Bid to create a domestic weapons plant furthers Hanoi’s goal of deterring Beijing in South China Sea
Vietnam may soon be producing its own anti-ship missiles with Russian help – the latest move in its attempt to create a naval deterrent to China in the South China Sea dispute.
Mikhail Dmitriyev, the head of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Co-operation, confirmed this week that joint production of a modified Uran Switchblade missile could start in Vietnam this year, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.
Vietnam’s military build-up – including deals to buy state-of-the-art cruise missiles, submarines, ships, fast patrol boats and jet fighters, mostly from Russia, its cold war-era patron – is being closely watched by Beijing and around the region.
Vietnamese officials have yet to comment, while People’s Liberation Army strategists are privately continuing to warn Hanoi against overconfidence and “bellicosity”.
While the Vietnamese already carry the Russian missile on existing ships, the latest step marks the country’s maiden attempt at creating its own sophisticated missile plant, in what is seen by analysts and scholars as a significant step in Hanoi’s attempt to counter China.
While smaller than China’s own “blue-water” naval ambitions, Hanoi is trying to create a deterrent against a larger foe off its coasts – a smaller version of the strategy that China is deploying against the United States, which remains the largest naval power in East Asia.
Professor Carl Thayer, a veteran scholar of Vietnam’s military and the South China Sea, said the move represented an important evolution in Vietnam’s ongoing naval build-up.
“They’ve been acquiring all these platforms in the form of frigates, fast missile patrol boats and planes, and now they need something to go with them,” Thayer said.
“It’s a big step, too, in terms of self-reliance. Over the long term, they will be less reliant on foreign suppliers, particularly during any conflict. That has always been a factor in Vietnamese strategic thinking.”
The Switchblade has a range of 260 kilometres – giving it considerable reach in the disputed Spratly Islands – and represents updated and modified 30-year-old technology, now able to be fitted on planes, helicopters, ships and coastal batteries.
It is considered similar to the US Harpoon missile; China produces its own anti-ship cruise missile, the YJ-62.
Gary Li, who analyses the PLA at the London-based intelligence firm Exclusive Analysis, said it was “striking the way the Vietnamese are playing catch-up” on China.
“And they seem far more ambitious in terms of their capacity than, say, the Philippines, which is relying on old bits and pieces from the US,” Li said. “What is important here is that the Vietnamese are aiming to produce a weapon themselves – that means no one can withhold it from them in a time of crisis and no one can be sure how many missiles they have up their sleeves, like they do when weapons have to be imported.”
Li said questions remained about whether the subsonic missiles would be fast enough to beat the defences of a modern Chinese naval ship, but they could possibly overwhelm them if fired en masse.
“If they are shore-mounted then it would be very hard for the [PLA] to find them as the Vietnamese have lots of coastline,” he said. “All in all, the prospects would be pretty scary for any Chinese navy sailing down to the Spratlys. The entire Vietnamese coastline in 10 years could be a massive shooting alley.”
Russian officials have compared the joint plant to its deal with India to produce the BrahMos supersonic anti-ship cruise missile. Vietnam is negotiating with India about buying the BrahMos, which can be fitted on to trucks.
Vietnam is also spending more than US$2.4 billion to buy six Kilo-class diesel electric submarines. The first vessels are due for delivery at the end of next year.
South China Morning Post