Winning: Keeping A Coup Alive With UAVs


June 17, 2021: Myanmar (Burma), formerly part of the British colonial holdings in South Asia, again suffered a military coup, with a new (since February 1) military government. This usurped a democracy that has only been around since 2011, when decades (since the 1960s) of military rule ended because of the growing armed and popular opposition as well as economic sanctions. The military continued with many of its illegal economic scams that the elected government was slowly shutting down and threatening prosecutions of generals who kept the scams going after democracy returned and the rampant military corruption was outlawed. Unlike the 1960s coup, the latest one did not work, at least not after four months of increasing resistance, especially armed resistance from the newly formed CDM (Civil Disobedience Movement), which has some factions shooting back when civilians are attacked. In late April someone fired five rockets at the Shante Air Force base outside the city of Mandalay. The rockets caused no damage or injuries and were believed aimed at the Chinese CH-3A UAVs that were delivered in 2015 and used mainly to keep an eye on tribal rebels in the north. After the coup the army asked China for assistance in using all the manned and unmanned aircraft and helicopters China and Russia has sold to Burma in the last decade. Now these weapons were being used to defeat a nationwide uprising. China is something of an expert on this as is installing a “Big Brother” level surveillance in China and is willing to export that tech. An elected government would never divert the huge sums required to purchase and install Chinese Big Brother levels of surveillance. The Burmese military is another matter, especially when it has taken over the government again. At the moment the military is in charge and China sees another major export sale looming. Better surveillance capabilities will provide immediate help to suppress the rebels.

China faces huge economic losses if the current coup fails. China is a major foreign investor in Burma and those projects often displace Burmese illegally and without compensation. Most of this misbehavior occurred in the northern border areas where ethnic tribes comprise most of the population. These tribes tend to have armed militias that have been fighting the military for over sixty years. Chinese investments gave the tribal rebels more targets for unarmed protests and armed attacks. China will do whatever it can to protect those investments, which include oil and natural gas pipelines from southern China to the northeast Burma coast. The pipelines have come under increasing attacks.

That was enough threat for China to sell the generals CH-3 UAVs for surveillance initially and more recently for attack using missiles or guided bombs. Since 2014 the CH-3s were used for surveillance but China made it known that the CH-3s could be quickly upgraded to use weapons. China was ready to quietly perform the upgrade, deliver the missiles and train Burmese CH-3 operators and ground crews how to handle the new capabilities. The current version of the CH-3 is equipped with a satellite link making it possible for the Chinese operators to remain in China and train Burmese operators in weapons use. Burmese report that the Chinese UAVs are spending most of their time patrolling the tribal north, areas occupied by Chinese-built pipelines and port facilities. Since February the CH-3s have also appeared over major cities during the major protests that continue to take place.

The Chinese UAVs are much cheaper (about half the price) than the American Predator and Reaper they are based on, but for that you get aircraft and missiles that have not had as many of the bugs worked out nor achieved anything like the two-decade track record of the Predator. The CH-3 has been around since 2010 and the CH-3A is a 2015 upgrade with 20 percent larger payload (of 100 kg) and is more reliable and can be equipped with satellite data link as well as a new generation of sensors. China continued to sell CH-3s and 3As because the CH-3 was cheaper as it did not include the weapons capability and could be described as an unarmed surveillance system. Burma apparently has a mix of CH-3 and CH-3A UAVs.

One drawback of the CH-3 is its operating altitude, which is about four kilometers. CH-3s often operate low enough to be within range of shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, which can home in on the engine heat. Few have been lost to this threat and in Burma China has some control over black market weapons because many of them come from China via northern Burma. The tribal group that controls that trade is known as the Wa State Army. The Wa are an ethnic Chinese tribal group that lives on both sides of the China-Burma border. In return for free access to China for all manner of goods, the Burmese Wa obey Chinese requests to limit what weapons will be traded and who can get them. Most of the tribal militias in the north are armed with Chinese weapons or non-Chinese ones obtained from the military, usually as loot from attacks on soldiers and police including the occasional raid on rural police or army bases. China cannot not shut down this trade completely without losing control of it. More expensive foreign weapons and ammunition are always available.

In 2016 China revealed that it had sold military UAVs to ten countries, mainly in the Middle East and Africa. Not all customers were named and Burma was one of them. Most of the military UAVs delivered up till then were CH-3s and 200 smaller unarmed UAVs equipped for surveillance and reconnaissance. At the same time, China has become the largest exporter of commercial UAVs which are used by police and commercial firms for a wide variety of tasks. The number of customers has nearly doubled in the last five years.

