The Five Weapons Vietnam Needs Most to Take on a Rising China
Military and political disputes with China are nothing new to Vietnam.
China and Vietnam have a shared border and shared history that go back thousands of years. And relations haven’t always gone the smaller country’s way.
Vietnam has been a vassal state and colony of China four times in the last two thousand years, starting in the 1st Century B.C. Yet Vietnam has been remarkably successful at preserving its national identity from political, economic, and cultural domination, in large part due to its willingness to take up arms against its bigger, stronger neighbor.
Vietnam has been watching the rise of China and preparing accordingly. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute data, Vietnam’s defense spending has risen from $796 million dollars in 1994 to $7.8 billion dollars in 2013, a nearly tenfold increase that has paced China’s own defense buildup.
China’s newfound political and military strength has emboldened it to reassert dormant claims in the South China Sea that have antagonized its neighbors, including Vietnam. Here are five weapons systems that could go a long way toward Vietnam’s security.
Maritime Patrol Aircraft (P-3C Orion)
Many conceive of Vietnam as a land power, a result of the First, Second, and Third Indochina Wars. Now that Vietnam is an independent country, it is facing its destiny as a maritime nation. The country has a 2,025-mile coastline, making it just forty miles shorter than the distance from Maine to Florida. Long and slender in shape, almost all of Vietnam is within fifty miles of the South China Sea.
The most efficient way to patrol long coastlines is by air. A small fleet of maritime patrol aircraft, capable of conducting air sovereignty patrols, would be very useful in monitoring Vietnam’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone.
An ideal choice for Vietnam is the older P-3C Orion. Currently the mainstay of the U.S. Navy’s maritime patrol aircraft fleet, the maritime patrol aircraft/anti-submarine warfare is a proven asset, capable of staying aloft for up to twelve hours. The U.S. Navy originally purchased 272 Orions, but more than half have been retired from service, with the remaining to be replaced by the new P-8 Poseidon.
According to Reuters, the United States is preparing to end an arms embargo against Vietnam and unarmed P-3Cs would be among the first items offered. Washington is likely holding back anti-submarine torpedoes or anti-ship missiles for fear they could be used in an incident with Chinese military or civilian forces.
The P-3C has a suite of sensors that would allow it to conduct an unarmed maritime surveillance mission. A multi-mission surveillance radar will allow Vietnam document alleged intrusions into its territory. Magnetic anomaly detection gear and the ability to drop sonobuoys will be used to detect submarines.
The P-3C’s electronic support measures (ESM) equipment will allow it to spy on Chinese military forces, interpreting and cataloging Chinese radio and radar emissions – information that will probably be shared with the Americans.
The best thing about P-3C is the cost: as surplus stock, the aircraft will practically be given away. The old planes are worth far more as a gesture of American support than they are as a financial transaction. The most expensive line item in the deal will likely be the maintenance contract (followed by barf bags).
Missile Patrol Boat (Hsun Hai or Yoon Youngha Classes)
The Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN) suffered neglect for much of the postwar period, relying on a mixture of ex-South Vietnamese Navy vessels and a handful of Soviet frigates, corvettes and minesweepers. The growth of China’s South Sea Fleet has prompted Vietnam to take steps to make its sea border a dangerous place for foreign ships.
In recent years Vietnam has been on a Russian weapons-buying frenzy, purchasing diesel electric submarines (Type 636.1), Gepard frigates and batteries of Kh-35 land-based anti-ship missiles. It has even placed orders for up to four Sigma-class frigates from the Netherlands.
The purchases have gone a long way toward modernizing the VPN and make an unambiguous statement about Vietnam’s intentions to defend its coast. That having been said, the purchases have been expensive. To round out the navy, Vietnam could augment its larger ships with squadrons of small, heavily armed, and fast missile patrol boats.
One possible solution is the Taiwanese Hsun Hai, or “Swift Sea” program of fast attack catamarans. The catamarans are stealthy and quick, capable of 38 knots. The Hsun Hai missile patrol boats are armed with Hsiung Feng II and Hsuing Feng III anti-ship missiles and have been nicknamed “carrier killers” by the Taiwanese media.
A range of 2,000 miles means Hsun Hai patrol boats could travel from one end of Vietnam to the other unrefueled, assembling where they are needed. The ships are designed with a helicopter flight deck to temporarily accommodate helicopters.
A less politically sensitive alternative would be to buy South Korean. South Korea’s latest guided missile patrol boat design is the Yoon Youngha class. The Yoon Youngha class weighs slightly less than the Hsun Hai class, mounts a larger 76mm gun and carries four Hae Sung anti-ship missiles. Unfortunately the South Korean ships are slower by design than the Taiwanese ships, and are said to have propulsion issues that limit their speed to half of the expected 40 knots. The South Korean ships also lack a helicopter pad. At $38 million each, the ships would be affordable force multipliers for the Vietnam People’s Navy.
