Tag Archives: Vietnam

Knowing the Enemy: Naval Intelligence in Southeast Asia

Richard A. Mobley and Edward J. Marolda, Knowing the Enemy: Naval Intelligence in Southeast AsiaNaval History and Heritage Command, 2016, 102 pp.

By LCDR Mark Munson, USN

Knowing the Enemy: Naval Intelligence in Asia by Richard A. Mobley and Edward J. Marolda is the seventh book in the Naval History and Heritage Command’s The U.S. Navy and the Vietnam War series, and addresses the role of U.S. Navy intelligence in the Vietnam War. It serves as useful reference for both students of the Vietnam War and Navy intelligence, illuminating both the drastic technological changes that have taken place over the last 50 years, as well as the unchanging nature of core intelligence principles. Determining what information commanders need, and figuring out how to get them that finished intelligence at the right time and in the right format remains the essence of how to do intelligence right.

Many of the ways in which the U.S. Navy conducted intelligence operations during Vietnam would be familiar to practitioners today, with the Integrated Operational Intelligence Center (IOIC) onboard a Vietnam-era carrier the direct ancestor of today’s Carrier Intelligence Center (CVIC), spaces in which intelligence from a variety of sources, including data from national, theater, and carrier air wing (CVW) sensors and feeds are fused to provide what the Navy calls “Operational Intelligence.”

Demonstrating the continuity of all-source intelligence analysis between then and now, the all-source techniques Vietnam-era analysts used to track illicit civilian shipping had originally been perfected during the Second World War. During Operation Market Time, the U.S. Navy’s interdiction campaign in the South China Sea against trawlers smuggling weapons from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, naval intelligence used what Mobley and Marolda describe as a “sophisticated analytical and interpretive process” and techniques like “pattern analysis,” to achieve “a comprehensive understanding of what routes the infiltrating ships would take and what sites on the coast of South Vietnam they would attempt to reach.”

During Vietnam the Navy experimented both with methods where imagery collected during airborne reconnaissance missions was exploited onboard the carrier in the IOIC, as well as what is now called “reachback,” with analysts at the Fleet Intelligence Center Pacific Facility (FICPAC) in Hawaii exploiting imagery during Operation Rolling Thunder early in the war, or at the Fleet Intelligence Center Pacific Facility (FICPACFAC) at Cubi Point in the Philippines later during the bombing of North Vietnam during 1972’s Operation Linebacker. Teams of FICPACFAC imagery analysts “operated around the clock processing raw intelligence photography, interpreting it, and using it to prepare targeting lists” during Linebacker. Navy support to targeting efforts during Linebacker played a vital role to operations such as the air campaign that stopped North Vietnam’s conventional invasion of the South, and the mining of Haiphong Harbor.

Unlike today, however, when reachback is enabled by robust wireless and satellite communications, the state of technology at that time meant that unexploited imagery had to be physically couriered from the various sites afloat and ashore in Southeast Asia to Hawaii and back, demonstrating the old intelligence truism that even the best intelligence collection has no impact if cannot get to an analyst who can exploit and then disseminate it to the right decision-maker in a timely and usable form. This dilemma was demonstrated most acutely during Rolling Thunder, which featured rules-of-engagement requiring the Joint Staff at the Pentagon to approve strikes, meaning that wet film of targets like Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) sites would have to be flown back to the carrier, recovered from the plane, exploited by imagery analysts, transmitted to Washington, and then approved as targets. This lumbering process often allowed the enemy to move their SAM batteries well before an attack was mounted. In this instance the combination of technological limitations and cumbersome command-and-control processes limited the effectiveness of U.S. airpower. It also serves as a reminder for how the current reliance on wireless communications presents vulnerabilities that can be exploited by savvy adversaries that challenge U.S. use of the electromagnetic spectrum by degrading dissemination of intelligence from the analyst to the consumer.

