China's Nightmare: Vietnam's New Killer Submarines

Vietnam's new submarines could alter the balance in the South China Sea quite dramatically.

After a brief respite, the South China Sea cauldron is starting to boil once again. This time, the hub-bub concerns not a close call between aircraft, nor dueling flotillas of coast guard vessels surrounding a mysterious oil exploration rig, nor the precarious resupply of a rusted out hulk of a ship grounded purposefully on an obscure reef

Rather, the current frenzy among journalists, strategists, and now legislators concerns a variety of new structures that Beijing has undertaken to build up in and around its occupied reefs in the Spratlys. These structures will likely include an airfield.

While this recent construction makes for interesting satellite photos, the impact on the actual naval balance of power seems quite minimal: limited to perhaps somewhat improved Chinese surveillance in the southern part of the South China Sea.

However, Beijing already enjoys relatively plentiful sources of intelligence regarding “maritime domain awareness” in this sensitive, contested domain, so the actual change is minimal. Lest anyone get too excited, all these reefs (and related structures) are easily turned into “glass” by any reasonably modern military power in the age of precision-guided weapons.

A rather more significant alteration in the local balance of power may result from the operational readiness of Vietnam’s new fleet of Kilo-class conventional submarines. This weapon system is sufficiently potent, and the order of six boats from Russia is sufficiently large, that this deployment over the next year (particularly in light of Vietnam’s historically weak maritime forces) could hypothetically alter the balance in the South China Sea quite dramatically.

This edition of Dragon Eye will explore a February 2015 analysis concerning Vietnam’s deployment of the new Russian-made submarines that appeared in the Chinese naval-affiliated magazine 舰船知识 [Naval & Merchant Ships], published by the China State Shipbuilding Corporation, an entity very much involved in China’s on-going naval modernization. I have commented on the China-Vietnam military balance before, so this effort may form a modest update of sorts.

This Chinese analysis notes at the outset that the Vietnamese Navy is totally lacking in experience with “large type conventional submarines,” including not only their operations, but also their logistics and maintenance requirements. In a passage that might be termed condescending, the author writes: “… if [the submarine] is not used properly, not only will it become useless in combat, but [this lack of proficiency] can seriously threaten the lives of the whole crew.”

Given China’s own ample experience purchasing Russian Kilo’s during the 1990s, it is not surprising that Chinese naval analysts demonstrate an intimate knowledge regarding the processes and challenges involved with molding these particular imported boats into a credible fighting force.

Three crucial steps are described in the process: crew training, pier-side exercises and at sea exercises. It is noted that long before crews gathered to train that Vietnamese specialists were studying the production processes at the fabrication facilities in St. Petersburg.

Pier-side exercises also involve a theoretical component, followed by work with simulators, and then finally by drills aboard the boat to familiarize personnel with all the submarine’s complex systems. Since “… in the process of receiving the submarine [from Russia], there is simply not enough time to test all areas completely … problems with equipment may arise later. These problems should gradually be discovered in the course of at sea drills …”

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