Known Knowns and Known Unknowns: Measuring Myanmar's Military Capabilities

By Selth, Andrew | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 2009 | Go to article overview

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. …

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