Vietnam's Got a New South China Sea Strategy

Gepard-class frigate. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Detmar Modes

The Vietnam People’s Navy is shifting from sea denial to counter-intervention.

As Hanoi’s navy has just received its final Russian-built Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine, and is on the cusp of operationalizing a complete submarine squadron within 2017, the image of a sea-denial-centered Vietnamese naval strategy is still in place. While it is true that a submarine, especially a conventionally powered one, is commonly associated with sea denial, it is necessary to look beyond this attribute in the Vietnamese case. All six boats are not only equipped for sea denial in the traditional sense—torpedoes and mines, for example—but they also possess Russian-made Klub-S sea-launched land-attack cruise missiles (SLCM) that can hit targets as far away as three hundred kilometers—well within the Missile Technology Control Regime, which places restrictions on exports of certain offensive missile systems to non-signatory states.

Long-time Vietnam military watcher Carlyle Thayer has opined that Vietnam’s SLCMs would be employed against Chinese ports and airfields, such as the Sanya naval base on Hainan Island, rather than cities arrayed along the southern Chinese mainland coast. This counterforce role would still fit well within Hanoi’s strategically defensive deterrent strategy, but acquiring such an offensive capability would certainly depart from a sea-denial approach. There is no way the Vietnamese can hope to forestall Chinese aggression without the means to raise the costs for Beijing—the potential destruction wreaked upon its forward-deployed naval forces in Sanya being one such instance.

If anything, Russia’s feat during its campaign in Syria in late 2015 demonstrated that it is feasible for small naval forces to conduct limited, expeditionary force projection. The Kilo boat Rostov-on-Don became the first conventionally powered submarine to launch SLCMs in deep, inland penetration strikes. However, the Russians could manage this by leveraging on their extensive command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities, such as GLONASS satellite navigation, to allow the missiles to fly smoothly over wide swathes of the Middle Eastern land mass. The Vietnamese has a fledgling C4ISR program, focusing on unmanned aerial vehicles and remote-sensing microsatellites. Its current satellite-based targeting capability relies on commercially obtained satellite imagery—far from useful to carry out inland strikes.

Nonetheless, this shortfall would not hamper Vietnam’s counterforce ability against coastal targets. Without the strategic depth and naturally formed terrestrial features to shield it, China’s Sanya naval base is exposed to overwater missile strikes, which do not require C4ISR targeting capabilities like those for deep penetration attacks. And Hanoi is only keen to enhance the ability to punish Beijing and raise the costs of its aggression, beyond those submarines it has acquired. Referring to the Kilos, back in September 2014 a military official in Hanoi remarked that “they are not our sole weapon, but part of a number of weapons we are developing to better protect our sovereignty.”

So, to that end, Vietnam has made further moves to put into effect a more robust counter-intervention strategy that signals a departure from a traditional sea-denial approach. For example, its marines have trained for “island recapture” in the Spratlys—unthinkable back in 1988. In May 2016, Vietnam was reportedly negotiating with Russia the purchase of a third pair of Gepard 3.9–class light guided-missile frigates. What is so special about this purchase is that Hanoi wants these new ships to be armed with the Klub SLCMs. One recalls that the Russian Navy’s Caspian Flotilla corvettes—in the same size category as the Gepard 3.9s—along with the submarine Rostov-on-Don had proven that small surface warships are capable of launching SLCM attacks. Hanoi apparently caught on, and became inspired by Moscow’s feat.

The Vietnamese may not be oblivious to the fact that, like the battle of Bach Dang in 1288, any foreseeable war in the South China Sea with Beijing would result in a preordained strategic victory for the latter. But Hanoi has gradually shifted away from a traditional sea-denial strategy to one that would raise the cost of Chinese aggression. The completion of its submarine squadron in 2017 is just the first major step towards this direction. Vietnam’s modern-day versions of war canoes and “mud oil” incendiary antiship weapons now carries a wholly new significance.

Koh Swee Lean Collin is research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based in Singapore. He specializes in research on Southeast Asian naval affairs. He would like to thank Robert Haddick, Visiting Research Fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, for his comments and suggestions.

Image: Gepard-class frigate. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Detmar Modes