A MILITARY ASSESSMENT
WILL MYANMAR ARMED FORCES (TATMADAW) LAUNCH A CONVENTIONAL OFFENSIVE OPERATION IN OUR SOUTH EAST?
Lt Gen (Retd) Mohammad Mahfuzur Rahman
Myanmar Armed Forces (TATMADAW) is 39th out of 142 countries considered from Global Firepower index where Bangladesh ranks 46th. TATMADAW has around five hundred thousand manpower where Bangladesh has approximately two hundred seventy-five thousand. These do not give a picture of distinct capabilities. What makes real difference in terms of hardware at military operational level (higher level) is the operational fire power, meaning fire power assets that can bring physical and psychological response and influence the course of the battle at operational level. Myanmar’s ballistic missiles are capable of hitting targets at Cox’s Bazar, Chittagong and Dhaka. Ours’ highest range possibly can cover up to Sittwe Port (Myanmar) or targets roughly up to 150 km inside Myanmar. In naval power, Myanmar Navy was trailing behind, even few years back but today it has some modern platforms including a stealth frigate, a submarine and capable of contesting Bangladesh Navy. In 2009, while Myanmar started hydrocarbon exploration in un demarcated water, presence of Bangladesh Navy frigates compelled Myanmar Naval vessel to withdraw from the site. Today that may not be the case. They are building indigenous frigates (that’s a higher capability level). Though Bangladesh Navy has acquired two strategic offensive platforms (submarine), they are not operational as yet and our submarine base is within heavy artillery fire range of Myanmar. Though Myanmar Navy has numerical superiority yet my understanding is Myanmar Navy would not be capable of containing Bangladesh Navy or blockading our sea lines of communication. Having said that, Bangladesh Air force is the Cinderella of the three services. In the forgetfulness of our collective memory, we are overlooking the importance of a ‘deterrent air force’ for a smaller nation. In modern conventional conflict a tactical air action could bring about a strategic impact. In February 2019, Indian surgical air operation and airspace violation were stopped after Pakistan F16 fighters brought down an Indian MIG-21, although India had 600+ aircrafts in their inventory compared to Pakistan’s 300+ aircrafts. The point I am trying to make here, that some of the equipment should be better than that of potential adversary to exact deterrence. In the category of state of the art equipment; Myanmar has thirty-one MIG-29 (4th generation) and 4th generation plus; seven JF-17 and six Sukhoi-30 (delivered and in the process of delivery) where Bangladesh has eight MIG-29 (here air worthiness and availability of arsenal have not been taken into consideration for both forces). Clearly Bangladesh Air force will find it difficult to pose any deterrence to Myanmar Air force hence we notice so many airspace violations by Myanmar Air force. It may be mentioned, without considerable air cover land and maritime warfare at operational level is quite impossible.
Clearly Myanmar is militarily better equipped and stronger but these do not necessarily guarantee military victory in a conventional engagement. It did not in Vietnam, Afghanistan, may be in Ukraine (future will say). My rational for such estimate are as follows:
The ‘Centre of Gravity’ for Bangladesh is ‘Peoples’ Will’, unlocking this intangible decisive point by TATMADAW is near to impossible (considering legitimacy of the cause where, as per constitutional guidance Bangladesh will not be an aggressor but defending her territory). On the contrary ‘Centre of Gravity’ of Myanmar (Junta) is TATMADAW (the whole of Myanmar is not behind them). In case of their aggression, attrition and fracture in ‘decision making cycle’ by incremental capitulations will have both material and emotional response.
Bangladesh Armed Forces conventional training is on the plains, whereas TATMADAW has developed expertise in fighting insurgency, jungle warfare and in hilly areas. In the event of invasion TATMADAW would be confronting Bangladesh Armed Forces in Bangladesh Armed Forces chosen ground and friendly population.
As Bangladesh does not have any geographical ambition, for her victory is expelling enemy forces from own territory. Together with people, Armed Forces of Bangladesh would be able to achieve ‘End State’ in an environment of their own choosing. In that scenario TATMADAW would face humiliation, that would be risky considering an already dwindling support base. It may be noted that a brutal military is not a good ‘fighting machine’. So long TATMADAW was carrying out its operations and cruelty against ill equipped dissident groups, minorities and unarmed civilians. However, situation would be different against a resolute, trained and organized military who are backed by just cause. In addition, there is a possibility that when TATMADAW’s head is inside Bangladesh the tail (logistic base and rear areas) are likely to be under attack by separatists (Arakan Army, Chin National Army and others) who would take such situational advantage.
There would be worldwide condemnation of Junta’s such venture, even her friends at regional and international high table would find the situation unpalatable.
All these reasons mentioned would discourage Junta (TATMADAW) to undertake any conventional large scale military offensive in our South East. However, Junta is likely to carryout surgical ground invasion for a limited time and objective like that of a ‘Rejupara Border Out Post capture’ incident in 1991. In the name of hot pursuit of their separatist groups they may violate international boundary (Junta is always falsely blaming Bangladesh for harbouring their dissident groups).
They may also carry out surgical air attack to some of our ‘High Value Targets’ in Cox’s Bazar, Bandarban or Chittagong. It is also not unlikely that Junta may provide support to miscreant groups to destabilized CHT. Nonetheless, the worst case scenario would be the capture of St. Martin Island by TATMADAW. Junta in the past twice claimed St. Martin as their Island in their official website. This would be precarious situation because recapturing would be the most difficult task. This would entail an amphibious operation that is a nightmare for any military.
Way Forward: Synergy of all lines of operations (Political, Economic, Diplomatic including Military Diplomatic, Cultural and Military) necessary. Particularly in the military lines of operation, intellectual agility in decision making cycle (senior military leadership) and physical agility in junior leadership and units would be invaluable. Tri services training, joint exercise including exercise with friendly armed forces may work as deterrence. Surveillance and combat intelligence would be crucial against operational and tactical surprises.
Developing a ‘strategic culture’ where people, elite in the polity and strategic community feel the requirement of developing a ‘Credible Deterrence Force’ with the purpose that Bangladesh is ‘left alone to go ahead’ with her primary agenda of economic emancipation, stability, development and better life for her people.
In doing that, some of the equipment should be better than the potential adversary having punitive power with latent violence inbuilt and my recommended equipment are (preferably western origin as Myanmar already has a good number of latest Chinese and Russian systems and we cannot compete their military budget); one unit of operational fire, two units of medium surface to air missile, half a squadron of anti-submarine helicopters (4-6 numbers) and a squadron (8-12 numbers) of 5th generation multi role combat aircrafts. The cost could be roughly equivalent to maintaining Rohingya refugees for two decades. But these could ensure enough deterrence where Junta would not adventure to send rest of Rohingyas to Bangladesh residing in Rakhine.
Source: Information available in open domain.
Lt Gen (Retd) Mohammad Mahfuzur Rahman, rcds, ndc, afwc, psc, PhD, Former Directing Staff at War Course, National Defence College.