The primary mission of the regular armed forces is the classic one of defending the nation's territorial integrity against external attack. During wartime, the armed forces are responsible for mobilizing the nation's resources by assuming direct control over paramilitary and police forces, civilian transportation, and defense-related industries. Since achieving independence in 1971, Bangladesh has never ordered national mobilization because it has not faced an invasion. In addition, the armed forces have never conducted military operations beyond the country's land or sea boundaries. None of Bangladesh's three services has reserve components to call on during wartime, but the country could employ thousands of military veterans in a protracted guerrilla struggle. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Defense spending: 1.3 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2019 (compared to 5.62 percent in Israel, 3.2 percent in the United States and 0.4 percent in Ghana). Rank compared with other countries in the world: 91.
1.3 percent of GDP (2018)
1.2 percent of GDP (2017)
1.4 percent of GDP (2016)
1.4 percent of GDP (2015);
[Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Military and security forces: Bangladesh Defense Force: Bangladesh Army, Bangladesh Navy, Bangladesh Air Force; Ministry of Home Affairs: Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB), Bangladesh Coast Guard, Ansars, Village Defense Party (VDP). The Ansars and VDP are paramilitary organizations for internal security

Military equipment inventories and acquisitions: the Bangladesh Defense Force inventory is comprised of mostly Chinese and Russian equipment; since 2010, China and Russia are the chief suppliers of arms to Bangladesh (2019 estimated)

Bangladesh’s military budget was around $3.55 billion in 2020. It has 276 tanks, one amphibious warfare ship, four frigates, 10 corvettes, two non-nuclear submarines, 81 military aircraft and 18 attack helicopters.

In 2005, he Army's main weapons systems included 180 main battle tanks, more than 40 light tanks, over 180 armored personnel carriers, and over 190 artillery pieces. Major naval units included 5 frigates, 33 patrol/coastal vessels, and 4 mine warfare ships. The Air Force's main weapons include 29 fighters and 34 fighter ground attack aircraft. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Military Personnel in Bangladesh

Military service age and obligation: 16-21 years of age for voluntary military service; Bangladeshi nationality and 10th grade education required; officers: 17-21 years of age, Bangladeshi nationality, and 12th grade education required (2018)

Military and security service personnel strengths: estimates of the size of the Bangladesh Defense Force vary; approximately 165,000 total active personnel (135,000 Army; 16,000 Navy; 14,000 Air Force); 38,000 Border Guards (2019 estimated)

Armed forces personnel (percentage of total labor force): 0.3 percent (compared to 9 percent in North Korea and .8 percent in the United States). [Source: World Bank ]

Number of people in the military: 163,050 in the active military (compared 74,200 in Argentina, 1,358,193 in the United States, 0 in Costa Rica, and 2,035,000 in China). This is about one percent of the Bangladesh population. The Bangladesh paramilitary force has 63,900 members, brining the total to 229, 650 (1.4 percent of the population). [Source: Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Military deployments: 1,025 Central African Republic (MINUSCA); 1,650 Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO); 115 Lebanon (UNIFIL); 1,300 Mali (MINUSMA); 1,580 South Sudan (UNMISS) (March 2020)

Legal Basis of the Bangladesh Military

Under the Constitution, promulgated in 1972, the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces. The services are divided into the army, navy, and air force. In theory, the three service chiefs are coequals in the national command structure; in practice, the army dominates the defense establishment because of its imposing size and its historic role in monitoring or commandeering the political process. In mid-1988 the army constituted 88 percent of the nation's service personnel; the navy and air force accounted for only 7 and 5 percent, respectively. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

In mid-1988, each service maintained separate headquarters and was solely responsible for its own training and recruitment programs. There was no joint-service command element to promote interservice cooperation and combined-arms operations. Historically, command-and-control arrangements at the national level have been dominated by the army chief of staff (a lieutenant general; see; table 18, Appendix A). In the past, coup leaders such as Zia and Ershad consolidated control over the country by assuming the powers of the army chief of staff, the president, and the extraconstitutional position of chief martial law administrator. During periods of direct military rule, the navy and air force chiefs of staff (rear admiral or major, general respectively) served as deputy chief martial law administrators, subordinate to the army chief of staff strongman. In the absence of a formal interservice command structure, the cohesion of the Bangladeshi military depends on informal, shifting alliances among senior commanders, most notably within the inner circle of army generals who command the country's six divisions. The military chain of command has broken down on numerous occasions and at every level of command since the country achieved independence in 1971.*

