A Myanmar army officer (C) attends the opening ceremony of Cobra Gold, Asia's largest annual multilateral military exercise, outside Bangkok, Thailand February 13, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun
A Myanmar army officer (C) attends the opening ceremony of Cobra Gold, Asia's largest annual multilateral military exercise, outside Bangkok, Thailand February 13, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Beset by allegations of systematic massacre, rape and pillage against ethnic Rohingya civilians in Rakhine state, Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw, is pushing back.

Over three days in early February the military staged its largest ever air-land-sea war games, in a very public effort to burnish its tarnished image and raise its credentials as a professional war-fighting machine.

Designated ‘Sinbyushin’ in a telling salute to an 18th century monarch who sacked the former Siamese capital of Ayutthaya and repulsed invading Chinese armies, the live-fire exercises were clearly intended to showcase to an international as well as domestic audience the armed forces’ growing capabilities and ambitions.

Beyond the sound and fury, however, the drills also served to reflect the Tatmadaw’s longstanding operational shortcomings and, perhaps more importantly, the doctrinal dilemmas of an aspiring national defense force trapped in a 70-year-long civil war that professionally and morally has proved deeply corrosive.

Two months in the planning, the exercises were only the second time the Tatmadaw has held maneuvers involving all three services, according to statement released to the media. The first occasion over 20 years ago took place in a very different era when the process of military modernization was in its infancy and the challenges faced less urgent.

This time around, the maneuvers involved over 8,000 ground troops supported by naval and air power on a wide stretch of the Bay of Bengal coast west of Pathein city in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta region. In terms of tactical complexity – not to mention ammunition expended – they appeared set to outshine the region’s largest joint military exercises, Cobra Gold, currently being held in neighboring Thailand.

As in earlier years, the Tatmadaw was to have participated with observer status in Cobra Gold 2018, which brings together over 11,000 personnel from 29 nations with some 7,000 US and 4,000 Thai troops taking center stage.

This year, however, US ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies noted pointedly at the February 13 opening ceremony that “Myanmar is not a participant nation.” Nor was Myanmar’s national flag raised at Cobra Gold’s opening event.

Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in a parade to mark tArmed Forces Day in the capital Naypyitaw, March 27, 2017. Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Coordinated by a Joint Command Center and presided over by armed forces chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Tatmadaw’s own exercises hinged around two centerpiece maneuvers.

One was an amphibious landing which saw troops advancing from mechanized landing craft to secure a beachhead. Infantry were supported by battle tanks ‘swimming’ ashore, while off-shore, larger warships intercepted ‘enemy’ attempts to disrupt the landing.

Another major set-piece drill involved a full-scale combined-arms assault on ‘enemy’ positions on land. That exercise saw mechanized infantry surging forward backed by armored vehicles, artillery barrages and air strikes.

A range of smaller drills played out around the two major maneuvers. One was a rare airborne assault by parachute-trained light infantry battalions. Others included behind-the-lines insertions of helicopter-borne special forces teams, search-and-rescue missions and simulated casualty evacuations by land and air.

At one level, Sinbyushin 2018 may be seen as strategically timed muscle-flexing designed to send a ‘we stand tall’ message at home and abroad. Not by coincidence the war games come at a time when a barrage of Western criticism over human rights abuses in Rakhine state has induced a renewed bout of the paranoia that is never far from the surface among the Tatmadaw’s upper echelons.

Myanmar soldiers march in the capital Naypyitaw, Myanmar March 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Min Aung Hlaing’s comments to the media following the exercises reflected this mindset when he said ”small countries like Myanmar face insult and threats from superpowers if the country is weak in defensive power.”

In an era of quasi-democratic government, it seems unlikely that Myanmar’s strategic planners still entertain the fears of direct Western military intervention that haunted them in the aftermath of the US’ invasion of Iraq in 2003. But it would be equally remarkable if current contingency planning for border clashes with Bangladesh or even China is not regularly reviewed.

At another level the scale of the drills underscored accelerating efforts to build what Min Aung Hlaing has repeatedly referred to as a “standard military.” Arguably an implicit admission that the Tatmadaw is sub-standard, the term implies a force that is both technologically modern and operationally far better trained and integrated than at present.

Major steps towards modernization have been made in the last decade, not least in efforts to locally manufacture a wide range of defense equipment. An indigenous ship-building program has been a central element, with a new class of stealth frigates unveiled as flagships of a fast-growing navy with ‘blue water’ ambitions in the Bay of Bengal region.

Army and air force modernization, however, presents more urgent challenges. There remains a stark disconnect between the carefully choreographed war games staged annually on the training grounds of central Myanmar and the military campaigns waged by an overwhelmingly ethnic Burman army against the nation’s disaffected ethnic minorities.

In the real world around the nation’s rugged peripheries, decades-old brush wars are spearheaded by infantry battalions that are chronically undermanned, inadequately trained and often poorly supported.

A Myanmar government soldier secures the ground while a military helicopter carrying troops takes off from Muse located in Shan State of Myanmar near China’s border on November 25, 2016. Photo: AFP/Ko Sai

Manpower shortages across multiple fronts mean unit rotations in combat areas are typically extended months beyond the level of military effectiveness. Meanwhile, field intelligence – the foundation of effective operations – has been repeatedly revealed as critically weak or completely lacking.

