Vietnam’s Russian Restocking ( Updated 21 May 2013 )

Su-30Mk/ Su-27SK
SSK Kilo
Kilo Class cutaway
(click to view full)

In April 2009, reports surfaced that Vietnam had agreed in principle to a deal with Russia for 6 of its diesel-electric Kilo/ Project 636 Class fast attack submarines. There have been rumors that Vietnam owns 2 ex-Yugoslav mini-submarines for use in commando operations, but the Vietnamese People’s Navy doesn’t own any full size submarines that can take on enemy subs and ships. That’s about to change, thanks to a December 2009 contract.

Nor is that the only change in Vietnam’s military capabilities these days. China’s April 2009 display of naval might external link is only part of the mosaic influencing Vietnam’s decisions in these matters, as contracts for submarines – and far more – are being signed with its long-time Russian ally.

Vietnam’s New Military Buys: Considerations

Kilo to China
Kilo Class for China
(click to view full)

China’s 2009 display of naval might certainly marks an increased shift toward “forward defense” external link farther from its borders, a policy that must eventually include China’s trade lifeline to Vietnam’s south, through the Straits of Malacca. It also underlined a growing gap between China’s increasingly advanced ships and high capacity hovercraft, and Vietnam’s fleet external link of older Soviet and even American ships.

Ownership of the Spratly Islands remains very much in dispute, and Vietnam and China share a centuries-long history of mutual distrust and occupation. Recent punctuations of that animosity include the 1979 3rd Indochina War; this was followed by a significant skirmish in 1981, and a naval skirmish over the Spratly Islands in 1988. Today, Vietnamese protests external link over a Chinese bauxite mine in Vietnam, and media disobedience external link over the Spratly Islands issue, serve as a reminder that the 1989 treaty has not changed the relationship’s underlying fundamentals.

China itself has adopted a strategy of building up a submarine force to counter a superior surface opponent (the US Navy). It is entirely logical for Vietnam to adopt a similar approach vis-a-vis China, especially given that China’s lifeline of raw materials and exported goods leading from and to Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and parts of Asia passes right by Vietnam’s doorstep.

Aside from Thyssen Krupp Marine’s U209 family of submarines, the Russian Kilo Class are the world’s most widely exported subs. They’re known for a level of quietness that’s significantly better than other Russian designs, and have been produced in the Project 877EKM external link, and the Project 636M “Improved Kilo” external link variant that Vietnam is receiving. Countries operating or ordering these submarines include Russia, Algeria, China, India, Iran, Poland, and Romania.

There had been some speculation that Vietnam’s emphasis on shallow water operations, and proximity to the Straits of Malacca, might have made DCNS’ novel 885t, $200 million Andrasta Class of “pocket submarines” external link attractive. Instead, Vietnam appears to have opted for a more widely-deployable, higher capacity 3,000t submarine from its tried and true Russia partner. They can be armed with 533mm heavy torpedoes, mines, and/or the 3M54 Klub-S family of missiles.

The new submarines are the most important new Russian addition to Vietnam’s capabilities, but they are not alone. Stealthy Gepard Class light frigates will add surface warfare and patrol punch, alongside new Molniya/ Project 12418 missile-armed Fast Attack Craft to help modernize a fleet that’s mostly made up of aging Soviet FACs and captured American ships from the Vietnam War. In the air, Vietnam’s SU-27 air superiority fighters will be joined by new multi-role SU-30 planes from the same fighter family, strengthening air defenses and adding a long-range strike capability.

Contracts and Key Events

This section covers only Vietnamese contracts with Russia. As the “Additional Readings” section notes, Russia is not Vietnam’s exclusive arms provider – but it is the country’s most important defense relationship.

2012 – 2013

Kh-35 anti-ship missile partnership; Vietnam will need help with training and maintenance.

Kh-35 MAKS 2009
Kh-35E/ SS-N-25
(click to view full)

May 21/13: SU-30s. A Tuoi Tre News article external link offers some revealing information, alongside the classic Stakhanovite paens.

“Living in rented houses, many of the [SU-30 maintenance] staff have to work as part time teachers in local schools to earn extra income for their families. They even use their own money to buy devices to test tools of their own invention before submitting ideas to leaders.”

Needless to say, economic conflicts of interest among the maintenance staff for your nation’s premiere air asset offers all kinds of potential vulnerabilities.

