HANOI, (BM) – The Vietnamese Air Force is currently comprised of seven full strength regiments, including four of Su-27SK and Su-30MK2 Flanker air superiority fighters and three of heavily modernised Su-22 strike fighters of the M3, M4 and UM variants.
With the country seeking to modernise its armed forces, and making sizeable investments in new hardware from air defences to battle tanks to submarines and frigates, the Air Force is reportedly considering acquisition of a new class of fighter jets.
Whether these are intended to expand the Vietnamese fleet beyond seven battalions, or else to replace older Su-22 fighters with more modern platforms, remains uncertain. Of note, however, is the country’s growing interest in acquiring hardware from the U.S., Israel and Western states – albeit in small quantities. This could potentially lead to a Vietnamese interest in acquiring fighter jets from a source other than Russia – which currently supplies the vast majority of the country’s weapons systems.
Questions regarding the nature of Vietnam’s next purchase of combat jets were raised during the country’s first defence and security exhibition in Hanoi. The Lockheed Martin F-16V in particular has been highlighted as a potential leading contender for the country’s Air Force, following the lifting of an American arms embargo by the Barak Obama administration and growing efforts by the Donald Trump administration to find new clients for American arms.
Russia for its part is offering the Su-30SM – a modernised twin seat platform which is highly capable in both air superiority and strike roles. An assessment of benefits of acquiring either of these two classes of fighter may provide an indication as to which Vietnam’s Air Force is most likely to acquire.
The F-16 first entered service in 1978, and was developed as a cheaper and less capable complement to the U.S. Air Force’s prime heavyweight fighter the F-15 Eagle. The aircraft is increasingly considered obsolete by leading modern militaries such as Singapore and Israel, which have begun to phase them out of service, with American military leaders stating the aircraft would be obsolete by the mid-2020s.
With several thousand F-16s in service across five contents, phasing the platform out of service is likely to take several decades – with the U.S. Air Force itself set to continue fielding the Fighting Falcon outside a frontline role into the 2050s. The F-16V was thus developed as an upgrade package to extent the platform’s service life. The aircraft uses the same airframe and engine as the basic Fighting Falcon design, but benefits from a more powerful AESA radar with lower radar signature and from new avionics and electronic warfare systems.
The F-16V has been sold to a number of lower tier U.S. defence clients such as Slovakia, Bahrain and Morocco – with higher tier clients being offered more capable jets such as the F-15 and F-35. The more capable F-16E, which has a more powerful engine and redesigned airframe, has also been marketed to India and the United Arab Emirates, but has not been widely offered.
Where the F-16V is at the lowest end of American fighter exports, the Su-30SM Flanker is among Russia’s more capable. While the F-16V is slower, less less manoeuvrable, shorter ranged and can carry less weapons than Vietnam’s existing fighters, the Su-30SM is considerably more capable across the spectrum.
The aircraft comes from a heavier weight range comparable to the American F-15 and F-22, and benefits from access to a wider range of modern air to air munitions. The Flanker is capable if carrying a far larger sensor suite than the F-16, and benefits from superior speed, altitude, manoeuvrability, range and payload.
That Russian jet is not only compatible with Vietnam’s existing armaments and maintenance infrastructure, but is also little over half the price of the F-16V to acquire. This combined with the United States’ far greater propensity to impose embargoes on arms and spare parts to its defence clients, Indonesia, Pakistan and Iran being prime examples which all saw their fleets at least partly grounded, makes the Su-30SM appear far more attractive.
While in terms of military capability the Su-30SM appears to offer very clear advantages, there is still a significant chance that Vietnam will seek to purchase the F-16V in small numbers due to the political benefits of such an acquisition.
With Vietnam seeking closer defence ties with the United States, and from the mid 2010s even offering the U.S. Navy port visits to the country, it is possible that a purchase of the F-16V will be seen as an avenue to such cooperation. The aircraft’s disadvantages relative to its Russian competitor may well be seen as a price worth paying to establish such a relationship – which would still leave Russia as the country’s predominant defence partner supplying everything from S-300 air defence platforms to Advanced Kilo Class submarines.
Vietnam has indicated in interest in acquiring more advanced Russian fighters in the late 2020s, namely the Su-57 next generation air superiority fighter, which could begin to replace the Su-27 within a decade. Acquiring the F-16V in the knowledge that they will not be relied on to contest air superiority or engage the elite of China’s People’s Liberation Army, and that next generation Russian fighters will be acquired in the near future, could make such a decision more agreeable.
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Author: Military Watch
Original title: Why Vietnam May Purchase America’s F-16V Fighters – But Russia’s New Su-30SM is Also on Offer
Source: Military Watch
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect BGM`s editorial stance.