Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Vietnam ‘moves new rocket launchers’ into South China Sea

Vietnam has discreetly fortified several of its islands in the disputed South China Sea with new mobile rocket launchers capable of striking China’s runways and military installations across the vital trade route, according to Western officials.

Diplomats and military officers told Reuters that intelligence shows Hanoi has shipped the launchers from the Vietnamese mainland into position on five bases in the Spratly islands in recent months, a move likely to raise tensions with Beijing.

The launchers have been hidden from aerial surveillance and they have yet to be armed, but could be made operational with rocket artillery rounds within two or three days, according to the three sources.

Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry said the information was “inaccurate”, without elaborating.

Deputy Defense Minister, Senior Lieutenant-General Nguyen Chi Vinh, told Reuters in Singapore in June that Hanoi had no such launchers or weapons ready in the Spratlys but reserved the right to take any such measures.

“It is within our legitimate right to self-defense to move any of our weapons to any area at any time within our sovereign territory,” he said.

The move is designed to counter China’s build-up on its seven reclaimed islands in the Spratlys archipelago. Vietnam’s military strategists fear building runways, radars and other military installations on those holdings have left Vietnam’s southern and island defenses increasingly vulnerable.

Military analysts say it is the most significant defensive move Vietnam has made on its holdings in the South China Sea in decades.

Hanoi wanted to have the launchers in place as it expected tensions to rise in the wake of the landmark international court ruling against China in an arbitration case brought by the Philippines, foreign envoys said.

The ruling last month, stridently rejected by Beijing, found no legal basis to China’s sweeping historic claims to much of the South China Sea.

Vietnam, China and Taiwan claim all of the Spratlys while the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim some of the area.

“China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly islands and nearby waters,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a faxed statement on Wednesday. “China resolutely opposes the relevant country illegally occupying parts of China’s Spratly islands and reefs and on these illegally occupied Spratly islands and reefs belonging to China carrying out illegal construction and military deployments.”

The United States is also monitoring developments closely.

“We continue to call on all South China Sea claimants to avoid actions that raise tensions, take practical steps to build confidence, and intensify efforts to find peaceful, diplomatic solutions to disputes,” a State Department official said.


Foreign officials and military analysts believe the launchers form part of Vietnam’s state-of-art EXTRA rocket artillery system recently acquired from Israel.

EXTRA rounds are highly accurate up to a range of 150 km (93 miles), with different 150 kg (330 lb) warheads that can carry high explosives or bomblets to attack multiple targets simultaneously. Operated with targeting drones, they could strike both ships and land targets.

That puts China’s 3,000-meter runways and installations on Subi, Fiery Cross and Mischief Reef within range of many of Vietnam’s tightly clustered holdings on 21 islands and reefs.

While Vietnam has larger and longer range Russian coastal defense missiles, the EXTRA is considered highly mobile and effective against amphibious landings. It uses compact radars, so does not require a large operational footprint – also suitable for deployment on islets and reefs.

“When Vietnam acquired the EXTRA system, it was always thought that it would be deployed on the Spratlys…it is the perfect weapon for that,” said Siemon Wezeman, a senior arms researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

There is no sign the launchers have been recently test fired or moved.

China took its first Spratlys possessions after a sea battle against Vietnam’s then weak navy in 1988. After the battle, Vietnam said 64 soldiers with little protection were killed as they tried to protect a flag on South Johnson reef – an incident still acutely felt in Hanoi.

In recent years, Vietnam has significantly improved its naval capabilities as part of a broader military modernization, including buying six advanced Kilo submarines from Russia.

Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam’s military at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said the deployment showed the seriousness of Vietnam’s determination to militarily deter China as far as possible.

“China’s runways and military installations in the Spratlys are a direct challenge to Vietnam, particularly in their southern waters and skies, and they are showing they are prepared to respond to that threat,” he said. “China is unlikely to see this as purely defensive, and it could mark a new stage of militarization of the Spratlys.”

Trevor Hollingsbee, a former naval intelligence analyst with the British defense ministry, said he believed the deployment also had a political factor, partly undermining the fear created by the prospect of large Chinese bases deep in maritime Southeast Asia.

