Sunday, November 21, 2010

Myanmar's Losing Military Strategy

Myanmar reported have received 30 Serbia's Nora B-52 truck-mounted howitzer (photo : Military Today)

Despite its newer, more modern weaponry, Myanmar's ambitious military-modernization campaign is proving ineffectual in fighting the various ethnic armies along its borders. Myanmar's army, also known as the Tatmadaw, remains the same light-infantry force that it was 50 years ago, as evidenced by its current offensive against the Karen National Union (KNU) and other armed insurgencies along its eastern border with Thailand.

There is no end in sight for Myanmar's grinding 57-year-old civil war, despite the extensive military upgrades. Rather than win over the ethnic-minority population through political dialogue, providing sustainable economic opportunities and building and equipping schools and health facilities, the army has launched repeated military offensives into areas where ethnic groups resist the rule of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). These operations, because of the accompanying human-rights abuses, have over the years only fueled the insurgencies.

Although ceasefires have been agreed with some of the ethnic insurgents, several, including the KNU, the Karenni National Progressive Party, the Shan State Army (South) and the Chin National Front, are still fighting the regime. Meanwhile, the SPDC junta's relations with some of the ceasefire groups are shaky. Many ceasefire groups are unhappy with the lack of political progress and there is the possibility that, if pressured, some or all of the groups could go back to armed struggle.

Despite this, the SPDC seems to believe that its counterinsurgency strategy is working and is instead concentrating on protecting itself from foreign invasion. It has bought expensive military hardware, expanded conscription into government-run militias in both the countryside and the cities and, in its most extravagant move, relocated the capital from coastal Yangon to inland Pyinmana.

Aggressive spending

In the past decade, the SPDC has spent hundreds of millions of US dollars on military hardware and greatly expanded its artillery and armored units with an eye toward developing a conventional defense capacity. Over that period, military-related expenditures have accounted for nearly half of Myanmar's annual budget. Yet counterinsurgency capacities have not evolved commensurately.

In the field, the typical soldier is still fighting the same battle, with substandard equipment, inadequate supplies of food and medicine, and the knowledge that if he is seriously wounded in combat, he will likely die before reaching the nearest hospital.

Nowhere in evidence are the tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) that the SPDC purchased from Ukraine and China. According to Australia-based military analyst Andrew Selth, the junta has acquired 50 T-72 tanks from Ukraine and more than 200 Type 69II, Type 59D, Type 80 and Type 85 main battle tanks in addition to 105 Type 63 light tanks from China.

Assembled of 1000 BTR-3U : status uncleared (photo : Militaryphotos)

The regime has also obtained more than 300 Type 85 and Type 90 tracked APCs from China. Another 1,000 BTR-3U wheeled APCs are to be assembled in Myanmar over the next 10 years from parts sent by Ukraine. Yet all of these vehicles are next to useless in the forested and mountainous terrain where most of the counterinsurgency operations take place and are more likely to be used against a possible urban uprising of pro-democracy protesters.

The army's new artillery units are equipped with more than 100 155-millimeter WP52 and 122mm Type 54 howitzers and 30 107mm Type 63 multiple rocket launchers from China, 16 155mm Soltam field guns from Israel, 16 130mm Type 59 field guns from North Korea, and 80 75mm mountain howitzers from India, according to military analyst sources. The only apparent use of heavier artillery, according to reports by the independent Karen Human Rights Group, has been a battery of 120mm mortars being used to shell the area around Ler Mu Plaw camp in northern Karen state.

Nor have the much-talked-about MiG-29s purchased from Russia, nor the older F-7s and A-5s purchased from China, so far been seen in the skies over Karen state. The SPDC purchased 50 Chengdu F-7E/K/M "Airguard" fighters and 48 NAMC (Nippon Aircraft Manufacturing Corp) A-5C/M ground-attack aircraft from China in the 1990s. These were later joined by 10 MiG-29 air-superiority fighters from Russia.

Technicians were brought in from Serbia in 2004 to repair the 12 SOKO G-4 Galeb ground-attack aircraft that had been grounded for many years because of a lack of spare parts. Of little use against mobile guerrilla units, they are also too valuable to risk being shot down by a lucky Karen soldier. Poor maintenance and the lack of spare parts also hinder their use. The same can be said for the Tatmadaw's helicopter fleet, which has carried officials to visit camps and to move supplies to large secure camps.

W-3 Sokol of the Myanmar (photo : Militaryphotos)

The air force has also purchased 12 PZL Swindik W-3 Sokol multi-purpose helicopters and 18 Mil Mi-2 "Hoplite" helicopters from Poland and 12 Mil Mi-17 medium-lift transport helicopters from Russia. All of these helicopters can be configured for a ground-attack role, and according to Andrew Selth, there has been discussion in the Tatmadaw about the use of helicopters in assault operations. To date, however, helicopters have not been used in attacks and generally do not move infantry around, rescue wounded soldiers or send supplies to units in the field either.

