HANOIST Vietnam builds naval
muscle By The Hanoist
Following a series of high-profile
procurement deals, Vietnam's growing naval program
symbolizes its evolving military posture. Driven
by persistent maritime disputes with China and
facilitated by an expanding economy, Vietnam is
actively modernizing its military through naval,
air and electronic-fighting capability upgrades.
A decade ago, the Vietnamese navy was
equipped with Soviet-era hardware based on
technology from the 1960s along with an assortment
of American-made vessels seized from South Vietnam
at the end of the war. This outdated force was
inadequate for patrolling the country's 200-mile
exclusive economic zone or maintaining its claims
over the Spratly Islands, an expansive archipelago
also claimed in whole or part by China, Taiwan and
several other Southeast Asian nations.
Dedicating approximately 3% of gross
domestic product per
annum to defense
spending, Vietnam has gone on an armaments
spending spree in Russia, the Netherlands and
Canada, among others. The military hardware from
these big ticket contracts is now beginning to
enter service and promises to boost significantly
Vietnamís naval and air power.
for instance, Vietnam deployed its first two
Gepard-class light frigates which were constructed
at the famed Gorky Shipbuilding Plant. The
Gepards, displacing 2,100 tons, feature the Uran-E
missile system to target other ships, a helicopter
deck and purported stealth technology for evasive
maneuvers. Two additional Gepard-class light
frigates, specially equipped for anti-submarine
warfare, have also been ordered. Together, they
will serve as the backbone of Vietnam's surface
fleet for years to come.
Vietnam is also
in the process of acquiring and deploying smaller
missile boats. Of special note is the
Molniya-class corvette which Vietnam has already
received two from Russia and acquired the license
to build locally an additional ten. Armed with
SS-N-25 Switchblade anti-ship missiles, these
550-ton corvettes can blend in with coastal
fishing vessels while packing a punch against
adversaries further out at sea.
that has garnered the most attention, however, was
the recent US$1.8 billion order of six
diesel-powered Kilo-class submarines from Russia.
These quiet underwater vessels offer Vietnam
entirely new capabilities for patrolling the hotly
contested South China Sea. The first Kilo is
scheduled to be delivered in 2013, followed by one
more each year through 2018.
experience in operating submarines is virtually
nonexistent. In 1997, it discreetly obtained two
obsolete Yugo midget submarines from North Korea
presumably to practice underwater operations.
Designed for infiltrating special forces commandos
rather than naval combat, the midget submarines
probably offered only limited training
opportunities for Vietnamese sailors.
full-scale underwater warfare training, it appears
Vietnam will turn to India. The two countries have
been engaged in high-level military talks with
special emphasis on maritime cooperation. Since
the Indian navy also employs Kilo-class
submarines, New Delhi would be well suited to
train Vietnamese crews. China responded warily to
this bilateral warming trend in both words and
deeds when a Chinese warship reportedly confronted
an Indian navy vessel leaving a Vietnamese port in
Concerning where the Kilos will
actually be berthed, most of the public
information so far has come from Russian media.
Moscow will reportedly build a submarine base for
Vietnam at strategic Cam Ranh Bay, a one-time
American and later Soviet naval base on the
country's south-central coast facing the Pacific
In a surprise development, Vietnam
is also finalizing a contract to purchase four
Sigma-class corvettes from the Netherlands.
Currently operated by the Indonesian and Moroccan
navies, the Sigmas, two of which might be built in
Vietnam, would be the most modern warships in
To provide air cover
to its naval fleet and skies, Vietnam is in the
process of acquiring Russian-made Su-30MK2
multi-role fighter aircraft. By the end of this
year, Vietnam will have at least 20 of these
advanced warplanes in addition to about a dozen
relatively modern SU-27s and scores of leftover
MiG aircraft that are older than most of their
Capable as naval strike fighters,
Vietnamese Su-27s and Su-30MK2s will be able to
reach the waters adjacent to the Spratly islands
which are believed to be beyond the effective
range of China's shore-based fighter planes.
To improve naval surveillance, Vietnam has
procured six DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft which will
be delivered over the next two years. The
amphibious aircraft can land and takeoff from the
water and are ideally suited for maritime patrol
and resupply. Manufactured in Canada, the Twin
Otters represent Vietnam's first fixed-wing
aircraft purchased in the West.
question looming over all these acquisitions is
how all this hardware will communicate and fit
together given the militaryís limited experience
operating each of these platforms even on a
challenge is especially acute since Vietnam is
essentially acquiring defense platforms on an เ la
carte basis from numerous suppliers - principally
Russia, but also the Netherlands, Canada, France,
and perhaps one day the United States. Vietnam's
military will thus have to devote significant
attention to training and transforming into a
modern, professional fighting force.
further reaching question is what doctrine will
guide Vietnamís military broadly and navy in
particular. In 2009, the Vietnamese Ministry of
Defense published a highly publicized white paper
on national defense. This public document was a
start but was laced with outdated communist
rhetoric and anodyne pronouncements. Presumably
Vietnamese planners are able to fully articulate
strategic concepts in private without fear of
offending Sino sensitivities.
In a 2010
interview, a Chinese vice admiral expressed
concern that several Southeast Asian countries
were in the process of acquiring submarine fleets.
He stated "if this continues at the current rate,
in several years the ASEAN [Association of
Southeast Asian Nations] countries will create
powerful naval forces" and that "this is naturally
becoming a challenge to neighboring countries,
Just as China is
undertaking an "anti-access/area denial" strategy
to keep the US Navy away from the Western Pacific,
a better armed Vietnam and its potential partners
could pursue a similar deterrence strategy with
regards to Beijing in the South China Sea.
The analogy is not a perfect one since
China obviously borders these contested waters.
Apart from claiming almost the entire South China
Sea, China is also preoccupied with at least two
other major theaters, namely Taiwan and Northeast
Asia. Thus, Beijing may reconsider its current
ambitions to dominate the South China Sea if it
receives enough pushback.
Vietnam is far
from challenging China, but its modernizing
military - as evidenced by its increasing naval
capabilities - is making important strides towards
a more credible deterrence.
writes on Vietnamís politics and people.
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