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  • Force Modernization:Vietnam
  • Carlyle A. Thayer (bio)

During the period 2012–16, Vietnam was the tenth-largest importer of arms globally.1 This is an impressive figure given that Vietnam ranked thirty-seventh in the world in terms of its gross domestic product (GDP) in purchasing power parity terms2 and forty-eighth in the world in nominal terms.3 This chapter discusses why Vietnam made such large arms purchases, what specific weapon systems and platforms it acquired and for what purpose.

States procure arms for a variety of reasons: to defend themselves from perceived threats, to develop capabilities to suit specific needs, to acquire modern military technology, to gain prestige and to modernize their existing weapons and platforms.4 Force modernization (or defence modernization) may be conceptualized as two distinct yet interrelated processes. The first consists of reconditioning and upgrading existing stocks of weapons and platforms with new technology. The second process involves the acquisition of more modern sets of platforms and weapon systems to meet new roles and missions.

This chapter focuses on force modernization in Vietnam from the mid-1990s to the present and is divided into seven parts. Part 1 provides a brief historical overview of the Vietnam People's Army until the early 1990s when the conflict in Cambodia ended. Part 2 discusses naval modernization as a response to new security challenges in the South China Sea in the post–Cambodian conflict period. Parts 3 and 4 examine the modernization of the air defence air force and land force, respectively. Part 5 focuses on Vietnam's development of a national defence industry to support force modernization. Part 6 presents an overview of Vietnam's defence budget. Part 7 evaluates Vietnam's force modernization programme. [End Page 429]

Part 1: Historical Overview

The Vietnam People's Army (VPA) was founded on 22 December 1944 as a small guerrilla force. Within ten years it had grown into a regular army of 80,000 grouped into seven infantry divisions equipped with heavy artillery and 320,000 grouped into independent regiments and battalions at the regional and local level, largely armed by China.5 These combined forces defeated the French in the First Indochina War, 1946–54.

After partition in mid-1954, the VPA was reorganized along conventional lines for the defence of North Vietnam. During this period, and especially during the Vietnam War (1965–75), the VPA expanded to include air, air-defence and coastal naval forces. During this period the Soviet Union overtook China as Vietnam's main provider of "big ticket" weapons and platforms. During the 1970s, the VPA was organized into multi-division corps units equipped with battle tanks and longrange artillery. This force spearheaded a major offensive in 1975 that led to the collapse of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and the formal reunification of the country as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

In late 1978, the VPA invaded Cambodia in response to increased cross-border attacks by the Khmer Rouge. In early 1979, China, an ally of the Khmer Rouge, responded by launching a punitive attack on northern Vietnam. For the next decade, a quarter of a million VPA forces remained in defensive positions along the northern frontier to repel a second Chinese attack, while VPA forces in Cambodia conducted a protracted counter-insurgency campaign. The VPA expanded in numbers to 1.26 million to become the fifth-largest army in the world at that time after the Soviet Union, China, the United States and India.6

In 1987, Vietnam's leaders assessed that their counter-insurgency efforts in Cambodia had made sufficient progress that they could accelerate the withdrawal of military forces and commence a major demobilization of their large standing army. In September 1989, Vietnam withdrew all formed military units from Cambodia. Between mid-1987 and late 1990, 600,000 troops, or nearly half of the standing army, was demobilized.7

Vietnam's withdrawal from Cambodia set the stage for a comprehensive political settlement of the Cambodian conflict in October 1991 and the normalization of Vietnam's relations with China the following month. These two events led to an unprecedented period of peace. Vietnam, however, now faced new security challenges...


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