Burma’s air force relies heavily on Chinese weapons. A handful of Russian MiG-29s will grow to 30 in the wake of a 2009 order, but the rest of its fighter fleet is made up of Chinese MiG-21 (60 J-7s) and MiG-19 (12 J-6 and 36 Q-5) variants. Reports indicate that they are supported by about 6 Serbian Super Galeb trainer/ light attack jets, and 17 Swiss Pilatus PC-6/7/9 turboprop trainers that have been armed for counterinsurgency.

Recent reports indicate that some standardization may be on the way. In 1998, the Burmese air force bought K-8 Karakorum (export version of China’s JL-8) jet trainers and light attack aircraft, which are a cooperative venture between China and Pakistan. They are now stationed at Taungoo Air Base north of Yangon, and sources vary between 4-12 aircraft. In the wake of a November 2009 visit to China, Burma’s SLORC regime will be adding another 50 K-8s. As one might expect, this deal has a strong Chinese resource angle…

The Technical End: K-8s for Myanmar
The Strategic End: Qiud Pro Quo?
Additional Readings & Sources
The Technical End: K-8s for Myanmar

The K-8 jet trainer, also known as the K-8 Karakorum or the Hongdu JL-8, is a joint venture between China’s Nanchang-based Hongdu Aviation Industry Group (HAIG), and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) in the 1990s.

The aircraft has 3 engine options. The most common by production quantity is China’s WS-11, a licensed copy of the Ukranian Ivchenko AI-25TL turbofan. Aircraft so equipped are reportedly designated L-11s. The AI-25TL reportedly delivers 3,600 – 3,800 pounds thrust, and also equips aircraft for most export customers. On the other hand, the WS-11’s Chinese provenance may be an advantage with the Burmese.

The jets can carry up to 4 under-wing pylons rated at 250 kg each. Options include fuel drop tanks, 23mm cannon pods, unguided rockets, unguided bombs, and even short-range air-to-air missiles.

According to Sino Defense, over 500 K-8s have been built since 1993. To date, it has been ordered by Pakistan (120), China (100+), Bolivia (6), Burma/ Myanmar (54-62), Ghana (4), Namibia (4), Sri Lanka (6-8, now 3-5), Sudan (12), Zambia (8), and Zimbabwe (12). A modified version is also produced by Egypt as the K-8E (120). Other reported orders include Tanzania (6), and a recent order from Venezuela (18, may soon become 40).

As one can readily see from the above list, the K-8 is in service with a number of rogue regimes. Chad may have faced supplier issues when it armed its Pilatus PC-7/9 turboprops, but its opponents in Sudan faced no such issues with their K-8s in Darfur and beyond.

The numbers bought by Myanmar make sense only if many of these aircraft are dedicated to a counterinsurgency role, where slower 2-seat aircraft are often more effective than high-speed interceptors.

Irawaddy reports that parts of the K-8 aircraft were transported by cargo ship from China, and are being assembled at the Aircraft Production and Maintenance Base in Meikhtila. It added that Burma’s main air base for maintenance, the Aircraft Production and Maintenance Air Base (APMAB) in Panchangone in Mingaladon Township, has been relocated to Nyaunggone, close to the regime’s Flying Training Base in Shante in Meikhtila Township.

The K-8 jet deal was reportedly brokered by Burma’s business/political tycoon Tay Za, a multi-billionaire go-between for the regime who is on the on the American, European, Canadian, Australian and Swiss financial sanctions blacklists for Burma. Financial terms were not disclosed, but the record of past sales establishes a conventional price between $5-10 million per plane.

The Strategic End: Quid Pro Quo?

In February 2009, “China’s Unusual Deals Working to Grow African Arms Presence” noted the tendency for China to arrange weapons deals as vehicles to secure cut-rate resources: Zambia using its copper resources to pay China in a number of military deals, Kenya negotiating to trade fishing rights for arms, etc. The deal with Burma, aka. Myanmar, is shrouded in secrecy, but related developments in country strongly suggest a continuation of that trend.

Burma is one of the world’s most repressive regimes, and its government faces widespread international sanctions as a result. In recent years, it’s estimated that over 100,000 people may have died in the country because the junta refused to permit international aid after Cyclone Nargis, and promptly significant amounts of the aid that was provided for its own use and/or sale. A long-standing series internal wars with ethnic groups like the Karens adds to the internal misery.

Now the junta faces an additional challenge: securing its portion of a 771 km/ 479 mile dual oil/gas pipeline to its backers in China. The $2.5 billion project, which will be 50.9% owned by China’s CNPC oil firm and 49.1% by the Myanmar junta. The pipeline will ship from the port of Sittwe/ Akyab in Malaysia northward across the country, entering China at the border city of Ruili in Yunnan province, and continuing on through China to the coastal province of Guangxi on Vietnam’s northern border.

While China’s economy has cooled as a result of the global recession, long-term, secure access to the resources needed to supply its growing economy is one of the regime’s top strategic priorities. When it’s complete, the dual-pipeline will give China an alternate route for Middle Eastern oil and gas that is not subject to naval interference around the narrow Straits of Malacca.

It will also serve as a convenient shipping route for Burma’s own oil and natural gas in Arakan state, and the Bay of Bengal. Chinese firms are very heavily involved in Myanmar’s energy sector.

As a side-effect, the combination of Burmese resources and a strategic shipment route for critical energy resources will ensure permanent and unwavering support from China for the Burmese junta, and blockage of future sanctions or international action against the junta.

As a point of comparison, the 60 km Yadana pipeline to Thailand resulted in a 40 km wide cleared “security corridor” around the pipeline, along with reports of forced labor, murder, and widespread rapes by the junta’s forces. The new Chinese pipeline is much longer, and also far more important to a much larger partner country. Reports indicate that the Myanmar junta has already devoted more than 10,000 front-line soldiers (a reported 44 battalions) to clearing the new pipeline’s path.