February 12, 2016

Vietnam's Strategic Relations Countering China

Vietnam's main naval bases and the major vessels in them (above). The Navy consists mainly of Russian built smaller craft. The (potentially Klub missile armed) Gepard class frigates and Klub armed Improved Kilo submarines are the most powerful units. The TT-400TPs gunboats and Molniya corvettes are locally built. The Navy is orientated toward  low-end Chinese actions (Chinese coast guard, naval militia/trawler, contentious oil rigs and verbal threats) in the South China Sea and periodic clashes with China.

Vietnam's Naval Regions - slightly out of sequence, north to south, due to numbering adhering to political importance of Regions 1 and 2. Hai Phong Region is 1 as it contains the capital Hanoi. The Nhon Trach Region is 2, containing Ho Chi Minh City (was Saigon). (Artwork on wikipedia courtesy dokientrung).

Nhon Trach Naval Base (Regional Command 2), just up the river network, is the home port for (2 new Molniya derivative of Tarantul) class corvettes built in Vietnam.

The two Region 2 Molniya corvettes carry the numbers HQ-377 and HQ-378 (photo above), max speed 70 km/h, range ~3000 km) and carry a heavy armament for ships that size - including Klub missiles. I am advised these modern boats could serve as back-up for Region 4 naval vessels to patrol the Spratly Island group.

Russia's delivery of five Improved Kilo submarines to Vietnam over the last few years has been very efficient. In early February 2016 the fiftth Kilo HQ-186 Da Nang was delivered to Vietnam's major naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. The sixth, final, submarine, HQ-187 Ba Ria Vung Tau, is expected to be delivered later in 2016.

Here is a full list of the 6 Vietnamese Navy Kilos with Vietnamese accent markers:

-  HQ-182 Hà Nội
-  HQ-183 Hồ Chí Minh City
-  HQ-184 Hải Phòng
-  HQ-185 Khánh Hoà
-  HQ-186 Đà Nẵng
-  HQ-187 Bà Riạ-Vũng Tàu

The last sub is currently under sea trial and scheduled to be delivered mid 2016. Most likely, it will be delivered on schedule, since the delivery record for previous subs by the Russians has been impeccable.

Vietnam (having an unfortunate northern border with China) maintains relations with several regional powers to counterbalance China's power. Singapore sits just above the Strait of Malacca, a chokepoint easily mined or submarine blocked against opposing sea trade. Vietnam's long coast on South China Sea puts it in a good position to disrupt or threaten Chinese sea trade.

Unlike other Southeast Asian/ASEAN countries Vietnam has defended itself from large outside powers and beaten them in the last 50 years. This has contributed to a rational defence posture that has not been tainted by the regional norm of inefficiency.

The methodical, focussed nature of Vietnam's defence force is only equaled in Southeast Asia by Singapore. Singapore recognises it is dwarfed by its Indonesian and Malaysian neighbours so Singapore has bought high tech weapons from the US and Western Europe. In return Singapore has tangible support from the US military.

Vietnam's purchase of six Russian submarines is just part of Vietnam's commercial and strategic relationship with Russia. Here were tentative early days of the submarine deal. This relationship is not an alliance but Vietnam realises that when it again is threatened by China (as in 1979-1990) Russia and to some extent the US can exert political and economic pressure on China. 

On land Vietnam can inflict high casualties on encroaching Chinese forces - as Vietnam did in the 1979 Border "Sino-Vietnamese" War. That 1979 Border War was large, with more than 100,000 Chinese troops and militia killed. But Vietnam realises it cannot beat China alone. 

Vietnam's submarines can do major damage to China through putting China's sea trade (especially oil and LNG supplies) at risk. Vietnam's submarines are armed with Klub missiles that have a land attack capability. Chinese leaders and military would lose considerable face if Vietnamese missiles hit such major Chinese cities as Guangzhou and Shanghai. Militarily China's Sanya Naval Base on Hainan Island might get some missile attention in a war. Vietnam's frigates and corvettes are also being  fitted with Russia's newly proven ship launched Klub/Kalibr with land attack capability.

In addition to Russia and the US Vietnam has close relations with such regional powers as India, Japan, South Korea and Australia. 

