Roughly 1,800 tanks and 4,900 APCs in early 2020s
Vietnam is one of the best armed Asian nations due to its unique situation during the Cold War. Tensions with neighboring countries during the last decades, most notably China, have forced the Vietnamese to maintain a well-equipped military.
The army is certainly not one of the strongest in the world, but it is trained in guerrilla tactics that would cause serious problems and great losses to even the best equipped and most numerous armies.
Nowadays, it is equipped with 1,800 tanks, of which the majority are early Cold War-era or even Second World War-era models, and 4,900 armored personnel carriers and other armored fighting vehicles.
Cold War Era Vietnam
It would be impossible to talk about the modern Quân Đội Nhân Dân Việt Nam (English: People’s Army of Vietnam or PAVN) without mentioning the wars it fought before 1991. For Vietnam, it is essential to understand how its Army became what it is today. During the Cold War, from 1945 to 1991, Vietnam was not involved in any war for only 4 of those years.
Obviously, the most important, famous, and bloody was the Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War, fought against South Vietnam and the US from November 1955 to April 1975, but there were other wars that shaped the fate of the Vietnamese armored force.
The first was the First Indochina War fought against France, the colonial empire which had been involved in Vietnam since 1858. The war lasted from November 1946 to July 1954 and the ‘Mặt trận Dân tộc Giải phóng Miền Nam Việt Nam’ (English: National Liberation Front of South Vietnam) or more simply Việt Cộng were formed for the first time as the ‘Việt Nam độc lập đồng minh’ (English: League for the Independence of Vietnam), or more simply Việt Minh.
In that war, the Vietnamese Communist forces had to face enemy armored vehicles, even if they were light M24 Chaffees and M8 Greyhound heavy armored cars. After the war, some of these vehicles were kept in service with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
In the bloody Vietnam War, the People’s Army of Vietnam received tanks and other armored vehicles from the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China. These ranged from obsolete Second World War-era tanks arriving in the early stage of the war against the USA to modern T-55 and Type 59 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) arrived in the last years of war. However, fighting between Vietnamese and enemy tanks were few and far between. The majority of the skirmishes had only a few armored vehicles taking part.
The retreat of US forces in late 1972 to early 1973 paved the way for the Communist army and the Viet Cong’s victory, which soon conquered Saigon (now Ho Hồ Chí Minh) in April 1975.
During the last months of war and shortly after, thousands of tonnes of military equipment, dozens of aircraft, helicopters, and hundreds of armored vehicles fell into the Communist hands. These were reassigned to the People’s Army of Vietnam for the rest of the Cold War.
After the Vietnam War, the People’s Army of Vietnam invaded the neighboring state of Cambodia to stop the ferocious dictatorship of Pol Pot. This led to the occupation of Cambodia, commonly called the Cambodian-Vietnamese War (1977-1991). Saloth Sâr, alias Pol Pot, was backed by the People’s Republic of China, which did not support Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia.
On that occasion, the Vietnamese armored forces that crossed the border with Cambodia were also equipped with former US equipment left in Vietnam to the South Vietnamese, such as M41 Walker Bulldogs, M48 ‘Pattons’, and M113 Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs).
Two years later, in 1979, the deterioration of the Chinese and Vietnamese diplomatic relations caused the Chinese invasion of the northern Vietnamese region of Sapa. The conflict lasted for about a month.
At first, the People’s Liberation Army conquered a great portion of Vietnamese land, but as time went on, the Vietnamese brought in several divisions from Cambodia and began using guerrilla tactics, as they had during the Vietnam War. The change in Vietnamese strategy brought the Chinese increasing losses in the field and, after the conquest of the city of Lang Son, the last defensive line before Hà Nội, the capital of Vietnam, they ceased hostilities and returned home. In 27 days of fighting, according to Western sources, 26,000 Chinese soldiers and 30,000 Vietnamese soldiers lost their lives.
This was the first of the Sino-Vietnamese conflicts that led to the death of another 6,000 soldiers on both sides. The Sino-Vietnamese Conflicts ended in 1991, when China and Vietnam negotiated the normalization of their relations at a secret summit in Chengdu (south-west China) in September 1990.
The Constitution of Vietnam went into effect in 1992 and assigned the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) the leadership role within Vietnamese society. Only organizations affiliated with the party may run for election. The form of government is a unicameral socialist state. Legislative power is delegated to the 493-member National Assembly.