The employment of manned airborne reconnaissance platforms from even before the start of the war demonstrates the desire for better intelligence by both commanders in theater and national leaders during Vietnam, with carrier-based aircraft conducting what is now called Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions being suffering casualties over Laos as early as June 1964. 32 planes from the Navy’s photo-reconnaissance squadrons were eventually shot down during war, with seven pilots killed and five captured. These comparatively heavy losses are possibly the biggest human difference between ISR in Vietnam and the current set of wars prosecuted by the U.S. in the twenty-first century. The extreme risks that North Vietnam’s advanced Soviet air defense network posed to aviators flying manned reconnaissance platforms then contrasts greatly with the virtually threat-free environment that today’s aerial reconnaissance platforms enjoy as they operate with impunity in the skies above places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Just like today, signals intelligence (SIGINT) can be collected both in the air and afloat, with support during Vietnam from Naval Security Group cryptologists embarked in Navy ships off the coast, and airborne SIGINT collection conducted from P-3 Orion Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft during Operation Market Time.

Navy collectors of Human Intelligence (HUMINT) in Vietnam included Naval Intelligence Liaison Officers (NILO) serving as part of Naval Intelligence Field Organization (NIFO) in Vietnam’s coastal and riverine zones. Perhaps the most impressive HUMINT success took place in 1969 when Navy collection was able to prove that North Vietnam was moving weapons and personnel into the South via Cambodia. This was a victory against both the enemy as well as the national intelligence bureaucracy. Previous technical collection had failed to prove the existence of a Cambodian transshipment node, and strongly-held assessments by CIA, DIA, and the State Department had rejected suspicions that support to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong was being funneled through Cambodia.

Perhaps some of the most insightful observations made in Knowing the Enemy is when it recounts how the desire for better intelligence on the intentions of the North Vietnamese, Chinese, and Soviet rivals of the U.S. ended up driving both military operations and political events, instead of the reverse. Although the U.S. had been involved in the fight in Southeast Asia since the French had been forced out of its former Indochinese colony in the mid-1950s, the main trigger for the “official” start of the war was actually caused by the push for more aggressive intelligence collection.

By the early sixties, U.S. Navy destroyers were regularly conducting intelligence collection missions called “DESOTO patrols,” typically off the coast but outside the territorial waters of the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and North Vietnam. By 1964 U.S. leaders were pushing for more aggressive DESOTO patrols in order to support South Vietnam’s “Operation 34A” commando raids against North Vietnamese coastal targets. Admiral Harry D. Felt, then serving as Commander in Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), stated that the “lack of adequate intelligence is a prime factor in the failure of maritime operations,” concluding that Operation 34A needed better U.S. Navy afloat collection to be successful.

The pressure to improve collection by operating U.S. Navy ships closer to the North Vietnamese coast, sometime inside of territorial waters, led directly to the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident in which the destroyers Maddox (DD-731) and Turner Joy (DD-951), were purportedly attacked by the North Vietnamese Navy, providing the justification for the subsequent Tonkin Gulf Resolution and the closest thing to an actual “start” of the Vietnam War. The authors briefly discuss the controversy over exactly what happened in August 1964, and how intelligence reporting and analysis of those events at the time were used by the Johnson administration to justify a greatly expanded role in Vietnam, noting that “it is now clear that North Vietnamese naval units did not attack Maddox and Turner Joy on 4 August 1964.”

Knowing the Enemy highlights heroes such as Jack Graf, a decorated NILO who, after being shot down during his second tour in Vietnam, escaped from captivity but ultimately went missing; Lieutenant Charles F. Klusmann, a reconnaissance pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1964 but was able to escape; and Captain Earl F. “Rex” Rectanus, the Intelligence Officer for Naval Forces Vietnam (NAVFORV) who stood up to CIA and DIA in 1969, proving that enemy forces were being resupplied via Cambodia. It also includes sections discussing more prosaic challenges like those faced by cryptologists located ashore at bases like Danang who underwent frequent rocket attacks from Viet Cong rebels.

Knowing the Enemy provides a rich resource for those interested in U.S. Naval intelligence efforts in Vietnam, covering the war both chronologically and thematically in terms of how intelligence supported Navy operations off the coast, in the air, on the ground, and in the rivers of southeast Asia. It can be downloaded for free from the Naval History and Heritage Command’ website.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a naval officer assigned to Coastal Riverine Group TWO. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: Ben Cat, South Vietnam, Sept. 25, 1965 by french photographer Henry Huet. The soldiers in the photo are paratroopers of the U.S. 2nd Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade. (Colorized by Wayne Degan)

Challenging China’s Sub-Conventional Dominance

The Red Queen’s Navy

Written by Vidya Sagar Reddy, The Red Queen’s Navy will discuss the The Red Queeninfluence of emerging naval platforms and technologies in the geostrategic contours of the Indo-Pacific region. It identifies relevant historical precedents, forming the basis for various maritime development and security related projects in the region.

