(posted at 2:01 GMT 4 June 2010)

One of the great things about writing for the Wonk is that people tell you things, including what’s inside what has been called here the “Big Odd Box” in Burma. Last January, I was invited to join a group of experts in Oslo, Norway, to review a ton of electronic documents smuggled out of Burma to the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). (There is a great documentary about the DVB that was nominated for an Oscar in 2010. You can watch it on YouTube here.) Now that DVB has released its latest documentary, I can tell about my part and the information I learned about Burma’s nascent missile development program. Other experts can address any nuclear connections.

These documents contain a large number of images taken by elements of the Burmese military as they constructed the two BOBs and then installed an amazingly sophisticated numerically controlled machine shop. Such documentation is a normal part of any construction project today much like the photos taken of Syria’s reactor when it was being built. And like the Syrian photos, DVB’s sources probably didn’t take them but, instead, only later had access to them and made copies. They cover so much material—DVB’s source(s) simply grabbed whatever was available—that I expect I will have a number of future posts exploiting this information.

Internal Consistency

We spent a significant fraction of our time in Oslo trying to authenticate the information and judging its significance. Since very little is known about what’s going on inside Burma, most of this consisted of looking for internal consistency. This was fairly easy for the Big Odd Box(es), which aren’t really odd at all.

The image documentation show the Boxes at nearly all levels of construction; from clearing the forest and leveling the ground, to preparing the concrete pad and support beam holes, to stabilizing the surrounding banks with shotcrete, to finishing the interior, to installing the CNC machines. According to DVB’s source(s), both “Boxes” are essentially the same: loaded with sophisticated milling machine and other equipment for precision engineering. Some of these images show non-Asians (they actually look like Europeans to me, but I cannot say for sure) installing some of the sophisticated equipment.

The Burmese have filled this building with a wide range of numerically controlled milling machines, lathes, etc. Interestingly, they have laid out the machine shop by placing together those machines that are related. For instance, there is a hall with progressively larger milling machines, another for machines for cutting or welding, and another for precision 3-D measurements. The later, of course, could be used either for quality control or reverse engineering. I have not seen any evidence that the Burmese intend to reverse engineer missiles, which is probably a wise choice. However, what they are doing right now is not that much better.

The arrangement of equipment that I alluded to above makes sense for a general purpose machine shop, one that might get a wide variety of orders but always for one or two items. It might even be intended solely from prototyping, albeit some pretty massive prototypes, some weighing up to 20 tons! (When contacted by the producers of the DVB documentary, the companies exporting these sophisticated CNC machines claimed that both Boxes were set up as training centers for future machine operators and had nothing to do with missile or nuclear related production. Taking the big picture point of view, that, at best, just kicks the can down the road.) If, on the other hand, the shop was intended to produce thousands, or even hundreds, of copies of the same item—a centrifuge for instance—the layout would be, or should be, optimized for material flow with very different types of equipment positioned near each other. For instance, an electron beam welder might be positioned near a milling machine etc. So it seems unlikely that the shop is intended for producing centrifuges, which require thousands for any meaningful project. (And would not need the very large machines in any case.) It is, of course, conceivable that they might make missile parts since those are often done in onesies and twosies.

Evidence of a Desire to Make Missiles

According to the information gained by DVB, Burma is pursuing a least two different paths towards acquiring a missile production capability. One is a more or less indigenous path. The “less indigenous” comes from the fact that they have sent a number of Burmese military officers to Moscow for training in engineering related to missile design and production. The second in command of one of these “Boxes” received a degree in rocket engines. (He received a Master’s of Science in Engineering from the Bauman Moscow State Technical University in 2004. During his studies in Moscow, he specialized in Power Engineering for Rocket Engines, one of the specialties Bauman MSTU is known for. Here is a copy of his Diploma.) Here he is holding a test item manufactured at his “Box.” He identifies it as the impeller for a large kerosene/liquid oxygen engine intended for static testing.

From a purely evidentiary point of view, it is very significant that a different group than the Box designed the impeller. What took place at the Box was a conversion from the CAD files to machine instructions to make the impeller using the machine the gentleman is standing in front of. This two-group activity implies a significantly greater level of interest by the Burmese authorities than if the impeller had been designed in the same group as it was manufactured. In fact, it implies at least three organizational entities were involved: the design group, the manufacturing group at the Box, and a coordinating authority that approved the impeller being sent over to the Box for fabrication.

