Armed Forces of Vietnam
Maj Gen (Retd.) P K Chakravorty

The Armed Forces of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is known as the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). The PAVN was formed by Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap on 22 December 1944. The Service Branches comprise of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Border Defence Force and Coast Guard.

PAVN has defeated the French in the Indo China War (1946-1954), United States in the Vietnam War (1959-1975) and the Chinese in their offensive in 1979. The Military Balance 2017, a publication of The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London (UK), states that Vietnam has a stronger military tradition and its Armed Forces have greater operational experience than any of its neighbours - one could stretch this to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) of which Vietnam is a member - and apply themselves logically on strategic issues. Due to its current problems in the South China Sea, Vietnam has been focussing on modernising its Navy, Air Force and surveillance assets. It is indeed difficult for Vietnam to combat China alone but it is equipping itself reasonably well to be able to encounter adverse situations besides forging improved defence relations with the United States and the other Western Countries.

Defence Structure

The PAVN is an all encompassing body and is reasonably similar to the People’s Liberation Army of China. It has a National Defence Council under which the most powerful body, the Central Military Commission, operates. The Defence Minister functions under the Central Military Commission and his Ministry has six departments. The Ministry comprises the General Staff Department, Political Department, Military Intelligence Department, Logistics , Technical and Military Industries Department. Out of these, from operations point of view, the most important is General Staff Department. The General Staff Department is headed by the Chief of General Staff who is also a Vice Defence Minister. He is assisted by four Deputy Chiefs of General Staff.

The General Staff Department deals with Operations. Mobilisation, Special Task Force, Chemical Warfare, Survey and Mapping, and the following Services:-

  • Army.
  • Navy.
  • Air Force.
  • Border Defence Force.
  • Coast Guard.
The Army

The Army has local forces which are organised in Military regions and Military Districts. Futher they have the Main Force which comprise of formations for Combat and the Reserve. The Army has close links with the Border Defence Force and reserves. All able bodied personnel have a conscript liability which varies for two years for the Army, three years for the Navy, Air Force and specialists. At the outset Army comprises of Eight Military Regions. They are directly under the Ministry of Defence, General Staff Branch. Each Military Region has three to four depleted infantry divisions. They constitute the following:-

  • Capital Military Region located at Hanoi to ensure defence of the Capital.
  • 1st Military Region’s task is to manage and command forces in the North Eastern Region. The Headquarters (HQ) located at Thai Nguyen.
  • 2nd Military Region’s task is applicable to North Western Vietnam and its HQ is located at Viet Tri.
  • 3rd Military Region’s task is applicable to the Red River Delta and its HQ is located in Hai Phong.
  • 4th Military Region’s task is applicable to the Northern portion of Central Vietnam and its HQ is located at Vinh.
  • 5th Military Region’s task is applicable to Southern part of Central Vietnam and its HQ is located at Da Nang.
  • 7th Military Region’s task is applicable to South East of Vietnam and its HQ is located in Ho Chi Minh City.
  • 9th Military Region’s task is applicable to Mekong delta in the South and its HQ is located in Can Tho.

The next aspect is to focus on other combat elements. This consists of combat ready personnel who can undertake military operations. There are four Corps who are critical components of PAVN. These are located as under;-

  • 1st Corps is located south of Hanoi in Ninh Binh province. It has three Infantry Divisions, Armoured Brigade, Artillery Brigade, Air Defence Brigade and Engineer elements.
  • 2nd Corps is located in Bac Giang, North of Hanoi and has a similar organisation as that of 1st Corps.
  • 3rd Corps is located at Pleiku in Gia Lai province in Southern Vietnam. This formation has three Infantry Divisions, Air Defence Regiment, Artillery Regiment, Commando Regiment and an Engineer Regiment.
  • 4th Corps is located at Di An in Binh Thuong province in Southern Vietnam and has an organisation similar to that of 3 Corps.

