Can Vietnam’s Maritime Strategy Counter China? Just how developed and credible is Vietnam’s counteri
Carlyle A. Thayer , C3S Paper No.2047
Ever since Vietnam took delivery of two enhanced Kilo or Varshavyanka-class conventional submarines from Russia defense analysts have differed over how quickly Vietnam could absorb these weapons into its navy and create a credible deterrent force to China.
For example, Admiral James Goldrick (Royal Australian Navy retired) noted, with respect to Vietnam’s purchase of conventional submarines, that “the Vietnamese are trying to do something very quickly that no navy in recent times has managed successfully on such a scale from such a limited base.”
The answer to whether or not Vietnam can absorb submarines and create a credible deterrent is now becoming clearer with reports by diplomatic observers that Vietnam’s submarines are undertaking patrols along its coast. In addition, Vietnamese crews are currently undergoing training in undersea warfare doctrine and tactics at India’s INS Satavahana submarine center.
The views of defense analysts range from skeptical to cautiously optimistic about Vietnam’s ability to develop an effective counter-intervention strategy to deter China in Vietnam’s maritime domain.
Zachary Abuza, a political scientist at Simmons College in Boston, has authored two articles, both for cogitASIA, the blog of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that present negative assessments of Vietnam’s growing military capabilities.
In his first article, Abuza asserted that the core of Vietnam’s navy consists of 11 aging Soviet-era corvettes and five frigates armed with antiquated weapons; “none are new, nor recently upgraded.” He offered the assessment that “it will take years for Vietnam to complete its current round of modernization, as well as develop new doctrines and tactics to use this new technology.” He concluded, “Vietnam’s best weapons remain diplomacy and international law.”
Abuza mistakenly included four Tarantul V or Molniya-class guided missile frigates and one BPS-500 corvette in his Soviet-era inventory. The BPS-500 underwent considerable upgrading in 2013.
In addition, Abuza erroneously reported that Vietnam had purchased six frigates from India. Vietnam has no Indian frigates in its navy. Recently India provided Vietnam with a $100 million line of credit to purchase six Ocean Patrol Vessels. These acquisitions have yet to be finalized.
When Vietnam’s four Molniya-class guided missile frigates and BPS-500 corvette are added to the two Gepard 3.9- class (Project 11661) guided missile stealth frigates (armed with 3M24 Uran [SS-N-25 Switchblade] anti-ship missiles), two Dutch Sigma-class corvettes (armed with new extended range Exocet anti-ship missiles), and six Svetlyak-class Fast Attack Craft armed with anti-ship missiles, Vietnam’s surface navy appears a more formidable force.
In his second analysis Abuza acknowledged that Vietnam has significantly upgraded its Soviet-era fleet with the acquisition of Russian Gepard-class frigates and Molniya corvettes and Dutch Sigma-class corvettes. Nonetheless Abuza dismisses this force as a credible deterrent vis-à-vis China.
Abuza argues that for a deterrent to be credible it must meet four criteria; it must be “credible, proportional, clearly communicated, and target what the other side values.” Abuza gives Vietnam a positive rating on the first two criteria, a mixed result on the third, and fails Vietnam on the fourth.
In Abuza view, Vietnam’s submarine force will not deter China because China may be willing to sacrifice a few surface combatants in order to prevail over Vietnam. Additionally, “Vietnam’s asymmetric deterrent capability cannot credibly deter China’s own asymmetric, quasi-militarized operations.” With respect to Abuza’s second assertion it should be noted that no regional navy, except Japan, has developed a deterrent to China’s employment of Coast Guard, other law enforcement, and fishing vessels to assert maritime sovereignty claims.
With respect to the fourth criterion, Abuza concluded that Vietnam could not inflict sufficient damage on China “because Vietnam cannot fight a sustained conflict against its large neighbor, either economically or militarily. And that puts a big hole in its deterrent capability.” Additionally, the Chinese military “could respond by escalating in ways that could threaten the Vietnamese regime’s hold on power.”
Other analysts note, however, Vietnam’s deterrence strategy is not designed to confront China in a sustained conflict. Rather it is aimed at deterring China at the lower end of the conflict spectrum by posing risks to People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships should they contemplate intervening to support civilian law enforcement vessels.
Lyle Goldstein, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, actually consults Chinese assessments of Vietnamese military capabilities to determine whether Vietnam’s deterrence strategy is credible. Goldstein notes that Chinese defense planners monitor Vietnam’s modernization programs “extremely closely” and have “ample respect… for Vietnam overall,” including the Vietnamese Air Force.
Goldstein notes that Vietnam’s Varshavyanka-class submarines can “deliver lethal blows with either torpedoes or anti-ship cruise missiles.” Zhang Baohui, a security specialist at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, concurs. He reports that China’s military planners are concerned about Vietnam’s submarines. “On a theoretical level,” he notes, “the Vietnamese are at the point where they could put them to combat use.”
Nonetheless, Goldstein reports that Chinese analysts have identified two major weaknesses in Vietnam’s military strategy: lack of major experience in operating complex weapons systems and “surveillance, targeting and battle management.” These weaknesses have led Chinese defense officials to believe “that China could prevail in any armed clash” with Vietnam.
Goldstein concludes, “Vietnam’s most promising strategy versus China is the hope that it might have sufficient forces for deterrence, while simultaneously pursuing diplomacy to resolve disputes.”
Gary Li, Brian Benedictus, Robert Farley, Collin Koh and Siemon Wezeman offer cautiously optimistic evaluations of Vietnam’s counter-intervention strategy.
