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US-Vietnam Defense Engagement Soars to New Heights


A rapid strengthening of US-Vietnam ties over the past decade and a strong post-COVID economic recovery for Vietnam suggests that the future is bright for continued cooperation between Washington and Hanoi in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, Vietnamese objectives for defensive modernization present major opportunities for US defense firms in America’s heartland.

On June 25, 2023, the U.S. aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan along with cruisers USS Antietam and USS Robert Small sailed to a warm welcome in the beautiful port city of Da Nang located in central Vietnam. The carrier strike group’s arrival marked the third visit by a U.S. aircraft carrier to the country since 2018 and serves as an embodiment of the increasing trust between the erstwhile Cold War adversaries.

Confronting the lagging capacity of its long-time defense supplier, Russia, and heightened tensions in the South China Sea, Vietnam’s national security and defense strategy has reached an inflection point. According to numbers provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Hanoi’s defense imports from Russia declined from $1.06 billion in 2014 to only $72 million in 2022, a reduction of 93%. 2014 is significant as it is the year Russia began its invasion of Ukraine through the illegal annexation of Crimea. As Vietnam moves away from Cold War-era procurement strategies, helping Vietnam strengthen its national defense through training and supply is an area where the United States believes it can make a strong and lasting impact

A December 2022 defense industry expo hosted by the Vietnamese government in Hanoi highlighted Vietnam’s surging enthusiasm for American-made defense systems and technical training through people-to-people exchange. Speaking to media at the event, US Ambassador Marc Knapper remarked that Hanoi’s outreach through the expo “represents a new stage in Vietnam's efforts to globalize, diversify, and modernize, and the United States wants to be part of it."

Based on data from the World Bank, from 2011 to 2020 Vietnam spent an average 2.2% of its GDP on defense. While Hanoi’s defense spending declined during the pandemic, Vietnam’s rapid recovery at 8.02% economic growth in 2022 represents an enormous opportunity for U.S. firms as Vietnam’s military modernization campaign moves back on track in pursuit of next-gen security initiatives.

While Vietnam has traditionally relied on Russian equipment to form the backbone of its defensive capabilities, the progress of the war in Ukraine has caused Vietnam to rethink traditional approaches to security. Though Vietnam had purchased sixty-four T-90S main battle tanks in 2017 as part of its military modernization program, the poor performance of these and other Russian-based systems and the success of Ukrainian UAVs has increased Vietnamese attention to alternative strategies of national defense and American-made drone systems in particular. Most notably, in 2019, Vietnam ordered six Boeing Insitu ScanEagle drones produced in Boardman, Oregon for its Coast Guard through the U.S. Maritime Security Initiative which partners the United States with countries in the South China Sea and South Asia to improve maritime defense. According to Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales and a Southeast Asia defense expert, U.S. firms Boeing, IM Systems Group, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Textron have all met with Vietnamese officials to discuss UAV sales in meetings arranged by the U.S.- ASEAN Business Council. According to Thayer, Vietnam projects to become a significant import market for American-made UAVs.

In addition to UAV technology, a cornerstone of the burgeoning US-Vietnam friendship is the rapidly growing exchange between the US Air Force and Vietnam’s Air Defense-Air Force (ADAF) which is Vietnam's largest military partnership with a foreign military branch. Beginning in 2016, Vietnam began sending pilots to be trained through the U.S. Air Force Aviation Leadership Program (ALP) at Columbus Air Force base in Mississippi.

Vietnam’s participation in the Aviation Leadership Program is a tremendous milestone for the U.S. Air Force and Vietnam Air Defense-Air Force collaborative relationship,” Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast, commander of Air Education and Training Command, stated in 2019. “This partnership helps ensure peace and stability in the region and in the world.” The first Vietnamese pilot to participate, Toai Dang, graduated in May 2019. While initially only admitting two to three Vietnamese students per year, Thayer projects that participation in the program will be increased to a dozen or more students per year by 2030 to meet the Vietnam's aviation needs.

A significant byproduct of the budding exchange between the U.S. and Vietnamese air forces is Vietnam’s purchase of twelve Beechcraft T-6 Texan II trainer aircraft designed and manufactured at Textron Aviation Defense facilities in Wichita, Kansas. Recently celebrating the completion of its 1,000 T-6 model, Textron Vice President Tom Webster believes this state-of-the art trainer will greatly boost Vietnam pilot training relative to its Russian predecessor, the Yakovlev Yak-52, and serve as an excellent aircraft in preparing ADAF pilots for fourth and fifth generation handling. With dozens of Vietnamese ADAF pilots trained on the T-6 and through the ALP, experts believe this will create a strong foundation for future Vietnamese orders of F-16E Strike Eagles primarily manufactured by Boeing in St. Louis, Missouri.

On June 29, 2023, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Chairman of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s Central External Relations Commission, Le Hoai Trung, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership. They released a joint statement that “the U.S.-Vietnam relationship is a powerful example of reconciliation from the past with the continued potential to drive greater prosperity, stability, and peace in the future.” Following a successful decade of comprehensive partnership, there is also hope in Washington that the relationship may be upgraded to a strategic partnership in the near future.

The blossoming U.S.-Vietnam partnership stands as a testament to the power of reconciliation and collaboration between these former Cold War adversaries. As Vietnam navigates its national security strategy amid geopolitical challenges and shifts away from its Russian-oriented defense procurement, the United States has emerged as a steadfast partner in strengthening Vietnam's military capabilities and fostering a new era of trust and cooperation. From port visits to advanced UAV sales and pilot training, the engagement between the two nations has paved the way for greater prosperity, stability, and peace in the Indo-Pacific region. As they celebrate a decade of strategic partnership, the future holds the promise of an upgraded relations, fueling hope to reach even greater heights of shared opportunities and prosperity for both the American and Vietnamese peoples.

Jon Formella is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East West Center in Washington. He is a graduate of the Columbia University and London School of Economics MA/MSc International and World History Program and an incoming first-year law student at Columbia Law School with an interest in international law and the law of armed conflict.