Tracking Vietnam’s Force Build-up in the South China Sea

By Alexander Vuving —

A Vietnam People’s Navy BPS-500 corvette in port. Source: Wikimedia user Olympus Ares, used under a creative commons license.

Although the military enjoys a privileged position in Vietnam’s political system, force modernization has not been a priority in government spending for most of the last three decades. Upon recovery from a severe economic crisis that lasted from the mid-1980s until the early 1990s, Vietnam pursued modest programs to update its air force and naval assets. The major push for force modernization came only in the late 2000s, after more than a decade of rapid economic growth. Since 2007, Vietnam’s military expenditure has risen to a level around 2.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), a moderate increase from the 2 percent level of the four preceding years (there are no reliable data for the 1995-2002 period.) Interestingly, Vietnam has been aggressively shoring up its military and paramilitary forces in a time of economic difficulties. The years from 2008 to the present mark a period of relative slowdown in Vietnam’s economic growth but they also coincide with a period of higher tensions in both the South China Sea and Vietnam’s relations with China.

Air Force

The Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) requires a minimum of 140 full-strength combat aircraft to ensure adequate coverage of Vietnam’s territory, exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and Spratly Island outposts. The VPAF still has about 30 Sukhoi (Su)-22M Fitters from the 1980s but these are 3.5-generation fighters and can hardly achieve front-line missions in the event of a real conflict today. In the mid-1990s, Vietnam acquired in two orders 12 Su-27 Flanker-Bs, specifically seven Su-27SK multirole fighters and five Su-27UBK trainers, two of which were damaged in delivery and traded for two Su-27PU interceptors. In the 2000s, Vietnam switched to the Su-30, a more advanced version of Su-27, with the first order for four Su-30MK2 multirole fighters signed in 2003. The upsurge of China’s aggressiveness in the late 2000s caused a spike in Vietnam’s spending on advanced equipment for its air and naval forces. In the course of just five years from 2009 to 2013, Vietnam signed three contracts worth a total of $2.5 billion to purchase 32 more Su-30MK2s.

With the accidental loss of a Su-27SK in 1998 and a Su-30MK2 in 2016, Vietnam’s air force now musters 46 air superiority fighters, three of which are training versions of the Su-27. This indicates a capacity that is sufficient for less than one-third of the area of responsibility.

Table 1. Major equipment of the Vietnam People’s Air Force

Type Platform Quantity Delivery Stationed Modernization
3.5-generation attack Su-22M3 (Fitter-J) 10 1980
Su-22M4 (Fitter-K) 20 1988
Air superiority, multirole Su-27

(Flanker-B)

12-1:

6xSu-27SK,

3xSu-27UBK,

2xSu-27PU

1995- 1998 Phu Cat (South Central) Contract signed 1995, incl. 7x Su-SK + 5x Su-27UBK (training versions), but 1997, 2x Su-27UBK lost traded for 2x Su-27PU interceptor (equivalent of Su-30). 1st contract signed 1994 for 5x Su-27SK + 1x Su-27UBK; 2nd contract 1996: 2x Su-27SK + 4x Su-27UBK. 1x Su-27SK lost in accident in 1998.
Su-30MK2 (Flanker-F) 36-1 (2016) 4 2004,

8 2010,

8 2011,

4 2012,

4 2014, 4 2015,

4 2016

Kep (North), Sao Vang (North), Bien Hoa (South) 2003: initial order for 4x (+8x options) signed. 2009: 8x options ordered, + 12x more (announced 2010). 2013: 12x more ordered.
Airlift, Maritime patrol C295 (Casa) 3 2015

 

Navy

With six Kilo-class attack submarines purchased from Russia for more than $3 billion, Vietnam has the largest number of submarines among Southeast Asian countries. Ordered in 2009, the boats were commissioned between 2014 and 2017, but their actual combat capability will remain in question for several years to come.

When Vietnam and China scrambled for the Spratly Islands in 1988, during which the Chinese Navy killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers at Johnson South Reef, the largest combatants of the Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN) included a 2,500-ton Barnegat-class frigate and a 1,500-ton Edsall-class frigate, which previously served in the South Vietnamese Navy during the Vietnam War and were first commissioned in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After these ships retired in the late 1990s, five 1,100-ton anti-submarine frigates of the Petya-class, built in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, became the VPN’s largest combatants.

In 2005, Vietnam entered talks with Russia to build a batch of guided-missile stealth frigates of the Gepard 3.9 class. By 2017, it has acquired four 2,100-ton Gepards and intends to buy two more in the future. In addition to six Kilo-class submarines, four Gepard-class frigates and five Petya-class frigates, Vietnam’s naval force also has 13 missile corvettes with the individual displacement of around 600 tons, about 17 fast attack craft, 43 inshore patrol craft, 36 landing craft, and about 11 minesweepers. The VPN has recently started to develop a naval aviation arm that is equipped with patrol, transport, and anti-submarine aircraft.

