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Vietnam’s Submarine Fleet: What Impact on the South China Sea?

Carlyle A. Thayer - January 5, 2016

We are preparing a report on Vietnam’s acquisition of submarines.

We request your assessment of the following  issues:  

(1)  when   will   the   submarines  become operational and (2) who will Vietnamese submarines impact on the  current  naval balance in the South China Sea?

ANSWER: Vietnam plans to have a submarine brigade operational by 2017.

The Varshavyanka-class submarines are designed for anti-submarine warfare, anti- shipping and anti-surface ship warfare, patrol and general reconnaissance, and for the defence of naval bases and coastlines. They are capable of operating in relatively shallow water.

The assessment  of whether  or not  Vietnam can absorb  submarines and create  a credible deterrent is now becoming clearer with reports by diplomatic observers that Vietnam’s submarines are undertaking patrols along Vietnam’s coast. More recent press accounts indicate that the Vietnamese submarines have commenced  patrols without their Russian advisers. In addition, Vietnamese crews are currently undergoing training at India’s INS Satavahana submarine center in undersea warfare doctrine and tactics.

In 2017, when all six submarines are operational, they will add a major capability in Vietnam's ability to develop anti-access/area denial capabilities against any country seeking   to   enter   Vietnamese   waters   with   hostile   intent.   In   addition,   the Varshavyanka-class submarines will add a potent strike capability with their anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles.

Vietnam’s emerging submarine fleet will be based at Cam Ranh Bay. The ability of these submarines to deploy stealthily will be put at risk if China permanently stations anti-submarine  warfare aircraft  on Fiery Cross Reef where  a three-kilometer  long run-way has been constructed.

When all of Vietnam’s current and future arms acquisitions are taken into account it is evident that Vietnam has taken major steps to develop a robust capacity to resist maritime intervention by a hostile power. This has taken the form of developing a counter-intervention  strategy   that   integrates  shore-based   artillery  and  missile systems; Su-30 multirole jet fighters; fast attack craft, corvettes and frigates armed with  ship-to-ship  missiles;  and  Varshavyanka-class  submarines.  These  weapon systems should enable Vietnam to make it extremely costly for China to conduct maritime operations within a 200-300 nautical miles band of water along Vietnam’s coast from the Vietnam-China border in the northeast  to around Da Nang in central Vietnam if not further  south. Additionally, Vietnam also has the  capacity to strike China’s major  naval base  near  Sanya on  Hainan  Island and  military  facilities  on Woody Island.

Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support  to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

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