By Sarosh Bana
As with most countries in the Asia-Pacific littoral, Vietnam is steadily bolstering its military against an increasingly confrontational China. The country’s defense budget has grown almost fourfold in the past decade, from $1.3 billion in 2006 to $5 billion in 2016.
The country of 95 million has complained of numerous transgressions by China since 1957, when both states accepted a land and sea boundary known as “the frontier line.” They even waged a naval battle in 1988 in the disputed South China Sea, in which 64 Vietnamese perished and China took control of the Johnson South Reef.
Vietnam has protested China’s deployment of an oil rig in the disputed waters in 2014 and Beijing’s meddling that led to India’s withdrawal from a joint oil exploration project with Petro-Vietnam in the Phu Khanh Basin. Vietnamese fishing craft also clash frequently with Chinese trawlers near the disputed islands of Paracel and Spratly.
Curiously, both countries have in Russia a common supplier of military hardware. A dozen of China’s 53 diesel-electric submarines are Russian-made. Beijing undoubtedly has one of the largest fleets of attack submarines, including four ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs). It is close to deploying a powerful undersea nuclear deterrent, with each of its SSBNs to be armed with 12 JL-2 missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads at a range of 4,320 nautical miles.
In contrast, Vietnam has only recently begun creating a credible submarine force through an order for six new P-636 submarines from Russia. Hanoi had acquired two Yugo class midget submarines from North Korea in a “guns-for-rice” barter in 1997, but used them primarily for operations and maintenance training.
Vietnam had, in fact, been seeking submarines since the late 1980s, but after negotiations with Moscow that led to a dual training program on a non-nuclear submarine from the Soviet Pacific Fleet, the Soviets backtracked so as not to upset the Chinese. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 further dampened Vietnam’s aspiration for a submarine fleet.
When it finally came about, the $3.2 billion export order in December 2009 for the six P-636s was one of Moscow’s largest for naval hardware. The deal was for the state-owned St. Petersburg-based shipyard, Admiralteiskie Verfi (Admiralty Wharf) to build and weaponize the boats, train Vietnamese crews in Russia, and build a submarine facility at the Cam Ranh Bay deepwater harbor, an inlet in southeast Vietnam close enough to the Paracels to create a deterrent.
The P-636 submarine is nicknamed a “black hole” by the U.S. Navy for its extreme stealth, as it is considered the quietest diesel-electric submarine in the world. The version Vietnam is importing, the P-636MV, is superior in several ways to their older variant, the P-636MK, which Beijing bought from Russia in 1999. The P-636MV’s stealth features have been improved through the removal of flood ports (which channel seawater to ballast tanks) and a hull layered with echo-free rubber tiles. The P-636MV surpasses the P-636MK in terms of range, speed, reliability, sea endurance, acoustic characteristics, and firepower.
Designed primarily for anti-submarine and anti-surface-ship warfare, as well as for general reconnaissance and patrol missions, the P-636 submarine offers enhanced combat effectiveness. It can be armed with radar-guided torpedoes, underwater mines, or torpedo tube-launched cruise missiles like those used by the Russian navy in the ongoing Syrian conflict. It is also capable of detecting an enemy submarine at a range three to four times greater than the range at which it can be detected itself.
All six of Vietnam’s submarines are recent acquisitions—they entered service between January 2014 and January 2017. They will operate under the People’s Army of Vietnam Navy’s Submarine Brigade 189. “Up to now, the Brigade has fully mastered the submarines,” notes a Vietnamese government statement.
The land attack cruise missiles arming this underwater fleet will accord Vietnam a potent deterrent that queers China’s strategic calculations in the South China Sea. These precision strike missiles can reach such strategic targets as military installations in Guangdong province’s Zhanjiang, where China’s South Sea Fleet headquarters is located, and the Yalong Bay naval base in Hainan, China’s southernmost province where its nuclear submarines are based.
China, however, is no sitting duck. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has deployed three SSBNs at Hainan and may have also deployed its SSNs. Its newest conventional submarines are also based at Yalong Bay.
As Vietnam expands its naval forces, it is mindful of the fact that although China is a daunting adversary, submarines can be a great equalizer—especially when they are near impossible to detect and have recourse to effective firepower. Some Chinese experts feel that while Beijing need not fear an immediate submarine threat from Vietnam, the effect of this buildup cannot be underestimated and may start to raise concerns.
Russia has transferred all the technologies Vietnam needs to operate the submarines, but it is not Hanoi’s only major ally. India, too, is providing training to Vietnamese crews, as Indian forces have experience operating Russian submarines in waters of a similar temperature. With both Russian and Indian support, Vietnam’s submarine force will likely soon reach full combat capability. Hanoi is assiduously building up its ability to project power in the region and defend its maritime interests.
Sarosh Bana is the executive editor of Business India.
[Photo courtesy of Department of Defense]