11 Aug 2016
HONG KONG: Vietnam has discreetly fortified several of its islands in the disputed South China Sea with new mobile rocket launchers capable of striking China's runways and military installations across the vital trade route, according to Western officials.
Diplomats and military officers told Reuters that intelligence shows Hanoi has shipped the launchers from Vietnam into position on five bases in the Spratly islands in recent months, a move likely to raise tensions with Beijing.
The launchers have been hidden from aerial surveillance and they have yet to be armed, but could be made operational with rocket artillery rounds within two or three days, according to the three sources.
Vietnam's Foreign Ministry said the information was "inaccurate", without elaborating.
Deputy Defence Minister, Senior Lieutenant-General Nguyen Chi Vinh, told Reuters in June that Hanoi had no such launchers or weapons ready in the Spratlys but reserved the right to take any such measures.
"It is within our legitimate right to self-defence to move any of our weapons to any area at any time within our sovereign territory," he said.
The move is designed to counter China's build-up on its seven reclaimed islands in the Spratlys archipelago. Vietnam's military strategists fear the building of runways, radars and other military installations on those holdings have left Vietnam's southern and island defences increasingly vulnerable.
Military analysts said it was the most significant defensive move Vietnam has made on its holdings in the South China Sea in decades.
Hanoi wanted to have the launchers in place as it expected tensions to rise in the wake of the landmark international court ruling against China in an arbitration case brought by the Philippines, foreign envoys said.
The ruling last month, stridently rejected by Beijing, found no legal basis to China's sweeping historic claims to much of the South China Sea.
Vietnam, China and Taiwan claim all of the Spratlys while the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim some of the area.
"China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly islands and nearby waters," China’s Foreign Ministry said in a faxed statement on Wednesday. "China resolutely opposes the relevant country illegally occupying parts of China’s Spratly islands and reefs and on these illegally occupied Spratly islands and reefs belonging to China carrying out illegal construction and military deployments.”
In Washington, US State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said at a news briefing that the United States is aware of the reports and added: "We continue to call on all South China Sea claimants to avoid actions that build tensions, take practical steps to build confidence and intensify efforts that find peaceful, diplomatic solutions to dispute."
Foreign officials and military analysts believe the launchers form part of Vietnam's state-of-art EXTRA rocket artillery system recently acquired from Israel.
EXTRA rounds are highly accurate up to a range of 150 kilometres, with different 150 kg warheads that can carry high explosives or bomblets to attack multiple targets simultaneously. Operated with targeting drones, they could strike both ships and land targets.
That puts China's 3,000-metre runways and installations on Subi, Fiery Cross and Mischief Reef within range of many of Vietnam's tightly clustered holdings on 21 islands and reefs.
While Vietnam has larger and longer range Russian coastal defence missiles, the EXTRA is considered highly mobile and effective against amphibious landings. It uses compact radars, so does not require a large operational footprint - also suitable for deployment on islets and reefs.
"When Vietnam acquired the EXTRA system, it was always thought that it would be deployed on the Spratlys ... it is the perfect weapon for that," said Siemon Wezeman, a senior arms researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
There is no sign the launchers have been recently test fired or moved.
China took its first Spratlys possessions after a sea battle against Vietnam's then weak navy in 1988. After the battle, Vietnam said 64 soldiers with little protection were killed as they tried to protect a flag on South Johnson reef - an incident still acutely felt in Hanoi.
In recent years, Vietnam has significantly improved its naval capabilities as part of a broader military modernisation, including buying six advanced Kilo submarines from Russia.
Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam's military at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said the deployment showed the seriousness of Vietnam's determination to militarily deter China as far as possible.
"China's runways and military installations in the Spratlys are a direct challenge to Vietnam, particularly in their southern waters and skies, and they are showing they are prepared to respond to that threat," he said. "China is unlikely to see this as purely defensive, and it could mark a new stage of militarisation of the Spratlys."