In the 1980s, with reunification, the development of industries was encouraged in the south, which had not industrialized like North Vietnam. These incentives led to an increase in inflation and an economic crisis. Since 1986, Vietnam has tried to convert its predominantly agricultural economy by opening up to foreign markets in an attempt to boost an industry that seems to have great potential, emulating other Asian economies.
In 2005, Vietnam had an economic growth rate of 8.4%. An abundance of youth labor, good schooling, combined with a lively business culture, make Vietnam one of the countries with the best prospects for economic growth over the next decade.
Vietnam is totally open to the rest of the world nowadays, with thousands of US tourists every year. Even if officially Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are at peace, tensions remain over territorial disputes over two archipelagos in the South China Sea. These are the Paracelsus Islands controlled by China since 1974 and the Spratly Islands archipelago, which are also claimed by the Philippines and Malaysia.
Vietnam has had 11 Presidents of the Vietnamese Communist Party since 1969. The President of Vietnam is elected by the National Assembly of Vietnam for a five-year term and is responsible for choosing the prime minister and cabinet members from among the members of the Assembly on the recommendation of the Assembly. They are the commander-in-chief of the Vietnamese Armed Forces, being chairman of the National Defense and Security Council.
Currently, the president is Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, who was elected in 2021 on a regular basis by the National Assembly. Previously, he had been Prime Minister during Trần Đại Quang’s presidency, who died of natural causes in September 2018.
Nowadays, the PAVN has only been deployed in UN peacekeeping missions in Southern Sudan (UNMISS) since June 2014 and the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) since 2017.
In 2000, the 42nd President of the United States of America, Bill Clinton, made an official visit to Vietnam, a marked turning point in decades-long foregin policy. This has helped the economic growth of the nation allowing investors to find a very reliable partner in Vietnam.
This was followed by the visit of the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in May 2016. On this occasion, the US President officially removed the military embargo on arms sales to Vietnam that had been placed since the Vietnam War.
Geography and Climate – The Keys to Understanding Vietnam
Vietnamese land is hilly terrain at about 80% and mountainous to the north, along the border with China. Dense forests, which are difficult to traverse for armored vehicles, cover 55% of Vietnam.
The Vietnamese climate is very hot and humid, with a rainfall rate of up to 2,000 mm/m2 during the monsoon season, making unpaved roads difficult for armored vehicles. This means that Vietnam’s terrain does not allow for classic warfare, such as that seen during the most famous 20th-century conflicts.
Throughout the various Cold War conflicts and even today, the Vietnamese military relies heavily on its nation’s unique terrain. Elite groups are trained to fight in guerrilla warfare by learning the same tactics that the Vietcong used.
The People’s Army of Vietnam is divided into Lục quân (Vietnamese Ground Forces), Lực lượng Biên phòng (Vietnamese Ground Forces – Border Guards), Hải quân Nhân dân Việt Nam (Vietnam People’s Navy), which includes Naval Infantry and Marines, the Bộ đội Biên phòng Việt Nam (Vietnam People’s Coast Guard), and the Phòng không-Không quân nhân dân Việt Nam (Vietnam People’s Air Defense Force). All these branches have a total of 482,000 soldiers in active service in their ranks and 3 million reservists.
Currently, the People’s Army of Vietnam is organized into four army corps, numbered 1 to 4. Formations available or that can be mobilized in case of war would amount to 14 corps headquarters, 10 armored brigades, 3 mechanized divisions, 58 infantry divisions and, in addition, 15 independent infantry regiments, 1 airborne brigade, numerous local defense brigades and battalions, 10 field artillery brigades, and 20 engineer brigades.
Available equipment is primarily of Soviet or Chinese origin, but with a significant percentage of US equipment captured after the collapse of South Vietnam. Apart from the armored fighting vehicles, the ground forces have at their disposal 7,350 artillery pieces and 159 helicopters.
The PAVN has been actively involved in developing Vietnam’s economy, coordinating national defense and economy. The PAVN has also regularly sent troops to help with natural disasters such as floods, mudslides, or, nowadays, the Covid-19 pandemic. The PAVN is also involved in sectors such as industry, agriculture, forestry, fishing, and telecommunications. Conscription is in effect for any male aged 18 to 25.
Nowadays, the People’s Army of Vietnam has roughly 1,800 tanks in its ranks, starting from the older 45 T-34-85s, which are used only as trainer tanks and some turrets are used as coastal defense fortifications on some disputed islands in the South China Sea. Others were converted into Armored Recovery Vehicles (ARVs).
