Vietnam’s Catch Up Challenge

The VPAF is seeking to modernise its air combat arm with newer multirole aircraft.

JR Ng – Vietnams legacy 1970s armed forces are gradually being updated with new equipment as defence spending increases.

Some of the largest increases in military expenditure seen in Southeast Asia since the mid-2000s have led to a fundamental shift in the military power of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). Its defence budget is understood to have grown almost fourfold in local currency from $1.3 billion (20.5 trillion đồng) in 2006 to approximately $4.6 billion (100 trillion đồng) in 2015.

Modernisation efforts have been driven almost exclusively by the threat posed by China over Vietnam’s territorial and resource claims in the contested South China Sea, and has resulted in a focus on the Vietnamese People’s Army’s (VPA) defensive and power projection capabilities to enable it to secure the country’s maritime interests.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Vietnam’s defence expenditure in 2018 was the fourth largest in Southeast Asia at $5.5 billion, just after Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand. It is expected that the figure will surpass $6 billion by 2020.

Land force modernisation

Vietnam’s most recent Defence White Paper, released in 2009, defines the PAVN as ‘an army from the people and for the people’ whose role is ‘aimed at firmly protecting independence, sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity, and national security in all aspects’.

Although the largest and most experienced of the three services, the army faces an uphill task in raising its professionalism and maintaining its large inventories of Chinese and Soviet-made legacy combat vehicles and equipment, particularly with the loss of foreign assistance following its conflict with the People’s Republic of China and subsequently the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The PAVN is seeking to further its forces in the face of increasing regional uncertainty.

The bulk of the army’s firepower had until recently resided in its 1970s era main battle tanks (MBTs) such as the Chinese-made Type 59 and Soviet T-54/55 and T-62. However, as these MBTs are increasingly outmatched by modern vehicles and anti-tank weaponry now in service with regional military forces as well as China, it has recently taken delivery of 64 T-90S/SKs from Russia’s state-owned UralVagonZavod (UVZ).

The 46.5-tonne T-90S is the export-specific model of the T-90 family and is operated by a crew of three. It features a powerpack comprising the Uraltrac V-92S2 diesel engine and the APP-172 automatic transmission, which offers improved acceleration as well as up to 15 percent better fuel economy compared with earlier T-90 variants, which are equipped with a manual transmission.

The MBT’s turret and hull are built from rolled homogeneous steel armour with appliqué Kontakt-V explosive reactive armour (ERA) added to its glacis and turret. It is understood that the PAVN’s MBTs have also been equipped with the Shtora-1 active protection system (APS) for improved survivability.

The T-90 is armed with the 125mm 2A46M smoothbore gun, with secondary armament including a coaxial 7.62mm 6P7K machine gun and roof-mounted 12.7mm 6P49 heavy machine gun.

An undisclosed number of T-90SK command-and-control vehicles have been included in the 64-tank deal. This variant can be identified by an additional antenna located to the rear of the turret and is equipped with an enhanced communication suite believed to be derived from the R-168-100KBE high frequency radio set, which supports encrypted communication up to a range of 70km when the vehicle is stationary.

The PAVN is also upgrading some of its legacy T-54/55 MBTs to the T-54M3 standard, which is characterised by additional Super Blazer ERA on the frontal arc and sides.

The updated vehicle will retain the D-10T2S 100mm rifled gun, although its firepower has been enhanced with a 60mm mortar installed on the left side of the turret. It also will benefit from a new vetronics systems supplied by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, as well an improved sighting system with an infrared channel for night-time operations.

The T-90S/SK order represented the first major PAVN procurement for many years. It is also replacing its vast stocks of ageing Soviet-vintage 7.62x39mm calibre Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles with the modern Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) Galil 31/32 ACE assault rifles, which are also chambered for the 7.62x39mm cartridge.

The PAVN ground forces have taken delivery of T-90S main battle tanks.

In 2014, Vietnam awarded IWI a contract reportedly worth around $100 million to establish local production of the rifles following a competitive tender which also saw participation by Chinese and Russian manufacturers. The rifles are now being indigenously produced – along with their associated optics and under-barrel grenade launcher – at Factory Z111 following technology transfer from IWI. The facility is owned by the Ministry of National Defence (MND) and based in the northern Thanh Hoa province.