Trevor Hollingsbee, a former naval intelligence analyst with the British defence ministry, said he believed the deployment also had a political factor, partly undermining the fear created by the prospect of large Chinese bases deep in maritime Southeast Asia.
"It introduces a potential vulnerability where they was none before - it is a sudden new complication in an arena that China was dominating," he said.
Vietnam Deploys Precision-Guided Rocket Artillery in South China Sea
Hanoi has purportedly moved new mobile rocket launchers on bases in the disputed Spratly Islands.
By Franz-Stefan Gady
August 10, 2016
Vietnam has quietly expanded its military capabilities in the South China Sea by purportedly deploying new Israel-made long-range mobile rocket launchers on five bases in the Spratly Islands in recent months, Reuters revealed on August 10.
Three unidentified sources claim that the so-called Extended Range Artillery Rocket (EXTRA) system has yet to be armed and has been carefully hidden from aerial surveillance on the disputed islands. The weapon systems, nevertheless, could be made operational within two to three days.
The EXTRA rocket launchers have purportedly been moved to the Vietnamese possessions in the Spratlys in anticipation of heightened tensions following the July ruling of the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration on maritime entitlements and the status of features in the South China Sea.
“It is within our legitimate right to self-defense to move any of our weapons to any area at any time within our sovereign territory,” Vietnam’s deputy defense minister, Senior Lieutenant-General Nguyen Chi Vinh, told Reuters in June. However, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry said that the information about the stationing of mobile rocket launchers in the Spratlys was “inaccurate.”
The EXTRA is a highly mobile weapon system and can be installed on either a truck or in a fixed installation. Vietnam procured the new mobile rocket launchers specifically with the Spratlys in mind given that it requires little logistical support—e.g., it only uses a small lightweight radar system—and has very low maintenance costs (EXTRA rounds come in disposable sealed canisters).
An EXTRA round, fitted with a GPS-based inertial navigation system, has a range of up to 130 kilometers (81 miles) and can carry a 125-kilogram (275 pounds) warhead. This would put Chinese installations in the Spratlys such as Subi, Fiery Cross, and Mischief Reefs within range of the weapon system. EXTRA is “effective against a wide range of high payoff targets across the tactical battlefield (Command & Communication Centers, logistic installations, transportation infrastructures and more),” according to the manufacturer’s website. It can be accurate within ten meters, GlobalSecurity.org claims.
Despite the deployment of the mobile rocket launchers, it will not fundamentally alter the military balance between Vietnam and China in the South China Sea. Chinese installations in the South China Sea have been within range of Vietnamese weapon systems for some time. Among other things, Vietnam procured Russian-made long-range K-300P Bastion coastal missile systems in 2011 and S-300 PMU-2 long-range surface-to-air missile systems in 2012. Vietnam has also been acquiring a number of new anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles, including the 3M-14E Klub supersonic cruise missile, which is capable of hitting mainland China. Consequently the EXTRA deployment should first and foremost be seen as a move by Hanoi to signal resolve to Beijing. As I noted previously:
Vietnam’s military planning vis-à-vis China is defensive in nature and built around A2/AD—or anti-access and areal denial strategies, exploiting asymmetrical advantages by, for example, fielding new diesel-electric submarines to exploit China’s known weakness in anti-submarine warfare.
Fuerthermore, I explained:
Vietnam’s ultimate goal is to deter China from deploying People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels in so-called gray zone coercion scenarios, which involves the use of China Coast Guard (CCG) and maritime militia vessels to blockade Vietnamese-held islands and features in the South China Sea while avoiding open military conflict.
According to Reuters, China has already condemned the EXTRA deployment on the Spratlys. “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly islands and nearby waters,” the ChineseForeign Ministry said in a faxed statement on August 10. “China resolutely opposes the relevant country illegally occupying parts of China’s Spratly islands and reefs and on these illegally occupied Spratly islands and reefs belonging to China carrying out illegal construction and military deployments.”