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Myanmar Has Serious Naval Ambitions

March 27, 2023
Via Myanmar state media.

With a junta still ruling the country amid a relentless civil war there are indicators it’s determined to stay in power for many years. A grandiose symbol of this intent is the annual military parade that takes place in the secluded capital Naypyidaw on January 4. The spectacle is adorned with marching soldiers and hardware and now concludes with trucks carrying models of naval vessels. (Naypyidaw is landlocked.) It’s in the last demonstration where the junta advertises its vision of national prestige. Since the 2010s the armed forces and its industrial partners–vast holding companies owned by the state and packed with generals–have carried out ambitious plans for shipbuilding, among other endeavors. Today, regardless of the economy’s downward trend, Myanmar does have the means to assemble large transports (LPDs) and even surface combatants like corvettes and frigates.

The country’s shipbuilding program was underway by the 1990s but it wasn’t until the 2010s when a Chinese corporation, China CAMC Engineering, was paid $211 million to expand the Thilawa Shipyard that sprawls on the right back of the Irrawaddy River southeast of Yangon. Construction is ongoing but the assembly of surface combatants and other vessels with small displacements are now active. At this year’s parade a mockup of what looked like a 3,000 ton frigate appeared on a truck bed. There are no open sources that examine its characteristics and technology at length but the vessel’s features are easy enough to observe. The shape of the hull and its layout follows contemporary trends in naval engineering with the structures for the bridge, the engine compartment, and the hangar blending into each other. The frigate’s radar mast and armaments are discernible too, although the specifics for either are hard to guess. There’s also a hangar and a landing pad for one light helicopter. The appearance of the mockup at the January 4 parade gives no indication of the ship’s potential anti-submarine warfare role.

Depending on its total displacement when it finally sails in the Bay of Bengal and farther at sea this frigate type should manage between 25 and 30 knots on its engines. At least four classes of weapons are carried once it’s in service with the navy: the forward gun, the close-in weapon system, portable SAMs, and anti-ship missiles and torpedoes. The last are most interesting since there’s a significant engineering hurdle for assembling missiles and other precision ordnance. Like other ships in its class this frigate mounts static launchers for anti-ship missiles, oriented toward starboard and port, whose origin is unknown although China and North Korea are reported to be supplying these. China has been a generous patron of Myanmar’s armed forces since the 1990s and helped equip each of its branches. Its involvement with the country’s shipbuilding program isn’t a secret either. Other allies that may have contributed to the navy’s modernization are Russia and South Korea. The Russians have made serious contributions to the air and ground forces. Meanwhile, there’s an understated relationship between Naypyidaw and Seoul that goes back decades and has benefited the junta’s aspirations. It’s worth recalling how India’s delivery of at least one Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine gave Myanmar’s naval branch a welcome technological leap and a prestige asset.

With a coastline stretching 1,400 kilometers and maritime borders with Bangladesh, India, and Thailand there’s an urgent need for Myanmar to strengthen its naval branch. However, the extent of this effort and its intended outcome is difficult to assess. What’s remarkable about this frigate model is Myanmar’s state-owned shipyard (the main facility is in Yangon) and its partner institutions succeeded in developing a contemporary warship despite their limited resources. Most summaries of the country’s economic prospects highlight a dismal situation where mining and textiles are the only profitable export avenues; Myanmar remains burdened with inadequate electricity and transport infrastructure. Yet the armed forces, and the ruling junta who have taken Myanmar hostage, have carried out their own industrialization and the results are trickling online, with vehicle assembly an early success. If more surface combatants are launched from Myanmar this puts it in a minority among ASEAN members who have growing naval shipyards–Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam

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