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Myanmar Military Unable to Fight Without Air and Artillery Support

Regime soldiers parade on Armed Forces Day in March 2021.

The junta army

The Myanmar military is going through the worst days in its history. The combat capability of individual battalions has declined substantially, the ratio of old to young soldiers is increasing and morale is declining. Military regime forces are barely able to fight now without artillery and air support. The military is also struggling to recruit both officer cadets and privates, forcing the junta to field firefighters, police and administrative employees as security personnel, as well as the pro-regime Pyu Saw Htee militia.

As to the ethics and principles of the Myanmar military, junta troops are now deservedly dubbed as armed robbers after they have looted countless houses and torched numerous villages. Even in towns, where their crimes are easier to document, junta troops do not hesitate to steal personal belongings from the houses they raid. And the military are also kidnappers, detaining people just to extort ransoms. Currently, the junta’s army is an unethical and undisciplined force whose future seems certain to be bad.

Revolt across Myanmar

By September 2022, fighting has been reported across the country. In Kachin State, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and allied People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) are fighting across the state except in Chipwi, Panwa and Phimaw townships near the border with China.

The regime is also facing armed revolt across Chin State in western Myanmar, where the long-established ethnic armed organization (EAO) the Chin National Army is fighting junta troops alongside new resistance groups such as the Chinland Defense Force.

Military tensions have been escalating in Rakhine State in western Myanmar since June. The Arakan Army, which has emerged as one of the most powerful EAOs in recent years, is fighting the regime in fierce battles in Maungdaw Township in northern Rakhine and in neighboring Paletwa Township in Chin State.

Fighting has been reported across Kayah (Karenni), Karen and Mon states. The Karenni Army, the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force and PDFs are fighting junta soldiers in Kayah, while the Karen National Union (KNU), Myanmar’s oldest ethnic armed group, and PDFs are fighting the regime in Karen and Mon states. However, the New Mon State Party has avoided joining the battle against the junta.

In northern Shan State, tensions are also increasing with the KIA, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) and PDFs all active. SSPP fighters clashed with regime troops earlier this month in northern Shan.

There is currently no fighting in southern and eastern Shan State. Another Shan EAO, the Restoration Council of Shan State, is based in southern Shan State, while the United Wa State Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army are based in eastern Shan State.

Sagaing Region has emerged as the key PDF stronghold, while resistance is also strong in neighboring Magwe Region, especially in Pakokku, Gangaw, Thayet and Minbu to the west of the Ayeyarwady River.

In Mandalay Region, clashes are taking place in Myingyan, Thabeikkyin and Kyaukse, as well as in the city of Mandalay itself.

Further south in Bago Region, the KNU and PDFs are fighting the regime in Bago, Taungoo and Nyaunglebin in eastern Bago and in Thayawady in western Bago.

Improvised explosive device attacks are frequent in a number of Yangon townships, including Taikkyi, Twante and Thanlyin districts.

Fighting has been also reported in Dawei and Myeik districts in Tanintharyi Region. But the resistance movement is less active in Kawthaung and Bokpyin.

Only is Ayeyarwady Region relatively quiet, with resistance limited to the east of the Rakhine Mountain Range.

Junta troop deployments

Junta soldiers stand guard outside the Central Bank of Myanmar in Yangon, as people gather to protest against the military’s coup on February 15, 2021. / AFP

The Myanmar military has 14 regional commands. There are tactical operation commands under each regional command. And there are also regional operation commands in areas overseen by six regional commands where the military is engaged in active operations.

There are up to 37 infantry and light infantry battalions based in fixed locations under each regional command, with a total of more than 200 battalions under 14 commands.

Moreover, there are ten divisions under the direct control of the office of the army commander-in-chief and 20 military operations commands (MOCs).

Each Light Infantry Division (LID) is made up of ten infantry and light infantry battalions. So there are a total of 300 battalions in the Myanmar military. It is believed that each battalion has around 150 troops available for combat.

Those ten divisions under the direct control of the army chief plus 20 MOCs are maneuver units designed to assist the operations of the regional command battalions as necessary.

Those ground troops are supported by more than 100 artillery battalions scattered across the 14 regional commands.

So in ground military operations, the infantry, light infantry and artillery battalions are the backbone of the military.

As of mid-September, the Myanmar military has deployed its units as follows:

In Kachin State: local battalions under Northern Command plus four LIDs and MOCs including the 33rd and 88th LIDs and 3rd and 21st MOCs.

In Chin State: local battalions under Western Command plus the 19th MOC.

In Rakhine State: local battalions under Western Command plus a total of seven LIDs and MOCs including the 11th, 22nd, 55th and 77th LIDs and 5th, 9th and 15th MOCs.

In Kayah State: local battalions under Eastern Command plus the 66th LID.

In Karen and Mon states: local battalions under Southeastern Command plus five LIDs and MOCs including the 44th LID and 6th, 8th, 13th and 20th MOCs.

In northern Shan State: local battalions under Northeastern Command plus seven LIDs and MOCs including the 99th Division, 1st, 2nd, 7th, 12th, 16th and 17th MOCs.

In southern and eastern Shan State: local battalions under Eastern Command and Golden Triangle Region Command plus the 14th and 18th MOCs.

In Sagaing Region: the 4th and 10th MOCs.

In Magwe Region: the 101st LID.

The military has deployed the largest number of LIDs and MOCs in Shan and Rakhine states, with seven in Rakhine and seven in northern Shan State.

From the deployments, it can be seen that the military has been forced to use all 30 LIDs and MOCs, as well as local battalions, to fight resistance forces.

The Myanmar military is seriously undermanned and has been forced to form companies out of combat support units such as logistics, communications, military engineering, ordnance factories and training units, who are attached to combat units from the infantry and light infantry battalions. Moreover, it has been using police in operations, as well as forming militia units.

From its troop deployments, the Myanmar military apparently attaches great importance to northern Shan and Rakhine states. Considering that the military has deployed all of its maneuver units into action, it seems to be a tough decision for the army to take some units out of the LIDs and MOCs to use as reinforcements in case of fierce fighting elsewhere. No more than two battalions can be used for reinforcements from each LID and MOCs, because it is believed that sending more will affect the balance of forces in any particular area.

In Ayeyarwady Region, the only area relatively free of fighting, the military may be able to use local battalions under Southwestern Command if necessary.

Since last year’s coup, the Myanmar military can no longer concentrate all of its forces and resources in a single area, as it is now engaged in a war on multiple fronts.

The military has been forced into a defensive position in which it only maintains control of cities, transportation routes and strategic hilltop bases. Moreover, it has increasingly been forced to rely on airpower for defense. The military can no longer afford to send reinforcements for its ground troops, instead it has to rely on air and artillery support.

Nor has the military been able to retake outposts that it has lost to EAOs and resistance forces. It is too overstretched to handle the armed revolt across the country now.

Banyar Aung is a political and ethnic affairs analyst.