Home » Myanmar PDFs need MANPADs to have a fighting chance

Myanmar PDFs need MANPADs to have a fighting chance

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Well before the Myanmar Air Force (MAF) began preparations to escalate a countrywide onslaught on the federal-democratic opposition in the coming months, resistance politicians, commanders, combatants and ordinary villagers alike were grappling with a looming concern: a desperate lack of air defense.

There has been no shortage of efforts to at least mitigate the dilemma through anguished appeals to the international community and quixotic – and in some cases painfully expensive – forays into the treacherous back-alleys of the international arms black market.

Perhaps predictably both have focused on acquiring the silver bullet on every guerrilla army’s wish list: man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS.

But by early 2023 virtually all actors in the conflict and observers beyond have recognized the reality that shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles will not be coming to the rescue of Myanmar’s opposition forces in the foreseeable future.

In sharp contrast to Afghanistan of the 1980s or Syria of the 2010s, in Myanmar of the 2020s no neighboring state has any interest in facilitating the delivery into the country of MANPADS – or any other significant weaponry – even assuming an external power or reliable black market vendor were willing to supply them.

Neighbors Thailand, India, China, Bangladesh and Laos have all adopted a policy that is predicated on the assessment that growing but known levels of instability in Myanmar are preferable to the great unknown: the collapse of the military’s State Administration Council (SAC) regime that a sustainable arms pipeline to opposition forces would probably trigger.

At the same time, it is also apparent that the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the one ethnic armed faction inside Myanmar that does possess significant numbers of MANPADS – both third-generation Chinese FN-6 missiles and obsolescent second-generation HN-5s – is not in the business of selling them.

While the Wa have been apparently keen to supply their northern insurgent allies with an impressive variety of military hardware produced both in China and locally in their own territory, the UWSA’s interlocutors from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have almost certainly imposed a hard veto on MANPADS proliferation.

And at this stage in the conflict, there is little reason to believe that policy will change or that the Wa will seek to circumvent it to any significant degree.

UWSA soldiers parade their Chinese-made MANPADS in a file photo. Image: AFP Hard alternatives

Absent MANPADS, there are arguably two other means or a combination of them that the anti-SAC resistance might employ to counter the threat from the air, even though neither offers a silver bullet or is likely to bear fruit in the coming year.

The first is a gradual proliferation of heavy machine guns (HMGs) and specifically Chinese-manufactured Type-77 12.7 mm weapons already scattered across the country and deployed by several major combatants, notably the tripartite Brotherhood Alliance that includes the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in Shan State and the Arakan Army (AA) on the western Rakhine seaboard.

Unconfirmed reports have suggested that the ability of the TNLA to bring Chinese HMGs to the fight in Shan State’s Namhsan township in December was one factor behind the stinging defeat meted out to the military’s insertion of heliborne troops.

Arguing in favor of the Type-77 HMG is its capacity to act as a significant deterrent to low-flying helicopters and to a lesser extent low flying fixed-wing aircraft.

Between the beginning of the Afghanistan conflict in 1979 and 1986, when the introduction of US-supplied Stinger shoulder-launched missiles supplied through Pakistan dramatically altered the air war calculus, anti-communist resistance forces relied heavily and with some success on 12.7mm HMGs.

The weapon’s limitations are three-fold. First, even accurate machine-gun fire does not carry the immediate kinetic or wider psychological impact of a missile strike. 

Second, is the weight factor. Fired from a tripod or mounted on a vehicle, the Type-77 HMG is not “man-portable.” Weighing in at 56 kilograms including tripod, (as against 16 kilograms for a Chinese FN-6 MANPADS), the gun requires transport by mule, horse or off-road vehicle.

Its tactical utility is thus limited either to defending semi-permanent bases where ideally two or more guns can provide interlocking fields of fire, or to supporting planned attacks on enemy positions sure to provoke the intervention of air support.