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”– The Red Queen, Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll.

By Vidya Sagar Reddy

A recent RAND report underscored the significance of the strategy by certain states of employing measures short of war to attain strategic objectives, so as to not cross the threshold, or the redline, that trips inter-state war. China is one of the countries cited by the report, and the reasons are quite evident. The employment of this strategy by China is apparent to practitioners and observers of geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region. The diplomatic and military engagements in this region call attention to the South China Sea, where China’s provocative actions continue to undermine international norms and destabilize peace and security.

Vietnam and the Philippines are the two claimants determined to oppose such actions with the support of other regional security stakeholders. They intend to shore up their military strength, especially in the maritime domain. The Philippines decided to upgrade military ties with the U.S. through an agreement allowing forward basing of American military personnel and equipment. It will receive $42 million worth of sensors to monitor the developments in West Philippine Sea.  Additionally, India emerged as the lowest bidder to supply the Philippines with two light frigates whose design is based on its Kamorta class anti-submarine warfare corvette.

The recent visit of US. President Obama to Vietnam symbolizes transformation of the countries’ relationship to partners and opened the door for the transfer of lethal military equipment. Vietnam is considering the purchase of American F-16 fighters and P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. Its navy is already undergoing modernization with the induction of Russian Kilo class submarines. India, which uses the same class of submarines, helped train Vietnam’s submariners. Talks with Vietnam to import India-Russia joint BrahMos supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles seem to be in an advanced stage.

But, this military modernization is concentrated on strengthening the conventional domain of the conflict spectrum, while China accomplishes its objectives by using sub-conventional forces. China’s aggressive maritime militia and coast guard are the real executors of local tactical contingencies, while its navy and air force provide reconnaissance support and demonstrate muscle power.

This June 23, 2014 handout photo from Vietnam's maritime police shows a Chinese boat (L) supposedly ramming a Vietnamese vessel (R) in contested waters near China's deep sea drilling rig in the South China Sea. MARITIME POLICE / AFP - Getty Images
This June 23, 2014 handout photo from Vietnam’s maritime police shows a Chinese boat (L) supposedly ramming a Vietnamese vessel (R) in contested waters near China’s deep sea drilling rig in the South China Sea.  (MARITIME POLICE / AFP – Getty Images)

The 2014 HYSY 981 oil rig stand-off, when China’s vessels fired water cannons and rammed into Vietnamese boats, serves as a classic example of China’s use of sub-conventional forces. Some of these platforms are refitted warships, and the total vessel tonnage has far exceeded the cumulative tonnage of neighboring countries. China has also deployed coast guard cutters weighing more than 10,000 tonnes, the largest in the world. They cover maritime militia’s activities like harassing Vietnamese and other littoral fishermen from exercising their rights or defend China’s illegal fishing activities in the exclusive economic zones of other countries. Recently, they have forcefully snatched back a Chinese fishing vessel that had been detained by the Indonesian authorities for transgression.

Such provocative actions to forcefully lay down new rules on the ground need to be challenged, but using conventional air and naval assets will only lead to escalation. It is advisable to learn from China’s strategist himself in this context, Sun Tzu, who counsels that it is wise to attack an adversary’s strategy first before fighting him on the battlefield.

Therefore, both Vietnam and the Philippines must also concentrate on building up the capacity of respective coast guards and maritime administration departments with relevant assets like offshore patrol vessels (OPV) to secure the islands and exclusive economic zones. Operating independently in these areas inevitably hedges against China’s proclamation of South China Sea as its sovereign territory and requiring its consent to operate in.

Vietnam is inducting patrol boats furnished by local industries as well as depending on the pledge from the U.S. to provide 18 patrol boats. The Philippines contracted a Japanese company to build 10 patrol vessels on a low-interest loan offered by Japan’s government. It is also set to receive four boats from the U.S.

