Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Vietnam People's Navy + Kilo subs

Recently, the Vietnamese put in a huge order for 6 kilo submarines for $1.8 billion. After this, I read some articles like this one that claims Vietnam is sending China a message with this purchase. This blog will attempt to look at the recent competition between China and Vietnam over South China Sea.

I will try to give you guys an overview of the conflict between Vietnam and China. However, I'm far from an expert in this area, so please do excuse me if I'm wrong in certain areas. After Vietnam War, China's relationship with Vietnam deteriorated dramatically declined and Vietnam joined in Soviet Union's encirclement of China. In order to teach Vietnam a lesson, China invaded Vietnam in 1979 and suffered huge casualty, but did teach Vietnam a lesson. Then in 1988, they had a minor naval battle over the disputed islands in Spratly. Basically to this day, the two countries still have disputes over ownership of the islands and control of South China Sea. In spite of their growing economic relationship in the recent years, the tension shown through nationalism in the two countries have never really subsided.

Unfortunately for Vietnam, the military balance has tilted significantly toward China since 1988. Back then, PLA only had several Ludas and Jianghu as its main surface combatants in the South Sea Fleet and the air force couldn't support any of its operations in 1988. In fact, they developed a refueling version of H-6 after 1988 specifically to support future operations over there. 20 years later, SSF is the crown jewel of PLAN's modernization effort and also could be supported by the air force with the new fleet of refuelers. So, what has Vietnam done to improve itself in the recent years.

It has pretty much went with Russian weapons over the past decade. The problem that Vietnam has is that its area of dispute is close enough to China that it will have to deal with both China's air force and navy in any confrontation. Countries further south like Singapore, Malaysia and Australia both far larger threat to PLAN, because PLAAF simply can't fly that far. With a military budget of $3.6 billion and troubles in economy, Vietnam obviously realizes that it can't compete with PLA. So, it's actually adopting the same strategy that PLAN is supposedly adopting against USN. Basically, Vietnam is trying to buy a lot small, fast ships equipped with long range missiles (and nothing else much to offer) + quiet submarines. Of course with it's limited resource, the scale that Vietnam can implement this is much smaller than what China can. In the recent years, they've ordered a number of Project 12418 Molniya missile patrol boat, fitted with the Uran AShM, from the Russians. This gives them a fast attacking missile boat that can launch many missiles, so I guess it serves the role of 022 in PLAN. Although in comparison, it is larger, slower, less stealthy and not as network centralized. They also ordered 2 Project 1166.1 "Gepard" corvettes (and possibly more in the future), which have some level of self defense and also carrying more AshM. I believe Vietnam also bought some Yakhont missiles from Russia, but I'm not sure which platform will be deployed with this extremely potent missile. Vietnam also recently ordered for 12 Su-30MK2s from Russia which will be able to carry a range of advanced AAMs and AShMs. I think this is on top of the 12 Su-27s and 4 Su-30MK2s it already purchased from Russia. Although, I haven't found any article indicating how much weapons it purchased along with the fighter jets. And finally, Vietnam made the huge purchase of 6 kilo submarines, which also would theoretically provide a huge threat for PLAN surface combatants.

The Su-30 and Kilo deals were struck very close to each other, so it created a lot of speculation that Vietnam was challenging China in the South China Sea. I would agree that Vietnam is making a serious attempt to stick up for itself, but that its efforts really are more for display than anything else. I'm extremely critical of their deal for the 6 kilo submarines. For a navy that basically has no training with submarine up to this point, it will take a lot of resources to train the crew needed for the submarines. On top of this, I find it puzzling that Vietnam would go for Kilo, when a smaller number of more advanced submarines like U-214, Scorpene and Amur would be far better choices (I'm not sure if there is a EU embargo on Vietnam or not). China has been operating, doing maintenance/upgrade and conducting ASW exercises against Kilo submarines for years, so it would probably have an easier time hunting down Kilo than a submarine of the same generation. In PLAN service, Kilo submarines also are seen much less frequently on patrols and much more frequently in shipyards undergoing maintenance/overhaul work than Song Submarines. Even the much talked about Club missile was not test launched until a year and half after most of the kilos were delivered to China. Clearly, PLAN found it much easier to operate Song submarines than Kilos. I'm not sure if that's just PLAN's preference or a general availability problem with Kilo submarines. I think purchasing something like SU-30MK2 makes a lot of sense for Vietnam, because of Su-30's range and long range strike capability. Although, I do think su-30 is over-hyped and not as potent as some people may think.

Overall, Vietnam certainly made a lot of improvements recently with all of its purchases from Russia. The systems they purchased are heavily geared toward ASuW. Their strategy is similar to what PLAN is adopting against USN. Unfortunately, their most advanced weapons like Su-30 and Kilo are also in service with PLA, which would reduce the effectiveness against their intended foe. Basically, China has operated these weapons long enough to know how best to counter them. If possible, I think Vietnam should diversify its purchases away from just Russia.


Abu Ikhwan said...

Vietnam should reconsider their option buying any platform from Russian because most of Russia advance weapon already sell to China.

Vietnam should buying their SUB from South Korea and maybe Jet from France if they wanted to send a correct word to Chinese PLA.

YellowDragon said...