Although there is the strategic threat from China Vietnam has close economic relations with China
Australia also has the conundrum of close economic relations but frosty strategic relations with China.

Vietnam also has long term nuclear energy aspirations - a complication not lost on China. Here is an earlier nuclear report on Submarine Matters.



Anonymous said...

Hello Pete,
Nice article. Would like to add a few comments.

The 6th sub HQ-187 is named after a province of Vietnam, Ba Ria-Vung Tau. This southern province has two major cities, Ba Ria and Vung Tau. Vung Tau City is the larger city with popular beach-front tourist resorts. It also has modern ports for large commercial ships. Nhon Trach Naval Base (Regional Command 2), just up the river network, is the home port for two new fast missile boats (Vietnam-built Molniya corvettes HQ-377 and HQ-378, max speed 70 km/h, range ~3000 km). These modern boats could serve as back-up for Region 4 naval vessels to patrol the Spratly Archipelago.
Here is a complete list of 6 Kilos complete with the Vietnamese accents
HQ-182 Hà Nội
HQ-183 Hồ Chí Minh City
HQ-184 Hải Phòng
HQ-185 Khánh Hoà
HQ-186 Đà Nẵng
HQ-187 Bà Riạ-Vũng Tàu
The last sub is currently under sea trial and scheduled to be delivered mid 2016. Most likely, it will be delivered on schedule, since the delivery record for previous subs by the Russians has been impeccable.

First Map: Needs some updates, The easiest way would be to include some info in the caption to reflect the comments below.
“Regional Command 2 now has two new Molniya missile corvettes with 4 x 4 missile launch units (total 16 long-ranged missiles)”.

Second Map: If possible this map should be extended to cover Singapore, Indonesia, and the Malacca Strait which is the choke point of the trade route from the East Sea to the Persian Gulf. It would not take much to upset this choke point. It was the the pirates before the 2004 tsunami which wiped out the Banda Aceh population.


Pete said...

Thanks Sidney

All good information, which I've added to the article.



Anonymous said...

According to the latest Russian news, HQ187 will be delivered in November-December 2016.

You also need to factor in the 3 coastal artillery brigades. One brigade armed with Yakhont is based south of Cam Ranh. Another brigade is armed with the old Shaddock although their electronics and maximum range have been upgraded to essentially the same as the Sandbox. This brigade is based around Haiphong. The last brigade is armed with the dated Styx and is bound to be upgraded with Yakhont or Klub-K.

The main AShm for Vietnam Navy is still the Kh-35 which they manufactured locally under license. It is a good sea skimmer but the range is awfully short, although their smaller size allows the Molnya corvette to carry 16 of them. There are talks of upgrading future combattants to longer range Ashm like Klub or Yakhont. The Vietnamese Navy operates 5 types of Ashm (Styx, Shaddock, Kh-35, Yakhont and Klub) and there is a clear need to cut down on type proliferation in my view for logistics sake. The Klub AShm 3M-54E range is 220km, contrasted to a 300km range for Yakhont, so I do think the Yakhont is the better one although Klub is necesary with Kilo). Effective A2/AD does depend on maximum range and speed of interdiction. Russia upgraded a Nanuchka corvette to carry 12 Oniks and the Molnya is a derivative design of the Tarantul which is based on the Nanuchka, so design wise it should be able to carry the same payload with some trade offs on maximum boat speed (due to greater draught).
Vietnam seriously lack ISR&T capabilities and they are starting to address those needs with low earth orbit satellites and UAV. Technology happens to be a great equalizer if you master them, so I suspect one will see more satellites based on COTS. After all, micro and nano satellites from Skybox and Planet Labs essentially use electronics and sensors you can get in your game boxes and pro DSLR cameras. Skybox has a sub 1m resolution.

I do agree with you that Vietnam A2/AD strategy lacks persistence and depth and the overall strategy lacks territorial sea control. Vietnam planning is mainly geared to limited and low end conflicts.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pete,

the first four Tarantul FAC were delivered in the 90s with 4 Sunburns each and the later 4 Molinya were delivered with each 16 Switchblades each. But the recent batch of domestic-built ones have license-produced Switchblades with an extended range of 250km.

