Monday, September 29, 2014

Can Vietnam’s Maritime Strategy Counter China?

Can Vietnam’s Maritime Strategy Counter China? | The Diplomat 30/09/14 6:44 AM Page 1 of 4
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Can Vietnam’s Maritime Strategy
Counter China?
Just how developed and credible is Vietnam’s counterintervention
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
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
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.
By Carl Thayer
September 29, 2014
Can Vietnam’s Maritime Strategy Counter China? | The Diplomat 30/09/14 6:44 AM Page 2 of 4
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
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
Can Vietnam’s Maritime Strategy Counter China? | The Diplomat 30/09/14 6:44 AM Page 3 of 4
“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-totoe
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
Can Vietnam’s Maritime Strategy Counter China? | The Diplomat 30/09/14 6:44 AM Page 4 of 4
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.
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