Vietnam hosts its first international defense expo

The country is trying to reduce its dependence on Russian arms as Western sanctions make procurement difficult.
By RFA Staff
2022.12.08
Vietnam hosts its first international defense expo Vietnam People's Air Force Su-30MK2 fighter jets undertake drills over Hanoi on Nov. 3, 2022.
Nhac Nguyen/AFP

A major defense trade fair opened Thursday in Hanoi, marking Vietnam’s first steps in the international arms sales market as the communist country also hopes to diversify its weapons procurement.

A squadron of Russian-made Su-30MK2 fighter jets from the elite Regiment 972 of the Vietnamese Air Force flew in formation in the gray winter sky, releasing anti-missile flares in a display of Vietnam’s military prowess that was victorious in 20th Century wars but is desperately in need of modernization.

Vietnam Defence 2022 will help "diversify defense equipment procurement sources,” said Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh at the opening ceremony.

The fair also aims at “introducing Vietnam’s defense capabilities and Vietnamese-made weapons to our international friends,” according to Maj. Gen. Nguyen Viet Hung, deputy political commissar of the army’s General Department of Defense Industry.

His department, together with Viettel, one of Vietnam’s largest tech corporations, and the Security Industry Agency under the Ministry of Public Security are showcasing their home-grown products including infantry rifles and ammunition, logistics equipment, radars, drones and equipment for cyber defense operations.

“A major resolution of the Vietnamese Communist Party is to build the national defense industry,” said Carlyle Thayer, a veteran Vietnam watcher, who said that while Vietnamese companies cannot compete with larger international manufacturers, they can cooperate with foreign partners and develop a “special niche” in communications, computing and intelligence equipment.

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A tank is displayed at Vietnam Defence 2022, in Hanoi, Vietnam, Dec. 8, 2022.  CREDIT: Reuters/Khanh Vu

Viettel, also active in neighboring countries and one of the biggest communication service providers in Myanmar, has brought 60 products to the trade fair with a focus on C5ISR (Command, Control, Computers, Communications, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance).

“Vietnam is not renowned as a weapons manufacturer,” said Gordon Arthur, a New Zealand-based defense journalist and analyst.

“That is not to say it does not have indigenous capabilities, but generally these have been devoted to the domestic market,” Arthur told RFA.

Vietnamese innovations include a truck-mounted howitzer, MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and radars. With support from the likes of Dutch shipbuilder Damen, it is also expanding its naval shipbuilding capacity.

“Weapons industry is costly to develop, and the way to reduce unit costs is to try to sell the products elsewhere besides domestic consumption,” said Canberra-based Thayer, who pointed out that arms fairs could help Vietnamese companies look for buyers.

Z111, a leading military production unit, is introducing 14 infantry firearms including pistols, rifles, submachine guns and sniper rifles at the three-day Expo.

A part of the Z111 factory was developed by an Israeli firearms manufacturer as Israel’s companies seek a bigger role in the Vietnamese arms procurement market. 

However, with 174 enterprises from 30 countries taking part in the defense expo, Hanoi clearly intends to expand the list of suppliers, a task analysts call “challenging.”

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Vietnam People's Air Force Su-30MK2 fighter jets undertake drills over Hanoi on Nov. 3, 2022. CREDIT: Nhac Nguyen/AFP

Russian domination

Vietnam has been one of the world’s most active arms importers in recent years amid territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea and Beijing’s increased assertiveness.

Between 2011 and 2020, Hanoi spent an average 2.2% of its gross domestic product on its defense budget. From 2012 to 2016, Vietnam was the tenth largest importer of arms globally according to Thayer, citing publicly available data.

Hanoi buys weapons and military equipment from 26 countries but Russia, its historical and traditional ally and also one of Vietnam’s four comprehensive strategic partners, remains by far the largest provider.

A half-dozen Russian defense firms are present at the defense expo, including the state arms trading giant Rosoboronexport.

Apart from the Sukhoi fighters, Vietnam bought from Moscow six Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines, at least four Gepard 3.9 frigates, tanks and trainer aircraft.

There is a downward trend in arms procurements from Russia which plummeted from U.S.$1.06 billion in 2014 to a mere U.S.$9 million in 2020, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks global military transfers.

Sanctions imposed by the West on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine will make it even harder for Hanoi to import arms from Moscow.

Meanwhile between 2015 and 2021 imports from Israel, Belarus, South Korea, the U.S. and the Netherlands all grew.

“There is plenty of evidence that Vietnam wishes to diversify its sources of equipment, even though a budget squeeze means it cannot afford to buy too much from more expensive Western suppliers,” said Gordon Arthur, who is also the founder of King Arthur's Writes, a military journalism website.

Since the U.S. lifted its arms embargo on Vietnam in 2016, Washington has supplied Hanoi with second-hand coast guard cutters, ScanEagle UAVs and T-6C trainer aircraft.

The Czech Republic, India, South Korea and Japan have all sold military equipment to Vietnam, and some European countries such as Poland are also eyeing the country’s aero- and robotic market.

Vietnam has reserved an acquisition budget of U.S.$1.8 billion during 2023-2027 with a total defense expenditure by 2027 standing at U.S.$8.5 billion, according to the GlobalData Aerospace and Defense Intelligence Center.

“Items such as naval combatants, air defense and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) equipment are likely to be high on Vietnam's shopping list,” Arthur said, noting that priority is being given to developing maritime capabilities.

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The Vietnamese Navy's first Kilo-class submarine at Cam Ranh Bay in central Vietnam on Jan. 3, 2014.  CREDIT: AFP Photo/Vietnam News Agency

‘Black holes’

Thayer Consultancy's Carlyle Thayer said advanced Su-30s and Su-57s, Russian 5th generation stealth fighters, Yak-130 trainers and midget submarines may be on the list.

Analysts say that one of the main obstacles for the Vietnamese military to move from Russian to Western equipment is the technology and training required.

In 2009, Vietnam bought six Kilo-class submarines worth U.S.$2 billion from Russia, making it the largest submarine fleet in Southeast Asia. The diesel-electric subs are dubbed “black holes” for their stealth quality.

Several teams of submarine operators were sent to Russia for training, the first requirement being to learn the Russian language.

“The entire operation system is in Russian and the sailors can’t read a word of English,” a source who visited one of the submarines said.

Operation systems from Russia and the West are not interoperable so it is not easy for the Vietnamese military to wean itself off Russian-made equipment.

“Russia has been a reliable supplier for Vietnam for many years and there’s a great deal of trust between the two countries,” said Thayer, adding that – unlike Russia – the U.S. and Europe “can clamp political restrictions on Hanoi any moment for reasons such as human rights.” 

As mutual trust takes time to develop, the diversification process could be slow and from Western countries Hanoi may just look for technology transfers and co-production of less sophisticated items, for now.

“It’s still small beer, but it’s the first drinks,” Thayer said.

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