The use of weaponised drones by Myanmar’s resistance forces is giving them an edge over junta forces.
State actors and conventional air forces have long dominated the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones in warfare. But the commercialisation of drone technology for non-military purposes has enabled non-state actors to access and weaponise readily available and affordable commercial drones against state actors. Local defence forces in Myanmar pushing back against the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, gives a glimpse into this new-found agency of non-state actors.
On 28 October 2022, Natogyi People’s Defense Force (PDF) announced on Facebook that five Tatmadaw soldiers were killed in a drone strike on 27 October. The footage released with the news showed four primed M9 rifle grenades dropping on junta troops. In another attack by a PDF force in Kayin State, drone footage showed mortar shells being dropped from a larger hexacopter drone on junta troops. These attacks are part of scores of engagements that took place throughout 2022. They evince the changing pattern of warfare within Myanmar and how drones are making significant differences for the non-state actors in the ongoing conflict.
In the Tatmadaw’s hierarchy, the army has traditionally been the most dominant service force. Since the 2010s, the air force has emerged as an increasingly important actor supporting ground forces in critical battles against an array of ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) in the nation’s borderlands. After the 2021 coup, the military junta continued to use its airpower against EAOs and anti-junta PDFs.
Myanmar’s first drone-attack experience came from China in 2012. After the murder of 13 Chinese citizens on the Mekong River, Chinese officials reportedly came up with a drone-attack plan to end the months-long manhunt for drug lord Naw Kham (although officially, the Chinese government never sanctioned the attack). The Chinese did not carry out the attack in the end. But the plan attracted attention from both state and non-state actors in Myanmar. Soon after, the Tatmadaw acquired military-grade unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from China, most notably CH-3A UAVs capable of reconnaissance and ground attack.
The Myanmar air force reportedly launched the first drone attack against the Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine State in 2020. Until that point, the Myanmar air force was the only power within Myanmar capable of a drone attack.
The Tatmadaw started losing its monopoly on air strikes soon after the February 2021 coup. In September 2021, the National Unity Government (NUG) called for nationwide armed resistance in September 2021. Tech-savvy resistance fighters brought drone technologies and enabled their use among non-state actors. The proliferation of drone technology has enabled resistance forces to obtain cheap weaponised commercial drones. Anti-junta forces cannot match the Tatmadaw’s superiority in traditional fixed-wing aircraft, but their use of weaponised drones has made a difference in the battlefield by making junta forces more circumspect in tactical engagements with the resistance. For example, an unnamed source told The Diplomat of an incident where Tatmadaw soldiers hid in a forest to avoid attacks by resistance drones.
PDF drone operation units are now expanding their operational scope from uncoordinated attacks on isolated junta outposts to tactical ground support for more extensive operations against the Myanmar military. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an instructor from a drone training unit for members of the resistance shared that a PDF group recently used drones to provide air support for the Karen National Union/ Karen National Liberation Army in Hpapun township. The anti-junta alliance partially compensates for the lack of credible ground and heavy artillery support by using commercial drones.
Most of the drones that resistance groups currently use in the field, such as China-made DJI brand drones, can be acquired online through popular shopping sites Lazada and Shopee, with doorstep delivery. There is no telling which customer will weaponise these commercial drones. Videos freely available in online forums show various ways of weaponising drones. Each commercial drone costs US$1,000 to US$3,000, depending on size and payload capacity. Speaking on anonymity for security reasons, PDF sources have claimed that they used 3D printers to produce most parts of the drones they currently employ.
Most of the drone attacks by the resistance fighters are still restricted to sporadic attacks on isolated military outposts, police stations and military convoys. Though the strategic impact of such drone attacks has so far remained limited, they threaten to demoralise Tatmadaw ground forces, who perceive themselves as the better-equipped modern army. The Myanmar military regime’s spokesperson admitted PDF drones’ effectiveness in a press conference in September 2022, confirming that the regime was installing anti-drone guns and signal jammers in key government buildings, military facilities and outposts. Given that anti-drone devices are present at regime airbases, it is no coincidence that there have been no reports of resistance drone attacks on such bases.
Though the strategic impact of such drone attacks has so far remained limited, they threaten to demoralise Tatmadaw ground forces, who perceive themselves as the better-equipped modern army.
Having lost its monopoly on airstrikes, the Tatmadaw is not sitting still. The Tatmadaw has employed larger Chinese drones in recent operations. As the junta’s air force gets bogged down with other missions, military UAVs have become an easy solution to monitor and strike at PDF forces. The Tatmadaw’s stock of aviation fuel has come under pressure given international sanctions. The use of battery-powered drones helps the regime conserve fuel. They also reinforce the Tatmadaw’s fixed-wing aircraft that can be used for ground attack missions. The change in tactics is due to Tatmadaw troops being stretched thin by the country-wide resistance, including in previously stable ethnic Bamar heartlands. The increased number of daily sorties affects the serviceability of the airforce’s fixed-wing fleet. Myanmar’s ongoing crisis in 2023 may continue to show that the power gap between state and non-state military actors within Myanmar may not be as large as previously understood. The emergence of weaponised drones could alter the existing power balance in Myanmar’s ongoing crisis. At the least, Myanmar’s anti-junta movement has proved to be a nimble David against the sheer weight of the military’s Goliath.
Kyi Sin is a Research Officer at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute and is a candidate for the Master in Public Policy (MPP) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.