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Understanding the military programmes of Burma


There have been a number of analyses of potential nuclear and ballistic missile programs in Burma in the last year. Many of those reports depend on interviews with me. I am a defector from the Burmese army. My name is Sai Thein Win and I was a major working for the Defense Services Science and Technological Research Center or DSSRTC. I received a degree in Defense Industrial Engineering from the Defense Services Technological Academy (DSTA) in Pyin Oo Lwin in 1999 and later I received a certificate in calculations and design of rocket engines (liquid fueled) from the Bauman Moscow State Technical University.

The classes I took in Bauman University were: Russian language, dynamics and regulating of rocket engines (liquid fueled), basic theory of rocket engines, technical controlling systems, testing and working of the rocket engines, calculation and design of rocket engines (liquid fueled), thermal analysis of rocket engines (liquid fueled), turbo-pump units of rocket engines (liquid fueled), low thrust rocket engines (liquid fueled), heat and combustion processes inside rocket engines (liquid fueled) and combination of reactive engines. Furthermore I had done a few other courses such as: parameters and characteristics of rocket engine chambers, design of open system liquid fueled rocket engine chambers and calculation and design of turbo-pump units of open system liquid fueled rocket engines.

Before the study in Moscow I was assigned as an assistant manager of the production department in Defense Industry No. 3 (DI-3), my mother unit. We produced mortar shells, rocket propellant, grenade and 82mm anti-personnel/anti-tank rockets.

Those experiences led me to become a head of the production department of science and technological equipment development workshop at Myaing, south of Mandalay.  If you understand the origin of this workshop, its subordination to the Burmese government and its relationship to the military then you may be able to better understand the apparent pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in Burma.

Department of Defense Services Science and Technological Research Center (DSSTRC)

The DSSTRC is an organization within the Burmese army dedicated to scientific progress in military systems R&D. Although it is controlled by the army, it receives most of its funding from the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). This kind of bureaucratic sharing of responsibilities can often lead to paralysis and inefficiencies. This is the case in Burma.

Science and technological equipment development workshops

The two Special Science and Technological Workshops at the centre of the Burmese nuclear weapons revelations were conceived and developed by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) of the Ministry of Technology (MOST).  MOST is a very important player.  The minister of MOST, U Thaung wanted a piece of the substantial piece of the pie that would go to organizations supporting the money that would flow from strategic weapons programs.  When the minster U Thaung, agreed to contribute to nuclear weapons development for the military dictatorship, he turned to the people he knew best.    These were largely professors at the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT).  These professors were qualified academics, but they had no experience in industrial engineering or the production of serial quantities of military hardware.  That expertise resides in the Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI) in the army. We will discuss them later.

The RIT professors were given instructions to prepare the facilities and equipment for machine shops to support Research and Development activities in support of a proposed program to build missiles and nuclear weapons. They approached the problem in an academic way and completely failed to build a capable infrastructure despite large budgets and access. But it is their failed enterprise that created a window from German machine tool purchases and hundreds of photos of things they tried to build that gives us our view into the Burmese nuclear ambitions.

The flagship projects for the proposed program were two very large machine tool workshops located hundreds of kilometres apart, north and south of Mandalay.  These were very large structures, about 7000 square meters and 20 meters high.  In Figure 1 you can see the size of the excavation for one of them.  Both were placed in enormous excavations in hills where they could not be seen from the ground nearby.

Figure 1.  The finished Workshop No. 2 nearly fills this
huge excavation.  The big square holes are the footings
for the massive structure.  Note the size of people and
digging machines.

Figure 2.  The finished Workshop 2 fills the excavation,
making some people think it was underground.

Figure 3.  A satellite image shows that Workshop 2
is hidden in its excavation by hills all around.
These are not some small workshops for training
some students.  These are massive industrial facilities.

The professors equipped the workshops with tools purchased from European countries, notably Germany and Switzerland. They purchased very large tools, not just machines you might see in your neighbourhood garage. Some of these tools are over eight meters tall, and can handle work parts weighing many tons, But only the measuring/testing machines are contained in controlled environment rooms inside the main workshop so that it was not possible to manufacture precision parts in a low humidity and fixed temperature environment.

Figure 4.  One of the large milling machines being delivered.

Figure 5. This is one of the milling machines. 
It is the size of a small house.

The machine tools were purchased by the Department of Technical and Vocational Education (DTVE) – funds to buy machines were given to this department. DTVE is part of MOST. There is a clear trail between this academic organization and the factories. And the advisors behind this project were professors, not industrial engineers.

What did the professors buy?

Each workshop was identical. That is a huge mistake.  Instead of giving each one a clear function they bought two identical sets of inappropriate machines. Why were the machines useless?

