Pyrrhic victory in Myanmar
Thursday, January 31, 2013 12:41 AM

 


By Anthony Davis

The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one more such victory would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and... there were no others there to make recruits. - Plutarch

The apparently relentless advance of the Myanmar military eastwards towards the town of Laiza, headquarters of the insurgent Kachin Independence Army (KIA), has involved some of the heaviest sustained fighting in the country since independence in 1948.

Predictably, international news coverage has focused on two salient elements of the conflict: the sheer weight of force, including newly acquired air-power, brought to bear by the government; and the yawning gulf between the conciliatory

 
statements emanating from the office of President Thein Sein and the actions of the military, or Tatmadaw, on the ground .

However, reports of air-strikes and cease-fires-that-never-happened have tended to obscure another less obvious but arguably more important aspect of the war: the striking battlefield failings and losses of the Tatmadaw, which over the past 20 years has benefited from the lion's share of government spending, a dramatic increase in manpower and a transformational modernization of its weaponry.

Pitting a conventional army equipped with artillery, armor and air-power against guerrilla forces attempting to defend a fixed position, the battle for Laiza should have been nasty, brutish and short. In the event, it unfolded as a drawn-out, meat-grinder campaign which at best marks a painfully pyrrhic victory for the government.

At worst, the costly failures of the war in Kachin state - and they are probably not yet over - will have significant political repercussions in addition to the substantial military losses incurred. Both in terms of the future relations between the central government and the armed ethnic minorities, and no less importantly the standing of the military as a national institution, the battle for Laiza and the Kachin war more generally may well mark a watershed in the nation's politics.

Targeted broadly at the KIA's Laiza headquarters on the Chinese border, the Tatmadaw campaign, code-named "Operation Thunderbolt", appears to have been aimed either at bludgeoning the insurgents back to the cease-fire agreement which collapsed in June 2011, or, failing that, decapitating the KIA by neutralizing its command center and logistics hub in a manner that would permit a declaration of victory over its scattered residual forces.

After a year-and-a-half of mounting government losses in Kachin state, the offensive also reflected real impatience in the upper echelons of the Tatmadaw over both the intransigence of the KIA - estimated to field a main force of some 7,000 to 10,000 fighters - and the prospect of an open-ended guerrilla war.

The insurgents' political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), has made any renewed cease-fire conditional on the promise of politically substantive, national-level negotiations between the government and the ethnic minorities. Such a position almost certainly implies significant changes to the military-scripted, centralist constitution of 2008.

An optimum scenario for the both government and Tatmadaw would have been a KIO decision last year to renew the cease-fire. But it was also clear that contingency planning and preparations for a major offensive in the current dry season (November- April) - which also served to increase psychological pressure on the Kachins - were in train since at least early 2012.

In March, the Tatmadaw staged a major divisional-level exercise near Meiktila in central Myanmar. Attended by commander-in-chief Vice Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the exercise involved all 10 battalions of the Meiktila-based 99th Light Infantry Division, supported by armored and artillery units, while reportedly using a command post sand-table modeled on the Laiza area. Significantly, the usually secretive military ensured the war-games were given wide media coverage, not least on television.

In April, the military began a protracted build-up of forces deployed in the northern regional command area, moving men, armor and artillery north both by rail to the Kachin state capital at Myitkyina, north of the Laiza area of operations, and by boat up the Irrawaddy river to Bhamo, to the south. Aviation assets, notably light strike jets and a range of helicopters including the Air Force's new Mi-35 Hind-E gunships, were forward-based at Myitkyina, a few minutes flying time from Laiza. Almost certainly the largest single operational build-up in the history of the Tatmadaw, these deployments were closely monitored by the KIA, which saw them as a direct threat.

Significantly, the bulk of the manpower reinforcements were from light infantry divisions (LIDs). Well-trained mobile formations, of which the Tatmadaw fields 10, these divisions operate independently of various regional commands and essentially constitute a large strategic reserve force answering direct to the War Office in Naypyidaw.

Battalions from the 33rd, 66th, 88th, 99th and 101st LIDs - none of which are home-based in Kachin State - are now operating under a theater-level Bureau of Strategic Operations in Myitkyina, headed by Lieutenant General Myint Soe. A tactical military operations command (MOC 21) overseeing the Laiza campaign specifically is based at Bhamo and headed by northern region commander Brigadier General Tun Tun Naung.

Despite this build-up, the KIA failed to blink and the Operation Thunderbolt offensive around Laiza began in mid-December. Since then, one of the most noteworthy aspects of the war has been the striking disconnect between the nine-month lead-time for planning and preparations enjoyed by the Tatmadaw command on the one hand, and the tactically disjointed and frequently inept execution of operations on the other.

Particularly in its opening phases, Operation Thunderbolt, touted in advance as an exercise in "shock and awe", might more accurately have been dubbed "Operation Heavy Drizzle".