Third, there is nothing to suggest that either the UWSA or the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which have both developed indigenous small arms production capabilities, can turn out copies of the Type-77.

That means limited numbers of the HMG produced in China and channeled through the Wa are more likely to be jealously guarded by ethnic resistance organizations (EROs) than sold more widely to anti-coup People’s Defense Forces (PDFs).

Fighting fire with fire

Attacks on airbases aimed at preventing aircraft from taking off in the first place are another, surer response to air power. And it is no coincidence that in Myanmar efforts to destroy aircraft on the ground have increased in frequency as the air war has escalated.

Since the coup of February 2021, ethnic and PDF forces have launched attacks on bases at Nampong, Meiktila, Magwe, Toungoo, and, most recently, Mingaladon.

These attacks have almost invariably relied on 107mm surface-to-surface rockets, a notoriously inaccurate stand-off projectile with a range of up to 8 kilometers. Its utility essentially requires firing in salvos from a wheeled 12-barrel launcher, but in Myanmar, the rocket has invariably been fired in twos or threes without launchers and to date has failed to damage let alone destroy aircraft.

Two Myanmar fighter jets seen firing shots during an exercise in Meiktila in 2019. Image: State Media

Given the skills that PDFs across the country have developed in the use of armed drones, attacks on airbases might be expected to rely on this tactic. But the notable absence of reports of such operations leads to only one conclusion: the systematic installation of drone-jamming equipment purchased in 2022 from China to shield strategically critical facilities has precluded their use.

The far more effective alternative to stand-off rocket or drone attacks involves attackers infiltrating an air base with light weapons and demolition charges and destroying parked aircraft from close-up – a tactic developed to dramatic effect in the 2000s by Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers and later copied by jihadist guerrillas in Pakistan.

In July 2001, 14 Tiger commandos infiltrated the Sri Lankan Air Force’s main base at Katunayake north of the capital Colombo destroying eight military aircraft and damaging others before going on to wreak havoc in the adjacent Bandaranaike International Airport where they destroyed three civilian Airbus jets and damaged two others.

A similar attack involving 21 Tiger commandos struck the military airbase at Anuradhapura in October 2007, destroying at least eight aircraft and damaging 10 others.

Both raids, however, were planned and executed as suicide operations that ended with the death of almost all the Black Tiger assault teams. In the wholly different cultural context of Myanmar, there is nothing to suggest that PDF fighters will be volunteering for one-way assault missions in the foreseeable future.

Targeting the fuel that constitutes the lifeblood of the air war and needs to be transported regularly to bases across the country might offer a more practical alternative to suicide attacks.

But even this apparently simple expedient requires a network of reliable intelligence sources operating in support of capable assault units equipped with the rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns needed to destroy fuel trucks. That complex capability is almost certainly beyond the reach of resistance forces in the coming months.

Finally, the proposition that a similar result could be achieved by imposing sanctions on aviation fuel is hardly serious. As one of the world’s largest exporters of oil, Russia will not be standing idle as the air force of its only real ally in Southeast Asia is slowly grounded by Western sanctions.

Tactical adaptation

These daunting tactical constraints raise an overarching strategic question: is regime airpower sufficiently potent and ubiquitous to deny any forward movement by Myanmar’s opposition forces, repelling attacks on army strongpoints and safeguarding indefinitely regime control of urban areas while Naypyidaw waits for the military and political tide of resistance to slowly ebb?

The answer should be a guarded “not necessarily.”  The history of modern insurgencies indicates that while airpower can prove lethally effective and exact a terrible toll on civilians, it can never be omnipresent and its impact on widely scattered guerrilla forces is rarely decisive militarily. Ultimately, land wars are won and lost by ground forces.

But equally clear is that for Myanmar’s opposition forces to have any prospect of success, they will need to adapt tactics for an offensive phase of the war aimed for the time being at the strategic objectives of destroying enemy forces and seizing weaponry – not at premature and futile attempts to seize and hold territory that the regime seeks to contest.