It is pertinent to note that the infantry divisions in a Corps have greater potency than those in the Military Region in terms of Artillery, Engineers and Signals. Further infantry battalions in the Military Region have fewer support weapons. There is no Medical battalion in the Divisions of the Military Region. The Infantry Battalion is the basic fighting unit of the Vietnamese Army. Like the Chinese it has three Rifle Companies, one Combat Support Company (heavy weapons and engineer elements) and a Rear services Company.

The overall strength of the Army is 4,12,000. Total components, apart from the Military Regions and Corps, are as under:-

  • Six Armoured Brigades.
  • Two Mechanised Infantry Divisions.
  • Twenty three Infantry Divisions.
  • One Special Forces Brigade (one Air Borne Brigade and one Demolition Engineer Regiment).
  • One Strategic Range Ballistic Missile Brigade.
  • Thirteen Artillery Brigades.
  • Ten Engineer Brigades.
  • One Electronics Warfare Unit.
  • Three Signals Brigade.
  • Nine Economic Construction Units.
  • Eleven Air Defence Brigades.

The equipment of the Vietnamese Army is Russian and most of them are dated. They possess 1270 tanks, 1380 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs), 2000 Artillery Guns, Scud Missiles and old Russian Air Defence systems. It is a professional Army which needs to be modernised.

The Navy

The PAVN Navy has its HQ at Haiphong and has five Regional commands. The details are elucidated as under:-

  • First Regional Command has its responsibility in the North Coast around the Gulf of Tonkin and has its HQ located at Haiphong.
  • Second Regional Command in the Southern Coast from Binh Thuan to Bac Lieu and its HQ at Nhon Trach in Dong Nai province.
  • Third Regional Command in the North Central Coast, from Quang Binh to Binh Dinh including the islands of Con Co, Ly Son and Paracel Islands with HQ at Da Nang.
  • Fourth Regional Command in the South Central Coast including Spratly Islands , Phu Quy island and the South Central Coast, from Phu Yen to Binh Thuan with HQ at Cam Ranh Bay in Khanh Hoa province.
  • Fifth Regional Command in the South China Sea and coast in Gulf of Thailand from Ca Mau to Kien Giang with HQ at Phu Quoc.

The Navy has strength of 40,000 which includes strength of 27,000 of Naval Infantry. The major equipment by type is as mentioned below:-

  • Submarines - 8, six of which are Russian and two from North Korea.
  • Frigates - 2.
  • Patrol and Coastal Combatants - 71.
  • Mine Warfare Counter Measures - 13.
  • Amphibious Landing Ships - 8.
  • Logistics Support - 27.
  • Naval Infantry – Light tank, PT 76 and BTR -60. Artillery- Multiple Rocket Launcher 306 mm with a range of 70 Km.

Another important aspect is the Coastal Defence which is implemented by Surface to Surface Missiles. The K-300 Bastion with a range of 300 Km provides a good capability particularly for islands. The Naval Air Wing has both utility and anti-submarine warfare helicopters.

The Air Force

The Vietnamese Air Force has strength of 30,000 personnel. They have three Air Force Divisions, one Transport Brigade and four Air Defence Artillery Brigades. The Air Force Divisions have fighter, transport aircraft and helicopters. The Air Defence Brigades has Surface to Air (SA) missiles and Air Defence Guns. There are six Radar Brigades with 100 radar stations. The locations of these Divisions are as under:-

  • 371 Air Force Division caters for Northern Vietnam with HQ at Noibai (Hanoi). The air bases are Noibai, Yen Bai, Phuc Yen, Tho Xuan, Kep, Hoa Lac and Gia Lam.
  • 372 Air Force Division caters for Central Vietnam with HQ at Da Nang. Air bases at Da Nang and Phu Cat.
  • 370 Air Force Division caters for Southern Vietnam with HQ at Bien Hoa (Ho Chi Minh City). Air bases are at Bien Hoa, Thanh Son and Tan Son Nhat.

