Vietnam’s People’s Air Force (VPAF) could begin flying Western fighters. Here’s why that matters.
As several other writers have noted, the acquisition of Western aircraft (most likely the Gripen, Rafale, or Typhoon) would represent a huge shift in Vietnam’s defense trajectory. Vietnam hasn’t flown a Western warplane since the Vietnamese People’s Army overran Saigon, capturing 41 F-5 Tigers in the process. The Tigers that didn’t end up in the Soviet Union or the Eastern Bloc were soon grounded for lack of spares.
To be sure, Vietnam has experience with modern jet fighters, currently flying a few dozen advanced Flanker variants purchased from Russia. These aircraft are far more capable than the older MiG-21s that make up the bulk of the Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF), but they remain Soviet kit. Any European aircraft will require what amounts to a revolution in maintenance, spares, weapons, and handling procedures.
Thus, the sale would likely represent a long-term relationship between Vietnam and whatever country is lucky enough to get the sale. It would likely require some technology transfer (especially if Vietnam can generate a competitive bidding process), the presence of engineers and maintenance personnel on the ground, and a long training regimen. The aircraft will (undoubtedly) return to the host country for periodic upgrades and overhauls as new weapon and software systems become available.
Nothing about this is particularly new or novel; buying a fighter jet has become far less about hooking up than establishing a long-term relationship. But it will represent one of the first of these kinds of relationship that Vietnam has established with a Western country. And it says much about Vietnam’s long-term strategic outlook that Hanoi is exploring the option in such depth.
In this sense, Vietnamese interest in the Typhoon and its competitors is part and parcel with Hanoi’s other major diplomatic initiative, membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP likely plays no small role in the willingness of Western states to contemplate selling their aircraft to Vietnam, including the potential for technology transfer. The TPP doesn’t mean that Western technology is suddenly secure in Vietnam, but it does imply a strong directionality to Hanoi’s economic policy. It also suggest that Vietnam is extremely serious about maintaining an adversarial posture towards China for the foreseeable future.
And so before all that long, European-built VPAF fighters may patrol the South China Sea, while European and American investment pours into the Vietnamese economy. This was not an outcome that many people envisioned in 1975. By Robert Farley for The Diplomat