Following the British pattern, there is a Ministry of Defence, which is technically responsible for overseeing the military. Even though the Ministry of Defence bureaucracy is predominantly civilian, the military exerts substantial influence over its operations. After seizing power in March 1982, President Ershad followed the practice of his military predecessors by reserving the Ministry of Defence cabinet portfolio for himself. Through the appointment of military retirees and active-duty officers to the Ministry of Defence the military indirectly controls the ministry. Parliament is constitutionally responsible for working with the president and the service chiefs in ensuring the nation's defense. In practice, however, members of Parliament have never played a significant role in either national defense planning or defense budgeting.*

The administration of military justice and the military court system is based on three separate but substantively similar service laws that were framed during the united Pakistan era. These laws, in turn, were modifications of British military justice codes, such as the Indian Army Act of 1911. The operative Bangladeshi laws include the Army Act of 1954, the Air Force Act of 1957, and the Navy Ordinance of 1961. These statutes, as amended since their enactment and modified in terminology by Bangladesh, are administered by the respective services. The nomenclature and composition of military courts varies slightly according to service, but court procedures, types of offenses, scales of punishment, jurisdictional authority, appeal and review procedures, and procedures for commutation and suspension of sentences are almost identical for all the services. The military justice system is used for the military in war and peace and is separate from the functions of military personnel acting as civil administrators during periods of martial law.*

Defense Spending in Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s military budget was around $3.55 billion in 2020. It was around $785 million in 2005.

Defense spending: 1.3 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2019 (compared to 5.62 percent in Israel, 3.2 percent in the United States and 0.4 percent in Ghana). Rank compared with other countries in the world: 91.
1.3 percent of GDP (2018)
1.2 percent of GDP (2017)
1.4 percent of GDP (2016)
1.4 percent of GDP (2015);
[Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

At one time South Asia spent almost twice as much on military and half as much on education and health as Sub-Sahara Africa. Because it was in power almost continuously from 1975 to 1991, the military has been in position to channel resources to the defense sector. According to A.M.A. Muhith, a former Bangladeshi finance minister and a critic of the military, "the defense establishment has become virtually unaccountable and has appropriated a disproportionate share of resources for its perpetuation and enrichment." Muhith asserts that whereas public spending increased ninefold between 1974 and 1986, defense spending during that same period increased more than twentyfold. The army has received the best treatment. According to 1985 data, the army received over 50 percent of defense outlays. Moreover, army personnel strength has tripled since 1975. Navy and air force expansion has been less spectacular, although their capital outlays for such high-cost items as ships and aircraft represented an onerous economic burden. Analysts calculate that actual outlays for defense were considerably higher than published government budgets suggested. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Nevertheless, the armed forces continued to experience severe economic constraints. The defense budget for fiscal year (FY — see Glossary) 1989 totaled US$290 million and was the largest budget item, accounting for 17.2 percent of the national budget. In per capita terms, Bangladesh spent about US$3 per year, or about 2 percent of its gross national product (GNP — see Glossary), on defense. By any standard, this was a small sum for a military establishment numbering just over 100,000 personnel under arms. Foreign procurement took 15 to 20 percent of the defense budget. Recurring costs, such as training and pay, accounted for more than 50 percent.*

Military Service and Recruitment for the Bangladesh Military

Military and security service personnel strengths: estimates of the size of the Bangladesh Defense Force vary; approximately 165,000 total active personnel (135,000 Army; 16,000 Navy; 14,000 Air Force); 38,000 Border Guards (2019 estimated)

The three services are staffed by volunteers; there is no compulsory service system, and Bangladesh has a large pool of applicants from which to select. Moreover, the country's high rate of unemployment has always made relatively secure positions in the military attractive career options. In the late 1980s, approximately 15.4 million of the 25.7 million Bangladeshi males between the ages of 15 and 49 were fit for military service. Drawing from a male population with a literacy rate of 39 percent, however, the armed forces suffered severe shortages of technically skilled manpower. The shortage was particularly acute for the navy and air force because of their need for skilled maintenance personnel. Low educational requirements for enlisted ranks imposed additional handicaps. Recruits often lacked basic skills such as reading, driving, and using a telephone — skills that had to be taught as part of basic training. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