Main equipment with the Air Force are as appended below:-

  • 107 Fighter Ground Attack Aircraft are combat capable. The distribution is as under:-
    1. 25 x Mig 21 bis.
    2. 8 x Mig 21 UM.
    3. 28 x SU 22.
    4. 11 x SU 27.
    5. 36 x SU 30 MK 2.
  • Helicopters with a wide variety as under:-
  1. 26 x MI 24 Hind Attack Helicopters.
  2. 6 x MI 17 Medium Range Helicopters.
  3. 28 x Utility Helicopters.
Other Forces

The PAVN has other constituents which play an important role. These are as follows:-

  • Para Military Forces of 40,000.
  • Border Defence Corps of 40,000.
  • Coast Guard comprising 56 Patrol and coastal combatant vessels. They also have three Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
  • Local Forces of 5 million reservists. These include the following:-
  1. Self Defence Force (Urban units).
  2. Local Militia (Rural units).
  3. Some Artillery and Air Defence Guns Act as reserve.
Strategy Document

Vietnam’s Cabinet approved the strategy document in 2016. The Document, ‘Overall Strategy for International Integration through 2020, Vision to 2030’, lays out strategic challenges and opportunities for Vietnam. The document states that the Asia Pacific region will witness competition among major powers and complicated territorial and maritime disputes. ASEAN will face difficult challenges externally and internally due to major power rivalry and economic competition.

The document lays the importance of PAVN protecting the interests in the South China Sea and need for modernisation to face the challenges. It is true that Vietnamese equipment needs modernisation bur purchase of weapons involves huge financial cost. Vietnam’s defence budget is a state secret. The defence budget was estimated at $ 4.31 billion in 2014 and $ 3.84 billion in 2015. This is approximately 7 percent of GDP which indicates a high quantity of finances is allocated for Defence. Vietnam is gradually building its capability to construct defence equipment particularly ships, vehicles and missiles. Guidance is mainly being provided by Russia and Netherlands. It has exported KCT-15 anti-ship missile to Venezuela. Thus incremental modernisation of the PAVN will continue.

PAVN and China

The PAVN is one fifth the size of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its defence budget is about 3 percent of China. In the last encounter held in the South China Sea at Johnson Reef in 1988, Vietnam lost 88 personnel. In May 2014 China sent a mobile oil rig with escorted vessels in the disputed region. After an uneasy standoff they withdrew the oil rig after a month. Undoubtedly, they are unevenly matched. A RAND report by Derek Grossman of January 2018 spells out lucidly on the subject.

Vietnam realises that it cannot outmatch the numerical and technological superiority of the PLA in the air and naval assets. Vietnam instead seeks to develop a more modest array of offsetting and retaliatory military capabilities to deter China from seizing disputed territory in South China Sea. In this connection PAVN has acquired a few modern weapon systems. These comprise six Russian built Kilo class submarines, 36 Sukhoi 30 MK 2 which have the capability to strike targets throughout the South China Sea. PAVN is also in possession of a complementary network of anti-access missiles. These are the Bastion shore based Anti-Ship Cruise Missile and S-300 Surface to Air Missile batteries to ensure that Chinese military operations within Vietnam’s EEZ would encounter reasonable degree of attrition. Further, its frigates would contest the Chinese in close combat in a retaliatory mode.

Vietnam has also expanded its Coast Guard presence with patrol vessels which are lightly armed to conduct maritime law enforcement activities as well as tactical reconnaissance and maritime surveillance in the South China Sea. PAVN has definitely dissuaded China from undertaking a misadventure by fielding these capabilities. Vietnam is also conceptualising fighting a new Guerrilla Warfare in the South China Sea.

PAVN and India

PAVN has deep respect for the Indian Armed Forces. Submariners and Sukhoi pilots of PAVN have been trained in India. PAVN is keen on acquiring the BrahMos Supersonic Cruise Missile from India. They are grateful to the Indian Army for running English training in Vietnam. Indian Army is also going to undertake training in Jungle Warfare in Vietnam. Apart from these numerous other activities bind PAVN to the Indian Armed Forces.


PAVN is possibly the best Armed Forces in South East Asia. They are innovatively building their capabilities in the South China Sea. They have good relations with the Indian Armed Forces. It would be prudent to assist them in building their capability to retaliate effectively against a Chinese misadventure.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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