5th Generation Fighter (T-50 Fighter)
Vietnam fought a spirited, David-and-Goliath air war against the U.S. Military during the Vietnam War. Although heavily outnumbered, Vietnam tried mightily to contest U.S. air superiority, and sixteen Vietnamese People’s Air Force (VPAF) pilots made ace status.
In any future conflict with China, Vietnam would once again be heavily outnumbered. Vietnam currently has 12 Su-27 Flanker and 24 Su-30 Flanker-C fighters in service, with another 12 Su-30s on order. Although a good start, the VPAF will need even more fighters if it is to deter, and fight if necessary the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. A future Chinese carrier force capable of threatening southern Vietnam would exacerbate the problem.
A Vietnamese fifth generation fighter, one that could match existing Chinese fighters such as the J-10 and upcoming fighters such as the J-20 and J-31, would provide aerial deterrence for the foreseeable future.
The problem with fifth generation fighters is finding an affordable one. Growing ties between India and Vietnam could provide a solution. The T-50 fighter, a variant of the Russian PAK-FA fighter being built especially for India, could be sold to Vietnam.
The T-50 would give Vietnam a real fifth generation fighter. The T-50’s stealthy design, supercruise capability, advanced sensors, and wide array of weapons—including the R-77 series of air to air missiles, RV-MDD short-range air to air missile and Kh-35UE anti-ship missiles—make it a fearsome opponent
The T-50, which differs in having a number of subsystems built by the Indian defense industry, is still in development. A large Vietnamese purchase would help offset the six billion dollars in development costs India has paid Russia.
Landing Platform Dock (Makassar Class)
If Vietnam wants to be able to hold onto the islands it claims in the South China Sea, it has to have the ability to land troops on them, both to fortify the islands and to take them away from someone else. This will require a basic amphibious warfare capability, and the acquisition of a pair of landing platform dock ships would give Vietnam that crucial capability.
Fortunately, another regional power with a stake in the South China Sea is building such ships right now. The Makassar-class landing platform, dock was designed to ferry the Indonesian Marine Corps into battle. At 11,300 tons full displacement, the class is less than half the size of the American San Antonio LPDs that fulfill a similar mission. Still, for a regional power, the ships pack a lot of capabilities into a single hull.
The Makassar class carries up to 354 Indonesian Marines and 35 vehicles, ranging from light utility vehicles to main battle tanks. In a humanitarian assistance/disaster relief scenario, the ships can ferry relief supplies into a disaster area and evacuate refugees.
The Makassar class has two ways to get personnel and vehicles ashore: helicopters and landing craft. The ship is equipped with a flight deck and hangar that can support transport helicopters, as well as a well deck capable of embarking landing craft and rigid-hulled inflatable boats. The well deck can be drained of water for loading purposes and then flooded to enable watercraft to move out on their own power.
The Makassar class was recently chosen by the Philippines for its Strategic Sealift Vessel program.
Multiple Launch Rocket System (BM-30 Smerch)
China and Vietnam fought a brief, vicious war along their mutual border in 1979. China’s invasion went disastrously wrong as the antiquated, untested People’s Liberation Army ran headfirst into a Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) seasoned by almost two decades of continuous warfare. In one month of combat, China allegedly lost 9,000 troops.
China is unlikely to repeat the mistake of a land invasion. Not only was the VPA a dangerous opponent, much of the Sino-Vietnamese border is mountainous and ill-suited as an invasion route. Modernizing Vietnam’s aging artillery fleet with new, precision-guided weapons would make the border even more unsuitable by boosting the defensive capabilities of the VPA.
The Russian BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket system is capable of laying down a formidable amount of defensive firepower. A more advanced version of the World War II-era Katyusha, Smerch can fire twelve 300-milimeter rockets in 38 seconds, to a range of up to 70 kilometers. Carried by a heavy transporter, the system is capable of rapid movement along existing roads. Smerch can arrive at a launch area, load a salvo of 12 rockets, fire all 12, and leave in less than 25 minutes.
A wide variety of rockets gives the Smerch great versatility as a defensive platform. Before enemy forces enter an area, 9M55K4 rockets can be used to quickly sow it with anti-tank mines. As enemy forces cross the battlefield, Smerch operators can shift to rockets that disperse lethal submunitions: fragmentation cluster munitions will target both infantry and soft-skinned vehicles, and sensor-fused munitions will seek out enemy armored vehicles. Regular HE-fragmentation rocket warheads are also available, including for counter-artillery missions.