How Will New Subs Affect Vietnam's South China Sea Strategy?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

How Will New Subs Affect Vietnam's South China Sea Strategy?

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The fifth Kilo-class submarine procured for the Vietnamese People’s Navy (VPN) arrived at Cam Ranh Bay at the beginning of February. The Russian-built submarine started its journey from St Petersberg on the 16th of December on the Dutch-registered cargo ship Rolldock Star and arrived late in the night on Tuesday, February 2,  according to Thanh Nien News.

There are currently four Vietnamese crews, supported by Russian advisers, for each of the existing Kilo-class Type 636 submarines in service with the VPN. Under Vietnam’s expanded relationship with Russia, a purpose-built submarine support facility was included as part of the deal to procure six conventional submarines for the VPN.

With the end of this modernization cycle looming on the horizon, however, it remains to be seen how much of an impact these new platforms will have on the security balance in Southeast Asia and, more specifically, the maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

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Although Vietnam is progressing with its platform deliveries as scheduled, Hanoi has only recently deployed its first fully-operational Kilo-class submarine. In the mean-time it is unclear what impact the new Kilo’s will have on Vietnam’s naval and maritime law enforcement operations in the South China Sea. Even with an operational submarine as a deterrent, there are still significant capability gaps that Vietnamese military planners need to consider. Also, as history has shown, the ability to follow up initial military action with additional forces to solidify victory is essential in the amphibious domain; Hanoi would do well to heed some of the lessons from previous skirmishes with China over land  in the South China Sea.

This, of course, does not mean that Hanoi needs to pursue a strategy similar to that of China’s. Instead what is important for the rapidly-modernizing country to consider is the requirement for at least some capacity to achieve limited sea control. As some analysts have suggested, platforms such as submarines will not be enough to achieve sea control during conflict. Surface ships, and lots of them, forms an essential element of this facet of military planning despite the vulnerabilities of surface combatants against submarines and long-range missiles.

Although delivery of the Kilo submarines appears to be on track, the full operating capacity for the new Kilos is still some years away. What does provide some glimmer of hope for the VPN is the Russian-built equipment now in service in Vietnam’s arsenal, including the Su-30MK2V Flankers and Bastion K-300P mobile coastal batteries armed with the Orynx missile. The new hardware will be well-served if Vietnam is able to expand its ISR capabilities in order to provide better domain awareness and targeting data for conventional attacks. Investing in unmanned systems, such as the HS-6L long-range unmanned aerial vehicle, can also assist in better tactical awareness and investing in better satellite coverage can provide increased domain awareness in the South China Sea.

Whilst not entirely new to Vietnam’s theater of operations, the reliability and range of these new platforms will be able to assist in providing a capability edge in limited action and sea control if a “hot” conflict were to flash up. Vietnam’s modernization efforts to date have primarily been aimed at replacing aging equipment. If Hanoi’s aim was to further strengthen its footing in the South China Sea, the Vietnamese People Party’s debate needs to be steered beyond what the Kilo-class can provide and consider what assets can best-serve his goal.

Nam Nguyen is a graduate of the University of New South Wales and the Australian Defence Force Academy. He is currently a warfare officer in the Royal Australian Navy and has publishes regularly on military and strategic affairs. He is an MPhil candidate at UNSW and the views expressed in this article are his own. 

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