Table 2. Major equipment of the Vietnam People’s Navy

 

Type Class Size Quantity Commissioned Missiles Heli-copter Modernization
Submarine Kilo 3076t 6 2 2014,

2 2015, 2 2017

Deal signed 12/2009, worth  $2.1 billion, but may be as high as  $3.2 billion if incl. costs of weapons and support infrastructure.
Frigate Gepard 3.9, stealthy 102m, 2,100t 4 1 2011

1 2012

2 2017

Uran-E SSM,

Sosna SAM,

Shtil-1 SAM

2nd batch ASW capable Talks of purchase entered 2005, worth  $350 million. Second batch order noted 12/2011, contract signed 2/2013. 2017: Talks on 3rd batch indicate plan for Dutch Sigma cancelled.
ASW frigate Petya 1,100t 5 1960s-vintage Upgraded, 2 has SAM manpad.
Corvette Tarantul 56m, 549t 4 1996 P-15M SSM
Tarantul V

(Molnyia)

59.9m, 560t 8 2 2007 2 2014

2 2015

2 2016

Kh-35 Uran SSM Agreement signed 3/2004. Contract signed 2006, built 2 in Russia, 6 in Vietnam. 2017: talks on 4 more.
BPS 500

Anti-sub

517t 1 1998 Upgraded 2014
Inshore patrol vessel Svetlyak 375t 6 2002f
TT-400TP 420t 6 2012f

 

Coast Guard

Established in 1998, Vietnam’s coast guard remained the law enforcement arm of the navy until 2008, when it became a separate service under the Ministry of Defense. For most of its two-decade history, the Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG) has relied primarily on a fleet of 39 inshore patrol vessels with individual displacement ranges between 100 and 500 tons.

The single largest boost to the VCG’s capacity came in 2014, after a standoff with China from May 2 to July 15, when Vietnam’s coast guard and fisheries surveillance vessels were on the front line confronting the Chinese oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 that parked in contested waters off the Paracel Islands. Meeting in the midst of the oil rig crisis, the Vietnamese National Assembly passed legislation (Resolution 72 of June 2014) that allocated $730 million to acquire new equipment for the coast guard, the fisheries surveillance agency, and the country’s fishermen. Of this budget, $520 million would be spent to procure 32 new-built vessels for the coast guard and the fisheries surveillance. In October 2014, the government approved a long-term modernization plan for the coast guard that prioritized acquiring new-built high-endurance vessels. The most ambitious projects in this plan include the procurement of four 4,300-ton multirole patrol vessels of the Damen DN-4000 class, four 2,200-ton DN-2000-class cutters, and eight 1,500-ton offshore patrol vessels of the TT-1500 class.

By the time of the 2014 standoff with China, the largest ships in the VCG included a DN-2000-class multirole patrol vessel, which was built domestically between 2009 and 2012; a 1,400-ton offshore patrol vessel of the former Han River class, which was donated by South Korea in 2013; and three 1,400-ton Damen salvage tugs, which were built domestically and handed over to the VCG in 2006, 2007, and 2011. By 2016, the VCG had acquired four DN-2000-class vessels, two of which were built under Resolution 72, and an H222-class multirole transport and replenishment ship, which was also from the Resolution 72 package and can displace 4,300 tons at full load. After the oil rig crisis of 2014, Vietnam intended to purchase several second-hand Hamilton-class vessels from the United States. In 2017, the 3,250-ton USCGC Morgenthau was the first to be transferred, becoming the VCG’s largest cutter.

When it was separated from the navy in 2008, the VCG possessed about 42 vessels larger than 100 tons with the total tonnage of 11,100 tons. In 2017, the VCG has 64 vessels larger than 100 tons with the combined tonnage of 36,800 tons. By 2019, if it received two DN-4000-class multirole patrol vessels as planned, its total tonnage would surge to more than 46,000 tons.

Table 3. Ships larger than 100 tons in the Vietnam Coast Guard

Type Class Displ Com 2008 2009 2011 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2019
Offshore patrol DN-4000 4300t 2019 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
Hamilton 3250t 2017 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
DN-2000 2200t 2013ff 0 0 0 1 1 2 4 4
Han River 1400t 2013 0 0 0 1 1 1 1 1
OPV 1200 1200t 2008? 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2
TT-1500 1500t 8 on order 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
OPV Japan-built 6 ordered 2017 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Teshio 630t 2015 0 0 0 0 0 3 3 3
Inshore patrol TS-500CV 398t 2015 0 0 0 0 0 2 2 2
TT-400 376t 2000s 4 4 4 4 4 5 9 9
Hae Uri 280t 2013 2 2 2 2 2
TT-200 200t 14 14 14 14 14 14 14 14
Shershen 175t 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4
TT-120 120t 14 14 14 14 14 14 14 14
SAR Damen 4207 206t 2004 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3
Salvage tug TKCN-3500CV 1400t 2007ff 1 2 3 3 4 4 4 4
Transport H-222 2900t 2016 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1
Total Number of ships 42 43 44 48 49 56 63 64 66
Tonnage 11,100 12,500 13,900 18,060 19,460 24,720 33,530 36,780 45,380

China’s perceived aggressive actions against Vietnam has triggered the upsurge of Vietnam’s force build-up in the South China Sea. Aggressive as it may appear, Vietnam’s effort is far from affecting the balance of forces in the South China Sea. China’s forces in the Southern Theater alone can overwhelm Vietnam’s by a rate of four to one as Vietnam’s 6 submarines and 46 fourth-generation fighter jets are no match for the 22 submarines and 198 aircraft of similar role and generation of China’s Southern Theater Air Force and South Sea Fleet.

Dr. Alexander L. Vuving is a Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. Follow him on twitter @Alex_Vuving. This post is the fourth in a series by Dr. Vuving reviewing recent arms expenditures by South China Sea claimants Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia

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