The current production run will consist of 10 Molinyas (2 FOC, 2 IOC, 2 outfitting and 4 U/C). There are plans to modify the Molinya-design to fit Klubs & stealthlize the hull for a second batch of ten. The VPN really intends to replace all the remaining Osas & Turyas & Petyas with newly-built Molinyas.

The naval-shipyards - owned by SOE SBIC and Dutch Damen-Schelde - could already build 3000 - 5000ton warship in their construction-halls in Hai-Phong and Da Nang. But they are busy with the OPVs for the VCG.

Ba Son Shipyard (the builder of the Monlinya) in Saigon will soon move to their new location in Vung Tau. Their new construction-halls there can accomodate 10000ton vessels.

Furthermore the VPN operates two battalions of a Bastion-P road-mobile coastal missile-battery with supersonic Yakhonts. There are also 2 other battalions operating with Shaddocks and Termits. There are unconfirmed orders of Bal-E batteries, which will be outfitted with the domestic Switchblades to replace the Shaddock/Termit.

The VPN also shows a great interest in the Klub-in-a-shipping-container-system as the hi-part and already operate the EXTRA/ACCULAR missile system as the lo-part of dispersed coastal naval-ops. The state-media already showed the EXTRA-system as a stationary system at VPN naval bases.

The VPN will soon deploy its own air-defence unit with the orders for SAMP/T "Mamba" and SPYDER-SR/MR to protect its' naval bases - in addition to the 23/57/100m AAA-batteries with newly domestic developed electro-optical targeting-systems. (-> See Singapore's SAM inventory!)

The VPAF currently provides the air-defence with modern S300 PMU-2 and upgraded legacy Soviet SAM-systems and deploys ~ 40ish upgraded Su-22M3/M4 and 36 Su-30MK2s - with an assorted range of anti-shipping & anti-radiation missiles. The Russians are also negoiating with the VPAF for Su-30SM and Su-34.

Most importantly the offensive systems are supported by a quite dense network of low-end domestic [air-defence/maritime surveillance] radars, upgraded Soviet legacy and modern Russian radars. Recent addition of radars from Sweden, France and again from Isreal plug the gaps. All the sensors are connected into the MoD's hi-command-C2-center in Hanoi & the regional-C2 centers through a fiber-network. The C2-systems and sensor-fusion-systems are completeley !domestic!. The Soviet legacy C2 system are being phased out.

The biggest gap is the airborne part of the sensors. The C-295 AEW&C under development by Airbus/Elbit is probably the most likely candidate.

The VPA operates upgraded SCUDs, which will soon be replaced by Iskanders - both in the ballistic and cruise missile version. The Vietnamese personnel is already training in Russia. Those Iskanders will be headache for the PLAN/PLAAF's air-defence of the Sanya naval base and the small islets in the SCS.

The Vietnamese Coast Guard is nowadays a proper coast guard with ~ 100 boats and actually already the largest in South-East Asia. With the ongoing induction of ~ 18x 2500ton & 6x 4000ton OPV (based on Dutch designs) the VCG is a serious contender for the water-cannon-contest, which the Asians love so much in their disputes.

The Vietnamese Ministry of Rural Development will build/sell around 5000 modern steel fishing-trawlers in the next years. The first units given to fishermen-coops have been shown to be built for but not with HMG, grenade- & RPG-launchers. The larger design even show masts which could carry smaller radars and have emplacement for 120mm-rockets.

The VPN plans with 1.5 crews for each Kilo. Maybe the RAN could ask for a few men, after all the RAN sub-tenders are already Made in VN.

Nicky said...

Hi Pete,
Looks like Vietnam is taking China's A2/AD philosophy and turning the tables on them. I would not be surprise if Vietnam starts looking for an AAW destroyer or AAW Frigate.

Pete said...

Hi Anonymous [at 15/2/16 1:55 AM]

Alot of info to take in. Do you have occasional links to support the following?:

1. Very interesting that "The first units given to fishermen-coops have been shown to be built for but not with HMG, grenade- & RPG-launchers." Do you mean fittings made for armed trawlers? Are they manned by fishermen who are also naval militia?

2. "120mm-rockets." What type of rocket? Recoiless rifles/tubes or rail launched?

