While the military continues its attacks on ethnic rebels in Burma’s north, the country’s Commander-in-Chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, has been out of the country in recent days. After meeting with his Pakistani counterpart in Islamabad, he toured the offices of Heavy Industries Taxila, a major regional defense contractor. In Serbia, he sat down for discussions with Yugoimport SDPR, a state-owned weapons exporter. Both businesses specialize in the sale of tanks, armored personnel carriers and heavy artillery.
When Burma’s generals consider strategy, they always have one eye on internal opponents and another on their regional neighbors. While the size of Burma’s standing army dwarfs those of both Bangladesh and Thailand, a ban on arms sales from the European Union and United States has severely impeded the combat capabilities of the country’s armed forces. Indeed, Min Aung Hlaing has been outspoken about the need to modernize, to the point of deflecting questions about his political ambitions by insisting he was fully devoted to bringing the military into the 21st century.
This modernization is always foremost in the minds Burma’s military leaders when they take their shopping lists abroad, and the top brass has shown a particular interest in improving the country’s moribund naval fleet.
The discovery of lucrative oil and gas fields in the Bay of Bengal has no doubt served as a wakeup call to Burma’s military leadership for the need to deploy a credible deterrent over the country’s 2,000-kilometer coastline. A maritime boundary dispute, eventually resolved in a 2012 judgement by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, led to a confrontation between Bengladeshi and Burmese naval ships after Burma began offshore oil exploration in the contested area.
In the years since, four new frigates and several fast attack craft have entered service. Maung Aung Myoe, the Burmese defense analyst and author of “Building the Tatmadaw”, says that the Navy is plans to expand its fleet with up to a dozen more frigates and other offshore vessels in the near future.
This expansion appears to extend to the acquisition of submarines, a possible response to Bangladesh’s plans to purchase two from China. Discussions with North Korea in 2003—which apparently canvassed the purchase two small vessels—ultimately came to nothing, but reports suggest that the Navy still considers submarines an essential component of its force projection goals.
During a visit to Russia in 2013, Min Aung Hlaing expressed an interest in purchasing two Kilo-class submarines, relics of the last years of the Soviet era which have since mostly been sold off and exported. While no acquisitions have been confirmed as yet, the same year reports surfaced that 20 Burmese naval officers had received submarine training in Pakistan.
Burma’s Navy is presently equipped only to deal with coastal engagements, and is incapable of more sophisticated territorial defense and sea denial operations. According to Maung Aung Myoe, this will remain the case for the near future. As more offshore projects come online, however, the military is likely to consider fleet expansion an increasing matter of urgency.
Back in April, the commander-in-chief was seen at naval exercises off the coast of Arakan State. Codenamed Sea Shield, the combined fleet exercise practiced maneuvers near Manaung Island with the participation of 22 ships and nearly 1200 soldiers. Min Aung Hlaing would have undoubtedly felt cause to be proud of the Navy’s rapid expansion, but it’s reasonable to assume he returned to Naypyidaw with one question on his mind: what’s next on the shopping list?