tatmadaw offers young
 Burmese one of the few means for them to gain precious technical
 skills, get access to scarce services and consumer goods, and to
 achieve a measure of social mobility.
 The SLORC and SPDC have also taken steps to increase the
 paramilitary capabilities of the police and militia. There are signs
 that even the country's fire and medical services are now viewed as
 members of the wider defence services, and would be called upon to
 support the military regime in any emergency.
 This trend is in stark contrast to the rest of the Asia-Pacific
 region, where all other countries are reducing the size of their
 armed forces. The trend in Burma, however, looks likely to continue
 for at least the next few years.
 Order of battle
 Over the past 10 years, the SLORC and SPDC have purchased a wide
 range of new and more modern weapon systems and military equipment
 for the Tatmadaw. All three services have benefitted from this
 The Burmese Army, for example, has reportedly taken delivery of
 around 80 Type 69 main battle tanks, more than 100 Type 63 light
 amphibious tanks, and 250 or more Type 85 armoured personnel
 carriers. It has also acquired new field and anti-aircraft artillery
 (including multiple rocket launchers and shoulder-fired
 surface-to-air missiles), transport and construction vehicles,
 communications equipment, infantry weapons and ammunition. Most of
 these arms have come from China, and it is possible that more are
 still to be delivered.
 The Burma Air Force has acquired more than 140 new combat aircraft,
 including at least three squadrons of F-7 fighter-interceptors, two
 squadrons of A-5 fighter-ground attack aircraft, one squadron of G-4
 counter-insurgency aircraft, about one squadron of dual-seat jet
 trainers and at least one squadron of Y-8 turbo-prop transport
 aircraft. It has also taken delivery of about 50 transport and
 attack helicopters. There are reliable reports that the air force is
 actively pursuing orders of additional fighter-interceptors, assault
 helicopters, transports and training aircraft, mainly from China and
 Since 1988 the Burmese Navy has taken delivery of nearly 30 naval
 vessels. This includes at least 16 Hainan class coastal patrol boats
 and four Houxin guided missile fast attack craft from China, and
 three PB-90 inshore patrol boats from Yugoslavia. It has also
 commissioned a number of smaller motor gunboats from local
 shipyards. More naval vessels are reportedly on order, including two
 or three Jianghu frigates, a small number of ocean minesweepers and
 possibly additional patrol boats, all from China.
 Command, control, communications and intelligence
 The Rangoon regime's military expansion and modernisation programme
 has been accompanied by a sweeping reorganisation of Burma's command
 and control system. In 1990 the Ministry of Defence in Rangoon was
 reshaped, and a powerful Office of Strategic Studies formed under
 SLORC's Secretary and Director of Defence Services Intelligence,
 Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt. In addition, the number of regional
 military commands has been increased to 12. Fifteen semi-autonomous
 sub-regional commands have also been created, partly to provide
 greater operational focus and flexibility, but also to permit closer
 military administration of critical areas , such as the  eastern
 Shan State.
 A large number of new army units have been created, including two
 Light Infantry Divisions, armour and artillery formations and
 specialised engineer battalions. Bases have been established or
 expanded in areas where, before 1988, there was little or no
 permanent army presence. Also, the number and geographical
 distribution of Burma's major naval bases and air stations have been
 increased, and improvements made to their supporting infrastructure.
 Certain critical maintenance and support functions, once performed
 only in Rangoon, have been decentralised for greater efficiency.
 A major effort has also been put into the improvement of Burma's
 antiquated military communications network. With the help of
 countries like Singapore, modern computers and other electronic
 equipment has been installed in the Ministry of Defence, and
 probably also at the headquarters of the 12 regional military
 commands. Radios and other communications equipment at the
 operational level have been substantially upgraded. Also, Burma's
 electronic surveillance capabilities seem to have been improved, at
 both the strategic and operational levels.
 The country's intelligence apparatus too has been significantly
 expanded and improved. This has been in large part to help the
 Rangoon regime predict and counter any signs of renewed internal
 unrest (including in the Tatmadaw itself), in order to retain its
 grip on political power. A considerable effort, however, has also
 been put into purely military intelligence, to improve the regime's
 strategic intelligence assessments and the Tatmadaw's operational
 Training and doctrinal development
 As part of most major arms deals negotiated by the SLORC and SPDC
 over the past ten years, training packages have been included.
