MOSCOW – Three decades after the end of Vietnam War, the latest generation of the notorious Russian-made “telephone poles” are due to resurface in Vietnam.
Russia has just clinched a deal to export to Vietnam two of S300 PMU1 air defense batteries (or 12 launchers) for a reported nearly US$300 million. The S300 PMU is an advanced version of the SA-10C Grumble air defense missile. According to Russian missile makers, the new S300 has anti-stealth capability and can shoot down combat aircraft, cruise missiles, as well as ballistic missiles in an anti-ballistic missile mode.
The S300 PMU1 missile system can engage targets flying as low as 10 meters off the ground at a range of up to 150 kilometers. The missile complex is seen as a serious supplement to the combat ability of the Vietnamese air defense forces.
However, Russia is yet to sell more advanced S300 PMU2 complexes to Hanoi, while Beijing has been reportedly considered as a potential buyer of these newer missile complexes.
The first contracts to sell the S300 PMU-1 to China were signed in 1993. In December 2001, Moscow and Beijing reportedly clinched another deal to supply the People’s Liberation Army with an undisclosed number of S300 PMU1 air defense batteries for a reported $400 million.
The S300 PMU2 “Favorit” variant, or SA-10C GRUMBLE, is a new missile with a larger warhead and better guidance with a range of 200 kilometers, versus the 150 kilometers of the S300 PMU1.
The S300 PMU2 uses new 48N6E2 missiles, which weigh 1,800 kilograms and are 7.5 meters long. After a catapult “cold” start in the upright position, the 48N6E2 accelerates up to 1,900 meters a second in 12 seconds, and then hits the target from above. The 48N6E2 differs from the older 48N6E in having a new warhead designed for destroying ballistic missiles, with a warhead weight of 145 kilograms versus 70-100 kilograms. The S300 PMU2 can engage targets flying at altitudes ranging from 10 meters to 27 kilometers at a speed of up to 10,000 kilometers per hour.
Apart from official sales, Vietnam has probably mulled some unorthodox ways to get access to Russia’s air defense technology. For instance, in October 2002 customs officers in Russia’s second city, St Petersburg, reportedly foiled an audacious smuggling attempt. While checking containers bound by sea for Vietnam, they uncovered spare parts for state-of-the-art Russian anti-aircraft systems, labeled as car parts. Yet the incident has had no follow-up and did not derail the S300 sales.
Apart from China, Russia has supplied S300 PMU systems to Cyprus. India is also reported to be mulling the lease of two Russian-made S300 PMU antimissile air defense systems to protect its nuclear command posts and other vital military assets. A formal offer was first made to India in 1995 to sell the S300 PMU, but there have been no reports on actual deals so far.
The deployment of the S300 PMU in the former USSR started in 1986. Various versions of the complex were delivered in various years to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the former East Germany. Among post-Soviet countries, only Belarus and Kazakhstan have the S300 system.
Though Vietnam is now fully integrated into the Southeast Asian community, Hanoi remains eager to arm its military with Russian weapons, well tested during decades of the Vietnam war. In March 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Hanoi and announced a new strategic partnership with Vietnam. The Russian leader said that “Vietnam needs not just to maintain its existing weapons bought from the Soviet Union and Russia, but also needs modern weapons.” In March 2002, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov went to Hanoi and pledged to supply advanced weapons to Vietnam.
Bilateral military ties are set to go ahead because Vietnam seeks to modernize its half-million strong armed forces, and it has once again turned to Russia. Vietnam remains an important customer for Russian arms. In recent years, Hanoi has purchased Russian Sukhoi fighter-bombers, and an anti-ship missile system. In 1995, Hanoi bought six Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker fighter jets for $150 million and in 1997 signed a contract for six more planes and spare parts. Moscow has been selling Su-27 aircraft with a combat range of 3,680 kilometers to Vietnam as well as China.
In recent years, the Vietnamese military has also bought six missile boats of the “1241 project” for some $120 million and four radar stations in Russia. Vietnam is also purchasing the Mosquito anti-ship missile complex, with supersonic missiles that can fly at extremely low altitudes – below 10 meters – with an ability to hit targets within a 120 kilometer range.
The Russians reportedly suggested technical assistance in upgrading Vietnam’s military infrastructure, notably airfield and command posts. The Russians also suggested the Vietnamese purchase more Sukhoi-27s, and consider buying another jetfighter, the MiG-29, as well as MiG training jets.
In the heyday of ideological ties between Hanoi and Moscow – the three-and-a-half decades between the mid-1950s and 1990 – the former Soviet Union flooded its ideological ally in Southeast Asia with concessionary loans and arms shipments. During this time Moscow supplied Hanoi’s army with most of its hardware, because the former Soviet Union considered Vietnam an important outpost of the “socialist camp” in Southeast Asia. After the collapse of the former Soviet Union, its military aid was replaced by Russian commercial armament sales because Vietnam’s 500,000-strong army still needs Russian arms and spare parts.
Between 1953 and 1991, the USSR supplied North – and later unified – Vietnam with 2,000 tanks, 1,700 armored vehicles, 7,000 pieces of artillery and mortars, 5,000 pieces of artillery, 158 missile complexes, 700 warplanes, 120 helicopters, more than 100 naval vessels. Some three quarters of all weaponry now used by the Vietnamese army has been made in Russia, while more than 13,000 Vietnamese officers had studied in the former USSR.
Notably, Moscow contributed weapons essential to North Vietnamese defense capabilities against the American air war, including radar systems, antiaircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Without this materiel, Vietnamese air defense would have been hardly feasible.
In August 1965, the first SAMs were fired at four US Phantoms over Vietnam, shooting down three. This marked the first time that US planes were attacked by surface-to-air missiles.
Between 1965 and 1972, the Soviets supplied to North Vietnam a total of 95 missile complexes – initially SA-75M “Dvina” and later S75 “Desna” – as well as 7,658 SAMs. However, both “Dvina” and “Desna” were not the most advanced Soviet designs and Hanoi did not get the more up-to-date S125 “Volkhov” during the war.
The Vietnamese military reportedly complained that they were getting missiles of obsolete designs. In some cases, the Vietnamese even removed fresh paint from missile complexes and discovered old marks suggesting that the weapons were brought from East Germany or Poland.
Some of the missile complexes supplied to Vietnam from the Soviet Union during the war were actually second-hand weapons, produced in 1956-1958. The main reason for Moscow’s failure to supply North Vietnam with the newest armaments was the Kremlin’s fear that the Vietnamese could leak Soviet military secrets to the Chinese.
Furthermore, the missiles initially were forwarded to Vietnam by rail freight through China and the Soviets were reluctant to leave their newest weapons vulnerable for possible inspections by the Chinese.
On the other hand, Soviet military experts complained that the Vietnamese themselves were handling S75 missiles without proper care, letting them fall from the track, for instance.
Nonetheless, with the Soviet assistance in the North the Vietnamese mounted a strong antiaircraft defense, once dubbed the “most sophisticated and effective” in the history of warfare. This system created an environment in which aircraft tactics designed to escape one type of threat brought the plane under threat from another layer of the system. The Soviet-built “telephone poles” were deadly effective.
In sum, between July 1965 and January 1973, a total of 6,806 missiles were fired, destroyed by US pilots or simply broke down. By January 1973, Vietnam still had 39 operational SA75M complexes, the remaining 56 were destroyed in combat or became non-operational due to poor maintenance.
Now Russian-built “telephone poles” are due to reappear in Vietnam, although Hanoi is highly unlikely to deal with the kind of the air war it faced three decades ago.