As in most aspects of professional life in Bangladesh, women played a marginal role in the armed forces. Women, however, had been instrumental in the nine-month liberation struggle against Pakistan. Although some female partisans were trained in weapons handling and participated in Mukti Bahini ambushes, their primary role was to support guerrilla operations by transporting food and weapons and acting as informers behind Pakistani lines. Following independence, Bangladeshi women receded into the background. Except for a small number of nurses and physicians in all three services and some army switchboard operators, woman were excluded from the regular armed forces. Bangladesh's paramilitary and police forces did recruit some women, primarily for the purpose of searching and processing female criminal suspects. Women in Bangladesh nonetheless have limited opportunities, as their roles are circumscribed by Islamic and South Asian customs, which tend to limit a woman's station in life to raising children, maintaining the home, and performing agricultural or handicraft labor.*

Domestic Roles of the Bangladesh Military

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “The military has played an active role in the development of the political structure and climate of the country since its inception and has been a source of structure during crises. It has been involved in two coups since 1971. The only real conflict the army has encountered was sporadic fighting with the Shakti Bahini in the Chittagong Hill Tracts from the mid-1970s until 1998, after which an accord between the government and those tribal groups was produced. [Source:“Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

According to “Countries of the World and Their Leaders”: “In addition to traditional defense roles, the military has been called on to provide support to civil authorities for disaster relief and internal security. Since the proclamation of the state of emergency on January 11, 2007, the military has played a central role in the formulation and execution of key government strategies, including the anti-corruption campaign. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]

The armed forces back up local authorities in maintaining public order and ensuring internal security. An "aid-to-the-civil- power" function, based on the British colonial code, was used extensively during the united Pakistan era and has been employed by civilian and military governments since 1971. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Military deployments in aid-to-civil roles fall into three categories. The first and most pervasive use of the military is to assist local authorities and police in putting down riots and conducting counterinsurgency operations. Following the British pattern, the military is customarily used only as the "force of last resort" in domestic peacekeeping because it is not trained in routine police functions, such as crowd control. Ordering troops to use force against their own countrymen, moreover, invites public criticism of the armed forces, tarnishes their image as the "defenders of the nation," and undermines military morale. For these reasons, Bangladeshi authorities have traditionally preferred to rely on police and paramilitary forces to quell disturbances. Nevertheless, Bangladeshi regimes have occasionally resorted to using the military for domestic peacekeeping, sometimes for extended periods. Although the army ordinarily bears the heaviest burden in aid-to-civil operations, the air force and navy can also be called on to transport troops to the scene of a disturbance or to patrol areas near ports or air bases.*

The military's second aid-to-civil mission entails running essential services or industries whenever public sector employees stage a strike. The military performed this function in the latter half of 1987 when opposition political parties staged a series of general strikes and work stoppages to pressure Ershad to resign. To keep the country running, the military took over a variety of civilian duties, such as managing port facilities, airports, and power plants.*

A third aid-to-civil mission — the only one the military willingly performs — is disaster relief. Bangladesh has suffered repeated natural calamities which caused thousands of deaths and displaced millions of citizens. The military is routinely called upon to transport food and medicine to refugees, as they did during the 1987 and 1988 monsoon floods that inundated more than 50 percent and 66 percent of the country, respectively. The military, however, does not usually perform socalled "civic action" duties, such as building roads, canals, and dams. Following the British pattern of civil-military relations, the Bangladesh armed forces prefer to engage in these activities only when they directly support the military's national defense mission or during extreme emergencies.*

Intelligence and Security in Bangladesh

The military has been deeply involved in gathering domestic and foreign intelligence. All three services have their own intelligence directorates, which collect tactical intelligence to support military operations. The Directorate General of National Security Intelligence is a separate civilian organization but traditionally is headed by a senior military officer. It is responsible for collecting foreign intelligence and monitoring internal political affairs. The pivotal intelligence agency, however, is the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence. It monitors disaffection within the ranks and runs counterintelligence operations. The heads of the Directorate General of National Security Intelligence and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence are usually the president's closest advisers. The Police Special Branch also operates an intelligence wing, which augments both directorates' intelligence capabilities. Since assuming power in 1982, Ershad has exercised tight control over the intelligence establishment. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Another security organization is the Presidential Security Force. Formed by Ershad while he was chief martial law administrator, the organization's mission is to ensure the physical security of Ershad and his family. Because two of Ershad's predecessors were gunned down during army rebellions, Ershad was undoubtedly concerned over threats to his life. The commander of the Presidential Security Force is an army brigadier who reports directly to the president.*