The engine that this impeller design—the item actually fabricated is simply a “proof of concept” item that lacks some significant features for an actual working impeller—is destined for is reported, in addition to burning liquid oxygen/kerosene, to have a combustion pressure of 25 mega-Pascals. That is about four times the combustion pressure of a SCUD engine. (My own calculations, based on assuming scaling from a SCUD-type engine, show that the impeller’s diameter is consistent with a large rocket engine, perhaps a Nodong. I did not try to estimate anything assuming it was for a liquid oxygen engine.) Such a large pressure—not to mention using a cryogenic propellant!—seems highly undesirable for the first engine produced by a country that has a serious plan for developing missiles or rockets on its own. A more realistic first attempt at designing an indigenous engine might have used a more conventional propellant combination and preferable a smaller engine with a lower combustion chamber pressure. There are simply too many hurdles for the novice to overcome on their first engine design without throwing in handling liquid oxygen. In fact, this example perfectly illustrates the risks involved in independent innovation: the personnel involved are simply too inexperienced to know when they are getting in trouble.

One is left with the impression that the higher-ups are interested in utilizing their foreign trained scientists and engineers for missile production but do not have a master plan for development. In stead, they are giving a green light to their workers to exercise their new-found skills. Perhaps they will get serious later but as of now we can definitely say that this indigenous path has a much, much greater risk of failure than the other path they seem to be pursuing.

Burma also appears to be following another acquisition path: purchasing missile production lines and know-how from the North Koreans. Here most of the evidence comes from a single source; a summary of a trip report describing the activities and accomplishments of a number of high-ranking Burmese officials made to North Korea. There is, however, considerable supporting evidence that the officials did actually make the trip. There are images of meetings of North Korean and Burmese officials and some photos that could be of sites mentioned in the trip report. The summary of the trip report is, however, the only evidence of the one of the results of the meeting: a Memorandum of Understanding where Burma gets assurances from North Korea that it will be able to purchase complete production lines for missiles with ranges up to 3500 km. A two stage U’nha-2 or a Simorgh come to mind. There is, unfortunately, no strategic reason given for why Burma would want such missiles.

There is, on the other hand, plenty of evidence in the DVB cache of information that Burma fears an attack by the United States and Diego Garcia—a major US air base—is almost exactly 3500 km away. So we can at least imagine a deterrent reason though that threat would be minimal without a nuclear warhead. That lack of a stated reason, and the lack of clear and independent confirmation of the trip report, makes me want to hold off on accepting that Burma is committed to purchasing a production line for a large missile from North Korea. However, I think we can be fairly confident that such an acquisition path would have a much, much higher chance of success than the indigenous path.

Signs of a Sea Change in the Proliferation Environment?

According to DVB’s sources, North Korea had nothing to do with setting up the two machine shops inside the Boxes. In fact, the Boxes seem to have been set up as general purpose machine shops and probably do not violate either the MTCR or even political sanctions imposed by Europe against the Junta (Europe’s sanctions against the Burmese Junta are considerably looser than those of the US and these exports were probably legal. Now that there is evidence of the production of missile related components those companies will probably want to rethink their future exports.) However, this whole episode is an indication of how proliferation might be changing.

Consider how India got started on its road to preeminence in solid propellant missile technology: it licensed the technology from France, received detailed written know-how on production (and training of technicians in France), and received a list of production equipment, which India purchased elsewhere. France was obviously capable of producing the needed equipment and chose—presumably for political reasons since the US was at the time trying to pressure other countries not to assist India’s rocket/missile program—not to sell them directly. North Korea is also at least claiming the ability to produce advanced production machines and probably did sell a certain level of technology to Iran for missile production. However, North Korea must wonder if it will always be able to ship large pieces of equipment out of its country or even if its clients would settle for DPRK’s finest. Instead, the spread of precision engineering worldwide— A. Q. Khan’s use of Malaysia’s SCOPE engineering is the clearest example of this—has opened up the possibility of proliferation networks more as consulting engineering firms rather than one-stop-shopping centers. After all, without the testimony of DVB’s sources, it would be impossible to tell the difference between the Boxes set up by Westerners with the equipment list coming from a North Korean consultant for WMD/delivery production and the Boxes set up by Westerners as general purpose machining.

A Special Thanks

DVB’s sources are brave people who have decided to smuggle out a variety of information about the Junta’s activities so that the world might know. Missile development is not causing as much harm to the Burmese people as many of the other activities of the Junta. Nevertheless, it is part of a military program that shows a remarkable disregard for the Burmese people. I have waited to publish this posting until being assured that any source who might be implicated by the information has been safely evacuated from Burma.