Myanmar’s seizure last week of a large cache of mostly Chinese weapons from a rebel camp sparked a brief and predictable flurry of nationalist outrage, underscoring as it did the shadowy role of neighboring China in fueling the nation’s many long-running ethnic conflicts.

But the real significance of the November 22 incident had less to do with the seized weaponry’s quantity or provenance and much more with unambiguous confirmation that insurgents in active hostilities with government forces, or Tatmadaw, are now fielding man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS, weapons that militarily and politically constitute potential game-changers.

Amidst the stack of over 150 assault rifles, machine-guns, grenade launchers and nearly 80 sacks of explosives seized in a village in northeastern Shan state’s Namhsan township troops also retrieved in an apparent first a single MANPADS launcher identified as a Chinese-manufactured FN-6.

Abandoning the cache after an apparently brief clash with state forces were rebels of the ethnic Palaung Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which operates across northern Shan state and dominates the tea-growing hill country of Namhsan.

The introduction of MANPADS onto the battlefield of northern Myanmar marks the crossing of an ominous Rubicon. Militarily, it confronts the Myanmar Air Force (MAF) — a force which today is increasingly active in counterinsurgency operations nationwide – with a new and far more threatening environment.

To date, no rebel group in Myanmar is known to have actually fired a MANPADS, let alone downed a plane with one, but the very presence of the anti-aircraft weapon on the battlefield will inevitably impact military mindsets and tactics. Indeed, the confidence MAF pilots have long enjoyed facing only ground fire from typically ineffectual small arms may soon be a thing of the past.

If an aircraft is eventually lost to a rebel-fired missile strike, the process of adapting to a new operational environment will be dramatically accelerated as pilots will be forced to adopt a range of new defensive tactics. At another level, the arrival of easily transportable MANPADS inevitably raises concerns over threats to civil aviation, in particular around northern airports such as Lashio, Myitkyina and even Mandalay, but also further afield including in western Rakhine state.

Stock image of Chinese soldiers firing a Chinese-made FN-6 MANPAD. Photo: Military Recognition/Facebook

If any reminder were needed, the potential for tragic miscalculations emerging from the volatile confluence of loose missiles, fluid combat zones and commercial aviation was horrifically underscored by the July 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, with the loss of 298 lives.

The Chinese-manufactured, shoulder-launched FN-6 missile found in Namhsan is a far cry from the far larger, self-propelled Buk SA-17 system that brought down the Malaysian Boeing 777. A third generation system, the Fei Nu-6, or Flying Crossbow, is designed to counter targets flying at low altitudes and, with years of export sales behind it, is hardly state-of-the-art technology.

But it has an established and lethal track record. Courtesy of sympathetic Middle Eastern governments, most notably Qatar, the FN-6 ended up in rebel hands in the Syrian conflict from 2013 onwards and successfully brought down at least regime helicopters, if not fixed-wing aircraft.

In Myanmar, the probability is high that the missile seized by the Tatmadaw was delivered to the TNLA from the arsenal of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) – a close ally and logistical godfather of the so-called Brotherhood Alliance of northern rebel factions which includes the TNLA, the Kokang-based Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Arakan Army (AA).

Settled into a stable 30-year long cease-fire with the Tatmadaw since its founding in 1989, the UWSA has fielded Chinese MANPADS since at least the year 2000. It first acquired the HN-5A system, a knock-off of the venerable Soviet SA-7, or ‘Strela’, which in Egyptian hands proved its worth against the Israeli Air Force in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

More recently, since around 2012, the UWSA has upgraded its air defense with the far more capable FN-6, which has a longer range of up to six kilometers, a digital infra-red homing system, and high resistance to decoy flares.

As systems with obvious strategic significance, MANPADS have historically been held close by state militaries, sensitivities only accentuated during the Western-led ‘global war on terror’ that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

They have only been widely used by non-state actors in two guerrilla conflicts – Afghanistan in the late 1980s, when the US sought to break a battlefield stalemate by providing the anti-communist mujahideen with FIM-92 Stinger MANPADS; and the more recent war in Syria where China’s FN-6 first drew blood.

United Wa State Army (UWSA) soldiers in a collective salute. Photo: Twitter

China’s willingness to supply MANPADS to the UWSA, East Asia’s largest military non-state actor, reflects two different facets of the situation in northeast Myanmar. First has been the “special relationship” the Wa have enjoyed with China’s military since the days when they formed the bulk of the forces of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which Beijing supported throughout the 1970s and for much of the 1980s.

The second has been a related but more recent need to ensure the Wa establish an unambiguous level of deterrence in the face of Tatmadaw ambitions to integrate recalcitrant cease-fire groups.

The Tatmadaw’s 2009 invasion of Kokang run by the MNDAA — another ex- communist faction – and its far wider campaign against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) since 2011 both drove tens of thousands of refugees across the border into China. Any campaign to bring the Wa to heel by attacking their “special administrative division” east of the Salween River would cause far greater chaos along China’s southwestern border.

Between 2012 and 2013, real fears of a wider war triggered a rapid and comprehensive upgrading of the UWSA’s arsenal involving armored vehicles, heavy artillery, surface-to-surface rockets, a slew of modern small-arms and new MANPADS. UWSA troops made a very deliberate and public display of their FN-6 missiles during an anniversary parade in the Wa capital of Panghsang last April.