Mi-17 of the Myanmar Air Force (photo : Militaryphotos)

Despite all the money being spent on expensive hardware, the common Tatmadaw infantryman is still poorly equipped. Deserters have commented that their backpacks and webbing are of a low quality and the uniforms are so bad that many soldiers try to purchase their own as soon as possible. Many soldiers wear Chinese-style jungle shoes, which wear out after a couple of months and are much inferior to jungle boots.

Since 1996, the SPDC's weapons factories have produced new assault rifles and light machine-guns for the infantry. The MA series of weapons were designed to replace the old German-designed but locally manufactured Heckler and Koch G3s and G4s that equipped Myanmar's army since the 1960s. After more than six years, some units still have not received the new weapons. The ammunition supplied by the regime's munitions factories, especially the 5.56mm for its new rifles, is reportedly very poor and burns too hot. Ethnic opposition sources such as the Karen and Shan say they try not to use captured Tatmadaw ammunition, if possible.

The insurgents have to make do with a motley collection of mostly old automatic rifles and carbines backed up with a few mortars and machine-guns. With the exception of the now-defunct Burmese Communist Party, which received most of its weapons from China, the rebel groups buy their weapons, ammunition and equipment on the black market or capture them from Tatmadaw units during ambushes or raids on encampments. The lack of ammunition has forced some of the insurgent groups to rely very heavily on land mines to protect their camps, supply routes and civilian populations.

The only really useful procurement in fighting ethnic insurgents has been thousands of trucks and four-wheel-drive vehicles obtained from China. In addition, the Tatmadaw has obtained numerous Nissan trucks and Patrol four-wheel-drive vehicles from Japan and locally produces Hino trucks. Using these vehicles, the army has been able to move large numbers of units and concentrate them in eastern Pegu division and northern Karen state.

Elements of six different divisions from various parts of Myanmar, including as far away as Kachin and Arakan states, have been carried on the trucks. These divisions have also been able to rotate their battalions from home areas into and out of the front line. The army has also been able to keep its stockpiles supplied with food and ammunition. Although the use of motorized transport is limited in the rainy season, the trucks are still useful for bringing supplies up to forward staging bases from where they can be portered up to the front-line camps. Before the monsoon rains began, even some of the front-line camps could be supplied by vehicle.

Out of step

At the front, however, Tatmadaw soldiers still must march by foot up steep mountain trails to seek out the soldiers of the Karen National Liberation Army and hunt down its civilian supporters. Expanded road networks and large numbers of trucks have enabled the Tatmadaw to build up large stockpiles at rear bases. However, units at the front line still find themselves short of rations, medicine and sometimes ammunition. Most of the supplies for units on operations must still be carried over mountain trails that are impassable to vehicular transport.

The use of civilians as porters has become common operational practice despite frequent protests by international rights bodies such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the United Nations-sponsored International Labor Organization. Frequent reports have documented the mistreatment and killing of villagers and convicts carrying supplies for the army. This inefficient practice also ties the soldiers to long columns and the use of trails, limiting their operational capabilities. Without the use of helicopters or air drops, the army is almost completely reliant on how much the porters can carry.

Soldiers of the various ethnic armies, although equipped with old weapons, often without enough ammunition, are frequently able to get the better of Tatmadaw units in combat. That's because they are fighting for a homeland cause, and many ethnic insurgents have years of combat experience. They know the terrain intimately, and are conditioned to fight in mountainous and forested areas.

They also usually have the support of the civilian populations where they operate. Most civilians are willing to share food with the guerrillas and help them with carrying supplies. They view the soldiers from same ethnic group as fighting to protect them from the Tatmadaw. This support from the civilian population is also their weakness, and the army's counterinsurgency strategy has long sought to exploit it by targeting them.

Strategy and tactics likewise remain relatively unchanged from decades ago. The guiding strategy is still the so-called "four cuts", which seeks to deprive armed resistance of food, funds, intelligence and recruits by separating them from civilian support. The army implements this strategy by targeting villagers, razing their jungle communities and forcing them out of the hills and mountains. The SPDC has notably shown very little inclination to dedicate resources toward winning the "hearts and minds" of ethnic civilians.

Recent reports from the Free Burma Rangers and the Karen Human Rights Group indicate that army columns have been conducting sweeps of KNU-controlled territory, shooting villagers on sight and destroying their food supplies and crops. True to form, the great majority of casualties inflicted by the army's current year-long operations have been Karen civilians, providing yet further fuel to the fire of Myanmar's long war.

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