Advice on a Vietnamese “Model Maritime Militia Force”
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Advice on a Vietnamese “Model Maritime Militia Force”


A Vietnamese author announces that Hanoi is “in search of a model maritime militia force,” presumably to defend its Paracel Islands holdings from, ahem, a certain big Asian country that harbors designs of its own on the archipelago. Herewith, a few thoughts about the prospects for such a force. At first blush the concept of seagoing militia seems quixotic. Nations possess navies, coast guards, and merchant fleets, all with distinct, well-defined functions. Right?

Not necessarily. There’s abundant precedent for different ways of doing business in great waters. Let a hundred flowers blossom! In The Safeguard of the Sea, his history (and prehistory) of British navies, historian N. A. M. Rodger observes that seafaring states have experimented with many fleet designs over the centuries. Roles and missions blurred, especially in the days before sovereigns maintained standing navies. Naval warfare was a pickup game in bygone ages.

That element of maritime history appears half-forgotten. In 2009, for instance, the Naval Diplomat traveled to the Clingendael Institute of International Relations, The Hague, to regale Dutch Navy commanders—who were poised to take over Operation Atalanta, the EU counterpiracy expedition in the Gulf of Aden—with some cockamamie ideas about how to protect merchantmen transiting regional waters.

My idea: the Gulf of Aden is a vast expanse. Navies will never deploy enough men-of-war to defend every merchant vessel from every attack by corsairs. Ergo, why not arm these ships? Squads of marines, private security, or even crewmen bearing arms would hold the upper hand against corsairs in skiffs. That seemed like common sense—I likened it to settlers arming themselves to fight off outlaws in the Wild West—but it elicited fierce pushback. More American cowboy-ism, I suppose.

Whereupon I reached back to Europe’s nautical past. After naval guns were invented, European monarchs mandated that all merchantmen be outfitted with the newfangled armaments. Thus equipped, they could defend themselves against brigands. They could also take their place in the battle line when the nation hurled its navy against that of an enemy. Armed merchantmen fought on both sides in large numbers when Sir Francis Drake led the English Navy against Medina Sidonia’s Spanish Armada. Why not put Renaissance wine in 21st-century bottles, quoth I? Arming merchant ships would guarantee that force would be met with force off the Somali coast, giving crews a fighting chance.

The idea of maritime militia also entranced early Americans, a tightfisted lot for whom the Minutemen taking up arms to fight the Redcoats at Lexington and Concord remained a living memory. Why not apply that template to oceanic warfare? Alfred Thayer Mahan reproached the founding generations for thinking they could improvise a “sea militia force” on the cheap to raid British shipping during the War of 1812. Mahan recalled that the U.S. Navy and privateers scored some noteworthy successes during the conflict, but that the Royal Navy choked off American commerce almost entirely by 1814.

There’s a Mahanian lesson here for Vietnam, I think. Militiamen can harass lopsidedly superior foes, but the odds against their winning are long indeed.

By no means are oddball methods of fleet organization unique to the West. Look no further than dynastic China, which entrusted maritime defense to provincial fleets of various sorts. Fishermen, for instance, often acted as an auxiliary arm of sea power.

Some of these traditions endured into the communist era. For example, Beijing touted the part the nation’s fishing fleet played in the 1974 battle against the South Vietnamese Navy in the Paracels. Fishermen, went the official parable, helped lift the people’s navy to victory—vindicating China’s indisputable sovereignty in southern waters. They remainanadjuncttoChinesemaritimestrategy to this day.

Strategists in Hanoi should also examine the problem of seafaring militia through a theoretical prism, revisiting Mao Zedong’s three-phase doctrine of protracted war. In Maoist terms, Vietnam remains in phase 1 of a protracted struggle, relying on low-end assets to harry a far stronger adversary. It confronts a China that is developing an imposing conventional fleet. China’s navy probably straddles the boundary between phase 2 and phase 3 already, and it continues to progress. A seagoing militia needs a naval backstop to fulfill its true potential. That’s a luxury Chinese fishermen and other part-time combatants enjoy but Vietnamese militiamen lack.