Too big

First, many of the tools were too big.  There is very little use for the very large milling machines that were purchased.  They might be useful to make giant locomotive engines.  That was actually the cover story although it does not hold up to analysis.  They might be useful for making tank turrets although that never seems to have been the goal.  Actually they were just the dream of an academic with a big budget and a big appetite.

Wrong mix

The mix was all wrong.  For production, for example centrifuge components, one would need a number of machines churning out the large numbers of small parts needed for a serial program, not one big machine of every kind.  If they were going for mass production, they also needed some cheap and productive conventional machines for roughing jobs. Machining the sand coated brittle casting block, which also had big air holes, with high precision machines was totally unacceptable. Again, the professors made the machine layout from their dream catalogue.

Two factories the same – no variety

Noting again, the professors equipped each workshop with identical machines.  They failed to consider that they needed more variety and capability if they were going to make the items of various size and shape for research works and not duplication.  There are reports that the professors planned to build three more factories with the same mix of machines.

They missed many necessary capabilities

They also missed many capabilities that a real industrial engineer would have required.  There is no sign of a foundry at the factories or in support, to provide the special castings that would be needed.  There are no forges, rolling mills, heat-treatment furnaces, stress annealing or welding facilities.  Any engineer who has ever built anything useful would tell you that these capabilities are integral to success.  But academics skilled only in cutting machines would not know this.

Practically all the projects started by Burmese government organizations fizzled out. In the same way buying machines became neither for mass production nor research works. They were just desperately trying to show the politicians upstairs on paper that they had done something by spending the budget at the end of the year.

Poor care 

The machines arrived already damaged from shipping. In addition, the factories were poorly maintained.  Within a short time rats ate through many of the plastic and rubber parts making major repairs necessary.

Wrong specifications for cutting machines

Given that the professors ordered fancy cutting machines that they wanted, did they buy the right things?  Definitely not.  For any advanced precision projects one would like to have true 5-axis cutting machines that can make complex shapes in several dimensions.  An example is the liquid rocket engine fuel impeller or turbo pump that I am holding in this image:

Figure 6.  This is the impeller we produced to show the managers in
DSSTRC that the machines were not capable of the precision they needed.

There were many complex shapes that were needed for the program that Burma wanted to pursue.  These shapes needed machines that were true 5-axis milling machines that could make curves in several dimensions.  There machines are limited by export control regulations.

In a legal way to get around the regulations, the German companies offered milling and manufacturing machines that were called 3+2, or virtual 5-axis machines.  The modules required for true 5-axis movements were not supplied.  As a result, the operator is forced to make all his cuts using only 3 axes at one time.  He has to turnoff the Z-axis for example to add the C-axis.  This gives him a 5-axis-like capability but it is not the same.  To make the impeller in this way, we had to use a long, thin machining tool that was subject to breakage and chattering.  The tolerances and surface finish did not meet specification and the part produced was unacceptable.

I had already reported many of these shortcomings to my military supervisor in 2006.  He was very unhappy with me as the messenger. He said don’t judge the sovereigns with what you have seen right now and there were a lot more machines to come. As a result of that conversation I was sent to Workshop 2 in the middle of no-where on the 4th of December, 2006. At Workshop 2 I produced the impeller designed at DSSTRC as an example of what was wrong.   Workshop 1, making parts for the nuclear battalion was almost with in view of the bright lights of Pyin Oo Lwin, a much more popular assignment.

In three years at Workshop 2, we only made one machined part for the missile program using the fancy machines purchased by the professors.  That was the unacceptable impeller.  When the Germans came to inspect the machines to see that they were not being misused, they were satisfied.  The machines had only been used for a few hours and there were no prohibited parts in sight.  We put large cast blanks in the machines so that the Germans could see we were designing hydro electrical plant turbines, but even they could see the castings were unacceptable and the work was primitive.  We brought in large diesel engine components that were made outsideBurmaand kept in storage for the German end-used visits.  The Germans were not fooled by the ruse, but they could leave saying there were no signs of prohibited use at Workshop 2, at least.

The German companies DMG and Trumpf have been contacted about this assessment and the German government has been queried as well.  Technicians from the companies have made a number of repair visits and can see the low usage of the machines.  One of the German BAFA explanations that these machines are not used for furthering the production of weapons of mass destruction is the very few hours of operating time on the clocks built into the machines.  This is a reasonable response.  But it does not address the issue that the purpose of the few hours of use is for WMD or the means to deliver them.  It would appear that machines at Workshop 2 are hardly used at all whereas machines at Workshop 1, the nuclear workshop, are used for more hours.  This is attributable to two things:

The machines at Workshop 1 are being used below their ultimate capability and so many of the components for the nuclear program are made with relatively low-tech capabilities.  These include just using the laser cutting machine to cut out blanks from sheet metal and using other tools to bend sheets into round tanks or shapes.  Some of the flanges on tanks made at Workshop 1 are over a meter in diameter and have many penetrations with bolt circles.  This shows that some of the larger milling machines are getting some use.