A Chinese-made FN-6 man-portable missile defense system. Photo: Twitter/Military Recognition

While the Tatmadaw has necessarily shelved any plans it had for offensive operations against the UWSA, it has however been involved for much of the current decade in near-constant hostilities with other ethnic groups loosely allied with the Wa — first the KIA and then since 2014 the MNDAA, TNLA and AA.

From behind the natural barrier of the Salween River, the Wa have meanwhile pursued a strategy of “forward defense” since at least 2013, providing weaponry and training to their northern rebel allies who have served to tie down and exhaust the Tatmadaw.

Sales from well-stocked UWSA arms dumps have included ammunition, locally-produced small arms, and, importantly, 107mm free-flight surface-to-surface rockets designed for use against area-targets such as military bases or air fields. Over the past two years, these have assumed a growing salience in the war, not least in the upsurge of AA-led fighting in Rakhine state during 2019.

The MAF’s effortless domination of Myanmar’s multiple battlefields, however, has supported the assumption that the UWSA has been specifically unwilling to sell MANPADS to their allies. Maintained in the face of escalating air strikes since late 2012, that stance has appeared to imply a Chinese veto on the transfer of a strategically sensitive weapon system that would impact not only the nature of the war but also China’s carefully balanced diplomatic relations with Naypyidaw.

That long-standing assumption was effectively shot down by the November 22 discovery of the FN-6 in Namhsan. Having crossed a figurative Rubicon and a geographical Salween, MANPADS are now apparently loose in northern Shan state. And if the recent proliferation of 107mm rockets is any indication, MANPADS could conceivably soon surface in restive Rakhine and Kachin states.

TNLA soldiers march to mark the 51st anniversary of Ta’ang National Resistance Day in Homain, Nansan township, in northern Myanmar’s Shan state, in a 2014 file photo. Photo: AFP

The still unknown background to the TNLA’s acquisition of the missile remains an important element in a decidedly opaque chain of events. At a November 25 press conference in Naypyidaw, a senior Tatmadaw spokesman was keen to highlight that the high cost of an FN-6 — ranging anywhere between US$60,000-90,000, – was de facto indication of the TNLA’s involvement in Shan state’s rampant and profitable narcotics trade.

Deliberately or otherwise, the assertion missed the wider point. The key question now is whether UWSA commanders have decided to flout a Chinese embargo on supplying MANPADS to their rebel allies west of the Salween River – an unlikely scenario given the sensitivity of the transfer and the close, indeed umbilical, military, economic and political relationship between the Wa special region and its Chinese backers.

Alternatively, Chinese military intelligence officials may themselves have lifted the embargo on the transfer of MANPADS by their Wa protégés as a means of increasing pressure on the Tatmadaw to desist from its ongoing offensive operations and reach an early cease-fire with the Brotherhood Alliance.

The seizure of the Namhsan cache may also conceivably reflect a wheels-within-wheels phenomenon. Unclear but important is whether the captured FN-6 was actually serviceable, with the condition of its battery-pack a key unknown.

Any serious analysis would need at least to consider the possibility that Tatmadaw forces were somehow tipped off to the presence of the arms dump, and that the missile was intended to be found as a means of sending a clear but not yet lethal warning to Myanmar’s military that, failing a change in policy, the conflict in the north could escalate radically in the coming dry season months.

Either way, the implications of any proliferation of MANPADS in the north and west of the country are sobering. If the system is deployed in combat, the most immediate targets would almost certainly be helicopters – Russian-built Mi-17 ‘Hips’, the MAF’s transport and resupply work-horses, and the Mi-24 ‘Hind’ gunships that in September 1986 were the first victims of US Stingers near the Afghan city of Jalalabad.

Other targets would likely include fixed-wing ground-attack aircraft, including the MAF’s obsolescent Chinese-built A-9 ‘Fantans’ and far newer and more capable Russian Yak-130s, delivered between 2017 and 2018 and already flying combat missions over Rakhine state.

Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (R) commissioning new military aircraft at a ceremony on the 70th anniversary of Myanmar’s Air Force on December 15, 2017. Photo: Myanmar Air Force

MANPADS pose an even greater threat to turbo-prop aircraft taking off or landing at airports such as Lashio in Shan state and Sittwe in Rakhine state, which are used by both civilian airlines and the MAF. The dual-use danger is compounded by the fact that ATR-42 and ATR-72 turbo-props are widely flown on domestic routes by civil airlines while also used as troop transports by the military.

On an afternoon in August 1990, nearly four years after the first use of US-supplied Stingers in Afghanistan, mujahideen fighters outside the northern city of Kunduz brought down a slow-moving Antonov AN-26 turbo-prop on its approach to the airport assuming it to be a troop transport. Furious statements from the embattled government in Kabul asserted the plane had been carrying civilians on a regular domestic flight.

In northern Myanmar, events have yet to reach that pass. But it appears the Tatmadaw has been served a chilling warning of a potential MANPADS-enabled escalation, even as the political stakes of intensified conflict are high and rising.