India should also take a proactive position and join its regional security partners in extending its current efforts in the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. India has built high level partnership programs to build the capacity of its neighboring Indian Ocean countries to ensure security of their exclusive economic zones. In the process, it delivered some of its OPVs to Sri Lanka. Recently, Mauritius became the first customer of India’s first locally built OPV Barracuda. India is now building two more for Sri Lanka. Additionally, Vietnam has contracted an Indian company to build four OPVs using the $100 million line of credit offered by the Indian government.

Warship Barracuda docked in Kolkata. (Image: Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Ltd)
Warship Barracuda docked in Kolkata. (Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Ltd)

The demand for these vessels will only grow as the strategic competition in the South China Sea escalates. India enjoys better political, historical, and security relations with the South East Asian countries, especially Vietnam. The Philippine government has underscored this relationship between India and Vietnam as the foundation for its own relations with India. Taking advantage of this situation not only improves India’s strategic depth in the region but also enhances its manufacturing capacity that is at the core of Make in India initiative.

The specific requirements like range, endurance, and armament depend on the customer countries. The more critical question at play is whether the regional security stakeholders are comfortable with the idea of upgunned coast guards along the South China Sea littoral.

The U.S. has forward deployed four of its Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to Singapore to tackle a variety of threats emanating in the shallow waters. The ships are smaller than a frigate but larger than an OPV in terms of sensor suites, armament, mission sets, and maintenance requirements. War simulations proved that upgunned LCS can cross into blue water domain with ease and complicate an adversary’s order of the battle.

Vietnam and the Philippines could specify higher endurance, better hull strength and advanced water cannons for their OPVs to defend proportionally against Chinese vessels. In addition to manufacturing ships, India should also train Vietnamese and Philippine forces on seamlessly integrating  intelligence from different assets for maritime defense.

Over time, a level of parity in the sub-conventional domain needs to be achieved and maintained to force China to either shift its strategy or escalate the situation into conventional domain whereupon the escalation dominance will shift to status quo countries.

Vidya Sagar Reddy is a Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Featured Image: Chinese 10,000 ton coast guard cutter, CCG 2901. (People’s Daily Online)

Cam Ranh International Port Visits in Strategic Context

By Zachary Abuza and Nguyen Nhat Anh

On 2 May, the French amphibious assault ship FS Tonnerre arrived in the Cam Ranh International Port (CRIP) for a four day visit. It was the third international visit to the newly established CRIP, nee Cam Ranh Bay, following the mid-March visit of a Singaporean naval vessel and a mid-April visit by two Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force ships. These three visits reflect Vietnam’s strategic interests, most importantly, the development of an omni-directional foreign policy. While much attention will be paid to President Obama’s visit to Vietnam this month, it is important to note both how far bilateral relations have come, but also how much they are only a piece of Vietnam’s overall strategic framework.

The decision to give Cam Ranh the moniker “International Port” was a strategic one. Hanoi has long been called on to open up the port to foreign vessels transiting the region, but wanted to make sure that it was not aimed at any one country. Thus the port, which is one of the finest deep-water ports in the entire region and is full of new construction after the inauguration such as a new berthing area, pier, quay wall, and was opened up to all on a “commercial basis.” This is in line, if not a creative work around, with Hanoi’s “3 Nos” foreign policy (no alliances, no foreign military bases, and no policies that could be construed as being directed against any one state). The argument that any one foreign country could try to gain exclusive access to the port is nonsensical.

State President Truong Tan Sang at the grand opening ceremony of the Cam Ranh international port in Khanh Hoa Province, Vietnam, March 8, 2016. Photo: Tuoi Tre.
State President Truong Tan Sang at the grand opening ceremony of the Cam Ranh International Port in Khanh Hoa Province, Vietnam, March 8, 2016. Photo: Tuoi Tre.

Indeed, in bilateral defense talks held at the end of March 2016, Vice Minister of Defense Nguyen Chi Vinh said that Vietnam had actively invited Chinese vessels to visit Vietnamese ports, including CRIP. Even though it was an unpopular move domestically, it signals the leadership’s intention that CRIP not be directed against any one country.

While it is clear that Vietnam-U.S. defense cooperation has deepened considerably over the last few years and will continue to do so, both sides seem to be content on the pace with which the relationship is moving for various reasons.