The results have been predictable in two salient respects. First, front-line battalions suffer casualties at a rate that in any ‘standard’ army would be seen as militarily unacceptable and politically toxic.

Since 2012, campaigns in Kachin, Shan and increasingly Rakhine states have entailed several thousand Tatmadaw fatalities. Between February and May 2015 alone, fighting in the Kokang region of Shan state set a bleak record of some 800 troops killed.

Closely linked to the issue of high casualties, a second upshot has seen combat units succumbing to a culture of brutality and impunity. This has been the case particularly in the Light Infantry Divisions which operate in support of regionally based forces and constitute the tip of the Tatmadaw’s spear.

Most recently displayed in northern Rakhine state, that no-holds-barred mindset translates directly into persistent human rights abuses which alienate entire populations and undermine any aspirations to build a ‘standard military.’

Under these conditions, recruitment is unsurprisingly an uphill battle, which in recent years has not been made any easier by genuine efforts to address international concern over the induction of under-age soldiers.

Myanmar military troops including parachutists take part in the Sinbyushin military exercises, February 3, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Lynn Bo Bo/Pool

The Tatmadaw is seeking to address these problems at three levels. Over the long term, efforts are underway to improve pay and conditions. In poor rural areas of central Myanmar, the money and prestige offered by military service still talk.

More immediately, far greater resources are being allocated to kinetic solutions: more artillery and air support to help often reluctant ‘grunts’ hunkered down in front-line trenches.

In terms of artillery, that has meant the induction of long-range 155mm systems to boost 105mm and 122mm guns that have been in service for decades. Increasingly important, too, are truck-mounted 122mm and 240mm multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) acquired from China and North Korea and now also produced by the Tatmadaw’s own defense industry.

In the air, meanwhile, recent campaigns have seen a growing, if still tentative, use of new Russian Mi-24P ‘Hind’ helicopter gunships. There has also been far greater reliance on fixed-wing aircraft for close air support (CAS) than at any time in the Tatmadaw’s history.

Now obsolete Chinese aircraft inducted in the early 1990s are currently being replaced by modern JF-17 multi-role fighters, co-produced by China and Pakistan, which have reportedly performed well in Islamabad’s ground-attack operations against terrorist groups in northwest Pakistan. Recently acquired Russian Yak-130 advanced jet trainers, which double as heavily armed ground-attack platforms, will also almost certainly see combat in the coming years.

As the Tatmadaw is learning, however, buying costly new weapons systems and using them to any effect are two entirely different things. In 2015, the Kokang battle was the first occasion that without warning (read: massive intelligence failure) the military found itself engaged in a complex combined-arms campaign demanding heavy artillery, air power and armor to support struggling infantry units.

Kachin Independence Army (KIA) soldiers in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state on the border with China. Photo: AFP/Patrick Bodenham

The results were not what they would have been in any ‘standard military.’ The disaster of losing the entire region to insurgents was narrowly averted. But the lack of experience in integrating infantry, air and artillery operations costs hundreds of Tatmadaw lives — and galling diplomatic humiliation when Myanmar jets accidentally bombed Chinese territory.

Improved artillery operations have since brought some relief. The capture of the insurgent Kachin Independence Army’s (KIA) mountain-top Gideon Post close to the Chinese border in December 2016 came largely as the result of artillery fire – but only after four months of fighting and heavy casualties.

During the May-October rainy season last year, the army’s artillery school undertook an unusual and extended on-the-job training exercise in Kokang. According to military intelligence sources who spoke with Asia Times, crews used both 122mm and newer 155mm heavy guns to pound an insurgent-held “liberated area” measuring some five square kilometers situated too close to the border to risk air strikes that might again stray into Chinese territory.

In January this year, 155mm self-propelled artillery was again deployed in fighting with the KIA in southwest Kachin state. But according to the same intelligence sources, the Tatmadaw still required the assistance of technical advisors from Serbia, the country which originally sold the guns to Myanmar.

Effective air support for ground troops — always difficult to calibrate with free-fall ‘dumb’ munitions and not without risk to air crew – has remained far less effective than artillery. While the air force has lost only one or two aircraft to ground fire since 2012, pilots still inexperienced in CAS missions have been notably reluctant to fly at low altitudes.

Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village September 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters Handout

It remains to be seen whether the induction of new Yak-130s will improve the situation. The aircraft is more modern and far better armed than the aging Sino-Pakistani produced K-8 Karakoram light attack jets it will soon complement.

However, the fact that the insurgent United Wa State Army in northeastern Shan State is equipped with modern FN-6 Chinese shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and, despite its long-standing cease-fire with the military, is willing to extend increasing support to allied ethnic armed groups, is undoubtedly cause for concern in air force circles.

As Min Aung Hlaing himself conceded after the Sinbyushin 2018 exercises, the road to building a ‘standard military’ is a long one that will require “more formation, arming and training.” But a far greater obstacle to creating a modern national defense force undoubtedly lies in the traditional mindset of the Tatmadaw officer corps itself.

As long as the generals remain determined to impose a centralized system of Burman-dominated governance on Myanmar’s multi-ethnic society, they commit the military to a future as a colonial garrison force locked in conflicts of greater or lesser intensity with its own people.

Under those circumstances, new equipment and grandiose training exercises may hone a more lethal killing machine, but they will not shape what the rest of the world would recognize as a ‘standard military.’

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