Written by Brian Benedictus.
On May 28th at the Admiralty Shipyards in St. Petersburg, Russia, the last of six Kilo-class diesel electric submarines (SSK) purchased by the government of Vietnam, was laid to complete construction. The vessels, for the People’s Army of Vietnam Navy (VPN) in 2009, are expected to become the capital ships of the PAVN upon their completion and delivery (the third vessel is expected to be delivered to Vietnam in November, with the remaining three expected to be delivered in 2015 and 2016).
Decision makers in Hanoi are certainly not calculating that this platform purchase will give the VPN some level of parity with the China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). It could, however, force China’s hand in showing how far it is willing to escalate its territorial disputes with Vietnam if the territorial disputes are not resolved by the time the vessels enter into active service. Could Vietnam’s imminent acquisition of its remaining vessels be at least partially responsible for Beijing’s seemingly hasty actions to assert its territorial claims in the SCS? It’s plausible. And if there are doubts to the VPN’s potential to effectively utilize a new (but highly outnumbered) Kilo fleet against a much larger and powerful PLAN in the South China Sea region, there shouldn’t be.
Dubbed the “black hole” by the U.S. navy due to its low noise levels, the Kilo –class (Type 636) submarine is capable of performing a wide array of tasks including anti-submarine and anti-ship warfare, as well as reconnaissance and patrolling missions. The vessels are equipped with six 533-mm torpedo tubes, with a capacity of 18 torpedoes or 24 mines. Two of the six tubes are capable of firing remote-controlled torpedoes with very high accuracy. Additionally, the torpedo system has a quick loading device–Taking only 15 seconds to prepare the stand-by torpedo tubes for firing, with the first salvo firing within two minutes of activation, and the second within five minutes. It has also been confirmed that the Kilos will be equipped with the Novator Club-S (SS-N-27) anti-ship cruise missile–code named “sizzler” by NATO, which have a range of 300 kilometers. The vessels will also have the ability to carry antiaircraft missiles as well. While the range of the Kilo is close to 9,700 km, VPN did not opt for the Air Independent Propulsion system that would have permitted extended patrol times. The lack of an AIP may be irrelevant due to the fact that the primary mission of these new subs will likely not take them into distant waters, but into waters that lie in close proximity to home, and even within their own maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Russia has recently completed upgrades at Vietnam’s Cam Rinh Bay, where the docking of one the newly acquired Kilos has recently been confirmed by satellite imagery. It is from this Bay that the VPN will have close proximity to the disputed waters of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea (301 nautical miles), as well as being only 440 nautical miles from Sanya port on Hainan Island, a vital facility for the PLAN South Sea Fleet that is China’s closest major port to the South China Sea. The PRC could be facing a scenario in the not-so-distant future where heightened tensions with Vietnam result in VPN Kilos quietly lurking in the waters surrounding Sanya, with the potential to cut off vital PLAN entry points into the SCS, as well as making Chinese vessels near the disputed maritime areas vulnerable to a silent attack. Further complicating matters for the PRC will be the fact that Vietnam’s Kilos could be supported by its other naval vessel acquisitions, as well as Su-30 MK2 and Su-27 fighter aircraft than can reach the Paracel Island vicinity in short order (the PLAAF currently does not have the capability to disperse land based combat aircraft to the Paracel Island area due to the limited range of its fighters). Compounded with the PLAN’s known anti-submarine warfare (ASW) weaknesses, China could be facing a Vietnamese navy with fairly robust anti-access area-denial (A2AD) capabilities.
Once implemented into Vietnam’s force structure, the vessels will greatly enhance the VPN’s ability to both monitor naval vessels in and around Vietnam’s coastline and claimed maritime areas, as well as serve as a deterrent against an increasingly aggressive Chinese navy. However, before the Vietnamese navy can fully implement the vessels into naval operations, they will need to continue to receive extensive training on how to effectively use the subs (which began late last year with the Indian Navy), likely taking a number of years. Additionally Vietnam will need a substantial learning curve in becoming capable in the constant complex and expensive maintenance that these vessels require. Beijing understands the capabilities of these vessels quite well (it currently possesses two of the same ‘636’ class themselves), and will need to decide if now is the optimal time to aggressively press its territorial claims that it shares with Vietnam, or take a longer-term and less confrontational route; knowing that while there is a quiet but strong faction of the Vietnamese government that advocates close ties with the PRC, it risks facing a more modernized and capable Vietnamese military in the years ahead.
Brian Benedictus is a Washington D.C.-based foreign policy analyst specializing in East Asian security issues. He is also an Asia-Pacific Desk analyst for Wikistrat. Brian owns the blog Warm Oolong Tea.