DN - Defence Notes

Reforms are needed for Vietnam’s military

2nd August 2017 - 01:08 GMT | by Wendell Minnick in Taipei


Vietnam must begin serious modernisation and structural reform if it wants to hold its own against China’s growing control of the South China Sea and, to investigate this matter further, Shephard canvassed an international cross-section of Vietnam specialists for recommendations.

To be fair, since 1975 Vietnam’s military has been in continuous modernisation, sources indicated, even if it has fallen short at times. 

However, in the past ten years the military has fixed its attention on capacity building, redefining the character of strategic relationships, improving the manner in which the services define requirements and shape procurement plans, training and education, and the structure and function of various military enterprises. 

The best example of success is Viettel, Vietnam’s largest mobile phone network operator, owned and operated by the Ministry of National Defence. Viettel has overcome tremendous obstacles to become a sophisticated telecommunications service on par with anything in the world.

Despite some success in the armed services, many believe further improvements are urgently needed. This is particularly so in the leadership structure, which Paul Giarra, president of the Washington-based Global Strategies and Transformation, called ‘totally unreconstructed.’ 

The 2016 selection of Ngo Xuan Lich as minister of national defence, ‘a political commissar with no command or operational experience…was a really uninspired choice for a military that is going through rapid modernisation,’ said Zachary Abuza, a specialist on Southeast Asia at the National War College in Washington DC. 

The choice revealed a great deal about Vietnam’s insecurities, and the debate has led to suggestions inside Hanoi’s defence circles to make the military legally bound to the state and not the communist party.

Training and education from basic to high-level officers is also a priority. This includes sending more officers and flag officers to advanced countries for military courses, especially on combined operations, said Carlyle Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy. 

Abuza said the ground forces still have good training, but a string of aircraft crashes in the past two years suggested that they simply do not have enough airframes or sufficient training time. This includes the navy, which has acquired more new capabilities than any other service, ‘but I am not convinced that they are training on them sufficiently,’ he said. 

Thayer added that Vietnam should initiate a broad-based programme of bilateral and multilateral military exercises with foreign counterparts to test Vietnam’s combat capabilities in priority areas such as air defence and maritime security. 

‘Develop a comprehensive whole-of-government national security and defence strategy to guide the development of service doctrines, strategies and tactics and interoperability of the services,’ Thayer advised.

Part of the training problem has to do with Russian procurements that often lack maintenance packages, and further maintenance costs are often not factored into Vietnam’s long-term defence budgeting plan, ‘especially the recent procurement of six Russian-built Kilo-class attack submarines,’ Abuza said. 

Though Vietnam’s military modernisation is largely centred around its relationship with Russia, in the long run Vietnamese defence officials are increasingly concerned over two aspects of the relationship, said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. 

First, Russia is not only supplying arms to Vietnam, but also to China. The Ukraine crisis and Western embargo only pushed Russia and China closer in the sphere of military-technical cooperation. At present, Russia remains the key arms supplier to Vietnam, and Hanoi is already getting uneasy over this, Koh said.

‘At least the ground and air forces are gradually shifting towards non-Russian sources, yet the military continues to rely more on Moscow for big-ticket items,’ he pointed out. 

Second, Russia has proven also to be a ‘capricious arms dealer’. For example, it could only promise technology transfers to Vietnam for Gepard-class frigates if Vietnam purchased a minimum of six vessels. Yet at the same time, Vietnam has been unhappy with the pace of construction of the Gepards. 

‘In the long run, Vietnam could do well to rely on two alternative pathways. First, non-Russian sources, especially Dutch, with whom Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defence has a close relationship via Damen. Second, indigenous, building on existing tech transfers implemented with Russia, but using that to expand its local shipbuilding capacity,’ Koh said. 

Abuza agreed. Vietnam does a really good job about licencing and indigenous production, better than any other Southeast Asian state, and this has really helped them to drive down costs, he said.

Another weakness that needs fixed is command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR). Vietnam should enhance the revolution in military affairs by ensuring interoperability of air and naval platforms in terms of C4ISR through technology transfer, coproduction and a strong national defence industry, Thayer said. 

Koh concurred, and noted that Vietnam has so far had problems augmenting its kinetic capabilities to a more robust maritime ISR capability, especially in the face of problems with China in the South China Sea. A broad-area maritime ISR represented by better maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft will be required in the long run, he said. 

Six existing Canadian-built Viking DHC-6 Twin Otter amphibious planes are modern but short-legged and low on payload when it comes to covering the massive size of the South China Sea. 

Koh recommended that Vietnam consider a variety of options, including refurbished US P-3C Orion aircraft or modified Airbus C-295 or CASA CN235 aircraft with an ISR package. ‘Ideally, the envisaged end result should be an integrated system comprising both manned and unmanned ISR systems, as well as remote-sensing, for better coverage of the South China Sea,’ he said. 

The military seems to be without a real doctrine right now, Abuza said. ‘They certainly have none for their navy and air force, and they are now two years overdue for the release of their White Paper.’ 

Koh believes that Vietnam should move towards a doctrinal shift in greater decentralisation of command and control (C2), and empowerment of junior leaders. Unlike in the past, where Hanoi could rely on a largely peasant army geared to fight guerrilla campaigns, in the context of today and the future it would expect a short, high-tech and intense war with conceivable adversaries – none other than China, he said. 

If China is gearing towards that, there is no reason for Vietnam not to follow suit. ‘The need to just emulate the Chinese goes beyond that: to compensate for Vietnam’s manpower and materiel deficiencies vis-à-vis its Chinese counterpart, it would need bold reforms in its C2 system,’ Koh said.

He added that this would mean having to make compromises in the context of its political system, where communist-style centralised, politicised control over the military still holds sway, but if Vietnam chose the status quo, it might lose the opportunity to even have asymmetry with China. 

‘There’s no way Hanoi can bridge this gap with manpower and materiel quantity – at least it could likely do better than the Chinese in decentralising its C2, and giving greater empowerment for junior military leaders,’ Koh concluded.

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