Tactical confusion
Broadly, the battle for Laiza unfolded as two overlapping phases in different sectors of the area of operations. Opening on December 14, the first phase focused squarely on the area around Laja Yang. Often described as the gateway to Laiza, Laja Yang is a cluster of villages just north of the Tapin river astride the main two-lane highway between Myitkyina and Bhamo. At the northern end of the bridge across the river, a turn-off from the highway leads east along the Tapin valley leads towards the Chinese border and the KIA headquarters some 15 kilometers away.

From December 14, it was immediately apparent that an army with significant conventional capabilities had neither a plan nor the assets to launch a concerted offensive up the most direct axis of advance to Laiza and the Chinese border. Typically this would have involved a combined-arms operation involving armor and mechanised infantry, preceded by artillery bombardments and air-strikes and backed by close air support, breaking through Kachin defences at Laja Yang and pushing as rapidly as possible along the Tapin valley to the border.

Such a thrust would have posed a direct threat to the KIA's nerve-center while at the same time splitting the insurgents' Laiza-based 3rd Brigade from their 5th Brigade based near Maija Yang on the Chinese border to the south.

This would have been the "shock and awe" option. Indeed, it is difficult to exaggerate the impact of such a combined-arms advance involving intense fire-power along a relatively narrow corridor of advance, particularly against lightly-armed guerrillas. As this writer witnessed during Soviet offensives in Afghanistan's Panjshir valley in the 1980s, the combination of armor and mechanised infantry backed by air-strikes and low-flying helicopter gunships is both unnerving and generally decisive.

Rather than seizing the initiative in the battle for Laiza, however, the Tatmadaw appeared to back into the fighting in tactical confusion and with a striking lack of preparation. Reports indicate that the fighting on December 14 escalated as government forces attempted to resupply posts in the Laja Yang area and were then ambushed in strength. On that day alone, the KIA claimed the government had lost 50 dead, a figure which, even if exaggerated, suggests significant casualties.

Despite the swift commitment of air-strikes, the fighting at Laja Yang then bogged down in protracted, piece-meal engagements that remarkably lasted until January 24, when government forces eventually secured the area after taking control of the high ground on both sides of the valley. Despite relatively flat terrain, it appears armor was never seriously committed. 

  

 

 

 

 

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The second phase of the campaign began around New Year. Blocked on the most direct axis of advance to Laiza, Tatmadaw forces began pushing into the KIA's rugged mountain redoubt to the north and east of Laja Yang. This multi-pronged advance then became by default the focus of operations and involved a series of bitter, meat-grinder contests for the various heights on which the KIA was dug in. As they inched forward, Tatmadaw infantry came to rely less on air power and increasingly on intense bombardments from 105mm artillery and 120mm mortars.

The first key height to fall was Bumre Bum (feature 771) on January 3, followed by the Tibet Post and the Wai Maw Post. From these features, government forces moved into the Hka Ya Hkyet valley then launched a brutal uphill assault on the high ground of Hka Ya Bum. Under heavy artillery fire, the KIA were

 
finally forced to withdraw from Hka Ya Bum on January 26, bringing Tatmadaw forces to positions effectively dominating Laiza town.

Curiously, the government advance on Laiza played to the few advantages the KIA enjoyed in an otherwise entirely unequal contest: intimate knowledge of the terrain, initial control of the heights and far shorter lines of communication and resupply. For this, the Tatmadaw evidently paid heavily in term of casualties. According to one well-placed local analyst, the capture of Hka Ya Bum cost over 120 government dead and nearly 400 wounded.

The second surprise in the Laiza campaign was the Tatmadaw's failure to exploit air-power effectively. While repeated sorties by both jets and helicopters marked a sharp escalation of the war and attracted widespread international criticism, Kachin reports suggest the actual battlefield impact was fairly ineffectual. Indeed, by the second week in January there was a clear shift away from the near-daily air strikes seen earlier in favor of sustained artillery bombardments - which certainly did have a lethal effect.

The lack of effective air support is likely to have stemmed from two factors. First, close tactical coordination between front-line ground forces and supporting air assets is critical, particularly in rugged, wooded terrain where the lines are often fluid and difficult to see from the air. The nature and location of the air strikes suggests this coordination was inadequate, if not entirely lacking. Unconfirmed reports of a friendly fire incident in December at Pangwa to the north of Laiza, where Mi-35s were first committed, may have contributed to uncertainty in operations near Laiza.

The second factor is the altitude at which air support assets are prepared to operate. Video footage from the battlefield invariably showed both jets and helicopters bombing and rocketing from considerable altitude and suggests that Tatmadaw close air support (CAS) was in fact never that close. It also appears that many air strikes were directed at suspected KIA positions well behind the front lines. As a result, the local forests and wild life appears to have suffered far more damage than the Kachin insurgents.

Fear of ground-fire may also have pushed inexperienced pilots to higher altitudes. But the 12.7mm heavy machine-guns fielded by the Kachin pose only a minor threat to fast-flying jets and heavily-armored, titanium-bellied Mi-35 gunships; and losses were in any case slight. Battlefield reports indicated that one Mi-8 helicopter was damaged on December 14 and seen flying back to Myitkyina trailing smoke. On January 11, both sides confirmed the crash of an Mi-35 over KIA territory.