An unknown number of M48 ‘Pattons’, M41 Walker Bulldogs, and other US-built armored recovery vehicles and self-propelled guns are maintained, but all in reserve.
During the Vietnam War, 100 SU-100s were delivered by the Soviet Union. The surviving self-propelled guns are now left in reserve, together with an unknown number of ASU-85 airborne self-propelled guns, also of Soviet origin.
Of the 1,000 T-54s and T-55s delivered by the Soviet Union from 1969 to 1975, 850 are in service or reserve with the PAVN, while 350 Chinese-made Type 59 are also in use.
Some of the most modern vehicles in the ranks of the People’s Army of Vietnam are the 70 T-62s main battle tanks delivered in the 1970s and rarely seen parades and training exercises. These accompany the 64 T-90s delivered in the late 2010s.
A total of 300 PT-76 and PT-76B light tanks are currently in service with the Vietnamese Army. Due to their capabilities, these light amphibious tanks are some of the most extensively used by the Naval Infantry.
About 150 Chinese-built Type 63 amphibious light tanks are maintained in service. The Vietnamese Army usually calls them ‘PT-85’ due to their 85 mm gun and their similarity with the Soviet PT-76.
As recovery vehicles, the Vietnam Army has an unknown number of BREM-1M and IRM-2 Armored Recovery Vehicles on the T-72 chassis.
Armored Personnel Carriers and Infantry Fighting Vehicles
Vietnam received 100 BTR-40 armored personnel carriers, but these have been withdrawn from service already. The number of BTR-152s received is unknown.
They are currently in service along with their Chinese copy, the Type 56. In total 160 examples of both the Soviet and Chinese versions are currently in service, with an upgraded Vietnamese-developed version entering service in 2011 and a Medical Evacuation version unveiled in 2018.
In 1978, 500 BTR-60PBs were ordered from the Soviet Union and delivered from 1978 to 1980. Around 400 of these second-hand vehicles are currently in service. Vietnam also received an unknown number of Chinese-built Type 63 armored personnel carriers before the deterioration of the relationship between the two countries. About 80 of these vehicles are in service nowadays.
Soviet-produced tracked infantry fighting vehicles are rarely spotted nowadays, even if Vietnam received an unknown number of BMP-1s and 500 BMP-2s from 1982 to 1984. A total of 150 BMP-1s and 150 BMP-2s are currently in active service.
Numerous BMP-1s of the Vietnamese Army. Source: voz.vn
A BMP-2 of the Vietnamese Army. Source: laodong.vn
The most common tracked armored personnel carrier in Vietnam service is the M113, with around 200 still in service in Vietnam’s mechanized divisions and an unknown number in reserve. These vehicles were upgraded in the Cold War period with new Soviet-built armament.
Vietnam had also received an unknown number of BTR-50 in various versions. Currently, 280 are in storage or active service. An unknown number of MT-LB APCs are also in service in many roles, such as mortar carriers, armored recovery vehicles, etc.
As light reconnaissance vehicles, the Vietnamese forces have 150 BRDM-1s and 150 BRDM-2s received from the Soviet Union and an unknown number of Cadillac V-100s captured from the US and South Vietnamese forces.
In 2013 Vietnam had also received a number of new GAZ-59037A command and communication vehicles. These have been used mainly in case of natural disasters due to their recovery characteristics to save civilians from dangerous situations. These vehicles are built on the chassis of the BTR-80 8×8 Infantry Fighting Vehicles and, in case of war, could be used to operate also as military command vehicles.
Vietnamese peacekeeping troops had also received Dongfeng EQ2050 purchased by the Vietnamese Army specifically for the current peacekeeping operations in Africa, and maybe in other nations in future.
In terms of mobile firepower, Vietnam can rely vehicles such as UAZ-469 jeeps armed with DShKM heavy machine guns or RPG-9 recoilless guns or an unknown number of M548 tracked cargo carriers captured after the surrender of South Vietnam and armed with captured 105 mm M101 howitzers or ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns.
Some wheeled self-propelled guns based on the heavy duty 4.5 tonnes Ural-375D 6×6 truck chassis were also produced. The PTH105-VN15, armed with the 105 mm M101 howitzer, was tested with good results in January 2014. Some time after, the PTH85-VN18, armed with an 85 mm D-44 gun, based on the same Ural-43206 chassis was also tested. An unknown number of both types have been produced and are currently in active service.
