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Why Vietnam Needs to Reevaluate its Weapons Procurement Strategy

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Why Vietnam Needs to Reevaluate its Weapons Procurement Strategy

Growing concerns over a Chinese-funded canal project in Cambodia underscore the need for a shift from maritime to continental security.

Why Vietnam Needs to Reevaluate its Weapons Procurement Strategy

A flag flies from the Hanoi Citadel over the roof of the Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Credit: Photo 76589806 © Eq Roy |

Cambodia’s plan to build the Funan Techo Canal, a project backed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation, is causing much anxiety in Vietnam. Besides the environmental impact that the canal may have on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, it also presents a geopolitical threat. The canal could allow the Chinese navy to travel upstream from the Gulf of Thailand and the Ream Naval Base to Vietnam’s western border. Traditionally, China’s threat to Vietnam has come from the north and the east. As China expands its influence in Cambodia in addition to Vietnam’s weakening leverage over Laos, the Chinese encirclement of Vietnam is growing more comprehensive. And if history provides any guide, it is that Vietnam will be more upset with a China-backed Cambodia posing military threats to its western land borders than the Chinese threat from the South China Sea. Hanoi launched an invasion of Cambodia in 1978 after exhausting all diplomatic options to remove the Khmer Rouge from power to protect its western flank. As a country lacking strategic depth, Vietnam cannot afford to let a hostile power pose a threat that could cut the country in half.

In recent years, however, Vietnam seems to have been distracted by its maritime disputes. Hanoi’s military modernization efforts have concentrated on the navy and the air force. Such a maritime concentration can be seen from the pattern of Vietnam’s weapons procurement over the past two decades. As the land threat subsided in the aftermath of the Vietnam-China 1999 Treaty of Land Border, Vietnam signed defense cooperation agreements with Russia and India in the early 2000s in a bid to modernize its navy. The country made several big-ticket naval item purchases, such as two Gepard-class frigates in 2006, six Kilo-class submarines in 2009, and two SIGMA-9814 frigates in 2013. Between 2008 and 2016, Vietnam acquired eight Molniya-class guided missile fast attack crafts. In 2013, it also purchased 12 Sukhoi Su-30MK2 fighter jets for the air force with an eye on the maritime disputes. After the United States lifted its arms embargo in 2016, Vietnam acquired three U.S. Hamilton-class cutters for its Coast Guard. Vietnam is also negotiating to buy F16s from the United States to better monitor the South China Sea.

Vietnam’s naval and air force modernization came at the expense of modernizing the army, whose backbone consists of 1970s-era main battle tanks and outdated artillery. Hanoi tried to purchase T-80 tanks from Russia, but the negotiations failed due to a lack of funding. In 2017, it ordered 64 Russian T-90S tanks and received the delivery in 2019. Despite efforts to upgrade and refurbish, the army’s equipment is generally so outdated that some scholars regard its assets as “a Cold War time capsule.”

With the revival of the land threat, it is time for Vietnam to rethink its weapons procurement strategy and reorient its defense modernization program towards the army. However, that does not mean the country should abandon its commitment to defending maritime sovereignty. Vietnam’s existing naval assets will continue playing a vital role in maintaining the country’s maritime presence, countering China’s gray-zone tactics, and deterring China from seizing its occupied islands in the South China Sea. What Vietnam needs going forward is a weapons procurement strategy that can (1) balance its limited defense budgets with its deteriorating security environment in both the continental and the maritime domains; (2) reassure China of Vietnam’s peaceful intentions; and (3) provide the country with the most survivable weapons if war occurs. Adopting a “porcupine strategy” – or acquiring a great number of small arms for the army – should be the focus of Hanoi’s weapons procurement strategy.

A “porcupine strategy” first and foremost fits Hanoi’s theory of victory. Vietnam’s military emphasizes a people’s warfare doctrine, which states that in times of war, every citizen and every soldier will be called forth to use whatever means at their disposal to oppose a superior enemy. Such a doctrine heavily relies on taking advantage of a friendly geography to allow mobile military units to quickly surround the enemy when needed and disperse when under attack. It is not hard to understand why, despite the naval modernization and the ongoing technological revolution in military affairs, Vietnam still sees that a future land war will most likely decide the country’s survival. This is a logical calculation considering Vietnam’s islands are too far from the mainland to pose any major security threats, even if they are occupied by a hostile power.