Security Environment in Bangladesh

Bangladeshi defense planners have long regarded India as a regional bully, a perception shared by the Bangladeshi public in the late 1980s. According to this perception, governments in New Delhi continued to regard South Asia as an integral security unit in which India played the dominant role because of its size and resources. Thus, New Delhi's ability to project power gave India a self-assigned responsibility for ensuring the security of smaller states and maintaining stability and peace in the area. Aside from the potential threat of direct military intervention, Bangladeshi leaders also believed India had the capacity to destabilize the country by extending covert assistance to tribal insurgents, the Bangladeshi Hindu minority, or the regime's domestic political opponents. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Bangladesh has been the object of three main Indian security concerns since independence: Bangladeshi internal stability, its strategic position in relation to China, and Dhaka's alleged involvement with Indian tribal insurgents. India denied any intention or desire to destabilize Bangladesh and argued that a stable Bangladesh is a critical component of India's eastern defenses. Bangladesh was strategically located near the India-China disputed frontier in the north. In the event of a border clash with China, Indian lines of communication would be restricted to the narrow Siliguri corridor between Bangladesh and Nepal. Moreover, as a worst-case scenario, Indian defense planners feared that a desperate regime in Dhaka might grant military base rights to the United States or China. These security concerns were compounded by Indian charges that Dhaka turned a blind eye to Indian tribal insurgents using safe havens in eastern Bangladesh and allowed a tide of Bangladeshi emigrants to move into the Indian states of Tripura and Assam. India also expressed the concern that serious instability in Bangladesh could trigger another exodus of refugees into India.*

Bangladesh's capacity to mount a conventional defense against India was extremely limited. India supported the world's fourth largest army, a sophisticated arsenal of weapons for all three service branches, and a population and economy larger than those of the six other states of South Asia combined. By necessity, any government in Dhaka had to rely primarily on diplomacy to deter India.*

Bangladesh's only military defense against a potential Indian attack was based on limited deterrence. Bangladesh's armed forces would try to stall an Indian advance until international pressures could be mobilized to bring about a cease-fire and a return to the status quo.*

Throughout its existence, the Bangladesh Army has had to contend with severe shortages of weapons, communications equipment, spare parts, and transport vehicles. One 1982 report maintained that target practice — a basic military skill — was restricted because of ammunition shortages. Under these conditions, it is doubtful the army could fight a conventional war for more than a few days without massive assistance from a foreign power.*

Geography and Bangladesh’s Defense

Geography also limited Bangladesh's capacity to mount a conventional defense of the nation. A paucity of roads, bridges, and railroads impeded cross-country military movements, particularly during the monsoon months of June through September. The army's lack of bridging equipment was a severe liability, especially for the armor brigades. In the mid-1980s, there were eighteen airports suitable for military transport operations, although the lift capacity of the Bangladesh Air Force was extremely limited. As Indian, Pakistani, and Bengali partisan forces discovered in 1971, however, Bangladesh provides ideal terrain for conducting guerrilla warfare. The country's primitive lines of communication would slow an enemy advance and frustrate an occupying force. Jungles, rivers, and isolated villages would allow locally based guerrillas to hold out almost indefinitely. There were no indications, however, that Bangladesh had developed a guerrilla war fighting doctrine; the nation's defense rested primarily on a strategy of deterrence by conventionally equipped regular forces.*

The 2,400-kilometer border with India was patrolled by a paramilitary force called the Bangladesh Rifles. During peacetime, Bangladesh Rifles commanders have authority to conduct "flag meetings" with their Indian paramilitary counterparts whenever stray firing incidents occur. For instance, in April 1984 a Bangladesh Rifles jawan was killed when India began construction of a barbed wire fence along the Indo-Bangladeshi border as part of a campaign to curb illegal immigration into Assam. After conducting several flag meetings, Bangladesh Rifles commanders and their Indian counterparts agreed to withdraw some of their forces from the border area and submit the legality of the fence to a bilateral committee. Under this mechanism, Indian and Bangladeshi regular forces avoided a confrontation that could have escalated.*