May 17/13: SU-30s. A Tuoi Tre News article external link discussed the propensity of Vietnamese pilots to stay in the aircraft and try to land, even if the failure is very serious. Materiel worth more than people? That does seem to be part of the attitude, but if so, it’s a long-standing predisposition:

“For example, three-star colonel and pilot Dao Quoc Khang managed to save his Su-27 when its engines broke down just seconds after taking off…. in April last year, captain and chief of Air Strike Regiment 935 Nguyen Xuan Tuyen and flight head Nguyen Gia Nhan saved a Su-30MK2 while they were on a regular patrol over East Sea and its engines suddenly stopped working when it was 600km from the coast. “….We told ourselves in our minds that we are responsible for keeping the US$50 million asset of the State in one piece. It is made from the labor of citizens. And we must protect it at any price, even if that means our lives,” pilot Tuyen said.”

In fairness, ejecting 600 km from the coast is near-certain death, given Vietnam’s limited search and rescue resources. So the brave and selfless-sounding justification doesn’t actually change their decision, and is the sort of thing you’d expect in an article that quotes political commissars with a straight face. Or is the mentality in the pilot’s justification real? That’s the interesting question.

March 29/13: Submarines. Rubin design bureau general director Igor Vilnit pledges to deliver the 1st Project 636M Improved Kilo Class submarine to Vietnam “in 2013 as scheduled.” Odd. Earlier reports from RIA Novosti (vid. Aug 28/12) had the handover taking place at the end of 2012.

The first boat has been built by Admiralteiskie Verfi shipyard in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is undergoing sea trials. All 6 boats are due for delivery by 2016. What isn’t addressed in these reports is Vietnam’s recruiting, training, infrastructure, and maintenance preparations. As Vietnam’s Australian neighbors have discovered the hard way, neglect of any of these 4 “invisible” elements leads to an undeployable submarine force. Vietnam has the advantage of beginning with a proven, tested submarine design, but in all other areas, they’re building from a very low foundation. RIA Novosti external link.

Oct 26/12: SU-34s? cites a report from the mysterious site “Periscope 2,” wherein it’s suggested that Vietnam plans to replace its fleet of 50 or so aged SU-22 strike aircraft with SU-34s, and that export approval will be given immediately, once it’s requested. The report also suggests that Saab JAS-39 Gripens will replace the VPAF’s even older fleet of 150 or so MiG-21s, that L-159s may replace existing L-39 trainers alongside Vietnam’s reported Yak-130 options, and that Vietnam may be interested in C295-AEW planes.

All of the above are possible, and militarily reasonable choices. Even the L-159 could be reasonable, if bought second-hand as a dual role trainer and MiG-21 fill in, to give the VPAF a dual Russian & western fleet with appropriate weapon options. The thing is, “reasonable” doesn’t mean “likely”, and DID could find no other reports along these lines. Any of the non-trainer deals would be quite expensive, and Vietnam’s economy is a bit shaky these days external link. In addition, all of the non-Russian equipment would require export approval for American military items. We throw this item in for reader interest, with a strong caution concerning its reliability. external link [in Vietnamese].

Aug 28/12: Submarines. Russia’s RIA Novosti reports external link that the Admiralteiskie Verfi shipyard in St. Petersburg has launched Vietnam’s 1st Project 636 diesel-electric submarine. The boat is due for handover to Vietnam by the end of 2012.

March 29/12: Sub training from India? Singapore’s Asia Times external link:

“For full-scale underwater warfare training, it appears Vietnam will turn to India. The two countries have been engaged in high-level military talks with special emphasis on maritime cooperation. Since the Indian navy also employs Kilo-class submarines, New Delhi would be well suited to train Vietnamese crews. China responded warily to this bilateral warming trend in both words and deeds when a Chinese warship reportedly confronted an Indian navy vessel leaving a Vietnamese port in August… Moscow will reportedly build a submarine base for Vietnam at strategic Cam Ranh Bay, a one-time American and later Soviet naval base…”

Feb 15/12: Kh-35. RIA Novosti reports external link that Vietnam will begin joint production of a modified SS-N-25 Switchblade/ Kh-35 Uran external link subsonic anti-ship missile, whose base characteristics are similar to the American

  • GM-84 Harpoon. The project is described as similar to joint Russian-Indian production of the PJ-10 BrahMos missile, which was derived from the supersonic SS-N-26 Yakhont.

The Kh-35 can be launched from Ka-27 naval helicopters, ships, or shore batteries, but hasn’t been integrated with Vietnam’s new SU-30MK model fighters, or its forthcoming Kilo Class submarines. Even so , this joint venture will give Vietnam assured low-cost production and support for an important element of naval deterrence in the South China Sea. The Kh-35 looks set to become Vietnam’s mainstay anti-ship missile for its navy, and a joint project also gives them a base to make changes. India undertook to integrate Brahmos with its Su-30MKI fighters, for example, and Vietnam may have similar plans for their modified Kh-35 project. Then, too, the urge to use locally-built weapons in new ships is deep-seated, even though Kilo Class submarines are already configured for 3M54 Klub family (SS-N-27) missiles. Time will tell what the Vietnamese plan to do with this shared technology.