Hi Yassin,
what makes you think that VN should buy SUB from South Korea ?
I think you maybe confuse North Korea with South Korea.
In 1997, Vietnam purchased two Yugo-class midget submarines from North Korea that are torpedo-capable, but are used mostly for swimmer/diver delivery or for acquantaince training with sub-operation.
The decision to buy submarines due to the disputes between Vietnam and PRC over the Paracel-&Spratly Islands in the East Sea of Vietnam is right. The vietnamese marine is small and not a strong opponent to PLAN. But when we think back to the Falkland war in 1982 between Argentina and Great Britain, where the argentinian light-cruiser Belgrano was sunk by the atom-submarine HMS Conqueror of the Royal Navy and afterwards no action more from the side of argentinian marine, then we can see this decision is not bad.

Unknown said...

I think Yassin suggest Vietnam should buy Subs built by South Korean based on Germany Technology

YellowDragon said...

Hi Buu Don,
So far I know, Vietnam shouldn´t have much choice at acquisition of submarines for her navy. Traditionally, Vietnam depends very strongly on russian defense hardwares. Aside from political factor purchasing submarines from other sources can give Vietnam more technical problems than with russian subs (maintenance, spare parts, long-term technical support,…).
It is right what Feng and Yassin had written, that the russian subs KILO-class which was ordered by the Vietnam People´s Navy (VNPN),have been already operating with PLAN. That means, in case of a direct military confrontation with China the opponent force is well aware of advantages and disadvantages of this underwater weapon system (noise finger print,…). But aside from the above reason Vietnam has only limited resources to be able to choose other(maybe) better alternatives (such as Scorpene, …).
1. The unit price for KILO-sub is about 300 Million USD to compare with 400 Million USD for Scorpene.
2. For 6 russian KILO-subs VN could pay partly with crude oil.
3. The purchase of KILO-subs is furthermore combined with the acquisition of 2 mobile coastal defense missile units K-300P Bastion P which are based on the very advanced supersonic anti-ship cruise missile (AshCM) Yakhont.
4. Otherwise, due to the vietnamese intention to cooperate closer with the Indian Navy Vietnam hopes in the future to be able to get the indian sub-launched BrahMos for her sub-fleet which is better adapted to submarine of KILO-class.

southchinasea said...

Everybody thinks Vietnam has no experience with submarine operating but it is not true. Russia and India have been training Vietnamese naval officers years ago. The purchase of Kilos has been planned before but kept in secret. They only waited for the right moment to send a message to China when they are under too much pressure on the sea (last year and this year). The philosophy of Vietnam is not to win a war but not to let China win. Or they could win, but not without a hard price like in 1979.

Anonymous said...

In 1979, China lost..

Mili-Tec said...

"Everybody thinks Vietnam has no experience with submarine operating but it is not true. Russia and India have been training Vietnamese naval officers years ago."

Experience and being trained (by others) are different things.

Yongle said...

We can see that guerella tactics have been using intensively along Vietnamese military history. These subs and aircrafts are not exceptions for Vietnamese arsenal which they fit perfectly on hit and run tactic. Main goal of Vietnamese at South China Sea is to maintain current situation which they are a little more advance than China on Spartly and no way on Paracel. The advantage of Vietnamese comparing PLAN on Spratly competition is distance so they can apply hit and run strategy very easily. Their purpose is to defeat willing to fight of PLAN rather than literally defeat PLAN. They have succesfully done that with Chinese ancients, French, American. Resupplying, refueling, maintainance are main difficulties of PLAN if there are confrontation at further south of the sea. Refueling fleet or resuppling ships are easy to be intercepted from vietnamese mainland. To stop Vietnamese from doing that, China must attack Vietnamese home land which Chinese never want to do to prevent the fullsize war to Vietnam.
I think Vietnamese was right to buy their new weapons. The issue is that if they have enough to maintain their punches until Chinese to give up their willing to fight.

Stay even if sink said...

I disagreed with the author that China taught Vietnam a lesson in the 1979 war. I think there were 2 main goals/objectives. 1) Pull Vietnam "pro" troop out of Cambodia so that Polpot can regroup and 2) Prove to Vietnam that the Soviet would not protect Vietnam.

That said China failed on #1 because Vietnam did not pull out of Cambodia. In fact they continued to remain (occupy) in Cambodia until 1989.

China achieved the second goal. They were right that the Soviet wouldn't do it :)) (poor Soviet:))

Of course until now neither sides admit what was the casualty but it was more heard that China suffered more. What was interesting was that the Vietnam troops that fought with the Chinese were not "pro". They were mostly local militia.

After the war, China realized how "week" or "unskilled" their solders are, and since then spent a lot of time and money to rebuild.

Unknown said...

China did not invade Vietnam in 1979. On the contrast, Vietnam invaded China after winning US with the help of China. Chinese army fought back and quickly pushed back Vietnamese invasion and return the original border thereafter. By the way, China did not lose the war, Vietnamese lost.

Unknown said...

China did not invade Vietnam in 1979. On the contrast, Vietnam invaded China after winning US with the help of China. Chinese army fought back and quickly pushed back Vietnamese invasion and return the original border thereafter. By the way, China did not lose the war, Vietnamese lost.