The locally manufactured Galil ACE 31/32 are both fed by existing Kalashnikov magazines and have side folding metal stocks. The new weapons are being issued to infantry forces, although PAVN troops are still regularly seen carrying the AK-47 and AKM rifles. It will likely take several years before the service, which is believed to maintain over 250,000 troops, can entirely replace these older weapons.

The Z111 factory has also commenced started producing the Russian KBP Instrument Design Bureau OSV-96 12.7 mm self-loading anti-materiel rifle, which can engage and defeat lightly armoured vehicles at ranges of up to 1800 metres. Likewise, the Tula-based KBP has transferred the necessary tooling and design technologies to the Z111 factory for licensed-production.

Vietnam Peoples Navy

Among the PAVN’s three branches, the Vietnam People’s Navy has arguably benefited the most from Hanoi’s imperative to secure its 3,300km coastline and vast maritime interests in the South China Sea, which comprise approximately an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that covers over 400,000km2.

The navy has suffered from decades of neglect, with readiness among its surface fleet generally low and spare parts typically being in short supply, although support from India and Russia have in the past provided the service with a lifeline in the form of patrol vessels, new equipment, and supplies of spare parts to keep its limited fleet operational.

However, the shift in focus to the maritime domain from December 2009 appears to have arrested the service’s downward trajectory with a flurry of contracts awarded for high-end surface and underwater combat platforms, including four 2,100 tonne Gepard-class guided-missile frigates (Project 11661E) constructed and customised by Russian shipbuilder, the Zelenodolsk Design Bureau.

Vietnam’s navy has commissioned four Russian-made Gepard multimission frigates.

The first two frigates – Dinh Tien Hoang and Ly Thai Ho – were commissioned in March and August 2011. The vessels measure around 102 metres long and feature a stealthy superstructure and helicopter facilities, with an armament fit reportedly comprising a AK-176M 76mm main gun, a Palma close-in weapon system (CIWS), as well as two AK-630M guns, 533mm torpedo launchers, and the SS-N-25 ‘Uran-E’ anti-ship missile system. The sensor fit is understood to include the Bass Tilt fire-control radar and Pozitiv-ME1.2 air/surface search radar, and sonar.

In contrast, the second tranche of two Gepard frigates have been optimised for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) with an enhanced ASW suite and improved propulsion system. The two ASW frigates were commissioned into service in February 2018.

In December 2009, Hanoi signed a deal to acquire six improved Kilo-class (Project 636.3MV) diesel-electric submarines (SSKs), providing a substantial boost to the navy’s ability to conduct patrols in the South China Sea in a deal thought to be worth approximately $2.1 billion, although this could be much higher when factoring the cost of weapons, maintenance support, and infrastructure.

Displacing 2,350 tonnes when surfaced and 4,000 tonnes when submerged, the boats can achieve a maximum underwater speed of 20 knots (37km/h) and a range of up to 7500 nautical miles (13,890km). Armaments include the 533mm heavyweight TEST-71M-NK and Type-53K-65KE torpedoes, as well as the SS-N-27A anti-ship and SS-N-30A land-attack missiles.

The navy’s new Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines can engage surface and land targets.

All six boats – Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hai Phong, Khanh Hoa Da Nang, Ba Ria-Vung Tau – were commissioned by February 2017. To support its submarine fleet, the state-owned Z189 shipyard has been commissioned to build a submarine rescue vessel. The company announced in May 2018 that the keel of the future MSSARS 9316 (multipurpose submarine search-and-rescue ship 9316) had been laid at its facility in the northern coastal city of Haiphong. The vessel is expected to be completed by early 2021 and is also expected to perform underwater surveying and seafloor mapping to enhance submarine navigation.

Despite the influx of these new platforms, there are some concerns about the navy’s ability to effectively integrate these capabilities given its lack of experience with such advanced systems. It is likely to be several years before the service can fully exploit these assets.

Dr Collin Koh, Research Fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told AMR that the service’s current priorities would include efforts to consolidate its newfound capabilities following the completion of the Kilo-class submarine procurement programme, which is by far its largest and most complex undertaking. Because these boats have only recently entered service, the crews would require significant time to gain the basic competencies and confidence to perform prolonged underwater operations.

