May 6, 2024

Drones Changed This Civil War, and Linked Rebels to the World

Consumer technologies are altering the course of the battle in Myanmar, and rebel drone units are taking notes on Ukraine and other conflicts.

By Hannah Beech and Paul Mozur

Photographs by Adam Ferguson

Hannah Beech reported from Karenni State, in Myanmar, and Paul Mozur from Taipei, Taiwan.

In flip-flops and shorts, one of the finest soldiers in a resistance force battling the military junta in Myanmar showed off his weaponry. It was, he apologized, mostly in pieces.

The rebel, Ko Shan Gyi, glued panels of plastic shaped by a 3D printer. Nearby, electrical innards foraged from Chinese-made drones used for agricultural purposes were arrayed on the ground, their wires exposed as if awaiting surgery.

Other parts needed to construct homemade drones, including chunks of Styrofoam studded with propellers, crowded a pair of leaf-walled shacks. Together, they could somewhat grandly be considered the armory of the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force. A laser cutter was poised halfway through carving out a flight control unit. The generator powering the workshop had quit. It wasn’t clear when there would be electricity again.

Despite the ragtag conditions, rebel drone units have managed to upend the power balance in Myanmar. By most measures, the military that wrested power from a civilian administration in Myanmar three years ago is far bigger and better equipped than the hundreds of militias fighting to reclaim the country. The junta has at its disposal Russian fighter jets and Chinese missiles.

But with little more than instructions crowdsourced online and parts ordered from China, the resistance forces have added ballast to what might seem a hopelessly asymmetrical civil war. The techniques they are using would not be unfamiliar to soldiers in Ukraine, Yemen or Sudan.

Across the world, the new abilities packed into consumer technology are changing conflict. Starlink connections provide internet. 3-D printers can mass produce parts. But no single product is more important than the cheap drone.

In Gaza last year, Hamas used low-cost drones to blind Israel’s surveillance-studded checkpoints. In Syria and Yemen, drones fly alongside missiles, forcing American troops to make difficult decisions about whether to use expensive countermeasures to swat down a $500 toy. On both sides of the war in Ukraine, innovation has turned the unassuming drone into a human-guided missile.

The world’s outgunned forces are often learning from each other. Drone pilots in Myanmar describe turning to groups on chat apps like Discord and Telegram to download 3-D printing blueprints for fixed-wing drones. They also gain insight on how to hack through the default software on commercial drones that could give away their locations.

Many also take advantage of the original use of these hobbyist gadgets: the video footage they take. In Ukraine and Myanmar alike, kill videos are set to heart-pumping music and spread on social media to boost morale and help raise money.

“It’s exponential growth, and it’s taking place everywhere,” said Samuel Bendett, a fellow at the Center for New American Security who studies drone warfare. “You can get on YouTube and learn how to assemble, on Telegram you can get a sense of tactics and tips on pilot training.”

In Myanmar, both sides have come to fear the whir of the propeller blades agitating the air above them. But without the air power of the junta, the resistance must rely far more on drones as they fight to overthrow the army and win some sort of civilian rule. Rebel-operated drones have helped capture Myanmar military outposts just by hovering overhead and spooking soldiers into fleeing. They have terrorized the trenches. And they have made possible sweeping offensives into junta-controlled territory, targeting police stations and small army bases.

As his rebel unit’s most skillful pilot, Mr. Shan Gyi said he had racked up dozens of successful strikes by flying drones with gentle flicks of joysticks on a video game controller. Bigger homemade drones can carry almost 70 pounds of bombs that can blow up a house. Most, though, are smaller and carry several 60 millimeter mortar shells, enough to kill soldiers.

“I didn’t play video games as a boy,” Mr. Shan Gyi said. “When I hit the bull’s-eye on the battlefield, I feel so happy.”

‘A Tech Disrupter-Type Mind-Set’

The head of the militia’s drone unit — he goes by the nom de guerre 3D because of his success at printing drone parts — might seem an atypical rebel. A computer technology graduate, 3D recalled the first time he assembled a 3-D printer during his college years.

“Not so hard,” he said.

Looking to make use of his skills when he joined the resistance movement, he first tried to print rifles. When they did not work well, he turned his attention to drones, which he had read were redefining warfare in other parts of the world.

“They had a tech disrupter-type mind-set,” said Richard Horsey, a senior Myanmar adviser at the International Crisis Group. “A lot of innovation happened.”

As 3D set out to build his fighting force, he had no training manual. Instead, he consulted with other young civilians setting up similar units across Myanmar. After the coup and brutally suppressed protests in 2021, young people who had grown up in a digitally connected Myanmar took to the jungle to fight.