Mahan drew similar lessons from the War of 1812. Frigate and other small-ship actions were fine and all, but they could never be decisive in themselves against a great navy. Americans were deluding themselves if they believed otherwise. Similarly, Vietnam needs to develop a serious navy of its own, form alliances or partnerships to augment its strength on the high seas, or make its peace with Chinese supremacy.

There’s some precedent for a weaker land power acquiring a loaner fleet to contend with a stronger sea power. That’s how Sparta overcame the vaunted Athenian navy 2,500 years ago. In effect the land-bound Spartans borrowed a Persian fleet at a critical juncture in the Peloponnesian War and went on to vanquish an enfeebled Athens. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

One final Maoist point. Mao writes that guerrillas swim among the populace as a fish swims in the sea, blending among them to elude the counterinsurgent. How does that work for a seaborne militia that ventures far from Vietnamese coasts? Small craft can merge into coastwise shipping in crowded seas, using the clutter to escape detection, identification, and attack. The kind of concealment Mao foresaw for insurgents is feasible in coastal waters. Indeed, brown-water operations give big navies fits.

But how effective is the analogy beyond the near-shore environment, where the “sea” of commercial traffic thins out, leaving the “fish” high and dry, and exposed to naval predators? It’s unclear to me to what extent the militia paradigm maps to the nautical domain.

Hanoi faces the forbidding task of upholding longstanding territorial claims against a determined, economically preponderant, increasingly well-equipped opponent. Not an enviable predicament.

December 24, 2013 at 07:55

…It seems there are a lot of comments which under-estimated the Vietnamese. Nothing is more truthful than…the facts. VN has been fighting against China expansionism for thousands of years and they are good at that. VN independence is a proof. During the worst time of VN when she faced international embargo, wars at 2 fronts China and Cambodia also with the collapse of Soviet union, VN still emerged as…one nation and developed, strong as it is as now….then I do not think Chinaman could easily bully an united VN( North and South) with more than 90 millions of population anymore. Wake up, Chinaman…LOL.

Giac Tau Xau Xa
September 7, 2012 at 20:07

That's funny considering Chinese so-called 'maritime surveillance' ships, which pretended to be civilian ships, are actually Chinese warships with full range of weapons designed to sink other ships.  China is the real rogue nation here, especially when it used military ships disguised as civilian ships to harass, destroy and even kill the poor and harmless Vietnamese fishermen.  The disguise works well for China because if the Vietnamese maritime police tried to get involved and harmed these 'civilian ships', China would use that as an excuse for a full blown war.
Again, just because you think like children doesn't make everyone in the region the same way.

Wendy W
September 7, 2012 at 20:01

Your sense of history is a bit screwy if you think:  "In 1979, two elite Vietnamese divisions got eradicated"…  LOL.  What a bunch of propagandic nonsense.  Everyone knew that elite Chinese PLA divisions were defeated at the hands of Vietnamese militia composed of old men and women.  The elite Vietnamese troops were at that time kicking butts in Cambodia, chasing China's lackey Polpot and Khmer Rouge all the way to the Thai borders.  Upon hearing news of these troops rerouting to Vietnam's northern frontier, the PLA promptly declared 'objective achieved'…. LOL…
It had always been a wishful thinking for the Han Chinese to eradicate the Viet's culture, language and customs.  While China continued playing the victim and asking for sympathies from major powers, they never looked at themselves and their own history.  Oh, yes, a little nation of the Rising Sun, 1/10 of China size managed to subdue and enslaved Chinese for decades.  China still harbors that wound while dreaming of doing the same thing to the Vietnamese.