 Burmese personnel from all three services have received extensive
 training in China, while members of the air force have also been
 trained in Poland and Yugoslavia. The Burmese Navy has also trained
 in Yugoslavia. There have also been reports that specialist training
 courses, for a parachute team and intelligence officers, have been
 provided by Singapore. In some cases, foreign instructors appear to
 have been sent to conduct training in Burma, for example from China
 and Russia.
 As far as can be determined, the training provided to the Tatmadaw
 to date seems to have been related largely to the operation and
 maintenance of its new weapons and equipment purchases. It does not
 appear that much attention has been devoted to investigating foreign
 approaches to strategic analysis or war-fighting, nor to
 incorporating foreign ideas into the development of new military
 doctrines, operating procedures or tactics. Some thought, however,
 has apparently been given to increasing the number of Burmese
 military officers attending overseas staff colleges, in places like
 China, India and Malaysia.
 Defence industries
 To underpin all these initiatives, the SLORC and SPDC have taken a
 number of important steps to strengthen Burma's defence scientific
 and industrial base. The aim seems to be twofold: to increase the
 logistic support available to the new, expanded and more diversified
 Tatmadaw, and to help release Burma from its former dependence on
 outside suppliers for critical defence materiel.
 For example, Burma has launched a major defence import substitution
 programme. Details are difficult to obtain, but there is little
 doubt that the country's already extensive network of arms and
 ammunition factories is being modernised and expanded. Older
 factories are being upgraded and new plants are being built, a
 number with foreign help. An effort has also been made to upgrade
 Burma's abilities to produce its own small armoured cars and
 specialised fighting vehicles.
 Ancillary industries, like iron and steel plants, are being
 modernised to provide the necessary materials for the new factories,
 and stockpiles of strategic raw materials are probably being
 Despite claims by a number of ethnic insurgent groups, notably the
 Karens and the Kachins, there is no firm evidence that the Tatmadaw
 is either manufacturing or using exotic weapons like chemical and
 biological agents. It would appear that a chemical weapons programme
 begun by former President Ne Win in the early 1980s (with German
 help) was abandoned after only a few years. Suggestions that the
 SLORC or SPDC has received assistance from China to develop such
 weapons for use against ethnic insurgents, are spurious.
 The massive expansion of the armed forces, the acquisition of all
 these new weapon systems and equipment, and its improved defence
 industrial base, all give Burma the potential for greatly increased
 operational capabilities.
 Before 1988, the Burmese Army was essentially a poorly-equipped
 light infantry force capable only of limited counter-insurgency
 operations. It suffered from a lack of mobility, insufficient fire
 support, poor logistics and inadequate communications. For its part,
 the Burmese Air Force was small, ill-equipped and crippled by its
 dependence on foreign logistics. It was hard-pressed to keep its
 aircraft flying and could only perform a very limited role in
 support of the army. The Burmese Navy suffered from similar problems
 to the air force, and as a result was confined to patrolling Burma's
 inland waterways and coastal fringes.
 Now, however, the Tatmadaw is capable not only of much larger-scale
 counter-insurgency operations but, for the first time in its
 history, it has the means to conduct more conventional operations in
 defence of the country. The army, for example, is much bigger, more
 widely distributed, more mobile and can call on far greater armoured
 and artillery support. It can sustain operations at a higher tempo,
 and for far longer, than at any time in the past. It is also in a
 much better position to fight more than one campaign at a time, if
 that is required.
 With its new aircraft and upgraded bases, the air force has far
 greater flexibility and operational reach than in the past, and is
 capable of far greater striking power. Its new communications and
 radar equipment can provide a useful air operations picture of the
 country for the first time, contributing (with the air force's new
 interceptors and air-to-air missiles) to a much more credible air
 defence capability.
 Similarly, if the navy's modernisation and expansion programme
 continues, Burma will be in a much better position to police its
 extensive territorial claims and protect its maritime resources from
 unauthorised exploitation. Its Houxin class guided missile patrol
 boats give the navy its first anti-ship cruise missile capability.
 In time, and with the possible arrival of two or three Jianghu class
 frigates, the navy could even develop a modest blue water
 Taken together with the regime's reorganisation of the Defence
 Ministry, and its improved command, control, communications and
 intelligence capabilities, the Tatmadaw is an entirely different
 organisation from that which existed before 1988. On paper at least,
 it has vastly improved capabilities, not only to put down civil
 disturbances and fight rural insurgent groups, but also to counter
 more conventional threats.