Vietnam clearly has a strategic interest in a more robust U.S. presence in the region, and has actively championed the right of U.S. Naval vessels to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), including past features that Vietnam itself claims and occupies. Vietnam also looks to the United States as the only thing between China and the declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).

However, although Hanoi is keen to further deepen ties with the United States, there remain many real impediments, including history, the continued legacy of Agent Orange, and the enormous costs associated with the cleanup of Bien Hoa, and criticism over human rights. Indeed, this year, Hanoi responded to the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report, calling it “biased,” something it has not done and downplayed in the past few years. Furthermore, despite its embrace of the Trans Pacific Partnership, Hanoi is cautious about growing too close to the United States in the security realm, for fear of provoking a harsh reaction from China, hence its intention of displaying CRIP as a neutral, open-to-all port.

From 22-24 May, President Barack Obama will visit Vietnam, reciprocating the historic July 2015 visit to the United States by Vietnam Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong. While many hope that President Obama will fully lift the arms embargo, others argue that Vietnam simply has too many human rights abuses to merit a full lifting. Indeed, his Secretary of Defense recently endorsed lifting the embargo in a Congressional hearing with Senator John McCain, a long proponent of ending the embargo. In early May, right before Obama’s visit, Vietnam hosted a defense symposium to which top U.S. arm corporations, such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, were invited. This will be more of a symbolic gesture, but in diplomacy, especially in such a historically fraught relationship, symbols matter.

US President Barack Obama and Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in the White House in Washington, DC, July 7, 2015. (AFP). AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB
U.S. President Barack Obama and Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in the White House in Washington, DC, July 7, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB

But even still, limits exist. There are longstanding concerns about selling advanced technology to Vietnam for fear that it will be shared with Russia. Again, human right issues also interfere with the decision. Nevertheless, this is not to say that Vietnam’s purchase of U.S. weapons is impossible.

The one area that does seem ripe for sales is maritime aviation capabilities, something that the U.S. does have a stark comparative advantage in. Vietnam has expressed an interest in a stripped down P-3 Orion. In April 2016, a group of Vietnamese naval officers visited U.S. Patrol Squadron 47 in Hawaii and notably toured a P-3C in order to better understand its capability. Vietnam has also seen the P-3 in action in January 2016 during a joint HADR exercise between Vietnam and Japan. Boeing has suggested that one of its Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) suites would fit Vietnam’s needs.

Despite the regular presence of U.S. Naval vessels, which spend some 700 ship days a year in the South China Sea, and the recent visit by the USS Stennis to the Philippines, and the recent refusal of port access in Hong Kong by China, to date no U.S. vessel has called on CRIP.

Furthermore, Vietnamese rules stipulate that foreign naval vessels, including those of the U.S., can only call on Vietnamese ports once a year. Nevertheless, U.S. logistical ships have visited the port before for repair and maintenance service. In June 2012 USNS Richard E. Byrd, a Military Sealift Command supply ship, stopped at Cam Ranh’s repair facilities, and then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta gave a speech on board the moored ship, promising a stronger relationship between the two nations. The U.S. Navy has used their port call annually since 2009, albeit not at Cam Ranh Bay. Furthermore, when reporting the inauguration of CRIP, Vietnamese official media mentioned the possibility of U.S. aircraft carriers calling on the port by mentioning that CRIP can “accommodate military and civilian ships like aircraft carriers of up to 110,000 DWT (deadweight tonnage).” Hence, it is likely that a U.S. Navy ship will call on Cam Ranh Bay in the near future.

Leon Panetta speaks to the crew of the USNS Richard E. Byrd docked at Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay in June 2012.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks to the crew of the USNS Richard E. Byrd docked at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay in June 2012. AFP/Getty Images.

In addition, the U.S. government has awarded Vietnam $40.1 million in FY2015-16 as part of its Maritime Security Initiative in order to “bolster its maritime Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and command and control within Vietnam’s maritime agencies.” The funding will also support the purchase of maritime defense equipment and support training and bilateral HADR exercises to improve interoperability.

The visit by the Singaporean naval vessel should have come as no surprise. ASEAN – for all of its faults and limitations – remains the cornerstone of Vietnamese foreign policy. It works assiduously to counter China’s aggressive moves to divide the grouping, especially ahead of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s expected ruling. Vietnam and Singapore have pledged to deepen ties and have suggested future bi and multi-lateral defense exercises.

