The Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) finally retired the last of its half-century-old MiG-21 fighter squadrons in 2015. To replace these, Vietnam has in recent years commissioned four regiments of Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 fighters, which have potentially changed the VPAF from an experienced but outdated air force into a modern force to be reckoned with. But the retirement of the legendary MiG-21s pose questions about the future of the VPAF and its warfighting doctrine.

The VPAF, part of the bigger Vietnam Air Defense-Air Force (VAD-AF), is well-known for its use of MiG-21s against the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War. Employing an asymmetric “guerrilla warfare in the air,” and enjoying the advantages of flying over friendly territory and the support of ground-based radar and anti-aircraft artillery and missile units, North Vietnamese pilots downed a surprising number of U.S. fighters during the war despite a severe numerical and technical disadvantage. This guerrilla approach to air warfare was defensive in nature, sticking mainly to North Vietnamese airspace. VPAF pilots at the time valued the element of surprise, which was embedded in the force’s operational doctrine. During battle, pilots stuck to basic tactics: shoot down as many of enemy as possible, protect your own aircraft, engage only in close dogfights, and concentrate the attacking force against a single air group.

Now the VPAF’s doctrine is again evolving to prepare for asymmetric combat against a larger, more advanced adversary. But the differences between today’s mission and the “guerrilla warfare in the air” of the Vietnam War lie in the more challenging operational environment in which the VPAF will be expected to carry out its missions.

First, the service must be prepared to operate not only within Vietnam’s airspace, but also in the skies above the South China Sea and even over enemy airspace. Second, Vietnam’s most likely adversary, China, possesses a huge advantage in its number of 4th and even 5th generation fighters, which employ state-of-the-art technologies like stealth capabilities, advanced avionics, and networked data fusion. Third, the VPAF, and the VAD-AF in general, would not be operating alone in any combat mission. It would be conducting joint operations alongside the Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN) in the South China Sea as well as supporting the army in defending Vietnam’s border against possible invasion.

These new operational requirements should lead Vietnam to adopt a network-centric warfare (NCW) doctrine. NCW involves the integration and interconnection of forces on the battlefield, allowing them to share information (thus improving situational awareness) and contributing to a faster decision-making process. This is usually carried out by means of datalink systems hosted in ground and sea-based installations, airborne early warning and control aircraft, and even medium-sized fighter aircraft.

Guerilla Warfare Over the South China Sea: Updating Vietnam’s Doctrine