 First impressions, however, can be misleading. To gain a more
 accurate appreciation of the Tatmadaw's real military capabilities,
 a number of other factors need to be considered.
 The Rangoon regime's massive military expansion and modernisation
 programme comes after decades of budgetary and other problems, so
 more recent improvements are from a very low base. Also, Burma's new
 weapon systems are a great advance compared with its older
 inventory, but they are rarely state-of-the-art (although the SPDC
 is seriously considering the purchase of MiG-29 interceptors from
 Russia). There are still serious logistics problems, exacerbated by
 the Tatmadaw's attempts to diversify its arms suppliers. (The air
 force, for example, has aircraft from at least eight different
 countries in its inventory.)
 Also, all three services are facing problems in keeping their
 equipment operational. There have been complaints, for example, that
 some of the naval vessels acquired from China and Yugoslavia are
 unsuited to Burmese conditions and are difficult to maintain.
 Similar criticisms have been made about some of the Chinese
 equipment delivered to the Burmese Army. There are reports that the
 new artillery pieces misfire often and the armoured vehicles have a
 tendency to break down. Chinese trucks have not proven as sturdy or
 reliable as the Japanese vehicles used before 1988. For its part,
 the air force has found that the Chinese have not provided some
 important parts for their new fighters, nor given sufficient
 training to Burmese pilots in their use.
 While they are gradually improving, through overseas training and
 the Tatmadaw's own specialised educational institutions, the
 technical skills of the navy and air force still do not appear high
 enough. This problem is probably made worse by the lure of better
 paid jobs for trained technical personnel in the private sector -
 now able to operate more freely under the military regime's 'open
 door' economic policies. The army is also facing personnel problems,
 many arising from poor man-management, harsh conditions of service
 and low morale.
 Despite all this, the overall quality of the Burmese armed forces is
 improving, and seems likely to continue doing so. Progress may be
 slow in some particular areas, and it may take time for the three
 services to learn how to use their new weapons systems to the
 greatest effect, but technical problems can be overcome and new
 operating procedures can be learnt. A number of foreign governments
 seem prepared - albeit covertly - to assist in this process. The
 overall trend is thus for the more proficient use of military force,
 against a wider range of potential adversaries.
 The outlook is thus for the Tatmadaw to enter the new century as a
 much bigger, better-equipped and more capable defence force.
 The economic dimension
 The dramatic increase in Burma's order of battle has been achieved
 through an equally dramatic increase in the country's defence
 spending. While accurate statistics are impossible to obtain - a
 problem probably even shared by the Burmese government itself - it
 would appear that in some years since 1988 the country's defence
 spending has exceeded 35 per cent of central government
 expenditures. On occasion it may have gone considerably higher.
 In some cases, the SLORC and SPDC have resorted to barter and
 counter-trade agreements to acquire new arms, using Burma's abundant
 natural resources to pay for purchases, instead of using scarce
 foreign currency. Burma has also been greatly assisted by a range of
 soft loans and other special arrangements provided by arms
 suppliers, notably China. Although details are very difficult to
 come by, it is believed that hard currency generated from narcotics
 production may have also been used by the government in Rangoon -
 either directly or indirectly - to pay for some of Burma's new
 Other targets for the regime's increased defence spending have been
 Burma's new arms industries, and the Tatmadaw's greatly expanded
 network of specialised training and health facilities. In many
 cases, the latter seems designed to replicate or replace similar
 institutions in the civil sector, which since 1988 have been starved
 of government funds and (in the tertiary education sector) subject
 to lengthy closures.
 Yet Burma has long been facing serious economic problems, a
 situation now exacerbated by the Asian financial crisis and
 consequent reduction in foreign investment. While the SPDC is still
 pursuing the SLORC's expansion and modernisation programme, there
 must come a time when critical adjustments will need to be made.
 Even with the considerable help being given by some friendly arms
 suppliers, Burma's very high level of defence expenditure cannot be
 sustained indefinitely.
 The political dimension
 While the massive expansion and modernisation of the armed forces
 since 1988 has direct implications for Burma's future defence
 capabilities, there is also the critical political dimension to
 consider. For a much stronger, better equipped and more efficiently
 managed Tatmadaw gives the SPDC the means to exercise even greater
 control over internal political developments.
