China’s unrelenting efforts to dominate the South China Sea (SCS) and to restrict its use by vessels of other nations has proved to be a catalyst for the upgrading of regional navies. Taiwan is currently receiving a major boost with the commissioning of new indigenously-built craft, in parallel with huge supplies of state-of-the- art naval and other weaponry by Washington, including some 400 shore-launched anti-shipping missiles.
South Korea and Japan are both gearing up for carrier-borne, fixed-wing operations.
The Philippine Navy is has received its first missile-capable frigates and is slated to receive shore launched surface- to-surface missiles from the US. The already large Indonesian Navy is commissioning locally-built fast attack craft and submarines.
Vietnam People’s Navy
Vietnam, though, has seen the most radical advance in its maritime capability, and is now a blue water force to be reckoned with. Hanoi remains hugely concerned over continuing Chinese moves to disrupt its fishing and mineral prospecting activity, the fortification of islets in the SCS, and the expansion of Hainan-based submarine activity.
The Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN) relies heavily upon Russia for the supply of modern warships and is reportedly negotiating for the acquisition of four examples of a new missile-armed patrol ship, namely the Type 22160.
The VPN’s inventory of Russian-designed warships, some indigenously-built, currently includes four Ka-28 helicopter-equipped Gepard 3.9 frigates, five Molniya and four Tarantul corvettes, all missile-equipped, backed by six Russia-supplied Svetylak and six locally built TT-400 TP patrol ships , as well as a pair of former Republic of Korea Navy Pohang corvettes, which are scheduled to be upgraded with Uran E surface-to-surface missiles.
The VPN’s six Russian-constructed Kilo submarines have ushered in a significant change to the balance of power in the SCS, as the armament of the boats includes both Klub surface-to-surface missiles and guided torpedoes, and they therefore pose a significant threat to Chinese submarines and surface warships. They are reportedly particularly active in the vicinity of the Chinese submarine base at Yulin on Hainan Island.
Hanoi recently commissioned an advanced US-designed, UK-built submarine rescue submersible to support its Kilo fleet.
There are also about 50 fast attack craft, while the VPN currently operates about 20 amphibious warfare vessels of various types and vintages, and, with an eye to the proliferation of fortified Chinese-garrisoned islets in the SCS, is reportedly building up its inventory of smaller landing craft.
Mine warfare is another discipline that is not being neglected by the VPN. Eight ex-Russian vessels are in service, and there are plans for indigenous construction of further craft. VPN warships are an increasingly visible presence in the SCS, but the bulk of sovereignty enforcement missions continue to be carried out by the Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG).
Vietnam Coast Guard
The latest asset to boost the VCG was the former US Coast Guard high endurance cutter Midgett, which has joined two other such ships already in Vietnamese service.
The existing VCG inventory includes four OPVs built in Vietnam by Damen subsidiary Song Thu. Two 4,000-tonne, helicopter-capable patrol ships are in build at Song Thu, while in 2020, Tokyo entered into an agreement with Hanoi to supply six 800-tonne Aso-class patrol ships for the VCG.
The VCG also operates a range of mainly smaller vessels, of local, Japanese and South Korean origin.
Vietnam Border Guard
VPN operations are also supported by two more seagoing forces, both of which are being substantially upgraded. The Vietnam Border Guard’s inventory of small and aging craft has been augmented by two large Song Thu-built Damen patrol vessels, and in the pipeline are up to fifteen 35-metre, 35-knot patrol craft, being financed by New Delhi and constructed by Larsen and Toubro in India.
Vietnam Maritime Militia
Furthermore, two new squadrons of armed Vietnam Maritime Militia fishing vessels have recently been activated for fishery protection and coastal security duties and Hanoi has big plans for this politically useful, and deniable, organisation.
Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.