The Myanmar military has denied claims by a number of ethnic rebel groups in the country that it was using drones to attack them and causing substantial collateral damage including civilian casualties.
But experts say there is merit in the rebel allegations.
The Arakan Army (AA) fighting for self-determination in the western province of Rakhine had recently claimed that the Burmese army Tatmadaw was using combat drones to attack their fighters in Rakhine and Chin states.
A military spokesman clarified it was only using unmanned drones to provide security for military outposts.
“Battalions and military units have procured drones on their own. They use them to take pictures to secure their outposts or for checking out routes for patrols,” Myanmar military spokesperson Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun told Northeast Now.
In statements late last month, the AA spokesmam Khaing Htukka said the Myanmar military had recently started using drones in addition to fighter aircraft to bomb AA troops in Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships in Rakhine State and Paletwa Township in Chin State.
In March last year, drones were among the weapons seized by the AA when it detained a group of soldiers after a battle in Paletwa.
Although the AA’s claims of drone use by the military could not be independently verified, it was confirmed that the Tatmadaw used fighter jets against AA troops in August in remote areas of Rakhine State’s Minbya Township.
That is near the boundary of Mrauk-U Township which Tatmadaw ground forces could not access by road.
In November, the AA claimed that aerial bombing by the Tatmadaw had killed some of the hostages the armed group had abducted from the Shwe Nadi ferry the previous day.
When asked about use of drones, Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun said sarcastically, “We didn’t realize we’re so advanced. It seems we’ve underestimated ourselves.”
He said the drones currently in use by the Myanmar military are the ordinary type that can be easily bought in a market, and are only used to take pictures and videos.
But that may be a deliberate understatement.
One of the country’s biggest armed groups, the Karen National Union (KNU), which signed a truce with the Myanmar government in 2015, recently claimed the Myanmar military had been using drones to conduct aerial reconnaissance on its brigades and headquarters every seven to 15 days since 2018.
KNU alleged that the practice undermined the trust between the two sides and described it as a breach of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.
Again, Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun denied the claim, saying, “We have ground information about the locations of all the outposts of the KNU and every other group in Myanmar. So, we don’t need to bother to use drones to take pictures.”
U Thein Tun Oo of the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank formed by ex-military officers, said the Myanmar military lacks the technology needed to deploy combat drones.
“It is very likely that the Tatmadaw, as it tries to build a standard army, uses drones for reconnaissance. But to attack with drones is quite complicated technologically. It can’t be drones. It might be another form of aerial attack,” U Thein Tun Oo said.
Pa-O National Liberation Organization leader Colonel Khun Okkar also claimed the Myanmar military is using drones for both purposes – reconnaissance and attack.
“The Myanmar military is using them on a trial basis. From what I’ve learned, it is using both types. Unfortunately, the drone training ground is in the AA’s area. I have learned that the military has started using combat drones against the AA,” Khun Okkar said.
But though the army denied the allegations, experts point to some merit in the rebel allegations.
IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly recently confirmed Myanmar’s deployment of armed drones in counterinsurgency roles.
Specifically, the Myanmar military is using the drones to enable ongoing counter-insurgency operations in the country’s restive northern areas, where multiple armed groups operate.
The drones are Chinese-made CH-3As, built by China Aerospace Long-March International, a division of the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).
Myanmar is thought to operate around a dozen CH-3A drones. The CH-3A is a variant of the CH-3 fixed-wing unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), featuring a 180 kg maximum payload and an endurance of six hours.
The CH-3A matches the CH-3 for range, at 960 kilometers. In terms of armaments, the CH-3A is capable of fielding AR-1 laser-guided air-to-surface missiles and YC-200 guided bombs.
(Both systems are known to be have been used by the Nigeria military, which operates the drones.)
Although photographs of purported CH-3As in the Myanmar Air Force (Tatmadaw Lay) have circulated previously, Jane’s is basing its latest confirmation off ‘a photograph likely to have been taken on a serviceman’s mobile telephone and posted on a Facebook account before being disseminated on the internet’.
The report speculates that the CH-3As have been ‘undertaking sorties from an airfield likely to be either Lashio in Shan State or Bhamo in southeastern Kachin State’.
The Myanmar Air Force’s combat aircraft backbone is composed nearly entirely of Chinese-built systems, in addition to 31 Russian MiG-29 multi-role fighters.
The Myanmar Air Force operates Chinese Nanchang Q-5 ground attack aircraft, primarily used in close air support roles, Chengdu J-7 fighters, Shenyang J-6 fighters, and is likely the first foreign buyer of the joint China-Pakistan JF-17 Thunder fighter.
Myanmar also operates Chinese Y-8 medium lift transport aircraft.
While the CH-3A UCAVs are the most capable armed unmanned aerial system in Myanmar’s repertoire, the Myanmar Air Force also has 11 Sky-02A surveillance drones and 22 Yellow Cat A2s, which are domestic versions of the Chinese UAV.
The addition to UCAVs to Myanmar’s aerial capabilities is unsurprising.
As Global Security notes, the Myanmar Air Force has faced a shortage of trained manpower for military aviation and faced issues servicing its aging inventory of existing aircrafts.