COLUMN | Myanmar building up its naval power [Naval Gazing]

The Myanmar Navy offshore patrol vessel UMS Inlay (Photo: Indian Navy)

The past 20 years have seen the dramatic expansion of many Asian maritime forces, with submarines, aircraft carriers, and missile-armed escorts now featuring in many regional naval inventories.

Many aspects of this continuing expansion of the Asian maritime security domain have received scrutiny from analysts, but the secretive nature of its government, unsavoury reputation for alleged human rights abuses, and reported involvement in the international illegal narcotics trade have ensured that the Myanmar Navy (MN) has received relatively little attention.

The MN, though, has been quietly building up its fleet, relying initially upon vessels supplied by China, and more lately upon the products of Myanmar’s burgeoning indigenous warship construction industry.

The MN’s responsibilities include securing the nation’s maritime and riverine integrity, and coastal defence, as well as defence diplomacy missions intended to bolster the nation’s image. Responsibility for anti-smuggling and anti-illegal immigration operations and fishery protection has, after pressure from ASEAN, been handed over to the recently-formed Myanmar Coast Guard.

ASEAN’s concerns likely resulted from the numerous allegations of extortion of fishing boats’ crews by MN patrols.

Creating a submarine force

UMS Minye Theinkhathu, Myanmar’s first submarine (Photo: Myanmar Navy)

Myanmar has a long-standing maritime territorial dispute with Bangladesh over an area in the northeast of the Bay of Bengal, and analysts believe that Bangladesh’s acquisition of a pair of ex-PLA Navy Ming-class submarines from China in 2017 was the catalyst for the MN setting up a submarine arm.

In 2020, in an effort to counter Chinese influence upon the MN, India supplied the second-hand, Russian-built Kilo-class submarine now named Minye Theinkhathu, while in 2021 Beijing transferred a former PLA Navy Ming-class boat, now named Minye Kyaw Htin. Both these submarines are armed with torpedoes and mines and are based on Ownchein Island. Both are also reportedly quite active.

Support of Myanmar’s large land forces is another important role of the MN, and the 12,400-tonne, diesel-powered landing platform dock (LPD) Moattama, built by South Korea’s Daesun Shipbuilding in 2019, is a vital element of the fleet. The ship can carry about 500 troops and their combat vehicles and has two helicopter spots. Armament is two Gatling guns and machine guns, and the LPD is also fitted out as the MN’s flagship with command and control facilities.

Frigate construction program

The Myanmar Navy Kyan Sittha-class frigate UMS King Sin Phyu Shin (Photo: Indian Navy)

The FF-135 frigate is the MN’s most ambitious project to date. The warship, which is at an advanced stage of construction at Thilawa Shipyard, will feature a vertical launch system for Chinese HHQ-16 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), a 76-millimetre gun, close-in weapon systems (CIWS), and long-range search radar. There is a flight deck and hangar for a Chinese Z-9C helicopter. At least one more example is likely to be built.

The 2,600-tonne frigate Aung Zeya is armed with North Korean Kamsong-3 surface-to surface missiles, and Russian S-A-N-5 SAMs. There is a 76-millimetre gun and two Gatling guns as well as torpedo tubes, depth charges, and anti-submarine rockets for undersea warfare. There is a helicopter deck but no hangar.

The two examples of the Kyan Sittha-class have armament that includes Chinese C-B02 anti-shipping cruise missiles (ASCM).

All the frigates so far mentioned were locally built from 2012. Also on strength are two Jianghu-class frigates acquired from China in 2012. Both are armed with C-802 ASCMs.

Corvettes, OPVs and smaller craft

The three locally built Anawrahta-class corvettes feature a heavy armament for their size. These include C-802 ASCMs, S-A-N-5 SAMs, a 76-millimetre gun, and an AK-230 twin-barrel CIWS. Two Danish-built OPVs also reportedly remain in service.

There are more than 60 missile- and gun-armed fast attack craft and fast patrol boats as well as four modern locally-built submarine chasers and a huge array of inshore patrol boats, hospital vessels, and small transport and landing craft, deployed on coastal and riverine security duties.

The MN’S international profile has been rising for some time. The service’s latest and largest-ever offshore exercise, Sea Shield 2022, held in early July, attracted considerable attention. Held in the Bay of Bengal, the exercise involved both the MN’s submarines as well as a number of frigates.

The MN is well on the way to becoming a regional force to be reckoned with, and analysts believe it to be a matter of time before range extenders are acquired in the form of deep-sea-capable replenishment ships.

Trevor Hollingsbee

Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.