SINGAPORE — The U.S. State Department wants to see Vietnam distance itself from Russian arms deals and buy more weapons from the United States, but experts say the cost and complication of American-made technologies could make that transition hard fought.
Between 2005 and 2014, Vietnam increased its military spending by almost 400 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce-run website export.gov. However, the country hasn’t considerably stepped up purchases of American-made weapons, even after the United States lifted its lethal weapons ban on Vietnam in 2016, a State Department official told reporters.
“The Vietnamese are very interested in a greater security partnership,” the official said ahead of the Singapore Airshow, which runs from Feb. 6 to 11.
“We are also encouraging them to look beyond the U.S. grant assistance to also diversifying away from some of their typical suppliers — their historical suppliers like the Russians — into buying U.S. equipment that would, one, give them more capability and, two, help strengthen our partnership for the interoperability and the greater interaction with our military.”
Over the past month, several senior U.S. national security officials have visited Vietnam to help reinforce diplomatic and military ties between the two countries. In his January visit, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced that the United States would send an aircraft carrier to the country for a port visit — the first such event since the Vietnam War.
Before attending the air show to meet with U.S. industry and international partners, Ambassador Tina Kaidanow, the State Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, also made a stop in Vietnam for the U.S.-Vietnam Political, Security, and Defense Dialogue.
During a phone call with reporters Monday, Kaidanow said the U.S. relationship with Vietnam is improving, and she spoke about the administration’s desire to see more defense contracts between the two nations.
“As they move forward, it’s completely up to them as a sovereign country, how they go about acquiring their defense systems,” she said. “Certainly our hope is that they will consider American companies not just, by the way, in the defense sector but in other sectors as well where our trade issues are important for them to consider.”
Vietnam is interested in U.S. military technology, as evidenced by the transfer of a Hamilton-class cutter from the U.S. Coast Guard in 2016 and a recent sale — partially through U.S. grant funding — of Boeing-Insitu ScanEagle drones for maritime surveillance, the State Department official said.
However, the country is unfamiliar with the Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales programs, two different ways to acquire weapons from either the State or Commerce departments.
“They’re still learning our system, and we’re doing our very best to make sure that they understand what the U.S. system provides and how it works,” he said. “The U.S. system can be a little daunting sometimes, and so getting them familiar with what the options are, what path you can pursue, you know, what you can get from FMS versus what you can get through DCS.”
Vietnam has a long history of buying Russian-made arms, which are seen by the Vietnamese military as less expensive and complex than U.S. weapons. Even so, the country appears to be weaning itself away from buying Russian equipment, said Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies who specializes in naval affairs in Southeast Asia.
“Hanoi has become increasingly fed up with Russia’s arms sales policy, a lot to do with Russia ‘shifting the goal posts’ where it comes to contractual terms and pricing issues, and significantly Vietnam’s access to technology transfer from Russia,” he said.
Another issue is Russia’s military sales to China.
“Not only is there a possibility that Moscow could cave in to Beijing’s demand to stop supplies to Vietnam in times of a Sino-Vietnamese conflict, but that the PLA [People’s Liberation Army of China] could possibly be already familiar with and thus able to devise a counter against VPA’s [People’s Army of Vietnam’s] Russian equipment,” he explained.
Euan Graham, the director of Lowy Institute’s international security program, said momentum seems to be growing for Vietnam to become a larger customer of U.S. weaponry.
“[Vietnam] is a large arms importer relative to its size. Perhaps at the high end, F-16s are still possible,” he said. “That would be a big leap forward, although cheaper non-Russian alternatives like Gripen are still in the frame.”
However, some U.S. technology, even older or used platforms like P-3 maritime surveillance aircraft, will probably remain too complicated and expensive for the Vietnamese military for some time, he said.
And as Vietnam distances itself from Russia, it appears to be gravitating more toward Israel rather than the United States, Lean argued. Part of that is due to the perception of Israeli products as a better value for the Vietnamese military, but other concerns are more political.
“There’s still an element of distrust between Vietnam and the U.S,” he said.
Attempts to deepen the countries’ relationship in defense or security matters could incite a backlash from those who oppose U.S. actions during the Vietnam War. Furthermore, relying on the United States for weapons could be a risky proposition for Vietnam, as different political administrations have different standards for when to cut off a partner nation’s access to U.S. weapons due to human rights concerns or various other issues, Lean said.
At the Singapore Airshow, Vietnam’s delegation has kept a low profile, with no military aircraft on display or flashy demonstration teams performing aerobatic maneuvers. Still, officials are — at the very least — window-shopping at U.S. defense contractors’ chalets.
“Just today, we’ve had Vietnamese delegations come through the chalet. In the past, the Vietnamese government has expressed interest, for example, in looking at P-3s,” Orlando Carvalho, Lockheed Martin’s head of aeronautics, said Tuesday.
“My sense is that the interest that Vietnam has right now I’d say is kind of more exploratory. But if the Vietnamese government in fact decided they want to go forward with something that’s in our portfolio at a more serious level, we’re happy to discuss that with them.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.