Though none of his team’s 10 pilots had flown drones before the coup, they delved into online chat rooms, learning how to convert drones designed to spray pesticides for a more lethal use — against humans.

“The internet is very useful,” 3D said. “If we want, we can talk to people everywhere, in Ukraine, Palestine, Syria.”

Dozens of drone units are scattered across Myanmar, and a few are all-female. In 2022, Ma Htet Htet joined a militia fighting in central Myanmar.

“I was assigned to a cooking role because they hesitated to put me on the front lines simply because I’m a girl,” she said.

Last year, Ms. Htet Htet, now 19, joined a drone unit. The work put her on the front lines, since drone pilots must operate from the heat of a conflict zone. Her unit’s 26-year-old leader is still recovering from shrapnel injuries she sustained during battle. The women make their own bombs, mixing TNT and aluminum powder, then layer metal balls and gunpowder around the volatile core.

From October 2021 to June 2023, the nonprofit organization Centre for Information Resilience verified 1,400 online videos of drone flights carried out by groups fighting the Myanmar military, the majority of which were attacks. By early 2023, the group said it was documenting 100 flights per month.

Over time, drone use has shifted from off-the-shelf quadcopters made by companies like DJI to a broader mix, including improvised drones like the ones 3D makes.

A Game of Cat-and-Mouse

Recently, 3D went on a shopping spree. He was seeking a solution perfected in the trenches of Ukraine’s front lines for a problem he and his pilots were facing: Russian-made jammers that could take out drones by blocking their signals.

Within a few months of 3D forming his drone army, the junta started using jamming technology from China and Russia to scramble the GPS signals that guide drones to their targets.

3D has been searching for ways to fight back. When the Myanmar army sends up its drones to pursue rebel fighters, it must pause the jamming, opening a window through which he can dispatch his own aerial fleet, too.

Newer first-person-view drones, or F.P.V.s, offer another potential solution to the problem of getting through electronic defenses. Hobbyist racing drones repurposed into human-piloted weapons, the F.P.V.s can be less vulnerable to jamming because they are manually controlled rather than guided by GPS, and they can sometimes be piloted around the interference emitted by drone defenses

The newer drones have reshaped the conflict in Ukraine, and parts to make F.P.V.s have been dribbling in to the Myanmar rebels in recent months. But they are much harder to fly than conventional drones, operated with goggles that allow the pilot to see from the perspective of the drone. In Ukraine, pilots often train for hundreds of hours on simulators before getting the chance to fly in combat.

On a recent afternoon when the rebel force’s generator was working, one drone pilot, Ko Sai Laung, sat in a bamboo shack sharpening his skills on a laptop loaded with Ukrainian drone simulation software.

He cradled a joystick in his hands, occasionally wiping away the sweat trickling down his face as he piloted a virtual drone above simulated Ukrainian farmland toward Russian tanks. He crashed and crashed again.

“I’m tired,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “But I have to keep practicing.”

Targeting the Capital

On April 4, a shadow Myanmar government formed by ousted lawmakers and others announced that a fleet of drones, launched by a pro-democracy armed group, had attacked three targets in Myanmar’s capital: the military headquarters, an air base and the house of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the junta leader.

Despite the shadow government’s excitement, none of the kamikaze drones caused significant damage that day. An analysis by The New York Times of satellite imagery found no apparent evidence of smoke, burning or other signs of a successful strike.

Still, the simple act of flying drones so close to the nerve center of Myanmar’s military is itself a potent psychological weapon. Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, was built from scratch in the early 2000s as a fortress city.

The objective of the drone strike on Naypyidaw, said Dr. Sasa, a spokesman for the shadow government, was not so much to kill but to send a signal to the junta that it “should not feel comfortable freely roaming in and out.”

Such operations, however, are a one-way mission for the painstakingly built drones, and can require sacrificing dozens of them at a time in the hope that even one might make it through defenses. The opposition fighters lack ample financing and a reliable supply line for parts. Parts and munitions that can be assembled by hand into one favored multirotor drone design that can carry heavier loads costs more than $27,500, 3D said.

Still, the battles, and the casualties, grind on.

On March 20, Mr. Shan Gyi, the rebel force’s star pilot, was flying a drone from a spot on the front line. Suddenly, a much more menacing flying machine — a junta fighter jet — shrieked overhead. Its bombs struck, 3D explained later, and Mr. Shan Gyi was killed in action. He was 22.


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