The other factor is that some of the machines used for producing components at Workshop 2 are of Swiss manufacture, and are not covered in the German end-user inspections.  So these machines are used for indeterminate periods.

In December 2007 , General Shwe Mann visited our workshop behalf of Senior General Than Shwe to inspect progress. U Thaung, the Minister of Science and Technology, presented the giant universal turning/milling machines to Gen Shwe Mann and said those machines would be used for making the most advanced strategic weapons like ICBMs. If we had been planning to produce rockets, where were the flow forming machines to make the combustion chamber and the nozzle throat? How about the mandrels, jigs and fixtures? We didn’t even have drilling machines to make holes. We could buy the machines but still needed human resources like experienced machinists and welding technicians. Actually DI-4 which had been producing tools, jigs and fixtures for the whole defense industries since Gen Ne Win’s time, can make fixtures much better than our MOST workshops. Their operators and foreman were much more experienced than ours. It was incredible that Senior General Than Shwe let MOST lead the missile and nuclear programs instead of DDI.

The trip to Pyongyang and the memorandum on missiles with North Korea

On 21 November 2008 the third general in the Burmese Hierarchy, General Shwe Mann went to Pyongyang to confer with the generals of the DPRK army.  One of his missions was to acquire SCUD liquid-fueled missile technology for Burma.  His travelling companion was Major General Thein Htay, the director of Defense Industries of the Army.  Major General Thein Htay acted as an interpreter and aide for the Commanding general, a very rare example of a senior general handling a lower protocol position.

Figure 7. General Shwe Mann with Major General Thein Htay
behind him meeting with the North Koreans in 2008.

An outcome of this meeting was a signed MOU with DPRK for assistance toBurmato build SCUD missiles.  These are medium-range, liquid-fuelled, ballistic missiles.  They might carry nuclear warheads, but second generation warheads are considered too complex for new proliferators to build.  These SCUDs might giveBurmaoffensive conventional capability or chemical weapon capability, but it would be highly unlikely that they could be carrying a Burmese nuclear warhead of preliminary design.

Upon the return to Burma we do not have first-hand evidence of what occurred, but we can make a reasonable assumption.  Major General Thein Htay was not likely to turn to the Ministry of Science and Technology to carry out a serious military program.  MOST had no experience in production programs and was lacking in almost every technology necessary for a missile program including aerodynamics, propellants, guidance and material science.  But Major General Thein Htay had control over an empire of between 20 and 25 “Defense Industries “plants making all manner of armaments.  I think it is likely he did not even consider handing over any part of his program to MOST with its too overspecialized and useless technological workshops.  So the program diverges at this point.

People are getting interested about Minister U Thaung’s so called “Nuclear Weapon Program” because he surreptitiously sent more than ten thousand young military officers to Russia. Practically all the subjects they were studied were related to nuclear science, chemical engineering and missile technology. In addition he constructed the expensive Science and Technological Workshops numbers 1 and 2 in remote areas and assigned only the Russian trained engineers and scientists there. So there is no doubt their nuclear weapon programs were focused on that goal. Their ambition was real because I am one of the witnesses and Vice Senior General Maung Aye himself had debriefed us about their plan. The only thing was Minister U Thaung turned out to be unable to deliver.

There is a big difference between Minister U Thaung and General Thein Htay. U Thaung indiscriminately gathered officers from different grounds and sent them back to schools; General Thein Htay sent his experienced production engineers to North Korean arms factories for training. No one from DDI mentioned the nuclear weapons but it was true that they were steadfastly improving their rockets. I saw it since I was a cadet of the Defense Industrial Engineering Department of DSTA. And needless to say, they could do even better now with the help ofNorth Korea. I would not doubt it if someone said they were already producing ballistic missiles in massive quantities.

Possible alternative ending

I believe a lot of money was on the table when the government decided to pursue missile and nuclear programs.  Naturally most of this money would likely go to the Defense Industries, the military production department of the Burmese military.  The Ministry of Science and Technology, however, was in a good position to argue that nuclear technology, in particular, is very specialized and complicated.  Therefore a scientific office should share responsibility for the advanced technological programs.  I was caught up in that coordination of responsibilities and sent to Moscow for advanced training by MOST.  Upon return, I was assigned as a military officer to a jointly run MOST-Military program.  In this part of the program MOST controlled the funds so the military was essentially subordinate.  As I have outlined here, I think that MOST was far too academic in its approach to the program requirements and ended up building nearly useless support facilities.  As a result, this portion of the program is foundering.  Because I was part of the joint project, I brought the world intelligence and photos of the part I saw and clearly it supports the missile and nuclear programs.  But I believe that much more of the program is unseen and is carried out by the military in the Defense Industry factories.  To really understand the Burmese nuclear ambitions, it will be necessary to get officers like me in the Defense Industries to report what they are doing.


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