John Chan
September 3, 2012 at 20:49

In the end, I will say VN will return to China’s arms, get rid of that ugly alien script and use Chinese again, so that they can talk to their ancestors spiritually again.
In 1979, two elite Vietnamese divisions got eradicated in a short span of 28 days; caste them as local militia is a great insult to those soldiers gave up their lives defending Vietnam.
VN central government had to evict from Hanoi in the advent of PLA’s bombardment is a distortion of “PLA couldn’t beat the Vietnamese local militia.”
Vietnam should learn from Outer Mongolia, so that they can stay alive as a nation; Britain is USA’s lackey, beating its master is a more worthwhile challenge; Japan is walking the steps to be righted the wrongs, it needs an another WWII ending so that it can be as co-operative with China as it did with the USA in the last 70 years. Russia is indeed a problematic case, as you say only “in the end” counts.
Only VN’s position is pathetic; it dares not ask fairness for the millions of its innocent citizens killed by the USA, the Philippines, etc., instead it has to kiss those murders and butchers’ behind and called them friends nowadays.

September 3, 2012 at 14:27

I forgot to ask about how china fought against competent military forces such as Japan, Britain, Russia, Manchuria, Mongol. 
Can you chinese posters tell the readers what were the result? What happend to chinese sovereign and indepenct even china is so big and so strong? LOL.
When will china take back the huge swap of land from Russia? Remember those JC? How pathetic, not a word. So much shame and humilation.

September 3, 2012 at 14:23

@ JC,
Read my comments again. I said "in the end". Get it? 
As I said, Vietnam still comes out victorious in the end, it did not matter how long it took. Even the barbarians from the North could not keep the Vietnamese down forever.
LOL @ china could not defense Vietnam, therefore, France took Vietnam over. You mean like how china could not defense Vietnam against the fearsome Mongols? Remember how those Mongols killed over 1/2 of chinese population? Remember who smashed those fearsome Mongols not none, not twice, but thrice? That was Vietnam.
Again, you and chinese posters brag about how china would easily invade Vietnam again. Didn't you guys try it in 1979? Do telll us the result and don't try to spin that china just did not want to invade. You can not invade when tens of thousands of your own lay dead at the border.
So come and get another smash in the mouth, again…as before…LOL.

September 2, 2012 at 22:37

Excellent points and history that would work well for most of ASEAN. The issue with Viet Nam, is that China has a lot of experience and capabilities in this area. Viet Nam is close enough to China that it could wind up a Naval Militia vs Naval Militia battle as far South as Da Nang. The Chinese have a vast advantage in equipment and manpower. Projecting that power past Da Nang or anywhere else except for Japan and Korea is another story.
Viet Nam's best hope is to shift the battle to land and fight a very destructive battle on Vietnamese soil. As the Chinese Army is now made up of their family's only children, having one or two million of them die in Viet Nam . . . It wouldn't matter that much to the Vietnamese how many die as they would be protecting their homes and families, while the Chinese "Little Princlings" would be involved in raw agression. China has continuously done this to Viet Nam over thousands of years and China has always, even if the war lasted a thousand years, lost.

John Chan
September 2, 2012 at 03:24

Vietnam is a rogue nation, it has been arming its fishing fleet with militia for decades, those rogue Vietnamese sea militia have been shooting, kidnapping and harassing Chinese fishermen at will for decades; only until recently China was able to put out enough marine enforcement units to contain them and put law and order in the SCS.
Vietnam does not need to create a maritime militia, they already have a maritime militia.

John Chan
September 1, 2012 at 23:04

Vietnam has lost its independence more than a thousand years in the past, it proves that no body can annex Vietnam is not true; it is merely your creative revisionist version of history.
French attacked Vietnam from sea and colonized it nearly 150 years because China could not defend Vietnam. Finally Vietnam still needs China’s help to get rid of French.
American dared not to invade NV because USSR and China deterrence, otherwise VN would be conquered by the Yankee like the French.
If VN is attacked again, the attacks would be from North, middle, South, and West, meanwhile VN will have no help from help, the collapse of VN is pretty much a sure thing. Those soldiers in the SCS islands will put their weapons for food and water.

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