Soon after, Vietnamese naval vessels and special forces soldiers participated in a regional counter-terrorism and anti-piracy exercise with Singapore, Brunei, Thailand and Indonesia. Interestingly, Vietnam sent HQ-381, a BPS-500 type missile corvette instead of its Gepard frigates. The HQ-318 was the first missile corvette built domestically in Vietnam in 1999, and it underwent capability upgrades in 2014. Vietnam has also increased its participation in multilateral exercises, including sending Hospital Ship 561 to the 2016 Komodo naval exercises in Indonesia in April 2016. Vietnam has extended maritime cooperation to entirely new partners as well, including a five day on-shore multilateral course by the Royal Navy’s Maritime Warfare School on EEZ enforcement. 

The visit by the French ship capped a week of the re-emergence of France as a player in Asian security, with the agreement in principle to supply Australia with 12 Barracuda submarines; beating out the Japanese Soryu-class. But the presence of one of France’s largest vessels at CRIP also suggests the potential for defense deals with Vietnam, which has hinted that it wants to reduce its dependence on Russia for its advanced weaponry. Vietnam has already purchased military lift planes from the French-led Airbus consortium. SIPRI, in its arm transfer database, shows that Vietnam has taken delivery of Exocet anti-ship and MICA anti-air missiles from France for its Dutch SIGMA-9814 corvettes; yet, as the negotiation for the corvettes seems to have been suspended, the fate of these missiles is uncertain. Reuters also reported that the Vietnamese military is currently in talk with Dassault on the Rafale multirole fighter as a possible replace for its antiquated but numerous MiG-21s. However, the Rafale’s high cost makes this procurement less likely.

But it is the relationship with Japan that portends the greatest potential. There have now been six high level strategic dialogues, and Japanese ships have made some nine port calls, the majority of which happened in the last five years. There are routine high level engagements. Although Japan has not sold any weapons to Vietnam, in 2014 it pledged to transfer six maritime patrol craft; the last were delivered in November 2015.

Japan's Defence Minister Gen Nakatani (R) and his Vietnamese counterpart General Phung Quang Thanh (2nd L) talk at the Ministry of Defence in Hanoi, Vietnam November 6, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer
Japan’s Defense Minister Gen Nakatani (R) and his Vietnamese counterpart General Phung Quang Thanh (2nd L) talk at the Ministry of Defense in Hanoi, Vietnam November 6, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer.

The potential for deeper ties is clearly there. A meeting between the respective foreign Ministers in early May 2016 led to calls for deepened defense relations as well as the provision of more maritime patrol craft. As Japan experiences  the loss of the Soryu class vessels sale to Australia, Tokyo still needs a major arms sale to break into the world of the global arms industry. But while Japanese equipment is expensive and r technology transfer is unlikely, the defense relationship, including recent HADR operations, is growing so quickly that it might become a natural byproduct.

Both countries have called for a rules-based system in the South China Sea. Both would like each other to step up their respective operations in the South China Sea. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc recently called on Shinzo Abe’s government to make “effective efforts” in the South China Sea, but there are limits. Vietnam in unlikely to be overly confrontational towards China. And while many have called for Japan to join U.S. FONOPs, that is unlikely, simply as China has the ability to escalate its operations in the contested waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands. Intercepts of Chinese planes in Japan’s southwest quadrant alone already account for over 50 percent of overall intercepts of foreign aircraft.   In 2015, there were 571 intercepts of Chinese planes, a 23 percent increase from 2014, taxing the Japanese military.

Despite these improvements and deepening cooperation with new defense partners, it is the bilateral defense relationship with Russia that remains the strongest. Newly elected Minister of National Defense Ngo Xuan Lich made his first overseas trip to Russia, where he reiterated that Vietnam will continue to rely on Russia for much of its weaponry and advanced training. Newly elected Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will also make Russia his first foreign destination in mid-May, ahead of President Obama’s visit. 

