Drones have changed this civil war and connected the rebels to the world

In flip-flops and shorts, one of the top soldiers of a resistance force fighting the military junta in Myanmar showed off his weapons. He was, he apologized, mostly broken.

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

Other parts needed to build homemade drones, including pieces of Styrofoam studded with propellers, crowded a couple of leaf-walled shacks. Together, they could be considered in some ways the armory of the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force. A laser cutter was placed halfway through the construction of a flight control unit. The generator that powered the workshop had shut down. It was unclear when there would be electricity again.

Despite precarious conditions, rebel drone units have managed to tip the balance of power in Myanmar. In many ways, the army that wrested power from a civilian administration in Myanmar three years ago is far larger and better equipped than the hundreds of militias fighting to retake the country. The junta has Russian fighter planes and Chinese missiles at its disposal.

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

Around the world, new capabilities embedded in consumer technology are changing conflicts. Starlink connections provide Internet. 3D printers can mass-produce parts. But no product is more important than the cheap drone.

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

The world’s weakest forces often learn from each other. Drone pilots in Myanmar describe turning to groups on chat apps like Discord and Telegram to download 3D printing designs for fixed-wing drones. They also get information on how to hack the default software on commercial drones that could take away their locations.

Many also take advantage of the original use of these hobby gadgets: the video footage they take. In both Ukraine and Myanmar, videos of the killings are accompanied by pulse-pounding music and spread on social media to boost morale and help raise funds.

“This is exponential growth and it’s happening everywhere,” said Samuel Bendett, a fellow at the Center for New American Security who studies drone warfare. “You can go to YouTube and learn how to assemble, on Telegram you can get an idea of ​​tactics and tips on pilot training.”

In Myanmar, both sides have grown fearful of the whirring sound of propeller blades churning the air above them. But without the junta’s airpower, the resistance must rely much more on drones as it fights to overthrow the army and win some sort of civilian government. Rebel-operated drones have helped capture Myanmar military outposts by simply circling overhead and scaring soldiers into fleeing. They terrorized the trenches. And they have made radical offensives possible in junta-controlled territory, hitting police stations and small military bases.

As the most skilled pilot in his rebel unit, Mr Shan Gyi said he had racked up dozens of successful attacks flying drones with gentle joystick movements on a video game controller. The largest homemade drones can carry nearly 70 pounds of bombs capable of blowing up a house. Most, however, are smaller and carry several 60-millimeter mortar rounds, enough to kill soldiers.

“I didn’t play video games as a kid,” Mr. Shan Gyi said. “When I hit the target on the battlefield, I feel so happy.”

The head of the militia’s drone unit, nicknamed 3D because of his success printing drone parts, might seem like an atypical rebel. A computer science major, 3D recalled the first time he assembled a 3D printer during his college years.

“Not that hard,” he said.

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

“They had a technological disruptor mentality,” said Richard Horsey, senior Myanmar adviser at the International Crisis Group. “A lot of innovation has happened.”

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

Although none of the 10 pilots on his team had flown drones before the coup, they delved into online chat rooms, learning how to convert drones designed to spray pesticides for 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 spread across Myanmar, and some are all female. In 2022, Ma Htet Htet joined militias fighting in central Myanmar.

“I was given a kitchen role because they were hesitant to put me on the front line simply because I’m a girl,” she said.

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

From October 2021 to June 2023, the non-profit organization Center for Information Resilience verified 1,400 online videos of drone flights carried out by groups fighting the Myanmar military, most of which were attacks. As of early 2023, the group said it had documented 100 flights per month.

Over time, drone use has moved from standardized quadcopters made by companies like DJI to a broader mix, including improvised drones like those made by 3D.

Recently, 3D went on a shopping spree. He was searching for a perfected solution in the trenches of the Ukrainian front for a problem he and his pilots were facing: Russian-made jammers that could eliminate drones by jamming their signals.

Within months of forming its 3D drone army, the junta began using jamming technology from China and Russia to encode the GPS signals that guide the drones to their targets.

3D is looking for ways to fight back. When Myanmar’s military sends its drones to pursue rebel fighters, it must suspend the jamming, opening a window through which it can also send its own air fleet.

New first-person view, or FPV, drones offer another potential solution to the problem of overcoming electronic defenses. Hobbyist racing drones repurposed into human-piloted weapons, FPVs can be less vulnerable to jamming because they are manually controlled rather than GPS-guided, and can sometimes be flown while avoiding interference emitted by drone defenses.

New drones have reshaped the conflict in Ukraine, and components to make FPVs have found their way to rebels in Myanmar in recent months. But they are much more difficult to fly than conventional drones, as they work with glasses that allow the pilot to see from the drone’s perspective. In Ukraine, pilots often train for hundreds of hours on simulators before getting the chance to fly in combat.

On a recent afternoon, while the rebel forces’ generator was running, a drone pilot, Ko Sai Laung, sat in a bamboo shack honing his skills on a laptop loaded with Ukrainian drone simulation software.

He held a joystick in his hands, occasionally wiping the sweat dripping down his face as he piloted a virtual drone over simulated Ukrainian farmland toward Russian tanks. I crashed and fell again.

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

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

Despite the shadow government’s excitement, none of the kamikaze drones caused significant damage that day. A New York Times analysis of satellite images found no clear evidence of smoke, fire or other signs of a successful attack.

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

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

Such operations, however, are a one-way mission for the painstakingly constructed drones and can require sacrificing dozens at a time in the hope that even one might make it past the defenses. Opposition fighters lack ample funding and a reliable supply line for spare parts. Parts and ammunition that can be hand-assembled into a multirotor drone capable of carrying heavier payloads cost more than $27,500, 3D said.

However, the battles and casualties continue.

On March 20, Mr Shan Gyi, the rebel forces’ top pilot, was flying a drone from a point on the front line. Suddenly, a much more menacing flying machine, a joint fighter plane, screeched overhead. His bombs hit, 3D explained later, and Mr. Shan Gyi was killed in action. He was 22 years old.

Muyi Xiao contributed to the reporting.