|Russian missiles to guard skies over
By Sergei Blagov
MOSCOW - Three decades after the end of Vietnam
War, the latest generation of the notorious Russian-made
"telephone poles" are due to resurface in Vietnam.
Russia has just clinched a deal to export to
Vietnam two of S300 PMU1 air defense batteries (or 12
launchers) for a reported nearly US$300 million. The
S300 PMU is an advanced version of the SA-10C Grumble
air defense missile. According to Russian missile
makers, the new S300 has anti-stealth capability and can
shoot down combat aircraft, cruise missiles, as well as
ballistic missiles in an anti-ballistic missile mode.
The S300 PMU1 missile system can engage targets
flying as low as 10 meters off the ground at a range of
up to 150 kilometers. The missile complex is seen as a
serious supplement to the combat ability of the
Vietnamese air defense forces.
is yet to sell more advanced S300 PMU2 complexes to
Hanoi, while Beijing has been reportedly considered as a
potential buyer of these newer missile complexes.
The first contracts to sell the S300 PMU-1 to
China were signed in 1993. In December 2001, Moscow and
Beijing reportedly clinched another deal to supply the
People's Liberation Army with an undisclosed number of
S300 PMU1 air defense batteries for a reported $400
The S300 PMU2 "Favorit" variant, or
SA-10C GRUMBLE, is a new missile with a larger warhead
and better guidance with a range of 200 kilometers,
versus the 150 kilometers of the S300 PMU1.
S300 PMU2 uses new 48N6E2 missiles, which weigh 1,800
kilograms and are 7.5 meters long. After a catapult
"cold" start in the upright position, the 48N6E2
accelerates up to 1,900 meters a second in 12 seconds,
and then hits the target from above. The 48N6E2 differs
from the older 48N6E in having a new warhead designed
for destroying ballistic missiles, with a warhead weight
of 145 kilograms versus 70-100 kilograms. The S300 PMU2
can engage targets flying at altitudes ranging from 10
meters to 27 kilometers at a speed of up to 10,000
kilometers per hour.
Apart from official sales,
Vietnam has probably mulled some unorthodox ways to get
access to Russia's air defense technology. For instance,
in October 2002 customs officers in Russia's second
city, St Petersburg, reportedly foiled an audacious
smuggling attempt. While checking containers bound by
sea for Vietnam, they uncovered spare parts for
state-of-the-art Russian anti-aircraft systems, labeled
as car parts. Yet the incident has had no follow-up and
did not derail the S300 sales.
Apart from China,
Russia has supplied S300 PMU systems to Cyprus. India is
also reported to be mulling the lease of two
Russian-made S300 PMU antimissile air defense systems to
protect its nuclear command posts and other vital
military assets. A formal offer was first made to India
in 1995 to sell the S300 PMU, but there have been no
reports on actual deals so far.
of the S300 PMU in the former USSR started in 1986.
Various versions of the complex were delivered in
various years to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and
the former East Germany. Among post-Soviet countries,
only Belarus and Kazakhstan have the S300 system.
Though Vietnam is now fully integrated into the
Southeast Asian community, Hanoi remains eager to arm
its military with Russian weapons, well tested during
decades of the Vietnam war. In March 2001, Russian
President Vladimir Putin visited Hanoi and announced a
new strategic partnership with Vietnam. The Russian
leader said that "Vietnam needs not just to maintain its
existing weapons bought from the Soviet Union and
Russia, but also needs modern weapons." In March 2002,
Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov went to Hanoi and
pledged to supply advanced weapons to Vietnam.
