Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Vietnam Builds Naval Muscle

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 This outdated force was inadequate for patrolling the country's 200-mile exclusive economic zone or maintaining its claims over the Spratly Islands, an expansive archipelago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 Vietnam’s naval and air power.

Last year, 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.

The move 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.

Vietnam's 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.

For 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 August.

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 ocean.

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 Vietnam's inventory.

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 pilots.

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.

The question looming over all these acquisitions is how all this hardware will communicate and fit together given the military’s limited experience operating each of these platforms even on a standalone basis.

The interoperability 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.

A further reaching question is what doctrine will guide Vietnam’s 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, including China."

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.

By The Hanoist who writes on Vietnam’s politics and people.

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