According to the government, the loss was the result of mechanical failure rather than ground-fire, an account which is entirely credible given the Mi-35's capacity to absorb small-arms fire on the one hand and servicing by newly trained, inexperienced ground crew on the other. Video footage shot on December 31 or January 1 and aired in international news broadcasts also appeared to show one K-8 jet hit by ground fire, catching fire, and dropping in a vertical, uncontrolled descent. But this loss, if indeed there was one, was never confirmed by either side.

Given the failure to use either armor or airpower effectively, it is extremely unlikely that Tatmadaw commanders even contemplated the possibility of air assault operations - the use of helicopters to insert company or even battalion-sized infantry forces behind enemy lines. A regular and highly effective feature of Soviet, and to a lesser extent, US counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan, the tactic permits attacks on enemy positions from the rear, cuts lines of communication and supply, and, not least, sows panic and confusion in enemy ranks.

Low military morale
While incomplete, the evidence emerging over the past month from Laiza suggests strongly that the Tatmadaw is still an army coming to grips with modern war-fighting. A force that has rapidly acquired a wide array of new equipment including armor, artillery, helicopters and jets, it has yet to develop the doctrine, training, logistical support capabilities or operational experience required to use them. In short, the Tatmadaw is still fighting its last major war, which took place over 20 years ago and was quintessentially about light infantry and artillery.

The difficulties of integrating and adapting to new equipment have undoubtedly been compounded by persistent problems of manpower and morale. Despite the rapid expansion of the military's order of battle over the past two decades, it is no secret that Tatmadaw units in the field are woefully undermanned, underpaid and under-supported.

Battalions that typically should number 700 or more troops divided into three or four companies are in the Tatmadaw the size of reinforced companies at best, generally with 200-250 men or less. Unsurprisingly, reports from international human rights organizations of forced recruitment and the use of child soldiers emerge from this terrain.

Equally unsurprising is that higher than acceptable desertion rates have been a focus of documented concern within the Tatmadaw command for years. An internal document obtained by IHS-Jane's in 2007 pinpointed false reporting, haphazard inspections and poor record-keeping as chronic problems, while battalion commanders were criticized for excessive drinking, womanizing, and pursuing private business activities. Morale among enlisted ranks was low, noted the document, contributing to high rates of desertion.

The spiralling human cost of the war can only exacerbate problems of morale and desertion. According to statistics released on pro-government blog-sites, between June 2011 and early December at least 5,000 troops were killed in Kachin state - or more than the combined total of US combat deaths (4,977) in over a decade of war in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Laiza campaign will have contributed a grim addition of several hundred more to that number.

By any standards, such a toll in 19 months of essentially guerrilla conflict is a sobering statistic. While much of the carnage speaks to the resilience and determination of the KIA, there can also be no doubt that shortcomings in Tatmadaw equipment, training, competence and morale are also responsible.

Video footage posted on YouTube in the aftermath of a December ambush of a government convoy on the Bhamo-Myitkyina road provided a bleak insight into this situation. Bodies of dead Tatmadaw troops lie scattered in and around small, burnt-out pick-up trucks: after a year-and-a-half of war, armoured vehicles are nowhere to be seen.

Short of agreeing to national-level negotiations with the still-loose ethnic alliance of the United Nationalities Federation Council (of which the KIO is a member), it remains unclear how the Tatmadaw can extricate itself from the Kachin quagmire. A KIA call for a renewed cease-fire is probably less likely after the capture or neutralization of Laiza than it might have been before. Indeed, the most likely short-term scenario is a reversion to classic guerrilla tactics including the possibility of urban attacks and sabotage beyond Kachin state.

Entirely clear, however, is that the Tatmadaw's operational performance will have been monitored by other armed minority groups. In notable contrast to the military's swift foray into the Kokang Special region in August 2009, the Kachin war will almost certainly embolden rather than intimidate other ethnic guerrilla outfits. This is especially true of the Wa, based along the Chinese border in northeastern Shan state.

Fielding 20,000 regular troops backed by local militia forces, the United Wa State Army is over twice the size of the KIA, generally better trained and certainly better equipped. Since the Tatmadaw takeover of Kokang, it has upgraded an already impressive arsenal, not least with new armored vehicles and Chinese HN-5 series man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS). It is also closely allied to the National Democratic Alliance Army in eastern Shan State and more loosely with the Shan State Army-North.

Given that the military and political costs of the Kachin conflict would be dwarfed by a war against this powerful insurgent combine, any major new Tatmadaw campaigns in eastern Shan State in the coming three years are virtually inconceivable. From the perspective of the Wa and other ethnic forces, the Tatmadaw may now be seen as a giant with feet of clay. The implications for negotiations over Myanmar's new political shape are likely to be profound.

Anthony Davis is a Bangkok-based security analyst for IHS-Jane's.

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