Forces: Burma Scrapes By


October 28, 2020: Myanmar (still referred to as Burma) has long obtained most of its weapons from China. That was because until 2011 Burma had been a military dictatorship for over 40 years and few nations would sell to such a nation. This made Burma one of China’s top three export customers. Pakistan was the largest, getting 55 percent of weapons exports while Burma got about seven percent. Because of all that international pressure to end the dictatorship, Burma could not afford the most modern weapons or be picky about what they bought. The Burmese Air Force is a good example. Except for a few dozen modern fighters (Mig-29s and Su-30s) from Russia and six JF-17s from China, the rest of the air force consisted of much older aircraft. The navy does a little better because Burma has local shipyards that can build warships, at least those up to about 3,000 tons (frigates). Three frigates have been built and two imported from China by 2012. Three 1,100-ton corvettes were also built locally. For the locally built ships, weapons and electronics must be imported. Burma has also built a lot of smaller (500 tons or less) patrol ships, some armed with missiles. Three ships of this type were bought from China in the 1990s to give Burmese ship builders models for locally built versions. This includes twenty 250-ton armed patrol ships to replace older ones purchased from China and many smaller patrol boats built in Burma during the 1990s. The navy also has one sub, a 1988 vintage Kilo class Russian boat purchased from India after refurbishment.

The army has few expensive systems. Even the tank force is mostly Chinese made tanks that China stopped using in the 1980s and the only users left are nations that cannot afford to buy a lot of modern replacements. What is important to the army is lots of loyal infantry armed with Chinese small arms and other infantry weapons and equipment.

Burma was ruled by a military dictatorship for 49 years before internal, diplomatic and economic (sanctions) pressure persuaded the general to allow a return to democracy in 2011. The generals had run the economy into the ground and succeeded in suppressing all attempts at establishing a representative government for nearly half a century. They did this by maintaining the loyalty of a fairly large army. How have they managed to pull this off for so long on a small budget? Simple, the generals have concentrated on maintaining the loyalty of the officers and senior NCOs in the armed forces. This is done by making the military a well-paid, by Burmese standards, profession, and select carefully from among those who apply to be career soldiers.

About one percent of Burma's 54 million people are in the armed forces, which included paramilitary "intelligence" and "security" secret police type organizations. The secret police kept an eye on the troops, and the troops kept an eye, and often a gun on the people. Myanmar only spent about a billion dollars a year on the armed forces at the end, most of that going to pay and living expenses of infantry troops.

Most of the troops served in 500 infantry battalions, 60 percent of them "light infantry". The "light" units are cheap to maintain. No vehicles, and few heavy weapons. But such units are excellent for controlling unruly citizens. About half the infantry do just that, being assigned to 22 Operation Control Commands (OCCs), which cover most of the country. Each OCC has about ten infantry battalions, trained to deal with unrest, patrolling and low-level infantry combat. From the 1990s to 2011 the number of infantry battalions nearly doubled.

Myanmar has also been building up a mechanized force of about ten divisions. They did this by purchasing bargain basement, and relatively primitive, armored vehicles from China and other low-cost providers. The problem is the military budget is so meager that there is no money to buy fuel for training these mechanized units. One reason for allowing democracy to return was that sanctions would be lifted and the army could get some modern tanks and money for training.

Since 2011 Burma has obtained 40 modern VT1 tanks. This is the export version of the Chinese Type 90. Actually, the Type 90 was not accepted by the Chinese army, which instead went with the 54-ton Type 99, a superior T-72 variant that entered service in 2001, underwent a major upgrade (the 58-ton Type 99A) in 2011 and is still in production with over a thousand in service so far. The VT1 and later VT4 were just for export and like all modern Chinese tanks are based on the Russian T-72. Burma also received 139 upgraded T-72s from Ukraine. The older Burmese tanks are all variants of the Russian T-55. This one was built under license in China as the Type 59 and with that modelcame Chinese variations in Burmese service like the 130 Type 69s, 105 Type 62s and 150 Type 63s, which are light tanks based on the old Russian PT-76. Many of these older tanks are inoperable. The new tanks are larger and have more power-hungry accessories. This means more fuel is required to training drivers and tank units. Obtaining more money for such training, on the ground, at sea and in the air, is still a problem. No matter because even untrained, the Burmese military still has a good chance of defeating its most dangerous and immediate threat, the Burmese people.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close