With the experience gained from these two vehicles, Vietnam tried to develop a self-propelled version of the 130 mm M-46 howitzer. The PAVN was inspired by the Cuban Jupiters truck-mounted guns. The new PTH 130-K225B was publicly shown in late October 2021 during official firing tests. If tests prove satisfactory, it will probably begin production in late 2022 or early 2023.
Vietnam also has an unknown number of 2S1 Gvozdikas, 30 2S3 Akatsiya Soviet self-propelled guns, and over 700 BM-14 and BM-21 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRSs).
There have also been some M106 mortar carried based on M113 hulls, which are nowadays kept in service
The PAVN received a total of 100 ZSU-23-4 ‘Shilka’ and 500 ZSU-57-2 Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Guns (SPAAGs) during the war. Today, an unknown number of ZSU-23-4s remain, but the ZSU-57-2s are no longer in service.
As is well documented, during the Vietnam War, the small Communist nation received military, economic, and humanitarian aid from the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, but also from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Hundreds of T-34-85s, T-54s, T-55s, and Type 59s were transported to the northern border with China and handed over to fight against US troops and their allies.
Other materials that arrived were firearms, such as PPSh-41 submachine guns and their Chinese and Korean copies, SKS carbines and their copies, and AK-47 assault rifles and their copies.
After the war, however, Vietnam had to find new allies, as relations with China deteriorated and its military budget was not enough to upgrade the army as needed. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remained a good ally of Vietnam, as Nguyễn Sinh Cung, better known as Hồ Chí Minh, leader of Vietnam until his death in 1969, and Kim Il-sung, leader of the DPRK until 1994, were not only political allies, but also great friends.
After the war, Korea supplied Vietnam with some Hwasŏng-6s, a Short-Range Ballistic Missile (SRBM) with a 750 kg warhead, a range of 500-700 km and an impact error of only 50 meters.
This missile was an evolution of the Hwasŏng-5, the first operational North Korean SRBM, which in turn was developed from the Soviet R-17E Elbrus (also known as 8K14E or SCUD-B). The exact year they were received and number of missiles received by Vietnam is not known.
Even today, almost twenty years later, it is assumed that the 490th Missile Brigade and the Warehouse 380 (previously 380th Missile Brigade), the only two units of Vietnam armed with this type of missiles, have both SCUD and Hwasŏng missiles in service. Other post-war DPRK equipment bought by Vietnam consisted of some Yugo-class mini-submarines and some infiltration vessels for the Vietnam Navy.
Trade with the Soviet Union, and subsequently with Russia, continued after the war as well. In the years after the end of the war, Vietnam purchased BMP-1 and BMP-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) in addition to other vehicles, such as BRDM-2s and various Armored Personnel Carriers of the BTR series.
In the 2010s, the Vietnamese Army signed a contract for a total of 64 T-90S and their command version, the T-90SK. They were delivered by Russia from late 2017 to early 2019 and assigned to the units some months after. In 2020, the Vietnamese Army confirmed its intention to buy an unknown number of T-72 Main Battle Tanks. Some sources claim that these will be of the T-72S variant, whilst others claim that these will be T-72B3 variants. The Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have slowed down or canceled the purchase.
A somewhat curious ally of Vietnam is the State of Israel, which has helped the small Indochinese nation develop several weapons systems. The first contact between the two nations was in 2006, when Vietnam bought 150 RAM Mark III light armored vehicles from Israel, all delivered in 2009.
The first and least well-known common project was an Infantry Fighting Vehicle variant of the US M113 Armored Personnel Carrier. The vehicle was modified in collaboration with NIMDA, a subsidiary of Israeli Military Industry (IMI) in 2012. There is very little information about the vehicle. It received a new turret for a 12.7 mm or 14.5 mm heavy machine gun and an armor module on the front plate to increase the vehicle’s original mediocre protection against small-caliber bullets.
At some unspecified time in the early 2000s, Vietnam asked Israel for help in upgrading its fleet of T-54s and T-55s. The choice of Israel is no accident. The Middle Eastern nation has modified several hundred Soviet-made T-54, T-55, and T-62 tanks into Tiran 5 and Tiran 6 main battle tanks and has participated in upgrading some other nations’ vehicles, such as the Slovenian T-55S1.
In the late 2000s, a delegation of Vietnamese officers went to Israel to inspect the Tirans and, in the same period, a Tiran was delivered to Vietnam, probably for comparative tests.