The country's 600-kilometer coastline was patrolled by the tiny Bangladesh Navy, whose missions were to protect Bangladeshi fishermen, ward off foreign poachers, and assert sovereignty over the nation's territorial waters. A potential challenge to the Bangladesh Navy occurred in 1983, when a char — a speck of land formed by alluvial deposits — emerged in the Bay of Bengal along the maritime boundary with India. Both India and Bangladesh dispatched patrol boats to stake their claims to the island and to the expanded 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone that went with it. The two sides avoided a military confrontation, and the matter was remanded to diplomatic negotiations. It was clear, however, that Bangladesh's coastal defense force was not in a position to challenge the Indian Navy. As part of its policy of nonalignment, Bangladesh allowed foreign naval vessels to conduct routine port visits at Chittagong. Bangladesh has not granted naval base rights to any foreign power.*

Bangladesh’s Foreign Military Allies

United States special forces have provided training to government forces in things like tracking down political opponents, mounting surprise helicopter attacks, employing "close quarters" urban combat techniques and improving their killing efficiency. In 2013, Russia granted a $1 billion loan to Bangladesh for arms purchases., President Vladimir Putin said after talks with Bangladesh prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. “Our countries intend to broaden military-technical cooperation.” He did not specify what weapons or military equipment Bangladesh would buy from Russia. [Source: Reuters, January 15, 2013]

Bangladesh's primary concerns since its establishment have been internal security and economic survival. In mid-1988 no Bangladeshi military personnel were operationally deployed abroad. During the 1950s and 1960s, when united Pakistan was formally aligned with the United States, a number of Bengali officers in the Pakistan military received advanced training in the United States. By 1988 those officers who had started their careers during the heyday of United States-sponsored security pacts occupied the most senior positions in the Bangladeshi military. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Since 1975 Bangladesh has cultivated close relations with China. Although Sino-Bangladeshi security relations have remained informal, the two sides have regularly exchanged high-level military delegations to review relations, negotiate weapons transfers, inspect military facilities, and cement personal contacts. For instance, Chinese advisers and technicians have periodically served in Chittagong and Dhaka to assist with making Chinese equipment operational in the Bangladeshi armed forces. In January 1987, Yang Dezhi, chief of the general staff of China's People's Liberation Army, conducted a five-day goodwill visit to Bangladesh. While in Dhaka, the Chinese delegation met with Ershad and the three service chiefs. Three months later, the Bangladesh Navy chief of staff, Rear Admiral Sultan Ahmad, conducted a six-day visit to China. Press reports noted the two sides shared "similar views on all important matters." Most of Bangladesh's inventory of fighter aircraft, coastal patrol boats, and tanks were supplied by China.*

Since the mid-1970s, Bangladesh has sought close relations with oil-rich Arab states, most notably with Saudi Arabia. Shortly after staging the 1982 coup, Ershad traveled to Riyadh to meet with the Saudi leadership. Nine months later, a ten-member Saudi military delegation arrived in Dhaka for talks with their Bangladeshi counterparts and for an inspection tour of military facilities. Press accounts reported that the Saudis were considering a plan to station a Bangladesh Army division (some 15,000 personnel) in the kingdom. The proposal was originally suggested by Zia, according to these reports. Although both governments have consistently denied reports of an impending Bangladeshi troop presence in Saudi Arabia, rumors to this effect persisted in 1988.*

In addition to relying on foreign weapons supplies, Bangladesh has looked to other countries for advanced officer training and for education in specialized military skills, such as repairing aircraft engines. Under Mujib, many Bangladeshi officers, including then-Brigadier Ershad, attended Indian military schools and academies. India was largely responsible for training and organizing the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini, an elite parallel army raised by Mujib in an effort to insulate his regime from coups. After Mujib's death and the absorption of the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini into the regular army, training in India ended, and Indian military advisers were sent home. Bangladeshi military personnel started attending courses in China on a regular basis in the late 1980s. Starting in the late 1970s, the United States annually appropriated International Military Education and Training (IMET) funds to train limited numbers of Bangladeshi officers in the United States. In FY 1988, these IMET funds totaled US$300,000. In return, foreign officers regularly attend one-year courses offered at the Bangladesh Military Academy near Chittagong. The United States, Britain, Indonesia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and several small Asian and African states have sent military personnel to Bangladesh for staff courses.*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Bangladesh Tourism Board, Bangladesh National Portal (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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