Expert Speak War Fare
Published on Jun 19, 2024

As the conflict in Myanmar escalates, an increasing use of commercial weaponised drones by non-state actors is observed. This spread of drone warfare carries heavy strategic implications.

Drone warfare in Myanmar: Strategic implications

In recent months, the ethnic armed groups have won most of their battles against the sophisticated and heavily armed Junta government in Myanmar, showcasing their strategic and tactical prowess in modern warfare. As the fighting intensifies, their use of commercial weaponised drones emerges as a critical game changer in the war against the Junta.

Governments and conventional air forces have long dominated the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in warfare. The commercialisation of drone technology, however, has allowed non-state entities to acquire and weaponise affordable commercial drones. This shift is exemplified by local defence forces in Myanmar as they use drones to resist the Tatmadaw. 

According to the Centre for Information Resilience, from October 2021 to June 2023, 1,400 online videos of drone flights, were conducted by groups opposing the Myanmar military. By early 2023, the organisation reported authenticating 100 flights per month. Over time, drones have evolved from off-the-shelf quadcopters made by Chinese companies like DJI to a wider variety, including improvised drones made with 3D printing technology.

The ethnic armed groups, especially the Three Brotherhood Alliance, have resorted to a lethal strategy that includes the use of drones as part of their primary warfare approach. These groups use drones to map territories, assess troop strength, and effectively dismantle the regime outposts and stakeout groups. During October–November last year, the ethnic armed forces dropped more than 25,000 bombs dropped using drones on the military bases. The attack from multiple directions limits the military's ability to regain control or deploy regiments for relief and reinforcements. Initially taken aback by this strategy, the military struggled to adapt.

The ethnic armed groups, especially the Three Brotherhood Alliance, have resorted to a lethal strategy that includes the use of drones as part of their primary warfare approach.

Changing dynamics of drone attacks

The Myanmar Air Force launched its first drone attack on an ethnic armed group, the Arakan Army, in 2020. Until that point, the state actors were only capable of conducting drone attacks. In the early days, the ethnic groups also found it impossible to penetrate the jammers used by the military government.

The 2021 coup altered the dynamics significantly, as the Tatmadaw quickly lost its monopoly on air strikes since tech-savvy resistance fighters acquired drone technologies that facilitated its use among the non-state groups. The proliferation of drone technology has allowed resistance forces to obtain inexpensive, weaponised commercial drones. While the anti-Junta forces cannot match the Tatmadaw's superiority in traditional fixed-wing aircraft, their use of weaponised drones has significantly impacted battlefields by compelling Junta forces to be more cautious in their tactical engagements.

The 2021 coup altered the dynamics significantly, as the Tatmadaw quickly lost its monopoly on air strikes since tech-savvy resistance fighters acquired drone technologies that facilitated its use among the non-state groups.

Since drones are used for various purposes including aerial photography/videography, surveillance, rescue and relief, agricultural uses, etc., predicting which customers will weaponise these commercial drones remains challenging. Most drones are bought online with doorstep delivery or assembled at home. Online platforms serve as facilitators for individuals to weaponise drones and raise funds for their initiatives. Videos of the attacks and the assembly of drones are being posted to gain traction and secure funding.

While the majority of the drone attacks were initially limited to sporadic strikes on isolated military outposts, police stations, and military convoys, this tactic changed significantly in April. Mass drone strikes targeting significant sections of the military forces struck in the capital, i.e. considered to be the fortress of military control, on 4 April. The attack, utilising approximately 30 drones, targeted the military headquarters, the resistance of Myanmar's ruling general, Min Aung Hlaing, and the airport in Naypyitaw. The Junta claims to have shot down seven of the drones after intercepting them, one of which was detonated on a runway, and the military reported that the attacks caused no casualties. 

The Kloud Team (Shar Htoo Waw), a People Defence Force (PDF) unit, an armed component of the National Unity Government (NUG) renowned for its expertise in drone warfare, claimed responsibility for the attack. More than an aim to cause physical harm, the drones were used as a psychological weapon to instil distress among the military factions, demonstrating that they could strike at any time, anywhere. 

Is the Junta sitting idle?

According to recent reports, the military has been procuring thousands of Chinese commercial UAVs and modifying them with local ammunition, a trick seemingly learned from the resistance groups. In 2013, Myanmar's military ordered around 12 armed CH-3 UAVs from China. As the Junta has resumed drone attacks on the ethnic armed groups by the turn of this year; according to media reports and accounts of soldiers in anti-Junta resistance groups, the army is using multi-rotor commercial drones, including agricultural ones instead of these advanced UAVs, seemingly reserving them for critical moments. 

This move suggests two things: First, the potential for escalation of the scale and magnitude of drone warfare and second, the military appears to assess the opposition's strength and strategy, awaiting an opportune moment to strike with increased military forces bolstered through conscription. Whether this will be instrumental in changing the course of the conflict remains to be seen. 

Potential repercussions

The escalation of drone attacks can profoundly impact both domestic and regional dynamics. Firstly, the widespread use of drones and the potential for mass drone strikes raise concerns about the humanitarian impact and the safety of civilians caught in the conflict zones. The psychological and physical toll on the civilian population could be significant. Already, 2.8 million people are internally displaced, and this number could rise, potentially leading to another wave of refugees fleeing into neighbouring nations. India, Bangladesh, and Thailand are already catering to more than 2 million displaced people from Myanmar, including before the coup. While Thailand has opened a humanitarian corridor, India and Bangladesh face challenges in mobilising adequate resources to assist the displaced population.

The escalation of drone attacks can profoundly impact both domestic and regional dynamics.

Secondly, drone attacks that originate from or target border regions could lead to increased insecurity in neighbouring countries. This includes concerns about cross-border movements of armed groups, potential retaliatory strikes, and the need for heightened border security measures. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Bharat Electronics have created counter-drone systems to detect, track, and intercept rogue drones. Given this existing framework, the technology used to secure the borders in Kashmir and Punjab can be adapted for use in Northeast India to mitigate the risks posed by potential drone attacks from insurgent groups with ties to Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) in Myanmar. Thailand and Bangladesh currently do not possess analogous systems to counter potential drone threats along their border regions highlighting a gap in addressing such security concerns.

On 6 June, the Secretary-General of the United Nations responded to the aggravating situation in the Rakhine State by urging all parties in the conflict to show maximum restraint, prioritise the protection of civilians according to international humanitarian law, and refrain from escalating communal tensions and violence. However, there is little tangible progress in implementing these measures amidst the ongoing conflict. While their statement to work closely with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and neighbouring nations is appreciated, ensuring accountability for actions and dialogue is crucial for any meaningful progress toward a resolution. 

The international community faces the complex task of balancing humanitarian aid with security concerns. At the same time, regional governments must navigate the dual challenges of accommodating displaced populations and fortifying borders against potential security threats. As drone warfare evolves, ongoing vigilance and coordinated efforts are essential to mitigate its broader impacts on regional peace and stability.


Sreeparna Banerjee is a Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

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Sreeparna Banerjee

Sreeparna Banerjee

Sreeparna Banerjee is a Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation Kolkata with the Strategic Studies Programme.

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