Tatmadaw Deploys Chinese-Made UAVs

The Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, on February 1 deposed the democratically elected government led by the National League for Democracy. The coup precipitated protests across the country, but the countermeasures enacted to curb the unrest have left hundreds of civilians dead and several thousand detained. Satellite imagery suggests that the Tatmadaw may be leveraging the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities of Chinese-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to monitor the ongoing situation.

Sightings of UAVs have been reported on social media amid the protests, and an article published by Janes on April 8 confirmed the presence of at least two Caihong 3A (CH-3A) UAVs at Shante Air Base on January 31. The air base serves as the headquarters for the Myanmar Air Force's Central Sector Operations Center and houses several squadrons, including a CH-3A unit. It is situated only a couple hundred miles from Mandalay and Sagaing, two epicenters of unrest and well within the range of the CH-3A. Satellite imagery from February 10 shows one CH-3A at Shante.

Although it is unclear if these CH-3As were in fact used to monitor the protests, the platform’s ISR capabilities offer the Tatmadaw a ready means to enhance their situational awareness of the anti-coup demonstrations.

The use of UAVs by the Tatmadaw has long been suspected, but there is limited information about how these assets are leveraged. Reports suggest that the military began deploying CH-3As in 2015 or 2016 to support counterinsurgency operations in northern areas of the country near its border with China. This January, Colonel Win Zaw Oo of the Tatmadaw’s Western Command confirmed the use of UAVs for surveillance in northern Rakhine State.

The CH-3A is a variant of the popular CH-3 produced by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) indicates that Myanmar procured 12 CH-3As between 2014 and 2015. While the CH-3A is not the most sophisticated of China’s unmanned platforms, it does offer enhanced capabilities compared to Myanmar’s fleet of dated UAVs, which perform only basic surveillance missions. CASC also operates a factory in Myanmar that builds newer CH-4s, which feature upgrades over its predecessor in terms of payload capacity and endurance. It is unclear if Myanmar has procured the newer platform.

The Tatmadaw leans heavily on Chinese state-owned enterprises to arm its ranks. According to SIPRI, China has supplied approximately 56 percent of Myanmar’s foreign arms imports between 2010-2019. These acquisitions include (but are not limited to) fighter jets, transport aircraft, and hundreds of surface-to-air missiles. Several of these suppliers are on the Military End User List under Section 744 of the U.S. Export Administration Regulations.

While most major powers have condemned the Tatmadaw for the coup, Beijing has tiptoed around the issue. China’s key role as an arms supplier may serve to strengthen ties with the Myanmar military, especially as the Tatmadaw’s dismal human rights record is likely to leave it isolated from the international community.

Special thanks to Jennifer Jun for her research support. Imagery markups by William Taylor.

Matthew P. Funaiole is a senior fellow for data analysis with the iDeas Lab and senior fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., is a senior fellow for imagery analysis (non-resident) with the CSIS iDeas Lab and Korea Chair. Katherine Kurata is an intern with the CSIS iDeas Lab.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Matthew P. Funaiole
Vice President, iDeas Lab, Andreas C. Dracopoulos Chair in Innovation and Senior Fellow, China Power Project

Katherine Kurata

Intern, CSIS iDeas Lab