The ‘M3’ proposal from the Israeli company Elbit System was a really high-tech upgrade with composite armor, new 105 mm rifled gun, smoke grenade launchers, a 60 mm external mortar, new radio system, optics, and new engine. The vehicle was tested with great results, but it cost too much and, in the end, the Vietnamese opted for a less expensive version maintaining the old 100 mm D-10T gun and mounting Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) of Vietnamese production.
It entered service as a common modification for T-54s and T-55s during the Covid-19 pandemic and is still in production, with an order for 310 to be upgraded.
In 2014, Vietnam adopted the IWI Galil ACE 31/32, an Israeli assault rifle, and acquired its patent for licensed production. Production of the Vietnamese model started in Factory 111, adapted to better suit the local terrain and climate with more Kalashnikov parts. This was done to improve familiarity and smoothen the transition from older AK-47 and AKM assault rifles which were used by Vietnamese soldiers. The modification process was a fusion of the STL-1A and the Galil ACE. The STL-1A is the Vietnamese upgrade of the AKM, more similar to the AK-103.
The new Vietnamese-Israeli hybrid is a new family of assault rifles, the most common of which are the STV-215 and STV-380 rifles. STV stands for Súng Trường Việt Nam (English: Rifle of Vietnam).
The PAVN has also bought some new artillery rockets from Israel, the ACCULAR and the EXTRA, with a firing range of 40 km and 150 km, respectively. After 2018, Cuba has become a new military partner of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the results are now visible with the PTH 130-K225B.
Upgrading Old Systems
The People’s Army of Vietnam has upgraded some of the vehicles in its service. Some have received armament improvements. For example, some of the M113s captured after the Vietnam War were rearmed in the 1980s with 12.7 mm DShKM heavy machine guns on the commander’s cupola, two 7.62 mm PKT on the sides, or one PKT and a 73 mm RPG-9 recoilless gun. Some have since been re-upgraded with more modern 12.7 mm NSVTs machine guns.
Due to the limited Vietnam military budget (as of 2018, US$ 5.5 billion, or 8.1% of total government spending and 2.3% of GDP), some M113s maintained the original 12.7 mm Browning M2HB and two 7.62 mm M1919 (rechambered for the 7.62 x 51 mm NATO cartridge).
An even stranger vehicle developed by Vietnam was a mine clearance vehicle on the M113, hull armed with a launcher and mine-clearing line charges. When launched, the charge causes a shock wave that destroys or deactivates all grenades or mines along the area of the line charge, allowing the troops to pass safely.
A single prototype was produced in 1999 and, during tests, gave great results, but was destroyed after a jam of the launcher during a test in 2000 and the project was abandoned.
The older Soviet BM-21 ‘Grad’ Multiple Launch Rocket System is being updated in Vietnam. The new Vietnamese version is called BM-21M-1. The system now needs only 4 crew members, the preparation time has dropped from 14 minutes to 1.5 minutes and the elevation, depression, and traverse are no longer manual but automatic thanks to the new Fire Control System (FCS).
As already mentioned, the Vietnamese industry is capable of producing Explosive Reactive Armor called Giáp Phản Ứng Nổ Thế Hệ II (English: Explosive Reactive Armor of IInd Generation).
The development started in 2009 by the Vietnamese Institute of Propellants & Explosives (IPE). The first result, the so-called first generation ERA, did not give the expected results, failing to stop old model ATGMs, such as 9M14 Malyutka Anti-Tank guided Missiles (ATGMs).
The second generation ERA’s development ended in 2015-2016, and is able, according to the data reported by the IPE, to effectively protect the vehicle from the RPG-7 and Malyutka. Even if this may not sound impressive, it seems more than adequate for a nation such as Vietnam which is not currently involved in a war.
In 2019, an upgrade program for the ZSU-23-4 ‘Shilka’ began. The prototype was presented in September 2020. The modifications concerned optical equipment and the Fire Control System. The radar antenna was replaced with a multi-channel module with television, thermal imaging channels, laser rangefinder, and four new anti-aircraft missiles. This upgrade would allow the vehicle to perform better and be able to deal with threats in flight in all weather conditions, day and night.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent financial crisis, the development and production of new upgrades has slowed down in Vietnam. The acquisition of T-72s is perhaps canceled, and the T-54M3 and T-55M3 upgrades and the ZSU-23-4 ‘Shilka’ upgrade have been delayed.
Unfortunately, little is known about the destiny of the Vietnamese armored forces, even if it is plausible to presume that the number of vehicles in service will decrease in the future. Like many other pro-Communist nations, Vietnam has decided to follow a more ‘Western’ line, focusing on vehicle quality rather than quantity.