Vietnam wants to diversify its arms procurement with the Arms Expo – The Diplomat

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Last week, the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) organized its first-ever Vietnam International Defense Expo to promote international defense cooperation, build trust between Vietnam and other countries, and introduce Vietnam’s burgeoning defense industry to the world. More importantly, the VPA seeks to diversify its sources of weapons and defense equipment, keep abreast of recent global trends in defense technology, and explore opportunities to export its domestically manufactured defense products.

The latter goals are particularly noteworthy given the severe impact the war in Ukraine had on Russia, Vietnam’s largest arms supplier. The expo reflects the Vietnamese armed forces’ determination to reduce their heavy reliance on Russian weapons. However, the imperatives of military modernization related to the South China Sea dispute, a growing economy with a developing technological and industrial base, and ambitions to build a domestic defense industry are also factors that encourage the Vietnamese military to seek changes in its procurement strategy.

Dependence on Russian weapons

About 60-70 percent of Vietnam’s military assets are of Soviet or Russian origin. For historical, political, and institutional reasons, Russian weapons are very attractive to the military compared to those of other countries. Vietnam has operated Soviet-style military systems since the beginning of the Cold War. The Vietnamese military’s dependence on these systems has shaped the country’s defense institutions and determined many of their characteristics. The entire defense facility was set up to accommodate Soviet-style military technology in terms of training, maintenance and operation.

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Decades of continuous use of these systems has significantly reduced the cost of operation and maintenance, which in turn has made Russian weapons extremely attractive. Additionally, procurement agencies created to obtain military support in wartime have since been transformed into military-dominated corporations with vested interests, bureaucratic cultures, and opaque procurement procedures inconsistent with Western standards. Not to mention the inherent strategic distrust the military has shown towards Western arms suppliers, as ideological differences (e.g. human rights) are often cited as a possible cause for disrupting future military transfers. A move away from Russian weapons would incur huge costs, and the military probably understands that.

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There have been various attempts to gradually diversify away from over-reliance on Russian military systems, with mixed results. The earliest example was Vietnam’s aborted attempt to buy Mirage 2000 jet fighters from France in the 1990s, which failed under the US arms embargo in force at the time. The motivation behind the attempt was to modernize the armed forces, which had become archaic and technologically obsolete in the years after reunification. The failed Mirage 2000 purchase was also notable because China began modernizing its air force in 1992 by purchasing its first batch of Su-27 jets from Russia. More importantly, the VPA (correctly) recognized that buying the same military hardware as your potential enemy from the same (and increasingly pragmatic) supplier would pose many tactical risks.

The interaction with Russia was not always without problems either. The shipbuilding experience with Russia was particularly painful, as evidenced by two memorable episodes. The rise of the Chinese Navy in the late 1990s and early 2000s motivated Vietnam to actively seek Russian cooperation in building its own warships. Two projects were planned: a 500-ton fast attack craft (FAC) armed with Kh-35 anti-ship missiles (i.e. the BPS-500) and a 2,000-ton multi-role frigate (i.e. the KBO-2000). Both were designed in Vietnam with the help of Russia’s Severnoye Design Bureau.

Shortly after the launch of the first BPS-500 prototype, the remainder of the Vietnamese early naval shipbuilding project was shelved. There were several reasons for this, the most serious of which was probably the fact that the FAC’s design had not met the Navy’s expectations and adjustments were considered time-consuming and costly. This led to the breakdown of cooperation with the Russian bureau and the start of more modest and less expensive efforts by the Vietnamese Navy to begin development of its own gunboat.

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The second episode took place in the early 2010s when Vietnam decided to buy several Gegard-class frigates from Russia. The original plan was to procure between six and eight frigates, with the first two to be built in Russia and the rest by Vietnamese shipbuilding companies through technology transfer. The ship’s engines were to be provided by the Ukrainians. That part of the deal fell through when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, forcing Vietnam to negotiate with Ukraine itself to get the critical parts.

Vietnam’s arms procurement strategy

Following the 12th Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) in 2016, Vietnam’s military policy emphasized the “gradual” modernization of several critical services, with the Navy and Air Force at the forefront. The South China Sea dispute accelerated the pace of reforms at the 13th Congress in 2021, after which “gradual” was replaced by “immediately” as the guiding principle of modernization.

Two events played an important role in this. The lifting of the US arms embargo in 2016 gave Vietnam greater leeway to expand its current pool of defense partners. The military would be able to officially work with Western defense contractors without fear of being pushed back by an embargo. Technology transfer or the purchase of spare parts was no longer at risk of being affected by the legacy of the past. Also, at the 12th National Congress, the VCP presented a policy for the development of a dual-use defense industry with a strong defense-industrial complex as the core for the first time. “Dual-use” is a term with two implications: the future of greater private sector involvement in the defense-industrial complex; and efforts to find a market for the emerging industry, both nationally and internationally.

The Vietnamese military is now employing a three-pronged procurement strategy to meet its modernization needs. Elements of this strategy could be found in the decade leading up to 2016, but the country’s new industrial policies and the uncertainties surrounding the Russia-Ukraine war have given these approaches new life and urgency.

First, it is trying to diversify its source of advanced military platforms. Israel has played an integral role in this effort as the two countries have a strong defense relationship dating back to the 1990s. Also high on the list are India (with a possible purchase of the Brahmos missile) and several Eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic (with the purchase of L-39NG in 2021) and Bulgaria (small arms and light weapons) with which Vietnam has worked good relations dating back to the Cold War era. The most prominent defense deal negotiated between Vietnam and a non-Russian country would be the $600 million purchase of the Spyder air defense system from the Israeli company Rafael in 2015. South Korea and Japan, even Turkey, are seen as potential future suppliers.

Second, the military is trying to extend the life of its old weapons through various modernization projects. Most notable is the effort to upgrade its T-54/55 main battle tanks with a little help from Israel. This is considered a temporary approach, as legacy weapon systems, even upgraded and modernized, may still be unreliable and ineffective given the rapid advances in military technology.

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Third, with an ambitious plan to develop an advanced military-industrial complex, the military has attempted to manufacture its own weapons, ranging from small arms to what it considers high-tech weapons. The country’s fledgling defense industry is already producing armored vehicles and light weapons such as anti-tank missiles, grenade launchers and machine guns.

Vietnam is also beginning to move into high-tech, with drones, radars and anti-ship cruise missiles now on the list, all topped by the Viettel Group. This approach was developed for years and was further promoted and strengthened after the US arms embargo was lifted. For example, Israel Weapon Industries established a manufacturing facility in Vietnam to support the delivery of Galil 31/32 ACE assault rifles to the army in 2014. Also in 2014, the Damen Group, a Dutch defense, shipbuilding and engineering conglomerate, opened a new joint-venture shipyard in Vietnam from which to expand collaboration with the country’s many military-owned shipyards. Many ships built by Damen now serve in the Vietnamese Coast Guard – a possible foretaste of the more diverse Vietnamese military that may emerge in the future.