Myanmar’s Air Force appears to be using Chinese-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to monitor and perhaps to frighten protesters opposing the military junta, the British military intelligence publisher Janes International Defence Review said in a report Wednesday, citing images on social media showing low-flying drones over Mandalay last month.
The images showed a CH-3A (Cai Hong-3A, or Rainbow-3A) tactical UAV flying in late March over Mandalay, where there have been mass street protests and bloody crackdowns in the wake of a military coup that deposed the elected government on Feb. 1. So far about 600 people have died in the crackdown.
“The sighting of the air vehicle, which is developed by Chinese state-owned defence prime China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), is especially noteworthy given the secrecy in how the Tatmadaw has operated it,” said the report by the British open-source defense intelligence publisher.
Janes said experts believe that between 10 and 12 CH-3A UAVs were delivered to Myanmar between roughly 2013 and 2015 and are operated by the Myanmar Air Force out of a base at Meiktila Air Base in the north-central part of the France-sized country of 54 million.
These were “understood to be used primarily as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets to support longstanding counterinsurgency (COIN) operations against ethnic rebel groups across the country,” Jane’s said, adding that there have been reports that drones had been used to strike rebel infrastructure.
Before last month, the only confirmed sighting of the CH-3A in Myanmar was provided by uncredited image widely circulated on the internet beginning in mid-2016 that showed the UAV being readied for take-off on a paved runway at an undisclosed location that looked like a small provincial airfield, the report said.
Janes used commercially available satellite imagery to identify at least two operational UAVs outside a large hangar on Shante Air Base in Meiktila city, a flight distance of about 120 km (72 miles) from Mandalay, the country’s second largest city and the scene of mass demonstrations and numerous deaths of protesters.
“It is also worth noting that the air vehicles were seen when the satellite passed overhead on 31 January, a day before the Tatmadaw launched its coup,” Janes said, using the Burmese name for the Myanmar military.
The CH-3A is run by a truck-based mobile ground control station and a truck-based support module, has a maximum take-off weight of 650 kg (1,430 lbs.), and flies at a maximum speed of 260 kph (160 mph). It can be fitted to launch laser-guided air-to-ground missiles, Jane’s said.
Janes said it is “likely that the UAVs seen operating over Mandalay were used to observe ground activity, enabling the Tatmadaw to visually monitor the situation in real-time to identify specific threats and direct security forces as required.”
Other purposes include detecting and intercepting public or private communications – or as a psychological warfare tactic to intimidate the population, the report said, citing a study of the destabilizing impact on populations affected by the U.S. military’s use of UAVs in regions of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan
“For the Tatmadaw, such deleterious psychological effects could eventually provide a critical advantage as it attempts to pacify a population that is clearly growing increasingly resistant by the day to its self-declared rule,” said the Janes report.