KH-35 missile partnership

2009 – 2011

Vietnam orders 6 Improved Kilo Class subs, 12 SU-30MK2 fighters, 2 Gepard Class ASW frigates; 2 Gepard/ Dinh Tien Hoang Class surface warfare frigates delivered; Vietnam begins building Molniya FACs locally; China’s underwater neighborhood getting crowded.

Gepard 3.9
Gepard 3.9, 2-view
(click to view full)

Dec 7/11: ASW Frigates. Rosoboronexport and the Zelenodolsk Gorky Plant have finished shipping Vietnam’s 1st 2 Gepard Class frigates, and have just signed a contract for 2 more. Unlike the first set, however, the next 2 will concentrate on anti-submarine warfare, rather than surface attack missions.

Vietnam’s example may also be creating ripples in the region. Gorky Plant Deputy Director Sergei Rudenko adds that Vietnam’s neighbor Cambodia has expressed interest of its own in the Gepard Class. Interfax-AVN external link.

2 more Gepard Class frigates

Oct 25/11: FACs. Vietnam is beginning to get assembly kits and components for its Molniya/ Project 12418 external link missile-armed fast attack craft. They’re working under the technical supervision of the “Almaz” Central Maritime Design Bureau in St. Petersburg, and the OJSC Vympel shipbuilding plant. Russia has built 2 for Vietnam, and Vietnam is building its first 4 boats of class, with an option for 4 more. The ships are small, at just 550t full load, but they pack a very dangerous set of 4 Moskit/ SS-N-22 Sunburn supersonic anti-ship missiles, or 8 of the sub-sonic Kh-35E anti-ship missiles.

Deliveries of parts to Vietnam, which began in 2010 under a $30 million contract, will continue through 2016. ITAR-TASS external link (Google Translate).

Vietnam begins assembling FAC boats

Oct 20/11: Patrol boats. Vietnam signs acceptance certificates for the last 2 of 4 Project 10412 external link/ Svetlyak Export Class patrol boats at Almaz Shipbuilding Firm. The 390t class was originally developed for the KGB’s border guards, mounting an AK-176M 76.2mm cannon, an AK-630 30mm gatling gun, and a mount for very short range SA-16/SA-18 anti-aircraft missiles.

The first 2 ships were delivered to Vietnam in 2002, and the 2 follow-on order ships were laid down in June 2009. Unfortunately, repeated issues with key components, including the Arsenal AK-176M gun mounts, delayed construction. The ships will be moved to St. Petersburg, and embarked on a transport ship for shipping to Vietnam. RusNavy external link.

March 5/11: Frigates. The Vietnamese Navy officially accepts the 1st Gepard class frigate from Russia, naming it the Dinh Tien Hoang, after the first Vietnamese emperor. Vietnam became the class’ 1st export order with a contract for 2 ships in December 2006, and the Dinh Tien Hoang was launched in August 2009. The 2nd frigate in the order was launched in March 2010, and has been in sea trials since August 2010.

The Gepard 3.9 ships are a combined diesel-turbine export version of Russia’s Project 11611 (Tartarstan) frigates, which serve in the Caspian fleet. The 102m/ 2,100t design sits in the grey area between small frigates and large corvettes, and despite their 5,000nm endurance, they’re best suited to local maritime patrol and interdiction. Their stealth-enhanced ship design and sub-sonic Kh-35E anti-ship missiles make them potentially dangerous adversaries in littoral regions, and other armament includes 76mm and 30mm guns, 533mm torpedoes, depth charges, and a 9K33M “OSA-M”/SS-N-4 missile system for air defense. This size and weapons array may not be much to get excited about, relative to other international frigate designs, but it will make them Vietnam’s most capable combat ships. March 2010 reports indicate that orders for 2 more could follow. DatViet external link report [Google translate] | AvWeek Ares external link.

Gepard Class frigate accepted

March 27/10: RIA Novosti reports external link that Chinese admirals are beginning to grasp the implications of advanced diesel-electric attack submarines in the hands of several regional neighbors, located right near China’s shipping lifelines.

Vietnam’s Kilo Class, Malaysia’s Scorpene Class, and Singapore’s Vastergotland Class submarines are all on China’s Southeast Asian radar, while in the background, Indonesia continues to express its intent to buy Kilo Class submarines of its own. They eventually ended up buying a modern variant of the German U209.

March 25/10: Submarines. It’s good to be a good customer. Russian defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov says that Russia will help Vietnam build the submarine base it needs to house its new Kilos, provide a loan to help buy rescue and auxiliary vessels and planes for Vietnam’s navy, and build a ship repair yard. That yard would benefit the Russians, too, as it could service visiting Russian navy ships.