3. "Maybe the RAN could ask for a few men, after all the RAN sub-tenders are already Made in VN." So with all this expensive arms and small ship making Vietnam can subsidize the defence budget by building small ships for foreign customers?

4. Is Vietnam only really buying and making Russian weapons, ships, aircraft. Any purchases of modern Western arms (in addition to "C-295 AEW&C under development by Airbus/Elbit") ?



Pete said...

Hi KQN [14/2/16 11:05 PM]

Interesting comments.

1. Are you saying Vietnam is paying for access to such LEO satellite systems as
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skybox_Imaging or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planet_Labs ?

2. Would Vietnam buy reconnaissance and/or armed UAVs from Israel, US or Russia?

Yes without nuclear weapons and without large conventional forces Vietnam could not sustain a large conflict with China.



Anonymous said...

KQN said

I have not seen any concrete proof that Vietnam manufactures locally the 260km Kh-35U with its more compact Saturn M64 turbofan allowing more fuel to be carried. Photos of the KCT-15, the Vietnamese Kh-35, clearly shows it is the older 130km variant. There are no photos available on the web of the KCT-15 with the very different rear end of the Kh-35U.
Standardizing on the Molnya is the right approach but fitting Klubs on them will be challenging since there is no Klub that can be launched at an incline like the Kh-35 or Oniks. Klubs on surface combatants need to be fired vertically in a VLS or container. Russian combattant designs all show either the VLS (Buyan M for example) or in a rather kluge approach Klub-K containers tied down on the rear deck.


Pete said...

Hi KQN (I just reposted your comment, now at 16/2/16 10:40 AM, because I deleted it by mistake. Sorry)
Interesting about launches of Klubs.

1. Earlier Russian cruise missiles can be launched by coffin launcher at an angle. What is different about Klubs that physically demands verticle launch?

2a. How is submarine torpedo tube launch of Klubs (eg. from Kilos) achieved given their is no stable vertical launch opportunity?

2b. I'm assuming a Kilo would need to slow right down to launch Klubs?

2c. And that a Kilo couldn't launch Klubs in very rough seas?



Pete said...

Hi Nicky K.D Chaleunphone

I think it unlikely that the US would supply Standard missiles (eg. SM-2s) or Aegis fire control to Vietnam for air warfare vessels of the US/Western type.

Vietnam has https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gepard-class_frigate probably armed with short ranged SA-8 Gecko SAMs ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/9K33_Osa )

But I'm assuming Vietnam is getting (or has) a longer range Russian naval SAM.



Anonymous said...


120mm, I am sure it is the 122mm Grad. That is for saturation bombardment only. I am aware of the Vietnamese government's desire to migrate fishermen to steel hull vessels, but so far there is a handful of takers. The price per steel vessel is way beyond the affordability of 99.99% fishermen in Vietnam.

On the Klub, Although Russia claims the Klub-N for VLS can be launched from inclined box, I have never seen such implementation. I believe a Klub-N can be modified (probably modifying or ditching the 1st booster stage with thrust vectoring which is used to make that first 90 degrees turn from a VLS launch) but when money is tight, you are competing for not just money, but also scarce R&D resources better spent on something else. That is the same with. I am sure if Vietnam pays for it, it can be done. Even on the to come 22800 corvette, the Klub are in containers on the rear of the helicopter deck. And even for Klub K container, the launch is only made when the launchers are locked vertically. I suspect a Klub launch will require the ship to slow down and the same goes for Kilo if not at stand still.

Vietnam has been purchasing high resolution services from LEO but they have been working to develop nano satellites on their own, at least for the electro optical option. They did work with a European partner for one that was launched already.

Vietnam has been using Israeli tactical UAVs for over the horizon targeting. Vietnam new asaault rifle for the army is the Israeli Galil Ace. They also purchased the point defense Spyder mobile SAM. They also bought 100+ mobile 155mm Caesar systems from France and there are discussions to acquire a Western IFV (similar to what Australia is doing).

But I full agree with you that will US sell SM-2 to Vietnam? That is No

Pete said...

Hi KQN [17/2/16 6:16 AM]

This rest day from writing a long daily article, has given me a bit of time to study the benefits of vertical launch systems (VLS) on ships and subs even South China Sea islands. See my latest short article.