In early 2018 Iraq released a video of its Chinese CH-4B UAVs, which are similar to the American Predator and a larger version of the CH-3. This confirmed what had long been known, that Iraq had been using several CH-4Bs since 2015. China initially provided operators and ground crews with the CH-4s and these enabled Iraqi operators and ground crews to literally learn on the job. This included using Chinese made laser-guided missiles. Chief among these is a Hellfire clone, the AR-1. This is a 45 kg (99 pound) missile with a max range of 10 kilometers and a 10 kg (22 pound) warhead. AR-1 can be equipped with either GPS or laser guidance. Iraq also revealed that these UAVs carried out nearly 300 airstrikes but spent most of their airtime carrying out surveillance. The CH-4Bs were armed with a Chinese version of the American Hellfire laser-guided missile during the Mosul campaign to drive ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) out of their last stronghold in Iraq.

American supported Kurdish forces advanced from the north against Mosul, using American MQ-9 Reapers and it was possible to see how Iraqi forces responded to support from those as well as the CH-4Bs. This gave American forces a chance to see the CH-4B in action and they confirmed that the CH-4B was comparable in performance to the U.S. Predator, which was being phased out and replaced by the larger (4.7 ton) Reapers.

This was not the first appearance of the CH-4 in the region. The UAE had already bought some. The Middle East has been a major export market for these UAVs and since 2015 Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both been using Chinese UAVs in Yemen combat operations. The most popular of these is the CH-4. Chinese UAVs sell well because many nations have been unable to buy similar American UAVs. The Americans feared that UAV secrets would be sold to enemies of the United States or that the UAVs would be used to carry out war crimes. China saw this as an opportunity and exploited it.

The Burmese military has always maintained close ties with China and Russia and this is vital as the Burmese military struggles to establish control of the country after a February 1st coup. China promptly used their veto powers in the UN to block UN actions against the new military rulers of Burma. Within two weeks Russia also proclaimed support for the military government. The Chinese and Russian support of the Burmese military was not unexpected, because the elected civilian government knew that the Burmese generals maintained their economic connections in China and that was the main reason China has sold $1.4 billion worth of military equipment to Burma since 2010. Russia sold $800 million worth. Together China and Russia accounted for over 90 percent Burmese spending on imports of military gear.

The coup has not been able to take control of the economy or suppress the nationwide popular uprising. Burma is sliding towards an economic crisis and civil war. Anti-government demonstrations continued despite troops and police being ordered to open fire, which eventually led to some of the demonstrators shooting back. Some of these were police or soldiers who had deserted, and took their weapons with them. So far nearly a thousand demonstrators have been killed by the security forces and ten times that number wounded or arrested.

The Burmese military is comfortable with a cozy relationship with China and Russia but most Burmese are not. This has led to Chinese businesses being attacked and some have been set on fire. The alliance of separatist northern tribes, which reached a peace agreement with the elected government in 2016 refused to recognize or cooperate with the military government. Burmese military leaders were surprised at the extent and duration of mass protests since February. By popular agreement the economy is shut down and the generals have to worry about the morale and loyalty of their troops because of the months of popular protests and being ordered to open fire on fellow Burmese. The many foreign companies that manufacture in Burma have been evacuating their employees and that means getting those closed facilities operational again will take time.

The military still has income because during their decades of rule (from 1962 to 2010) they came to control many businesses and some of those were joint ventures with China. A lot of Chinese firms pay the Burmese military directly for joint ventures. This provides the military with at least a billion dollars a year, assuming the Chinese operations can keep functioning. The Chinese operations in Burma now face sanctions. Burmese army officers made a lot of money allowing China to do business in the tribal north, often at the expense of local civilians, most of them tribal people. After the return of democracy in 2011, China no longer had as much freedom in the north. Russia is of little help economically but is one of the few nations supporting the military government. China and Russia are offering advice but the major problem is the weakening morale and resolve of the troops and police. China has a border with Myanmar but so far there is no talk of Chinese military intervention with heavily armed “peacekeepers.” The regional and global uproar over such a direct intervention would help the pro-democracy rebels and further harm the economy and relations with neighboring countries, like Thailand, Bangladesh and India that are already resisting Chinese economic and military pressure. Sending in additional surveillance equipment, as well as UAV weapons and a few Chinese trainers is a less obvious form of military assistance that could prove decisive.




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