 At one level, it permits the regime to enforce its will over the
 country in a way never before possible. Indeed, the Tatmadaw's
 increased size and military capabilities, combined with the shrewd
 manipulation of various ethnic and narcotics-based insurgent groups,
 means that the central government's writ now runs over more of Burma
 than at any time since it was granted independence in 1948. Having
 achieved this aim, it is unlikely that the SPDC or any successor
 regime would allow large tracts of the country once again to be
 removed from its control.
 At another level, it is clear that no civilian government is likely
 to emerge in Rangoon without the agreement (in some form) of the
 armed forces. This applies as much to a democratic government under
 someone like Aung San Suu Kyi, as it does to any tame administration
 which might emerge from the regime's current Constitutional
 Convention process.
 Similarly, any lasting solution to Burma's complex ethnic problems
 will depend to a large degree on the willingness and ability of the
 Tatmadaw to countenance some sort of compromise. A continuing
 insistence by the regime on a strong central government in Rangoon
 dominated by ethnic Burmans, at the expense of any power-sharing
 arrangements with minority racial groups, will probably see a return
 to the fighting of the past. Already, some of the cease-fire
 arrangements negotiated by the SLORC and SPDC in recent years are
 under pressure, and seem likely to break down.
 All these considerations must be premised on the continuing loyalty
 and cohesion of the Tatmadaw. Any major fracture in the armed forces
 hierarchy, or division of loyalties among the troops, will pose
 critical problems for the entire country. At present, the many
 factors binding the senior ranks of the armed forces together seem
 to be greater than all those which divide them, but this may not
 always be the case. There is also the possibility that more junior
 officers, unhappy about current policies and practices, may act in
 defiance of their seniors, triggering a wider crisis.
 The future
 If the SLORC and SPDC's target is achieved, then by the turn of the
 century Burma will probably have the largest armed forces in
 Southeast Asia. Also, the massive injection of new weapon systems
 into the Tatmadaw will make it better armed than most other
 Southeast Asian countries. In terms of the sheer size of its armed
 forces, its order of battle and the government's continuing high
 level of defence expenditure, Burma will be a significant military
 power in the region.
 These developments are more than likely to lead to wider
 implications. While Burma is pre-occupied with internal stability,
 and does not constitute a threat to any other country, it has become
 a significant factor in the strategic calculations of its regional
 neighbours. This is largely because Burma's massive military
 modernisation programme is being strongly underwritten by China,
 from whence most of the regime's new weapon systems, training
 packages and concessional finance have come.
 It is clear that Burma's close and continuing military relationship
 with China is of concern to other regional countries. For example,
 it has helped make them impervious to pleas from the Western
 democracies to put pressure on Burma over human rights abuses, and
 almost certainly persuaded the ASEAN countries to admit Burma to the
 association last year. Singapore, for example, seems to have
 developed a close military relationship with Burma and, at least
 until recently, Indonesia served as a model for Burma's own version
 of the military-based dwi fungsi (dual function) socio-political
 system. Both countries seem to have been prompted to encourage such
 links out of concern for China's presence in Burma. India too has
 been anxious to reduce China's influence over the military regime in
 Burma is not entirely unaware of these concerns. Indeed, while it
 sees few options at present other than to maintain close ties with
 China, it probably shares them itself. The military regime in
 Rangoon has, however, managed to trade very successfully on the
 region's fears of China, not only to fend off international
 criticism of its poor human-rights record but also to consolidate
 its domestic political position. However, it remains to be seen
 whether it can continue to use China in this way or will inevitably
 fall under the sway of its larger and more powerful neighbour.
 Whatever the outcome, Burma will almost certainly be a much more
 important factor in the regional strategic environment as it enters
 the 21st century. 

GRAPHIC:  Photograph 1, Top: A Chinese Jianghu frigate. Burma has
reportedly ordered several of these, although details are unclear.;
Photograph 2, Few details and even less imagery is available of Burma's
Houxin class guided missile fast attack craft, similar in design to these
Chinese vessels.; Photograph 3, The latest variant of China's A-5 'Fantan,
displayed at Zhuhai in November 1996. Although this appears to be a new-
production aircraft, Burma has two squadrans ofthe older A-5 fighter-ground
attack versions.; Photograph 4, CAC's latest F-7 development, the F-7MG
which made its public debut in November 1996. Burma has three squadrons of
F-7 fighter-interceptors.; Photograph 5, A Norinco type 69-II main battle
tank, of which the Burmese Army fields 80.; Photograph 6, A type-85
armoured personnel carrier. Numbers are unconfirmed, but it is believed
that the Burmese Army has recently taken delivery of at least 250.