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Vietnam Still Keeps Soviet Ballistic Missiles

March 22, 2023
Via Rosoboronexport.

There’s a growing trend of tactical missile development in the ASEAN and this doesn’t attract any serious scrutiny. In December 2022 an arms show in Hanoi, Vietnam, that was organized by the government included an outdoor exhibition of weapon systems. Zealous coverage from an unlikely source–Russia’s own arms export agency–revealed the extent of Soviet vintage weaponry still being used. A pleasant surprise are the most up-to-date photos of Vietnam’s R-17E Elbrus, also known as Scud B, shared online. Vietnam was always acknowledged to have a stockpile of these liquid fueled SRBMs but the origin and size were never well-documented. At least now there’s a fresh media trail to verify its role in the country’s armed forces.

Vietnam was reported to have acquired a batch of Soviet-made R-17’s along with their MAZ-series transporters in the 1980s and rumor had it the stockpile was increased with further deliveries from North Korea in the 1990s–the latter was suspected to be the Hwasong-6, a derivative of the R-17. The 1980s were a challenging period as Vietnam faced international isolation while burdened with occupying Cambodia, where the army had ousted the genocidal Khmer Rouge, and constant battles with China in land and sea. Perhaps the rationale for building up an inventory of short-range ballistic missiles at the time was to deter a perceived invasion threat by a neighboring state. This is no different than Iran’s own desperate pursuit of ballistic missile technology when bogged down in a long war and surrounded by hostile neighbors.

The Scud B, or simply Scud, became a household name in 1991 after Iraq used its own arsenal (that included homegrown variants such as the Al Hussein) to bombard Israel in a desperate attempt at thwarting the US-led coalition that decimated its military in Kuwait. But the earliest combat record for the Scud B was during the Yom Kippur War or October War in 1973 when a few missiles were launched by the Egyptians and Syrians with insignificant results. Vietnam never launched its Scud B’s in anger–at least there are no records proving otherwise–and it’s a testament to the VPA’s administrative and logistical talents that these antiquated SRBMs have remained operational until today; more than half a century has passed since the R-17’s were deployed by the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies. Of course, Vietnam’s military and its industrial partners go to extreme lengths maintaining their equipment, but to have operational Scud B SRBMs at the ready is no small feat.

Since its technology dates back to World War 2 a lot of analysis regarding the Scud B points to some drawbacks. First, as a missile that utilizes a liquid fuel engine with complicated parts its preparation for launch is an elaborate drill involving a full complement of technicians. By comparison a solid fuel ballistic missile is quicker to deploy, emplace, and launch then conceal. Second, Western analysis of the Scud B always judged its missile to have no pin-point accuracy–it’s claimed it had a circular error of probability (CEP) equal to a 900 meter radius. Yet one of the deadliest missile strikes on record involving a Scud or its derivative took place on February 25, 1991 when its warhead struck a warehouse in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and killed 28 soldiers and wounded a hundred more. It’s still undetermined if a successful intercept by a Patriot SAM caused the warhead to fall on the target or not. This incident may have involved an enhanced Al Hussein missile, rather than a Soviet-made Scud B, as the target was 400 km from the Iraqi-occupied Kuwait City and 500 km from the Saudi-Iraq border. The Scud B is assessed to have a maximum range of less than 300 km.

The entire Arabian peninsula has seen thousands of ballistic missile launches in the past four decades. The majority of them were either Scud B or Scud-derivative missiles as these were exported in large quantities to Moscow’s friends in the region: Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The improved liquid fueled missiles descended from the Scud B and Hwasongs are now being assembled in Yemen with the help of Iran. Functioning Scud missiles are found in Armenia while the Taliban now posses an unusable stockpile that dates back to the bygone communist regime from the early 1990s. In Southeast Asia, Myanmar and Vietnam are the only known operators of Scud B missiles, and there’s no evidence these two countries have cooperated to maintain their respective arsenals. Myanmar is extremely secretive of its ballistic missile program and never admitted to acquiring Hwasong-series SRBMs from North Korea or even more sophisticated models from China. Vietnam, on the other hand, has become more open about its tactical missile program since the 2010s and, as with the rest of its arsenal, doesn’t scrimp on building a stockpile. It now fields large diameter rocket artillery supplied by Israel and naval cruise missiles supplied by Russia. There’s also some evidence of a medium-term program for assembling cruise missiles but it’s unknown if this effort is connected to a ballistic missile program.


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