The Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN) on February 28 deployed the last of six Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines ordered from Russia in 2009. In deploying the full fleet, the VPN became the owner of the largest submarine fleet in Southeast Asia. But it is worthwhile to compare both the size and quality of the VPN’s submarine force with those of its neighbors.

Only three other navies in Southeast Asia have submarines in their fleets. The Indonesian Navy procured two Type 209 submarines from West Germany in 1978 in order to defend its vast territorial waters. By the year 2024, Indonesia plans to operate three Chang Bogo-class submarines from Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering and three additional Kilo-class submarines from Russia. The Royal Malaysian Navy has operated two Scorpène-class submarines since 2009, while the Singaporean navy plans to phase out two of its Challenger-class submarines and replace them with Type 218SG diesel-electric submarines from ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems by 2020. As maritime disputes drive increased tensions in the region, more countries intend to join the submarine club, including Thailand and Philippines.

The South Sea Fleet of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) currently has 22 submarines in service, comprising 16 diesel attack submarines, 4 nuclear ballistic missile submarines, and 2 nuclear attack submarines. Discounting the nuclear-powered submarines, the Vietnamese vessels may be more technologically advanced than most of the PLAN’s diesel attack submarines. The improved MGK-400E sensor array, current-generation GE2-01 radar, infrared periscope monitoring system, and even air conditioning system of the Vietnamese Kilos are top-of-the-line. Most importantly, Vietnam’s submarines are fitted with the latest 3M-14E Klub land attack cruise missile, with a range of 290 kilometers. Russia, which manufactures the missiles, has not yet approved their export to China, though Beijing has compensated by developing its own anti-ship and land attack cruise missile, the YJ-18.

The official commissioning of the last of the Kilo submarines was a landmark moment for the VPN in its transformation from a brown-water to a green-water navy. Koh Swee Lean Collin points out that this shift will require strengthening the navy’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities; the asymmetric balance of undersea capabilities evident in the South China Sea presents both a need and an opportunity for the VPN to adapt its operational and tactical concepts to the use of submarines.

Both qualitative and quantitative advantages play an important role in fighting a naval battle, but they can rendered insufficient without a sound and coherent strategy employing effective operational and tactical concepts. For a small and developing navy like the VPN, an understanding of naval strategy is fundamental in the face of bigger and more technologically advanced opponents. By laying out a huge portion of its budget in procuring a submarine fleet and the requisite support, such as ports and training, Vietnam has shown a willingness to maintain a peacetime deterrent as well as a dangerous wartime weapon—an important step in assuring the country’s territorial sovereignty.

Nevertheless, undersea warfare is just one component of the larger strategy a strong naval force should pursue. Koh Swee Lean Collin also notes that the VPN is gradually changing its approach from traditional sea-denial to the more active but still asymmetric counter-intervention strategy. Sea-denial focuses on denying the use of the sea by opponents or “merchant traffic engaged in war-sustaining trade, in situations where one’s own forces are unable to establish sea and air control.” Small navies employ this strategy to prevent stronger foes from entering a particular space of operation. It is a defensive and passive strategy that appeals to less-advanced and smaller forces.

A larger or more advanced naval force puts more options on the table. With its 3M-14E missiles, the VPN can strike land-based infrastructure or outposts in a surprise submarine attack. This capability underpins the efficiency of deterrence in both peacetime and wartime scenarios. Submarine warfare is complicated, but it is a powerful complement to a larger and well-crafted “counter-intervention” strategy.

The transition to greater littoral capability impacts not only the present regional context but, looking forward, means a huge qualitative shift for the VPN. From the start, such an upgrade requires a tremendous amount of financial support and attention from higher level leadership. The submarine force is the vanguard of Vietnam’s attempt to modernize its navy as a whole, and for an effective counterintervention strategy to be smoothly executed, each branch of the VPN must be able to cooperate with the others. For instance, to conduct an anti-submarine mission, surface warships and naval aviation need to coordinate and act jointly with submarines. Command and control, as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, need further investment and upgrades to ensure the new capabilities of the submarine fleet are not wasted. Other areas that should see improvement in the future include amphibious warfare, where the VPN must allocate resources to modernize amphibious ships and vehicles, and integration between the VPN and the Vietnam People’s Air Force.

About Truong Minh Vu

Truong-Minh Vu is a director of the Center for International Studies (SCIS) and Vice Dean of the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. His research interests encompass international and strategic relations of Southeast Asia. His scholarly articles and analyses have been published on The National Interest, The Asan Forum, Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, Global Asia, East Asia Policy, ASIEN, The German Journal on Contemporary Asia, and RSIS Commentaries. He is co-editor of the book Power Politics in Asia’s Contested Waters: Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea (Springer, 2016).

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.