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

July 12, 2014 Topic: SecurityState of the MilitaryDefense Region: VietnamChina

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.

Vietnam currently operates two Kilos, with four more on order.  Although China may try to pressure Russia to slow the transfer of subs and munitions to Vietnam, Moscow is unlikely to comply.  Vietnam will field a steadily stronger submarine force over the next few years, just as big new Chinese warships come to serve as juicy targets.

P-800 Onyx Cruise Missile

Over the past decades, China has developed a formidable array of cruise missiles as part of its A2/AD “system of systems.”  With China now interested in projecting power, it has to manage the budding A2/AD systems of its neighbors. Like China, Vietnam has long pursued a variety of launch systems for cruise missiles.  Today, Vietnam can launch cruise missiles from aircraft, surface ships, submarines, and shore based platforms. In combination, these missiles could attack Chinese ships from multiple, unexpected vectors in order to overwhelm the PLAN’s shipboard air defense systems.

The shore based platforms may be the most survivable in context of a major Chinese assault. Vietnam already operates the P-800 Onyx surface-to-surface cruise missile, intended for coastal defense.  A Mach 2.5 missile with a 180 mile range and a 250kg warhead, the Onyx can give any Chinese warship a very bad day. Located at strategic points and defended by the VPA’s air defense network, these missiles (as well as various older shore-launched cruise missiles) could severely limit the PLAN’s radius of action.

S-300 SAM

The PLAAF hasn’t flown against an integrated, sophisticated air defense system since… well, ever.  Using the PLAAF against Vietnam will require the Chinese to suppress or avoid Vietnamese air defenses.  Suppression of Enemy Air Defense operations are among the most organizationally and individually demanding missions than an air force can undertake.  The United States has developed expertise in these missions through hard experience won in Vietnam, Kosovo, and Iraq, and through ultra-realistic exercises over the Nevada desert.  We don’t yet know if the PLAAF has developed the kind of expertise needed to defeat the Vietnamese air defense network.  If it hasn’t, Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles could exact a terrible toll on Chinese pilots and aircraft.

The most advanced system in the VPAF’s air defense network is the S-300. It can track and engage dozens of targets at ranges of up to seventy-five miles.  Additional point-defense systems can protect the S-300s themselves from attack.  Used in conjunction with the fighters of the VPAF, the SAM network would make it very difficult to carry out a concerted air campaign against Vietnam at acceptable cost.


In 1979, China tried to punish Hanoi by launching a massive infantry and armor invasion of Vietnam’s northern provinces.  The Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) determined that the central Chinese objective was to engage and destroy the best units of the army.  Consequently, the VPA avoided committing its most effective units until the PLA could be channeled into appropriate ambush zones. At that point, both sides suffered heavy losses, but the Chinese eventually withdrew.

Both the PLA and the VPA are smaller now than in 1979, but more professional, more technologically advanced, and better organized. The VPA in particular has increased the educational attainment of its officer corps, exposed its units to international training and experience, and provided them with significant equipment upgrades.

This doesn’t make the VPA the equal of the PLA, but then it doesn’t have to be.  As in 1979, the VPA has the advantage of space. The tenacity of Vietnamese infantry, often fighting with guerilla tactics in inhospitable terrain, will probably deter the PLA from a major land incursion into Vietnam’s north.  In the unlikely event that China decides to punish Vietnam with another ground invasion, it can expect serious losses from mechanized counterattacks, especially given the likely inability of the PLAAF to win air supremacy over the battlefield.  The PLA is big, but the VPA has repeatedly demonstrated a capability for finding and maximizing its territorial assets.


Vietnam does not want a full-scale war with China.  The best case scenario for such a conflict is a replay of 1979, which proved humiliating for China but very costly for Vietnam.  In particular, Vietnam doesn’t want to go toe-to-toe with China in a capital and technology intensive war that might attrite away the expensive equipment that the VPA has acquired. Nevertheless, China must appreciate that Vietnam has bite.  The Vietnamese military, in its current configuration, is designed to deter Chinese adventurism.  We can expect that Vietnam will enhance these capabilities as the years go on, and as provocations in the South China Sea continue.


Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter: @drfarls.

Image: Wikimedia Commons