Myanmar and MiG-29s

21 May, 2002    ·   751

Lt Cdr Atul Bharadwaj looks into the factors behind and the implications of Myanmar upgrading its Air Force with MiG-29s

Myanmar ’s armed forces known as Tatmadaw became the proud owners of one of the most sophisticated fighter aircraft when they purchased eight Russian MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ fighters and two MiG-29 UB trainers in July 2001. Since Tatmadaw assumed power in 1988, the acquisition of advanced fighter jets was a prime requirement in their wish list. 



While the world was focusing on Yangon ’s human rights violations and defence cooperation with China , the Russian arms industry was assiduously pursuing Myanmar ’s military leadership to modernize their airforce. The military cooperation between Russia and Myanmar began to take shape in 1995. Following the visit of the then Myanmar Army Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Tin Oo, to Moscow, Russia has supplied two more Mi-17 helicopters; five were supplied in 1996. The Russians also offered a training package for air and ground crew. It is reported that the Myanmar Air Force (MAF), which was ‘extremely satisfied’ with the performance of the Russian helicopters, began considering the acquisition of MiG-29s during this period. 



The MAF operates some 25 different aircraft types from nine different countries. Despite procuring military hardware from a number of countries, including Poland and Yugoslavia , the MAF had relied mainly on China to provide military hardware. Initially, therefore MAF had planned to purchase the Chinese made F-8 ‘Finback’ multi-role fighter. However, the plans to purchase them were dropped due to inordinate delays in their upgrade programme, and the less than optimal performance of the 50 Chengdu F-7s and 48 NAMC A-5s bought from China since 1989.  



The MiG-29 deal with Russia could not be struck in mid-1990s due to Myanmar ’s poor economic health. Not much has changed on the economic front, but Yangon went ahead with its plan to buy the Russian aircraft. It is reported that the 10 MiG-29s were acquired for US$ 130 million. About 30 per cent of this sum was paid immediately, while the rest will be paid in installments over the next decade. 



The question which is being debated is: does Myanmar require such expensive weaponry? According to the Tatmadaw, a strategic requirement exists for these fighter interceptors due to the growing regional imbalances. Myanmar ’s main rival in the region is Thailand , which possesses F-16 fighters. In June 2001, the Royal Thai Air Force used its F-16s to deter Myanmar ’s troops from entering Thai territory. Incidentally, the down payment for the aircraft was only done after Thailand paid US$ 100 million to Myanmar as part of the royalties for gas piped ashore from fields in the Gulf of Martaban . Furthermore, the other reason for purchase of these modern fighter jets is that Yangon requires patrolling of its borders, maritime boundary and its airspace to prevent possible incursion by foreigners.  Apart from enhancing its prestige in the neighborhood, the purchase of fighter jets is also an exercise in public relations to appease the nationalist sentiments of domestic audiences.   



The purchase of MiG-29s by Myanmar has opened up new vistas in the field of Indo-Myanmar defence cooperation. Indians have vast experience in handling and maintenance of wide range of Russian defence equipment. India also possesses the expertise in training pilots and aircraft engineers. These are the areas in which India can help Myanmar to integrate its newly acquired systems into the MAF for their optimal utilization. 



The acquisition of one squadron of MiG-29s is unlikely to increase tensions between Myanmar and its neighbours, because Indonesia , Malaysia , Singapore and Thailand already have operational squadrons of F-16s fighter jets. However, this particular arms procurement by Yangon is part of an arms race which was initiated by Thailand purchasing F-16A/B  fighters from the US in September 2000. 



In response to MAF’s MiG-29 purchase in September 2001, the Royal Thai Air Force announced the purchase of eight AIM-120 advanced medium-range air to air missiles (AMRAAM) from the US , thus fuelling the arms race further. Apart from Thailand the only other party that could be concerned about Myanmar ’s acquisition of Russian equipment is the US strategic community. The US is developing long-term military alliances in the Asia Pacific region. It would be in its interests that most countries here operate common equipment for ease of interoperability. Furthermore, the news that Bangladesh has also purchased 12 MiG-29 Fulcrums and that Russia is negotiating the sale of a nuclear reactor with Myanmar offers new challenges to the US arms industry.