Death from Above: How to Combat Myanmar Junta’s Escalating Air Campaign?

By Khin Nadi 3 November 2022

The Myanmar junta’s campaign of deadly airstrikes in resistance strongholds has sharply escalated in recent weeks, with daily attacks inflicting heavy casualties on resistance forces, ethnic allies and civilians. In exclusive interviews with The Irrawaddy, Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd, a Burmese-American professor at Hawaii’s Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies and former US Army lieutenant colonel, and Zay Thu Aung, a Myanmar Air Force defector, talk about their expectations of the junta’s air campaign in the coming months and how resistance force can combat the increasingly deadly aerial threat.

The Irrawaddy:Myanmar resistance forces and allied ethnic armed groups are facing deadly junta airstrikes that have intensified over the last month in Kachin, Sagaing, Kayah and Karen. The air attacks are expected to escalate in the dry season. What do you foresee in the coming months?

Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd: This is the expectation – that the regime will increase airstrikes because that’s all it has now. They can no longer win on the ground, so air power is the only thing they have left. However, airstrikes are expensive. Each sortie can cost US$200,000 to $350,000 depending on the type of munition used. Given the regime’s dire financial and economic condition, a question arises as to how long it can maintain such costly attacks.

How will the junta’s escalating aerial campaign affect the people’s revolution, which is short of finances and anti-aircraft weapons to defend people? Are there any other options for defense?

The revolution is continuing despite the military’s brutal attacks and arrest of People’s Defense Forces [PDFs] and civilians. A large proportion of Myanmar’s populace continues to resist and reject the military. Increased attacks by the military have only increased the people’s commitment and resolve to resist and reject military rule. The attacks appear to be fuelling the people’s anger and motivation to reject the military. The Myanmar people will innovate ways to overcome this new development [airstrikes], just as they did with earlier attacks.

There are many ways to disrupt an airstrike, in addition to shooting aircraft out of the sky. Aircraft need pilots, fuel, parts, wheels, runways, etc, to fly. If any of these elements are disrupted, they cannot fly. Fuel and parts have to be supplied and transported from somewhere – knowing when and where offers clues to areas of vulnerability in the supply chain. The resistance coalition does not need to wait for anti-aircraft missiles. With careful planning, the resistance can disrupt and prevent these aircraft from flying. I believe in the Myanmar people’s ingenuity and capability.

Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd, a Burmese-American security expert / APCSS

What can the civilian National Unity Government, PDFs and allied ethnic forces do to overcome the junta’s escalating airstrikes?

Closer cooperation, joint operations, joint command, and good intelligence.

A growing number of unarmed civilians and children have been killed in the junta’s indiscriminate aerial attacks. What can the international community do to prevent further such atrocities?

What is happening to unarmed civilians and children is heartbreaking. These war crimes are further proof that the regime military is no longer a professional military organization but has become a militant organized crime syndicate. People both here and abroad cannot tolerate this militant organized crime syndicate in Myanmar. The NUG and Myanmar’s overseas diaspora community have to speak loud and clear to the international audience. Messages of unity and close cooperation among the resistance coalition are critical in attracting increased assistance from the international community.

The Irrawaddy also asked Zay Thu Aung, a former captain in the Myanmar Air Force who defected following the coup.

What people can expect from the junta’s air campaign in the coming dry season?

Zay Thu Aung: Currently, the junta is launching air attacks continuously on resistance forces. And this will only get worse. It will carry out more aerial attacks in the dry season as the skies clear for air reconnaissance missions. It will target base camps of local resistance forces and ethnic allies with aerial bombardment after reconnaissance. Ethnic allies and PDFs not in the front line could be caught off-guard. I believe the regime will bomb at unexpected times, at night or early morning.

Why do you think there has been a spike in deadly airborne attacks recently?

The junta’s air force provides either close support or conducts joint operations with infantry troops. Attacks using the air force alone are called exclusive air missions. These missions usually aim to cut support channels to the enemy’s administrative mechanism. We could see this type of attack launched on base camps of PDFs and ethnic allies. If we look at the [Oct 23] attack on the KIO anniversary concert, many thought this kind of event wouldn’t be targeted because they traditionally attract large crowds from even distant villages. Typically they feature artists, revelers and bystanders. But the regime doesn’t care about all those people. If they think the enemy is gathering, they will bomb the event. In their heads, they don’t consider whether it is a war crime or not, they only think about making the enemy suffer and gaining an advantage.

Myanmar Air Force defector Zay Thu Aung.

How much do you think the junta’s new focus on air power will affect the revolution?

The main factor will be the military strategy of PDF commanders and how well they prepare. No matter how threatening, any weapon is limited in its range and [target] area. We can think of whether to keep people together or separated in camps, and how we can avoid [junta] reconnaissance. We can consider what to do on the ground including precautions and safety measures. I believe that if [resistance] ground commanders think about these things and make plans, it will be difficult for the regime’s attacks to be effective. However, the main strength of the military still lies in its army. Once the army collapses, the air force and navy can do nothing.

Are there any options for defense against junta airstrikes?

We need to have awareness of the air attacks, both on the front lines and behind. Villages must also be aware of the dangers. And the precautions must cover everything from counterattacks, safety measures, and movement of weapons and ammunition to individual duties during the air attacks. And do not assume that they will not attack you. The regime will not launch ground offensives to seize bases because it is short of troops and facing land-mine attacks and ambushes. That’s why it is now focusing more on the air force. In Sagaing region, we rarely see regime troop columns marching around as before. Nowadays, they are stationed in bases and airlifted to surveilled targets, where they launch attacks before being picked up again by helicopters. This is how they raided the Pale People’s administration hub [on Oct. 25]. They don’t leave their people in the area after the attack.

Regime military fighter-jets

What do you know about the regime’s air reconnaissance?

It deploys UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] drones and MPU aircraft to monitor targets using EOIR [Electro-Optical and Infrared] systems for night vision and surveillance. With these, it carefully surveys the areas to estimate the number of people, ambush patrols and location. Based on this data, senior officers draft plans and report to their chief of staff, who draw up a detailed scheme of attack. That’s how they launch the [air] attacks. So, we must not think they do not know this place and will not come and attack here. We should put aside that thinking. I urge all of our NUG, ethnic allies and PDFs to be on your guard.

Many people expect the resistance to use anti-aircraft weapons against regime airstrikes. What are your thoughts?

No matter what anti-aircraft weapons we use, it won’t stop them. The regime [leadership] doesn’t care about the lives of individual pilots or troops at all, only their own lives. Regime forces will also blindly follow whatever orders they get. So, I don’t think anti-aircraft weapons shooting down regime aircraft will do anything to reduce or stop the air attacks. And since it is not easy for us to get anti-aircraft weapons, we need to think strategically about [different] ways to maximize the junta’s suffering.

Will the junta expand its capacity for aerial attacks?

Yes. Russia recently gifted four more Ka-28 submarine-hunter helicopters it had pledged to deliver some time ago. The regime also has two newly arrived Su-30SME jets. And the junta has ordered FTC-2000G midrange fighter jets from China after sending a group of air force pilots to China for training. I urge the international community to help halt delivery of new aircraft, including the FTC-2000Gd and Su-30 jet-fighters, to Myanmar.