Myanmar’s soldiers march in a formation during a parade to mark the country’s 74th Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27, 2019. Photo: AFP/Thet Aung

The destruction of enemy forces and capture of their weapons target Naypyidaw’s greatest military vulnerability – undermanned and overstretched units – while progressively compensating for the resistance’s lack of external support.

At the most obvious level, adapting tactics to the reality of airpower requires systematically exploiting darkness, camouflage and mobility – basic expedients of survival already been learned in many parts of the country, not least by civilians.

As important militarily, however, is the need to operationalize the most basic tactical principle of successful guerrilla warfare against an entrenched regime backed by airpower: concentration of decisively superior numbers and firepower to rapidly overrun weaker positions, followed by equally rapid withdrawal and dispersal.  

In this classic formulation, the words “decisively superior” are key and usually imply a 3:1 ratio of attackers to defenders. If the principle is ignored more often than observed in Myanmar, there is a good reason and a fundamental challenge.

Tactical concentration and dispersal of resistance forces to destroy regime ground forces while at the same time mitigating the impact of air power can only happen in the context of some unity of command at the higher operational level.

Clear to even a casual observer of Myanmar is that at the national level unity of military command over resistance forces is neither possible nor desirable. The barriers of geography, culture and organization dividing different EROs are simply insurmountable.

They are further complicated by political strains between EROs and the largely ethnic Bamar-dominated National Unity Government (NUG) and the urgent need for a blueprint for far-reaching federal autonomy that can outbid offers of future reform emanating from Naypyidaw and secure committed buy-in from key ethnic minority communities.

C3C or not to be?

Under these circumstances, the best that can be expected at the national level is a degree of military liaison based on a structure that the NUG has already established – the Central Command and Coordination Committee, the so-called “C3C.” This platform offers at least the possibility of loose coordination of separate campaigns in different parts of the country during future phases of the war.

More immediately, where effective integration of command is not only possible but essential is at the operational level within specific regions of the nation’s borderlands.

Thanks to both rugged terrain and the resilience of the Kachin, Chin, Karen and Karenni EROs based there, these regions have already emerged as military centers of gravity and, not by coincidence, overlap with the three “Military Division Commands” (MDC) announced in 2021 by the NUG.  

On paper at least, in these zones – MDC 1 covering Kachin and Chin states, MDC 2 covering Karen, and MDC 3 encompassing Karenni – relatively well-equipped and experienced EROs exert operational command over new PDFs affiliated with the NUG’s Ministry of Defense which can be deployed for joint operations under the overall direction of an ERO commander.

In a best-case scenario, this command structure can be gradually extended from the national periphery to absorb PDFs in the more central ethnic Bamar heartland where military cohesion among a shifting kaleidoscope of separate resistance groups is being strongly tested.

Even at the regional level, imposing some unity of command over resistance forces will not be easy; some skeptical analysts argue that it will be impossible. It will certainly need to contend with the reality of military fragmentation not only between EROs and PDFs that have emerged since 2021 but within EROs themselves.

A member of the Karenni People’s Defense Force holds a homemade gun adorned with the words ‘Spring Revolution’ in Burmese script as he takes part in training at a camp near Demoso in Kayah state on July 7, 2021. Photo: AFP

For decades Karen, Kachin and other EROs have divided their forces across organizationally separate brigade areas configured for local defense using guerrilla tactics rather than offensive warfare that by definition demands mobility. Some EROs, most notably the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), have been plagued by infighting and breakaway factions.

Finally, issues of logistics and resources loom large. Molding diverse armed units, many with their own local agendas, into military forces willing to be deployed in sustained offensive operations hinges crucially on the ability of regional commands to access and supply resources, including munitions, rice and, not least, cash.

In the coming months of the dry season, the success or failure of resistance commanders to recognize and respond to these challenges under the pressure of unremitting bombardment from the air will largely shape the future of the war.

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