Vietnam’s third Gepard class frigate was recently floated in a Russian shipyard, with the fourth to be launched soon and delivered by September. There are reports that Vietnam will order another two, a total of six, while it has increased production of Molniya class missile ships under license from Russia. Five out of six Kilo submarines that Vietnam ordered from Russia have been delivered, and Russia is helping Vietnam construct the submarine base at Cam Ranh as part of the deal. Vietnam’s recent announcement that it was moving the Ministry of National Defense’s Ba Son Shipyard to a new location, increasing its production capabilities to 2,000 dead weight tons, also suggests increased domestic production under further Russian license.

A Gepard-class frigate built by Russia's Gorky Zelenodolsk Plant. Photo credit: Gorky Zelenodolsk Plant.
A Gepard-class frigate built by Russia’s Gorky Zelenodolsk Plant. Photo credit: Gorky Zelenodolsk Plant.

When Vietnam purportedly “invited” Russia back to Cam Ranh, it should not be taken as meaning a reopening of their Cold War era naval base, which closed in 1991, but simply as a commercial user of CRIP facilities. Nonetheless, in 1993 Moscow and Hanoi signed a 25 year agreement that allowed Russia to continue using a facility in Cam Ranh Bay for limited signals intelligence gathering. More recently Russia has deployed aerial refueling tankers from CRIP to support bombers that have flown “provocatively” near US airspace in Guam. U.S. calls on Vietnam to restrict such operations have fallen on deaf ears. Furthermore, in 2014, the procedure for Russian ships calling on Cam Ranh Bay was simplified: they only have to notify Vietnamese authority before doing so.

While there have been occasional reports that Vietnam wants to diversify its sources of advanced weaponry, the reality is Russian equipment is tried and true, very cost effective, and the Vietnamese have long trained on it. Most importantly, the Russians transfer a lot of technology to Vietnam, which produces an array of missiles and ships under license. Vietnam’s relationship with India, also gives it access to the advanced Brahmos anti-ship missiles developed with Russia. This is an enduring strategic defense relationship.

Yet, small diplomatic rifts between Vietnam and Russia have emerged, in particular over Moscow’s support for Beijing over the South China Sea and Permanent Court of Arbitration’s forthcoming ruling. In April 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov commented in an interview that claimants in the South China Sea dispute should resolve the matter among themselves and not attempt to internationalize the issue. Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately rebutted Lavrov by announcing that the dispute should be “settled by all countries concerned,” not simply through bilateral negotiation. Notably, Lich’s visit to Russia occurred only two weeks after this incident. It should be closely watched whether this diplomatic rift will negatively affect Moscow-Hanoi defense relationship in any way.

In sum, since the 12th Party Congress in January 2016, and the early election of key state leaders to their posts ahead of President Obama’s visit, Vietnam has continued with their defense policy: a cautious attempt to bolster defense relations with regional and extra-regional states, the gradual diversification of its arms suppliers, and partaking in joint exercises. While it has brought a lot of new equipment online, giving the country unprecedented power projection capabilities, it is yet to be seen whether they have developed a corresponding doctrine. While no one should underestimate Vietnam’s will and capability to act in self-defense, that robust strategic culture has faltered at the hands of China’s maritime-militia and Coast Guard sovereignty enforcement operations and island construction. However, as Vietnam’s capability improve, it remains cautious about provoking a harsh reaction from Beijing. Yet, at the end of the day, Hanoi’s primary concern continues to be regime survival. The government responded quickly when environmental protests went national, and the regime seems very concerned regarding its ability to control its very wired and socially active population.

Zachary Abuza, PhD, is a Professor at the National War College where he specializes in Southeast Asian security issues. The views expressed here are his own, and not the views of the Department of Defense or National War College. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAbuza.

Nguyen Nhat Anh is a student of International Political Economy at the University of Texas at Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter @anhnnguyen93.

Gepard, Molniya class warships in Cam Ranh naval base. TTVNOL.com. 

Sea Control 111 – Vietnam-Era Drones (QH-50)

seacontrol2We discuss the Vietnam-era drone, the QH-50 DASH, with Peter Papadakos – engineer, historian, and son of the DASH’s inventor. We go through the program’s origins, its original purpose, the field modifications made by enterprising Vietnam-era officers, and the challenges that came with its operation and the institutional resistance to its use. This podcast was inspired by BJ Armstrong’s Armed Forces Journal Article, Unmanned Naval Warfare: Retrospect and Prospect.

DOWNLOAD: Vietnam Era Drones

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