Vietnam’s geographic position could make its service yard attractive to other navies as well, giving other countries even more reason to focus on relations with the Southeast Asian nation. A good service yard could wind up being as important to Vietnam’s geo-political position as the submarines themselves. Associated Press external link | China’s Xinhua external link.

March 23/10: Russia’s Voice covers external link growing ties between Russia and Vietnam, which is becoming one of Russia’s biggest arms customers:

“Vietnam backs multilateral cooperation with Russia especially in military defense, stated Vietnam’s president Nguyen Minh Triet during talks with Russia’s Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov in Hanoi. “Each of Russia’s victories is like our own, the president said, and we support Russia in the Georgian conflict.” The president said that the US decision not to deploy its ABMs in Eastern Europe is also a victory for Russia… Anatoly Serdyukov noted that Vietnam is Russia’s strategic partner and Russia is ready to train Vietnamese personnel at the Russian Defense Ministry’s academies.”

March 16/10: Frigates. Russia’s Zelenodolsk PKB shipyard launches Vietnam’s 2nd Project Gepard 3.9 light frigate into the River Volga. In May 2010, the warship will sail to St. Peterburg and then travel by sea to Vietnam for sea trials. The 1st ship in the order was launched in August 2009.

A separate report indicates that Vietnam could be preparing to order 2 more light frigates of this type. ITAR-TASS external link [in Russian] | ITAR-TASS Arms external link [in Russian].

Feb 10/10: SU-30s. Interfax reports the signing of a formal contract between Russia and Vietnam for 12 SU-30MKK fighters, for delivery in 2011-2012, plus associated weapons, service, and support. The deal is reportedly worth $1 billion, and is signed the day after a Russian contract to build Vietnam’s first nuclear plant. Agence France Presse external link | AP external link | RT external link | Straits Times external link.

SU-30MK/ SU-27SK
SU-30MK & SU-27SK
(click to view full)

Dec 15/09: Shortly after Vietnam makes its defense white paper public external link, reports indicate that it has ordered 6 Improved Kilo Class submarines and 12 SU-30MKK fighter jets from Russia, during a visit to Moscow by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed Defense Ministry official on Dec 15/09, who said the submarines were improved “Project 636″ types, and gave the deal’s value at of $2 billion, with delivery taking place at a rate of 1 submarine per year. The Sukhoi Su-30MK2 fighter jet deal was valued at $600 million, and would raise Vietnam’s SU-27/SU-30 family fleet to 20 fighters.

Vietnam also invited Russia to help build its 1st nuclear power plant, and hopes to begin construction in 2014 and put it on line by 2020. The country has been growing its manufacturing capacity in recent years, partly at China’s expense, and needs to improve its electric grid in tandem. Vietnam’s Thanh Nien News external link | RIA Novosti external link | Agence France Presse external link | Associated Press external link | BBC News external link | China’s Xinhua external link | Agence France Presse analysis external link.

12 SU-30s & 6 Improved Kilo submarines

Dec 4/09: Russia’s RIA Novosti reports: external link

“According to the Vedomosti business daily, Moscow and Hanoi are close to sign deals on the purchase of six Kilo class diesel-electric submarines and 12 Su-30MK2 Flanker-C multirole fighters. The submarine contract, worth an estimated $1.8 billion, includes the construction of on-shore infrastructure and training of submarine crews and will be the second largest submarine contract concluded by Russia since the Soviet era after the 2002 deal on the delivery of eight subs to China.”

April 27/09: Initial media reports. The submarine deal’s value is reported to be around $1.8 billion, and the SSKs would be built at Admiralty Shipyards in St. Petersburg. In addition to submarines, the Vietnamese Navy order is said to include new heavyweight torpedoes and missiles (most likely Klub family external link) to arm them.

Some of the Russian reports note that these 6 submarines were once planned for Venezuela, adding that Russia’s Rosoboronexport canceled the deal following Hugo Chavez’ meeting with US President Barrack Obama. That must be judged an extraordinarily thin public rationale for canceling a $1.5+ billion purchase. A sinking global oil market, and Venezuela’s growing economic dependence on its declining oil production for revenue, are far more likely reasons for any delay and/or shift. See: RIA Novosti external link | MosNews external link | St. Petersburg Times external link | Singapore Straits Times external link | Defpro external link.

Additional Readings

Categories: Asia - Other, Contracts - Intent, Force Structure, Issues - International, Missiles - Anti-Ship, Missiles - Precision Attack, Other Corporation, Russia, Submarines, Underwater Weapons
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