The military has thus come up with two most possible scenarios of Vietnam’s future wars. In one scenario, the superior enemy uses its high-tech weapons to strike Vietnam’s key targets without launching a ground invasion, Vietnam can persevere thanks to its people’s warfare doctrine, as Vietnam has no concentrated targets. In the other scenario, the superior enemy carries out attacks against Vietnam’s key targets and launches a ground invasion. In this case, the military will fall back on using the country’s geographic advantages to maximize the efficiency of the people’s warfare doctrine. In both scenarios, Vietnam assumes that its enemy possesses far superior military equipment to its own.

What this means is that Vietnam will be engaging in asymmetric warfare to deter and defend against a stronger enemy in a land war. The nature of small arms being distributed, mobile, and affordable suits Vietnam’s strategy and budget. Asymmetric weapons, such as anti-tank weapons or man-portable air-defense systems, allow Hanoi to minimize the resource imbalances vis-à-vis China. It costs far less for Vietnam to counter the enemy’s tanks by using anti-tank weapons than using its own tanks. Also, denying areas of airspace by relying on mobile surface-to-air missiles is cheaper than trying to win air superiority using sophisticated fighters such as the F-16s or the Sukhoi Su-30MK2 in the face of a more formidable enemy. Russian tanks’ poor performance and both sides’ efficient use of cheap drones on the battlefields in Ukraine should counsel Vietnam against procuring big-ticket items. Importantly, small arms suit the people’s warfare doctrine thanks to their simplicity and durability. Their low costs of procurement and maintenance ensure that shifting the defense focus landward will not come at the expense of the navy.

Besides the technical advantages of small arms, Vietnam’s purchase of these weapons will better reassure China of its peaceful intentions. Small arms do not make good offensive weapons because they do not allow the attacker to punch through an enemy’s defense. At the same time, the fact that small arms are less technologically sophisticated than big arms allows Vietnam to buy from various suppliers under its multi-vector foreign policy. Vietnam’s 2022 defense expo demonstrates the country’s efforts to diversify its weapons procurement away from Russian arms without provoking China. The domestic national defense industry is also capable of producing small arms for its ground forces, which lessens Vietnam’s technological dependence on foreign nations and benefits its independent foreign policy. However, reassurance is rarely perfect, so Vietnam needs to prepare for the worst.

If a land conflict breaks out, Vietnam’s number one priority is to survive long enough to search for a diplomatic solution. Unfortunately, big-ticket items will make for good targets, and they will not survive attacks from a technologically superior enemy. To ensure that Vietnam cannot retaliate by striking targets deep within Chinese territory, China will intentionally target Vietnam’s strategic weapons, such as its air force. Beijing is also likely to carry out cyberattacks to degrade Vietnam’s communications infrastructure.

Small arms have better portability and concealability, which allow for better survival and easier civilian adoption in times of emergency. Small arms also signal that Vietnam is trying to deter China by denial, not punishment, which can lessen the escalatory pressure on both sides. China would logically adopt a “bleeding Vietnam white” strategy, as it did in the 1980s, to force Hanoi to spend itself to bankruptcy. Relying on small arms for defense and deterrence will not help Vietnam escape from Chinese coercion, but it will minimize the costs of withstanding China’s attritional strategy and buy Hanoi more time to find a diplomatic solution.

In terms of military modernization, this is a crucial time for Vietnam to reevaluate what works and what doesn’t. Although Vietnam’s big-ticket purchases demonstrate its political commitment to defending its sovereignty, these weapons are both expensive to maintain and will not survive long enough to make a difference in a serious conflict. The Vietnamese military has long emphasized the human factor rather than the technological factor in war, and the driving principle of Vietnam’s military modernization has been to construct an independent, self-reliant, and cutting-edge force within its financial means. Small arms will give Vietnam the best chance of survival at an acceptable cost.