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four regiments of Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 fighters, which have potentially changed the VPAF from an experienced but outdated air force into a modern force to be reckoned with.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.

In addition, the VPAF should apply some of its past experiences with “guerrilla warfare in the air,” with suitable modifications, to twenty-first century asymmetric warfare. According to Major General Vu Van Kha, Vice Commander and Chief of Staff of the VAD-AF, there are several lessons that can be drawn out from past combat history.

First, thoroughly understanding the opponent and preparing for any possible scenario are keys to victory. Second, any campaign involving the VAD-AF must be designed in a flexible and inter-operational manner to allow the force to maintain its capabilities even under heavy attack. Third, operational areas must be determined carefully and combat tactics designed to suit them.

The VPAF’s major considerations during any confrontation in the South China Sea would be to maintain strategic airbases inside the country against an expected preemptive strike, and then to operate alongside the VPN to inflict as much damage as possible to the enemy, both in terms of hard targets and morale. The main operational domain would move from airspace above Vietnam to the skies over the South China Sea, where VPAF Su-27s and Su-30s would need to rely on the air-defense capabilities of VPN vessels for protection. VPAF combat aircraft would need to both deny enemy fighters air supremacy and conduct joint operations with the VPN to counter amphibious assaults against Vietnamese outposts in the South China Sea. And because of their severe numerical disadvantage, Vietnamese pilots would need to do via the tenets of “guerrilla warfare in the air”: destroying as many enemy fighters as possible while minimizing their own losses. Ultimately, these efforts would seek to buy time to mobilize international support and improve the position of Vietnam’s diplomats to work things out at the negotiating table.

These requirements reflect an uneasy reality: the modernization of the VPAF and the VAD-AF as a whole is progressing too slowly. The force needs myriad new equipment and substantially more fighters to be able to achieve its new missions. With the retirement of its MiG-21s, some observers hope to see Vietnam acquire Su-35s, but there have been no concrete announcements on that front. The force is also seeking to boost its training (the VPAF needs a new jet trainer aircraft) and airborne early warning and control capabilities (a likely candidate could be the C-295). But there are prominent hurdles in the way of modernization, including a lack of financial and human resources, the complexity of procurement procedures, and a lack of understanding of modern tactical and strategic air combat doctrines.

Header photo courtesy of the Flickr stream of Alan Wilson.

About Nguyen The Phuong

Nguyen The Phuong is a research associate at the Centre for International Studies, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University-HCMC and at the South China Sea Chronicle Initiative.