“It introduces a potential vulnerability where they was none before – it is a sudden new complication in an arena that China was dominating,” he said. By Greg Torode

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington, Michael Martina in Beijing and Martin Petty in Hanoi.)



  1. Vietnam’s rocket launchers may prompt China to declare Air Defense Zone
    It was inevitable, but nations in the South China Sea that have overlapping claims with the People’s Republic of China are now beginning to push back–and this time we are not talking about Lawfare or my beloved Shamefare, but are now finally enhancing their own military capabilities.
    Yesterday, Reuters reported that Vietnam “has discreetly fortified several of its islands in the disputed South China Sea with new mobile rocket launchers capable of striking China’s runways and military installations across the vital trade route,” citing unnamed western officials.
    The report goes on to note that Hanoi shipped the weapons from the Vietnamese mainland to five bases in the disputed Spratly Islands “in recent months.” It also explains that “the launchers have been hidden from aerial surveillance and they have yet to be armed, but could be made operational with rocket artillery rounds within two or three days,” according to multiple sources in the story.
    The weapons in question that Vietnam chose to deploy also make a big statement. Interestingly enough, they are not some second-tier platform from 20 years ago, but the EXTRA rocket artillery system made in Israel — a great platform for attacking invading soldiers landing on island beaches.

  2. A reaction to Chinese aggression
    So what to make of all of this? My response is quite simple: What took Hanoi so long considering the stakes and China’s own aggressive actions in South China Sea?
    While there is certainly plenty of blame to go around and none of the claimants in the South China Sea struggle are innocent of creating unnecessary mischief, Beijing has clearly been the aggressor in recent years.
    Its declaration of a cow-tounged nine-dash-line (really ten, but who’s counting?) and historical claim of everything in between those lines, comprising almost all of the South China Sea, has driven tensions to new heights as Beijing has sought to enforce its claims.
    From harassing rival claimants’ fishing fleets, utilizing its “maritime militia” to ensure its dominance on the high seas, placing oil rigs on multiple occasions over several years in disputed waters near Vietnam and building massive new islands that are clearly militarized, there is only one nation that seeks to overturn the status-quo.
    Even a major defeat in the Hague has not slowed China’s push towards regional dominance — now including what I like to call “bomber selfies.”

  3. Hanoi has the tools to push back
    Of all the nations in the South China Sea that are in the best position to push back against Beijing’s bullying tendencies, clearly Vietnam has the most ability and capability — and some unique diplomatic options.
    Hanoi has purchased some of the world’s most advanced conventional submarines from Moscow in recent years, also acquiring advanced fighter aircraft from the Russians as well. Vietnam, while still outmanned and surely outgunned in a firefight with Beijing, has been purchasing platforms that would at least give China some pause, with some arguing Hanoi could even be putting together a crude anti-access/area-denial capability (A2/AD), right out of China’s military playbook.
    But beyond military and economic levers, both nations — well, at least on paper, anyway — are fellow Communist countries, and ‘party to party’ talks still occur. Hanoi and Beijing have the ability to discuss the South China Sea challenge discreetly, away from the media, with top leaders in this format able to exchange views in a more candid nature.
    Vietnam could leverage such connections, working with their colleagues in China to seek possible compromises — or at least voice their displeasure without creating a diplomatic incident.

  4. A budding arms race in South China Sea?
    But there is danger here that any first or second year political science student would recognize almost instantly — the infamous security dilemma that could spiral into a classic arms race.
    While Vietnam’s move is merely a reaction to China’s much, much larger militarization of its own South China Sea islands, Beijing will very likely use this action by Vietnam to respond — and possibly even increase its military lead over rival claims substantially.
    Indeed, in recent days, it has been shown that China now has large, military grade, reinforced hangars on its new islands in the South China Sea, capable of housing any plane in the Chinese arsenal. Beijing could simply decide to base some of its most lethal air assets permanently here. And don’t forget, China has said time and time again that its decision to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, would be based on what Beijing felt was the overall security picture in the area.
    Does this move by Vietnam make such a step more likely? We might just find out soon enough, but not until early to mid September.
    Harry J. Kazianis is Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at The Center for the National Interest and Senior Editor for The National Interest Magazine