Known Knowns and Known Unknowns: Measuring Myanmar's Military Capabilities
Selth, Andrew, Contemporary Southeast Asia
Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns--the ones we don't know we don't know.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
Press Briefing at the Pentagon
Washington, D.C., 12 February 2002
Since they were made in 2002, Donald Rumsfeld's comments about "known knowns", "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns" have been lampooned in the news media and on the Internet. (2) Yet, in his own inimitable fashion, the then US Secretary of Defense was making a valid point. Intelligence agencies, strategic think-tanks and independent analysts have long known that some security issues are quickly recognized, easily researched and well understood, while others pose much greater challenges. There is rarely enough reliable data to answer all possible questions, or to permit the elimination of alternative interpretations. In addition, there will always be matters about which observers remain completely unaware.
These problems assume many guises, but they immediately become apparent when attempting to make comprehensive assessments of national military capabilities. For, in professional hands, this is a very demanding analytical exercise that goes well beyond the simple lists of equipment and broad generalizations about a country's defence posture that periodically appear in popular journals.
The study of Myanmar's armed forces (or Tatmadaw) is a case in point. Since General Ne Win's coup d'etat in 1962, observers of the country (formerly known as Burma) have monitored public events, commented on certain developments and pondered observable trends. Defence Attaches in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) have followed changes in the military hierarchy and noted arms acquisitions. To the extent that these issues have been understood, they can be considered "known knowns". Increased efforts to research the Tatmadaw since the abortive 1988 pro-democracy uprising, however, have exposed a dearth of reliable information. More is available now than in the past but there is still a large number of "known unknowns". Also, Myanmar has its share of mysteries, and its armed forces continue to surprise observers, reflecting the many "unknown unknowns".
These information gaps have not dissuaded popular pundits and other commentators from making bold pronouncements about the larger, better equipped Tatmadaw which has emerged in Myanmar over the past twenty years. Most have claimed "inside knowledge" and unique insights. Whether or not these claims can be justified, it remains the case that a detailed, accurate and nuanced assessment of Myanmar's military capabilities--of the kind routinely demanded by governments, defence forces and strategic think-tanks--is simply impossible to achieve. It is difficult even to make confident judgements about the Tatmadaw's basic order of battle and Myanmar's annual defence expenditure. Nor is it possible to gauge the Tatmadaw's combat proficiency.
As a result of these and other problems, the picture of the Tatmadaw gained from contemporary sources is often inaccurate, incomplete or lacking in nuance. There has been a tendency to accept unverified reports as facts, and to draw broad conclusions from fragmentary and anecdotal evidence. At times, closely reasoned analysis and cautious commentary has been crowded out by speculation or politically biased assertion. Even academic observers normally aware of the pitfalls inherent in the analysis of armed forces have fallen into the traps of equating the acquisition of new weapon systems with the development of new combat skills, and assuming that an expanded order of battle means increased military capabilities.
These problems have helped create a number of myths and misconceptions. Indeed, by surveying works produced on this subject since 1988, it is possible to gain two different impressions of the modern Tatmadaw. At one extreme, it is portrayed as an enormous, well resourced and efficient military machine that completely dominates Myanmar and threatens regional stability. At the other extreme, it is characterized as a lumbering behemoth, lacking professional skills, riven by internal tensions and preoccupied with the maintenance of political power. The truth about the Tatmadaw lies somewhere between these two extremes but without hard, independently verifiable evidence, determining the precise point is very difficult.
Anyone attempting an assessment of Myanmar's military capabilities faces a range of analytical problems, at three distinct levels. At the first level are the personal and professional challenges faced by all those who engage in intellectual exercises of this kind, and who strive for precision, balance and objectivity. At the second level are the myriad difficulties inherent in any serious study of military capability. At the third level are the many problems encountered when conducting research on modern Myanmar. If all three are taken into account, the resulting assessment will still be incomplete but it can claim to be based on rigorous analysis, and thus publicly defensible. It will also provide insights into the state of the Tatmadaw and the Myanmar government's security policies.
The Imperfect Analyst
The challenges facing strategic analysts in intelligence agencies, academic institutions and think-tanks are already widely known. The controversies over the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2003 invasion of Iraq thrust such issues into the world's headlines, but well before then they were the subject of lively debates among professionals and independent commentators. (3) This is not the place for a discussion of esoteric questions relating to the nature of scholarly enquiry, objective empiricism or analytical tradecraft. Suffice it to say that any attempt to make a comprehensive assessment of military capability--regardless of the country targeted, or the nature of the institution or person initiating the study--will be affected by such issues, to a greater or lesser degree.
For example, it has long been recognized that analysts approach these kinds of projects with certain personal views, political inclinations and cognitive predispositions. They may try to set aside such influences, in order to deliver an accurate and balanced result, but such factors are still likely to affect the way the research question is framed, which methodology is employed and how the findings are presented. Lawrence Freedman has also cautioned that it is unrealistic to expect analysts completely to divorce themselves from their social and cultural milieu. Indeed, to avoid what he calls a "paralysing eclecticism", they need to have a conceptual framework in which to situate their judgements. (4) Even so, analysts need to be aware that they have unconscious biases or deeply embedded preconceptions, which can colour their treatment of an issue.
In Myanmar's case, some scholars and journalists--and most activists--have eschewed the ideal of objective, value-flee analysis and allowed their political or personal views to influence their work. Since 1988, this has led to numerous publications that consciously aim to persuade as well as to inform. (5) Some are unashamedly policy prescriptive. This is a perfectly valid approach, provided that these products are acknowledged to constitute policy advice or advocacy, rather than unbiased journalism, objective academic enquiry or intelligence analysis. If the goal is a politically neutral, empirical assessment of Myanmar's military capabilities, however, then analysts are obliged to resist the temptation to let their own private philosophies and social agendas influence their judgement.
There is also the problem known as "group think". There are often subtle but strong pressures on analysts and commentators to share the conventional wisdom, and to express views that conform to those of the majority--or the most powerful. (6) Since 1988, for example, an informal coalition of politicians, human rights campaigners and expatriate groups have attempted to dominate discussions of Myanmar in the news media and on Internet sites. They have effectively painted a stark picture of the military government and armed forces that has informed both public opinion and official policy. Attempts to challenge this "new orthodoxy" have usually provoked a harsh response. This has inhibited open debate on a number of important issues. (7)
Another challenge faced by analysts is "mirror-imaging". This is the assumption that "other leaders, states, and groups share motivations or goals similar to those most familiar to the analyst". (8) There is a need to develop an appreciation of different perceptions, different motivations and different rationales. For example, Myanmar's military leaders view the world differently from the governments of many other countries, and …
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Publication information: Article title: Known Knowns and Known Unknowns: Measuring Myanmar's Military Capabilities. Contributors: Selth, Andrew - Author. Journal title: Contemporary Southeast Asia. Volume: 31. Issue: 2 Publication date: August 2009. Page number: 272+. © 1999 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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