Will Vietnam turn to Russia or America for its new jet fighter?

Vietnam needs to upgrade its ageing fighter fleet. But it faces a list of less than optimal options. Will it go for Russian-made or US-made planes, in consideration of its current diplomatic ties with each?
This handout picture provided by the Russian defence corporation Rostec on 24 November 2023 shows a Sukhoi Su-35S fighter jet at the grounds of an aviation firm in the far eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur. (Handout/Russian defence corporation Rostec/AFP)
This handout picture provided by the Russian defence corporation Rostec on 24 November 2023 shows a Sukhoi Su-35S fighter jet at the grounds of an aviation firm in the far eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur. (Handout/Russian defence corporation Rostec/AFP)

The Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) has a big problem: it needs to replace half of its fleet of frontline fighter jets, but it is faced with a milieu of less than optimal options.

The jets in question are ageing Su-22 Fitters — fighter-bombers manufactured in the Soviet Union and transferred to Vietnam in the 1980s. Newer multi-role fighters such as the Su-27 and variants of the Su-30 make up the balance of the air force’s order of battle. At nearly 40 years old, the VPAF’s 30 or so Su-22s are at the end of their operational lives. Over the past few years, several have crashed, including one on 9 January (fortunately the pilot ejected safely).

Finding a replacement for the Su-22 is a pressing need. China continues to flex its muscles in the South China Sea, and although Vietnam can never match the firepower of the Chinese air force, a small force of modern jet fighters could give Beijing a bloody nose if push came to shove. 

Russian reliability questioned

In the lucrative global market for fast jets, there are no shortage of options for Vietnam to choose from. But before it makes a final decision, the government must carefully weigh up a number of factors. These not only include cost and capabilities, but also geopolitical considerations.

For at bottom, Hanoi must decide whether it sticks with its traditional defence partner Russia or shifts to new ones like the US. It is a weighty decision, and one that will have strategic ramifications for decades to come.

Given Hanoi’s longstanding defence relationship with Moscow, a replacement Russian fighter would seem to be the logical choice.

The Vietnamese are not too worried about US sanctions against countries that buy Russian arms given both countries’ interest in countering Beijing in the South China Sea.

su-22
An Su-22 Fitter in the air. (Photo: Airwolfhound/Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Vietnam’s acquisition of 12 Yak-130 jet trainers from Russia in 2019 led to speculation that it was on the verge of placing an order for more advanced Russian fighters.

Candidates included the fourth-generation-plus Su-35 Flanker-E, the fifth-generation stealthy Su-57 Felon (Russia’s answer to America’s F-22 Raptor) or its smaller and cheaper export version, the Su-75 Checkmate (Russia’s answer to America’s F-35 Lightning II). The Vietnamese are not too worried about US sanctions against countries that buy Russian arms given both countries’ interest in countering Beijing in the South China Sea.

The Su-75 only exists in slick videos and may not enter full production unless Russia can find a foreign partner such as India or the United Arab Emirates to help finance it.

The Russians thought they were a shoo-in. In 2021, when a prototype of the Su-75 was unveiled, a promotional video presumptuously included a Vietnamese pilot.

But even before the Yak-130 purchase, Hanoi had begun to question Moscow’s reliability as a supplier after the West imposed sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Those sanctions created serious difficulties for Russia’s defence industrial sector and for customers like Vietnam.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and the tightening of Western sanctions and export controls, Hanoi’s doubts have only deepened.

Other contenders

Moreover, neither the Su-35 nor the Su-57 have performed well in the skies over Ukraine. The Su-75 only exists in slick videos and may not enter full production unless Russia can find a foreign partner such as India or the United Arab Emirates to help finance it.

Given the problems facing Russia’s aerospace industry, might Vietnam look to other countries? And if so, which ones?

su-35
This handout picture provided by the Russian defence corporation Rostec on 24 November 2023 shows a Sukhoi Su-35S fighter jet at the grounds of an aviation firm in the far-eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur. (Handout/Russian defence corporation Rostec/AFP)

Vietnam’s rival China can be ruled out immediately due to the two countries’ festering dispute in the South China Sea. India too given the development problems with its domestically produced HAL Tejas.

How about the US?

In 2016, Washington lifted its sales ban on offensive weapons to Vietnam. Since then, US-Vietnam defence cooperation has increased, albeit incrementally. America is keen to sell arms to Vietnam. At the country’s first defence expo in December 2022, US ambassador Marc Knapper enthused the event represented “a new stage in Vietnam’s efforts to globalise, diversify and modernise, and the United States wants to be part of it”.

... trust between the Vietnamese and US defence establishments is embryonic at best.

There are some indications that Vietnam may be considering buying US jets. In 2021 it ordered 12 Beechcraft T-6 Texan training aircraft, a possible first step towards acquiring more sophisticated aircraft. Interestingly, Vietnamese pilots have undertaken English-language courses in the US and at home. Media reports suggest Hanoi may be eyeing second-hand F-16 Fighting Falcon jets (newer U.S. planes, such as the F-35, are way out of Vietnam’s budget).

But that would be a very big step for Vietnam to take. Since the early days of the Cold War, the Vietnamese defence establishment has developed deep levels of trust with its Russian counterpart. But trust between the Vietnamese and US defence establishments is embryonic at best.

f-16
An F-16 fighter jet takes off during a media day of NATO's "Air Defender 23" military exercise at Spangdahlem US Air Base near the German-Belgian border in Spangdahlem, Germany, on 14 June 2023. (Jana Rodenbusch/Reuters)

Moreover, integrating American-made F-16s with the VPAF’s existing Russian-manufactured planes like the Su-27 and Su-30 would be challenging. The air force would also have to establish parallel training and maintenance streams for the new aircraft (as Malaysia had to do in the 1990s when it bought both US and Russian fighters, creating a logistical nightmare for the country’s air force).

Vietnam would also have to consider the China factor, as Beijing would look askance at major US arms sales to its rival in the South China Sea.

The China factor

An additional problem is that the US Congress has the final word on all America’s defence sales, and certain senators might object to the transfer of F-16s to Vietnam on account of its non-democratic government.

Vietnam would also have to consider the China factor, as Beijing would look askance at major US arms sales to its rival in the South China Sea.

Alternatively, Vietnam could try to avoid becoming entangled in US-China enmity by opting for Sweden’s JAS-39 Gripen (as Thailand did) or South Korea’s KAI T-50 (as Malaysia has). But both of those aircraft rely on US technologies that would also require the green light from Washington.

Despite the problems facing Russia’s aerospace industry, it may yet play a role in the VPAF’s future. According to a story in the New York Times, last year Vietnam secretly agreed to buy US$8 billion worth of Russian arms using profits from the two countries’ joint energy venture in the Arctic, thereby circumventing Western financial sanctions on Russia’s defence industry.

If true, that deal might include fighter jets such as Su-30s or Su-35s. In Hanoi’s calculations, it might be better to go with the Russian devil it knows very well than the American devil it doesn’t know very well at all.

This article was first published in Fulcrum, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s blogsite.

Related: Great power rivalry: Why Vietnam is not taking sides | Military modernisation in Southeast Asia: Learning from the Russia-Ukraine war | Russian invasion of Ukraine poses geopolitical quandaries for Vietnam