Gary Li, formerly a senior analyst with IHS Fairplay in London and currently a maritime security specialist with IHS Maritime in Beijing, noted a year ago that Vietnam’s advantage of geographical position and increasing naval capabilities have made its coastline “a shooting gallery.” In this respect it should be noted that Vietnam’s coastal artillery and missiles force is under the direct control of its navy.
In a recent assessment, Li once again stresses the importance of Vietnam’s geographical position vis-à-vis China. Li notes that Vietnam possesses the largest and most numerous number of islands in the Spratly archipelago. China “has to travel vast distances to reach the ends of its claimant zone.” According to Li: “Vietnam, on the other hand, is contesting an area that is right on its doorstep. Its fleet of missilearmed light corvettes and submarines can strike and retreat into their homeports at will, while a stricken Chinese fleet would more or less be lost.”
Brian Benedictus, after reviewing in detail the capabilities of Vietnam’s Gepard-class light frigates, Molniya-class corvettes, and enhanced Kilo (Varshavyanka)-class submarines, concludes that these acquisitions, “potentially allows [Vietnam] more options in its power projection towards claims in the South China Sea.” According to Benedictus, Vietnam’s frigates and corvettes. “all have the ability to be quick strike vessels in a conflict scenario near the South China Sea, and potentially deliver devastating blows to enemy vessels, something Beijing must take into account before a decision would be made to engage the Vietnamese navy.”
At the same time, Vietnam’s Varshavyanka-class submarines “have the potential to disrupt enemy ships in a military conflict in a variety of ways,” particularly as the PLAN is weak in anti-submarine warfare. Finally, Benedictus, like Li, stresses the importance of the geographic factor. He argues: “Vietnam is in close proximity to China’s Hainan Province, the island which is harbor to the PLAN Southern Pacific Fleet. It is worrisome enough for Beijing to consider that harbored vessels could be easy prey to submarines off the island’s shores, if conflict took place; the prospect of Vietnam someday having land-attack capabilities integrated into its submarine fleet would be a serious cause of concern.”
Vietnam has expressed interest in acquiring the land-based BrahMos land attack cruise missile from India. Industry sources report that India is not yet ready to supply Vietnam with these missiles. Russia too has not yet agreed to sell sea-launched land attack cruise missile for Vietnam’s submarines.
Robert Farley reinforces the arguments made by Li and Benedictus in an article that considers five Vietnamese weapons that China should fear. He lists the Sukhoi fighter, the Kilo-class submarine, the P-800 Onyx Cruise Missile, the S-300 SAM and Vietnam’s territory itself.
The P-800 Onyx cruise missile “can be launched from aircraft, surface ships, submarines, and shore based platforms.” These missiles could attack Chinese ships from multiple, unexpected vectors and overwhelm the PLAN’s air defense systems.
The S-300 surface-to-air missile is one of the world’s most sophisticated and integrated air defense systems.
According to Farley, “it can track and engage dozens of targets at ranges of up to seventy-five miles… Used in conjunction with the fighters of the VPAF (Vietnam People’s Army Air Force), the SAM network would make it very difficult to carry out a concerted air campaign against Vietnam at acceptable cost.” The S-300 system could be used to protect Cam Ranh Bay and other vital naval bases.
And finally, Farley notes, Vietnam “has the advantage of space,” that is, “inhospitable terrain” that would deter China from launching a land invasion.
Farley joins Li and Benedictus in concluding: “Vietnam does not want a full-scale war with China… In particular Vietnam doesn’t want to go toe-to-toe with China in a capital and technology intensive war that might attrite away the expensive equipment the VPA has acquired.
Nevertheless, China must appreciate that Vietnam has bite. The Vietnamese military, in its current configuration, is designed to deter Chinese adventurism.” Collin Koh, from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, argues that Vietnam will use its submarines in area denial operations off its coast and in the Spratly islands once they become fully operational.
According to Koh:
“Sea denial means creating a psychological deterrent by making sure a stronger naval rival never really knows where your subs might be. It is classic asymmetric warfare utilized by the weak against the strong and something I think the Vietnamese understand very well. The question is whether they can perfect it in the underwater dimension.”
Siemon Wezeman, from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, goes further to argue that from the Chinese point of view Vietnam’s deterrence is already a reality. According to Wezeman:
“The Vietnamese have changed the whole scenario – they already have two submarines, they have the crews and they appear to have the weapons and their capabilities and experience will be growing from this point. From the point of view of Chinese assumptions, the Vietnamese deterrent is already at a point where it must be very real.”
When all of Vietnam’s current and future arms acquisitions are taken into account, it is evident that Vietnam has taken major steps to develop a robust capacity to resist maritime intervention by a hostile power. This has taken the form of developing a counter-intervention strategy that integrates shore-based artillery and missile systems; Su-30 Sukhoi multirole jet fighters; fast attack craft, corvettes and frigates armed with ship-to-ship missiles; and Varshavyanka-class submarines. These weapon systems should enable Vietnam to make it extremely costly for China to conduct maritime operations within a 200-300 nautical mile band of water along Vietnam’s coast from the Vietnam-China border in the northeast to around Da Nang in central Vietnam if not further south.
Additionally, Vietnam also has the capacity to strike China’s major naval base near Sanya on Hainan Island and military facilities on Woody Island from its shore-based Bastion cruise missile system.
The purpose of Vietnam’s counter-intervention strategy is intended to deter China from deploying PLAN warships at the lower end of the conflict spectrum, such as assisting civilian law enforcement agency vessels operating in Vietnamese waters or blockading Vietnamese-held islands and features in the South China Sea.
(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email: Carlthayer@webone.com.au)