How Will New Subs Affect Vietnam’s South China Sea Strategy?


New subs might not be enough for Vietnam to defend its South China Sea claims.

The fifth Kilo-class submarine procured for the Vietnamese People’s Navy (VPN) arrived at Cam Ranh Bay at the beginning of February. The Russian-built submarine started its journey from St Petersberg on the 16th of December on the Dutch-registered cargo ship Rolldock Star and arrived late in the night on Tuesday, February 2, according to Thanh Nien News.

There are currently four Vietnamese crews, supported by Russian advisers, for each of the existing Kilo-class Type 636 submarines in service with the VPN. Under Vietnam’s expanded relationship with Russia, a purpose-built submarine support facility was included as part of the deal to procure six conventional submarines for the VPN.

With the end of this modernization cycle looming on the horizon, however, it remains to be seen how much of an impact these new platforms will have on the security balance in Southeast Asia and, more specifically, the maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Although Vietnam is progressing with its platform deliveries as scheduled, Hanoi has only recently deployed its first fully-operational Kilo-class submarine. In the mean-time it is unclear what impact the new Kilo’s will have on Vietnam’s naval and maritime law enforcement operations in the South China Sea. Even with an operational submarine as a deterrent, there are still significant capability gaps that Vietnamese military planners need to consider. Also, as history has shown, the ability to follow up initial military action with additional forces to solidify victory is essential in the amphibious domain; Hanoi would do well to heed some of the lessons from previous skirmishes with China over land in the South China Sea.

This, of course, does not mean that Hanoi needs to pursue a strategy similar to that of China’s. Instead what is important for the rapidly-modernizing country to consider is the requirement for at least some capacity to achieve limited sea control. As some analysts have suggested, platforms such as submarines will not be enough to achieve sea control during conflict. Surface ships, and lots of them, forms an essential element of this facet of military planning despite the vulnerabilities of surface combatants against submarines and long-range missiles.

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