By Francis Wade
Russia is believed to be close to finalising a deal over the sale of 20 advanced fighter jets to the Burmese military, which has sought to expand its air power in tandem with ground forces.
The MiG-29 planes have been purchased directly from the Russian state exporter, Rosoboronexport, in a deal estimated at more than $US570 million.
The additional planes, due to shipped before the end of next year, will double Burma’s fighter jet fleet, and becomes one of the biggest sales of its kind by Moscow.
Although Burma already has used MiG-29 in its arsenal, bought years ago from Russia and Belarus, the adapted versions are more suited to the country’s rough terrain and are noted for their aerial maneuverability.
At the time the deal was first struck in late 2009, a source close to Rosoboronexport said that the Russian offer had beaten one by China for “ultra-modern” J-10 and FC-1 fighters to be shipped to Burma “on very advantageous conditions”.
This week Russia delivered 11 MiGs to India as part of a 16-plane package to equip an aircraft carrier due to be delivered next year. The two countries then signed a deal in March 2010 for the sale of an additional 29 jets, priced at around $US1.5 billion.
Although a longtime supplier of India’s military, Russia has made no secret of its wish to expand its security presence into South and Southeast Asia and draw closer to strategically placed countries like Burma and India.
Reports emerged last month that Russia had also been awarded a tender to develop Burma’s first metro in its remote capital, Naypyidaw.
Military relations between the two countries have a solid history, with Russia a chief supplier of hardware to the Burmese army and promising young military personnel from Burma regularly sent for training in elite Moscow academies.
The Burmese government is also known to be wary of an overdependence on China as its chief foreign ally and security partner, and has been courting other powerhouses like Russia and India as possible alternatives.
Naypyidaw is also embarking on an aggressive expansion of its military that includes the purchase of fighter jets, as well as orders to battalion commanders to recruit extra manpower. This is despite Burma having no external enemy.
Whether aerial power is necessary in its perennial conflicts against ethnic armies is debated, although the MiG-29 would suit the poor ground-level infrastructure in the country’s remote border regions.
Reports from Shan state last month suggested that air strikes had been targeted at the opposition Shan State Army, although this has not been independently confirmed.