“The integration stage would come in later after the boats and their crews gain sufficient operational experience in their own domain and become more familiar with the operating environment,” Dr Koh noted.

He also emphasised that capability gaps remain despite recent modernisation efforts, particularly its ability to operate with other PAVN forces, noting that the procurement and development of network-centric capabilities have been prioritised to a degree, but improvements will nevertheless take time to materialise.

“It needs to improve its maritime domain/situational awareness capabilities especially a more capable maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft,” he noted. “To promote integrated operations, C4ISR [capabilities] will be the unifying element…hence the PAVN needs to look beyond just acquiring kinetic capabilities.”

Peoples Air force

According to Vietnam’s 2009 Defence White Paper, the Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) “is the core force responsible for the control and defence of the airspace, protection of the nation’s key facilities and the people, and participates in safeguarding the homeland’s seas and islands”.

The VPAF is steadily modernising but continues to operate a large fleet of Soviet-vintage combat aircraft, which entered service from the late 1970s and are looking increasingly obsolescent compared to modern aircraft being acquired by other regional countries. In a bid to remedy this deficiency, the MND placed several orders for the Sukhoi Su-30MK2 ‘Flanker-F’ multirole combat aircraft between 2003 and 2013, which saw around 36 of these aircraft delivered by the end of 2016.

Although the Su-30MK2s provided a much-needed capability boost for the VPAF, other in-service aircraft – including a small number of Su-27s fighters and Su-22 ‘Fitter’ fighter-bomber platforms – are fast approaching the end of their operational lifespans. The MND is reportedly considering additional deals from Russia that could include either the MiG-35 or Su-35 multirole combat aircraft.

The VPAF is seeking to modernise its air combat arm with newer multirole aircraft.

To support its growing Russian combat fleet, Vietnam has turned its attention to improving indigenous maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) capabilities via technical support provided by Ukraine.

The VPAF’s principal aircraft MRO facility is the A32 facility based in Da Nang on Vietnam’s east coast, which had reported received Ukrainian assistance to improve its ability to perform extensive MRO and modernisation work to its combat aircraft platforms as well as their avionics and engines, such as the Saturn AL-31 which powers the Su-27SK and Su-30MK2. The latest updates also expanded the facility’s capacity to support the newer Su-30MK2s.

The VPAF’s tactical transport fleet – comprising ageing An-2 and An-26 aircraft – also suffer poor serviceability and are in dire need of replacement, although the delivery of three Airbus C295 medium transport aircraft from 2014 provided a much-needed boost for air transport operations. Additional aircraft are expected to be procured to further to cater for the possible loss or eventual retirement of the older platforms, although the MND has yet to disclose a timeline.

The service is also reportedly interested in expanding its utility helicopter fleet; it presently maintains several types including Mil Mi‐8 ‘Hip’ and Mi‐17 ‘Hip‐H’, Kamov Ka‐32T ‘Helix‐C’ and Bell UH‐1Hs. According to Russian Helicopters CEO Andrey Boginsky, over 80 Russian-made helicopters have been delivered to Vietnam, with most of these being military platforms.

The company also took the opportunity to demonstrate the capabilities of its latest Ansat and Mi-171A2 helicopters at Hanoi’s Gia Lam Airport in November 2018. Ansat is a light multirole twin-engine helicopter that can be converted into a cargo or passenger rotorcraft and can carry up to seven people. The Mi-171A2 is a modification of the Mi-8/17 military transport helicopter designed for passenger and VIP transport.

The VPAF’s rotary aircraft operations is also being supported by a new MRO centre in April 2019. Set up by Klimov, an engine specialist owned by Russia’s United Engine Corporation (UEC), the new facility is initially specialising in the support of the TV3-117 and VK-2500 turboshaft engines and is located in the southern city of Vung Tau, where the VPAF and several commercial helicopter operators maintain bases.

“The centre is equipped with all necessary equipment, spare parts, and assemblies to provide repairs for engines designed by UEC-Klimov,” Russian defence industrial group Rostec. “By the end of April four more engines in use in Vietnam will go through repairs in the centre.”

by JR Ng