China, now equipped with its third aircraft carrier Fujian, can use it to coerce claimant states in the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. Vietnam, being one of the claimant parties in the SCS dispute can find itself at the receiving end. Moreover, China can coerce Vietnam by enforcing its sovereignty claims and trying to take away disputed or occupied territory from Vietnam in the Spratly islands. Thus, Chinese coercion can obstruct Vietnam’s access to natural resources in the SCS, which serves as its economic lifeline. However, Vietnam, with its anti-access and area denial (A2-AD) capabilities, can deter China from doing so. Vietnam also possesses requisite intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to augment its A2-AD capabilities.
What does A2-AD capabilities means?
The A2-AD capabilities refers to a set of military capabilities which aims to deny adversaries the deployment of forces in the theatre of operations and restrict their freedom of manoeuvre once they are in a theatre. These capabilities include the use of long range precision strike missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), mines, submarines and surface to air missiles (SAM) as components of integrated air defence systems. The precision strike weapons lie at the heart of A2-AD capabilities, which owes their lethality to massive improvement in radar, guidance and communication technology during the information revolution.
Vietnam’s A2-AD capabilities
In 2009, Vietnam signed a contract worth more than $2 billion to purchase six Kilo class submarines from Russia, aimed at boosting its deterrence in the SCS. They are equipped with 3M-14E Klub supersonic cruise missiles, along with ASCM either 3M-54E Klub-S or 3M-54E1. The submarines are also equipped with land attack cruise missile 3M-14E. These submarines can target China’s surface ships and aircraft carriers in the SCS, along with threatening People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) naval base in southern China’s Hainan island. Thus, by fielding these submarines Vietnam can exploit China’s weakness in anti-submarine warfare.
Further, the naval threat to China’s surface ships and aircraft carriers does not just stop at submarines. Vietnam maintains a substantial amount of frigates and corvettes. Its Gepard class frigates are equipped with Kh-35E subsonic ASCM. To counter adversary’s ASCM and guided aerial bombs, theses frigates are equipped with Palma air defence system, which consists of SAM and small calibre artillery. Along with Gepard class frigates, Vietnam also possess twelve Tarantul (Molniya) class missile corvettes.
With these A2-AD capabilities, Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN) can threaten PLAN’s fleet of surface ships and aircraft carriers and deter it from changing the status quo in the SCS.
Vietnam also possesses an air defence system capable of denying China air superiority over it or over features occupied by Vietnam in the Spratly islands. Vietnam purchased a highly advanced SPYDER system from Israel. It is a medium range air defence system, consisting of active radar homing technology. The SPYDER system can destroy targets such as aircrafts, cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and precision guided munitions. Vietnam has also acquired an S-300 air defence system from Russia and is currently negotiating for the purchase of an S-400 air defence system.
Vietnam also has a shore based mobile ASCM system, named Bastion P, which can be used from coasts. The Bastion P system, further, enhances Vietnam’s deterrence by threatening to target China’s surface ships, carriers and aircrafts if they try to project power near Vietnamese shores. Also, its mobility can prevent it from China’s air and missile strikes.
Vietnam’s possession of 35 advanced multirole combat aircraft Su-30MK2 will make it difficult for China to exercise sea control around Vietnam in the SCS. They are armed with Kb-31 supersonic ASCM which can hold China’s naval assets vulnerable in the SCS.
A2-AD capabilities’ augmentation with ISR capabilities
Any kinetic capability needs assistance in the form of identifying (early and timely warning), detecting, tracking, providing necessary information and assessment about the target to carry out intended action against it. So, the A2-AD capabilities also need to be assisted to facilitate the operation. The ISR capabilities plays the role of augmenting A2-AD capabilities.
Vietnam’s ISR capabilities
Vietnam possesses shorter range maritime surveillance aircrafts – C212-400MPA and DHC-6-400 Twin Otter. It also has C-295s, which can also play the role of maritime surveillance.
Vietnam’s inventory of UAVs consists of Orbiter 2 and Orbiter 3 (purchased from Israel), Magic Eye 1 (built with Swedish assistance) and Grif K (bought from Belarus). It has also indigenously built high altitude and long endurance (HALE) HS-6L, which have the range of 4000 km and endurance of up to 35 hours.
Vietnam’s space-based ISR capabilities consists of VNRedSAT-1 satellite, which is dual use in nature. It has also purchased LOTUSat-1 satellite from Japan, which is equipped with synthetic aperture radar to provide high resolution images.
Vietnam’s A2-AD capabilities, augmented by ISR capabilities, will constrain China’s power projection in the SCS and deter it from coercing Vietnam or initiating conflict with it in the disputed Spratly islands. Vietnam can constrain China’s power projection similarly to how China has constrained US’ power projection, that is by fielding asymmetrical A2-AD capabilities. With these capabilities, Vietnam can make life difficult for China’s surface ships and aircraft carriers.
Thus, military balance in the SCS is not entirely tilted towards China, as it is difficult to project power near an adversary having A2-AD capabilities.
[Photo by Hoangprs5, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
Harshit Prajapati is a Master’s graduate in International Relations and Area Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.