Vietnams unmanned ambitions

In an effort to secure its offshore resources, Vietnam is looking to enhance its C4ISR capabilities: a move that opens the door to a host of opportunities for industrial collaboration in-country and beyond, writes Jon G.

A strategic requirement to enhance capability to secure and protect assets in the South China Sea is driving Vietnam to invest in the development and procurement of a range of indigenous and foreign C41SR-related systems, particularly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Vietnam’s industrial capabilities in these areas are limited, given the country’s traditional focus on land-based procurement, but a number of developments in 201 2-1 3 suggest that Hanoi has now recognised that enhanced surveillance and communications capabilities are critical in securing the country’s rapidly expanding offshore assets.

These developments include:

• Vietnam’s agreements in 2012 with Russia and Sweden to co- develop and produce UAVs in Vietnam;

• several programmes undertaken by Vietnamese industry to develop and produce a range of small- to mid-range military UAV prototypes, and ground stations;

• the Ministry of National Defence’s launch in 2013 of programmes to import short-range and medium-range long-endurance UAVs;

• a programme undertaken by the Military Telecommunication General Corporation in mid-201 3 to develop a new military communications system;

• Viettel’s development in 2013 of an air traffic control system for the Vietnam People’s Army;

• Vietnam’s procurement in 2012 of Airbus Military C 212- 400 transport aircraft modified with maritime patrol mission kits;

• Hanoi’s plans to acquire Raytheon coastal defence radar systems and a version of the Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft.

Locally based development and production programmes are overseen by a combination of academic and state-owned defence research institutions under the aegis of the MND, including the Institute for Military Science and Technology’, the Vietnam Aerospace Association and the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology’ (VAST).

These projects are mainly focused in areas related to what can be regarded as relatively basic C4ISR technologies. More sophisticated requirements are fulfilled through off-the-shelf purchases and, increasingly, through industrial collaboration programmes involving Vietnam’s most prominent C41SR entities and foreign companies.

Vietnam’s focus on industrial collaboration was outlined in its

2009 defence White Paper as part of Hanoi’s strategy to develop defence relations with foreign partners and expand its strategic allies. In terms of defence industrial capabilities, it is geared towards the acquisition of both military platforms and their underlying technologies in a bid to address indigenous capability gaps and enhance self-sufficicnq’.

An indication of the scope of this capability — in terms of UAVs — was provided by an official from VAST, who was quoted by state-owned media in May 2013 as saying that the country has now7 developed the capability to develop and produce some UAV surveillance and communications systems, as well as composite parts. It also has capability to undertake basic design and manufacturing of UAVs.

However, the official added that Vietnam is forced to import components to assemble the automatic flight control units as well as the UAV engines and propellers. IHS Jane’s notes that is it also highly likely that almost all of the most sophisticated navigation, surveillance and communications systems on board Vietnamese UAVs are also imported.

Collaborative route

Two companies to have penetrated the Vietnamese C4ISR market through the collaborative route include Russia’s Irkut and Sweden’s Unmanned Systems Group. While the former is indicative of Vietnam’s expanding defence industrial relationship with Russia, the latter is representative of Vietnam’s increasing willingness to diversify its military suppliers.

Irkut and Vietnamese programmes — both of which are in collaboration with VASA — encompass technology transfer in order to co-develop and produce unmanned systems to meet Vietnam’s requirements and enable localised customisation and upgrades, programme, which is valued at USD10 million, is based on enabling Vietnam to build the Russian company’s mid-range Irkut-200 system and its associated ground-based transmitting and control systems in-country.

The UMS-VASA project, the value of which is undisclosed, centres on a derivative of the Swedish company’s Magic Eye 1 tactical UAV. Under the terms of partnership will receive technologies to build the UAV locally and undertake additional development of related capabilities. VASA will also be able to export jointly developed UAV products to regional customers.

In future years opportunities for additional collaborative programmes in Vietnam are certain to emerge. While UAV development will be one focus area, others are likely to materialise in the development and production of military communications and navigational systems.

The industrial collaboration strategy is certain to present challenges for foreign contractors committed to integrating their technology into a Vietnamese industry with limited capabilities. Additional challenges await market entrants in circumventing cumbersome bureaucracy and a largely opaque military procurement system.

However, Vietnam’s continuing efforts to diversify its military suppliers, its growing requirements for C41SR capabilities and defence industrial development also mean that collaboration will provide foreign primes with a direct route to the expanding Vietnamese defence market.

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