Vietnam is a country that was "late to the game" in terms of seeing the high annual GDP growth rates that so many other states have seen in the East Asian region in different periods since the 1950s. While China, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan all had the ability to utilize a portion of their newly found riches for modernizing their respective military capabilities, Vietnam was forced to maintain a military that was primarily comprised of hardware seized from the vanquished South Vietnamese military upon its surrender in the 1970s. While the myriad territorial claims in the South China Sea have existed for centuries, newly found wealth has allowed states to develop (and purchase) military capabilities that allow for the power projection necessary to press such claims.
Vietnam has seen that the failure to defend its territorial interests in the region can have serious consequences, as it was soundly defeated by the PLA in 1974, resulting in China gaining control of the Spratly Islands. The Vietnamese navy was again defeated by the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in 1988, resulting in an additional six islands being overtaken by China. Such defeats have not been forgotten. As Hanoi sees its coffers grow from strong economic growth, it has made the decision to invest heavily into the modernization of its navy.
Gephard-Class Light Frigates
Vietnam has purchased four of these vessels from Russia that will be the backbone of its navy for the foreseeable future. The ships are highly versatile, as they are capable of engaging surface ships, submarines, as well as aircraft. The weapons systems include a Russian-made Uran-E missile system, as well as a 76.2 millimeter cannon that fires at a rate of 120 rounds per minute with a 10 kilometer range, and two 30 millimeter guns. The frigates are also equipped with the Palma anti-aircraft gun system, which is a capable defensive measure against anti ship cruise missiles (ASCM), ariel bombs, as well as enemy aircraft fire.
The most recent of the frigates to be delivered to the Vietnamese navy are specially equipped with anti submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. Each hold two twin torpedo tubes, anti-submarine rocket launchers, and 12-20 submarine specific mines. In relation to the South China Sea, these ships have the ability to project highly capable offensive measures, as well as providing an important layer in an area access area denial (A2AD) scenario within an area.
The primary combat utility of the corvette vessel is for engagement of enemy vessels in open sea, and the Molniya-class is quite capable. The ships are armed with the Russian SS-N-25 switchblade anti-ship missile system, as well as other supersonic anti-ship missiles. It also has the Garpun-Bal radar system, which allows a vessel to observe up to fifteen targets simultaneously, and target up to six for weapons delivery.
The ship also has a wide array of additional capabilities, including mine-laying, defensive countermeasures, and high speed capability. It is also widely believed to have the ability to be stealth capable, as well as carry out missions as far away as 3000 nautical miles from its home port. In 2012, Vietnam also purchased 4 Sigma-class Corvettes from the Dutch Schelde shipyard, with two of the ships being manufactured in Vietnam under Dutch supervision. This is significant because it gives Vietnam valuable experience in final assembly production of a vessel that could be used in the future to develop its own indigenous vessels.
It is Hanoi's 2009 contract with Russia to purchase six kilo-class submarines that is potentially the most significant purchase made by the Vietnamese navy. The subs are equipped with Klub-S submerged launched cruise missiles, which can be used as an anti-ship weapon, or more controversially, retrofitted for land-attack capability. At the present time, Russia is only supplying Vietnam with the anti-ship variety, yet it should be noted that if Hanoi is to gain the latter model in the future, it would be a major concern for its neighbors to consider. The major issue for the Vietnamese navy regarding the submarine acquisition is the lack of experience the navy has in using and maintaining submarines of this caliber. While India is believed to be providing training to the Vietnamese navy for the submarines, it will take years of training to bring crews up to sufficient levels to operate the vessels.
It is without question that Vietnam has upped the ante in the great military chess game taking place in the South China Sea. The recent military acquisition platforms acquired by the Vietnamese navy potentially allows it far more options in its power projection towards claims in the South China Sea. The frigates and corvettes purchased all have the ability to be quick strike vessels in a conflict scenario near the South China Sea, and potentially deliver devestating blows to enemy vessels, something Beijing must take into account before a decision would be made to engage the Vietnamese navy. The Kilo-class submarines purchased also have the potential to disrupt enemy ships in a military conflict in a variety of ways. Analysts believe that the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) still is lacking credible ASW defenses, a fact that could be exposed by Hanoi if military actions took place between the two states. There is also the geographic factor to consider: Vietnam is in close proximity to China'a 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 for 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. These new acquisitions, as well as the purchase of surveillance DH C-6 Twin Otter aircraft from Canada, and its SU-30 MK2 and Su-27 aircraft that can reach the disputed Spratly Island airspace (the PLAAF aircraft is not believed to have this effective range thusfar), Vietnam has quickly developed a multi-layered A2AD scenario that Beijing must consider before it would use military options against Vietnam in this region. Although in the minds of Vietnamese officials, the 1998 Spratly Island battle will never be forgotten, it must now seem like ancient history.