If Vietnam and China Went to War: Five Weapons Beijing Should Fear

They went to war in 1979 and it did not turn out well for China. Today, Vietnam has the military muscle to present lots of problems.

Editor’s Note: Please see previous works from our “Weapons of War” series including: Five NATO Weapons of War Russia Should Fear, Five Russian Weapons of War NATO Should Fear, Five Chinese Weapons of War America Should Fear, Five American Weapons of War China Should Fear, Five Japanese Weapons of War China Should Fear, Five Best Weapons of War from the Soviet Union and Five Taiwanese Weapons of War China Should Fear.

In 1975, the armed forces of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam defeated the Republic of Vietnam, capturing Saigon and putting to end nearly thirty years of civil war.  The victory came three years after the United States, unwilling to pay the price of continued engagement, left the war. In 1979, the People’s Republic of China invaded Vietnam in an effort to punish Hanoi for its actions in Cambodia, and for its association with the Soviet Union.  The war lasted a month, with Chinese forces leaving after heavy losses and without achieving any strategic objectives.

In short, the Vietnam People’s Army has a history of success. Today, Sino-Vietnamese relations are again hitting a low point. The deployment of a Chinese oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam has only exacerbated tensions over control of islands in the South China Sea. Various Vietnamese politicians, including the late Vo Nguyen Giap, have warned about the threat of Chinese encroachment.

If war broke out, what weapons could Vietnam use? It turns out that China and Vietnam shop in the same place; most of the weapons that Vietnam would use against China are also in the hands of the People’s Liberation Army.  However, the implications of offensive and defensive employment vary greatly.  Here are five systems that Vietnam might use to good effect against the Chinese military.


Airpower played a curiously small role in the 1979 war.  The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) did not, because of problems with doctrine and technology, have the capacity to extend itself over the battlefront.  The much smaller Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) remained quiet, preferring to play the defensive role that it had perfected against the United States a decade earlier, but didn’t need in this conflict.

That won’t be the case the next time around. Both the VPAF and the PLAAF have upgraded with formidable Russian, and in the latter case domestic, aircraft.  Most notable among these are members of the Su-27 Flanker family.  Vietnam operates around 40 Flankers of various types, with another 20 on order from Russia.  In addition to defense air-to-air missions, these aircraft can strike Chinese land and sea targets with long-range, precision cruise missiles. The Flankers are heavy, fast, and deadly, and would see action on both sides.

In conjunction with Vietnam’s integrated air defense network, the Flankers (as well as a few older fighters, such as MiG-21s), can threaten not only to deny Vietnamese airspace to China, but also to punch back.  We don’t yet have a sense of how Vietnamese pilot training compares with Chinese, although the PLAAF obviously has greater resources, and has devoted attention in recent years to realistic training.  Nevertheless, the VPAF may be able to use its sophisticated Flankers to good defensive advantage against overstretched Chinese forces.

Kilo Class Submarine

Analysts generally agree that the PLAN has yet to work out the most important problems with anti-submarine warfare.  While the PLAN will undoubtedly have a huge advantage in submarines in the opening days of any conflict, its undersea fleet is optimized for attacks against surface ships, not fighting enemy subs.

The quiet, modern Kilo class subs that Vietnam has recently begun acquiring from Russia will present a major problem for the PLAN.  Although the Chinese also operate Kilos (as well as a variety of other subs), these would not necessarily neutralize the Vietnamese boats before they could exact a toll.  The Vietnamese Kilos carry both torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles that could pose a big threat to Chinese warships and to Chinese offshore installations.