Bilateral military ties are set to go ahead
because Vietnam seeks to modernize its half-million
strong armed forces, and it has once again turned to
Russia. Vietnam remains an important customer for
Russian arms. In recent years, Hanoi has purchased
Russian Sukhoi fighter-bombers, and an anti-ship missile
system. In 1995, Hanoi bought six Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker
fighter jets for $150 million and in 1997 signed a
contract for six more planes and spare parts. Moscow has
been selling Su-27 aircraft with a combat range of 3,680
kilometers to Vietnam as well as China.
recent years, the Vietnamese military has also bought
six missile boats of the "1241 project" for some $120
million and four radar stations in Russia. Vietnam is
also purchasing the Mosquito anti-ship missile complex,
with supersonic missiles that can fly at extremely low
altitudes - below 10 meters - with an ability to hit
targets within a 120 kilometer range.
Russians reportedly suggested technical assistance in
upgrading Vietnam's military infrastructure, notably
airfield and command posts. The Russians also suggested
the Vietnamese purchase more Sukhoi-27s, and consider
buying another jetfighter, the MiG-29, as well as MiG
In the heyday of ideological ties
between Hanoi and Moscow - the three-and-a-half decades
between the mid-1950s and 1990 - the former Soviet Union
flooded its ideological ally in Southeast Asia with
concessionary loans and arms shipments. During this time
Moscow supplied Hanoi's army with most of its hardware,
because the former Soviet Union considered Vietnam an
important outpost of the "socialist camp'' in Southeast
Asia. After the collapse of the former Soviet Union, its
military aid was replaced by Russian commercial armament
sales because Vietnam's 500,000-strong army still needs
Russian arms and spare parts.
Between 1953 and
1991, the USSR supplied North - and later unified -
Vietnam with 2,000 tanks, 1,700 armored vehicles, 7,000
pieces of artillery and mortars, 5,000 pieces of
artillery, 158 missile complexes, 700 warplanes, 120
helicopters, more than 100 naval vessels. Some three
quarters of all weaponry now used by the Vietnamese army
has been made in Russia, while more than 13,000
Vietnamese officers had studied in the former USSR.
Notably, Moscow contributed weapons essential to
North Vietnamese defense capabilities against the
American air war, including radar systems, antiaircraft
artillery, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Without this
materiel, Vietnamese air defense would have been hardly
In August 1965, the first SAMs were
fired at four US Phantoms over Vietnam, shooting down
three. This marked the first time that US planes were
attacked by surface-to-air missiles.
1965 and 1972, the Soviets supplied to North Vietnam a
total of 95 missile complexes - initially SA-75M "Dvina"
and later S75 "Desna" - as well as 7,658 SAMs. However,
both "Dvina" and "Desna" were not the most advanced
Soviet designs and Hanoi did not get the more up-to-date
S125 "Volkhov" during the war.
military reportedly complained that they were getting
missiles of obsolete designs. In some cases, the
Vietnamese even removed fresh paint from missile
complexes and discovered old marks suggesting that the
weapons were brought from East Germany or Poland.
Some of the missile complexes
supplied to Vietnam from the Soviet Union during the war
were actually second-hand weapons, produced in
1956-1958. The main reason for Moscow's failure to
supply North Vietnam with the newest armaments was the
Kremlin's fear that the Vietnamese could leak Soviet
military secrets to the Chinese.
missiles initially were forwarded to Vietnam by rail
freight through China and the Soviets were reluctant to
leave their newest weapons vulnerable for possible
inspections by the Chinese.
On the other hand, Soviet military
experts complained that the Vietnamese themselves were
handling S75 missiles without proper care, letting them
fall from the track, for instance.
with the Soviet assistance in the North the Vietnamese
mounted a strong antiaircraft defense, once dubbed the
"most sophisticated and effective" in the history of
warfare. This system created an environment in which
aircraft tactics designed to escape one type of threat
brought the plane under threat from another layer of the
system. The Soviet-built "telephone poles" were deadly
In sum, between July 1965 and January
1973, a total of 6,806 missiles were fired, destroyed by
US pilots or simply broke down. By January 1973, Vietnam
still had 39 operational SA75M complexes, the remaining
56 were destroyed in combat or became non-operational
due to poor maintenance.
"telephone poles" are due to reappear in Vietnam,
although Hanoi is highly unlikely to deal with the kind
of the air war it faced three decades ago.
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