The U.S. ban on arms exports to Vietnam has been partially lifted to allow “the transfer of lethal defense equipment”. Analytics had earlier suggested this possibility given visits to Vietnam by Senators Bob Corker (R-TN), John McCain (R-AZ), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).
Secretary of State John Kerry informed Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh during talks on Thursday that Washington was adjusting its policy. The lifting of the ban is partial in that only lethal equipment related to “maritime security purposes” will be allowed, for now.
State Department officials said that US sales would be “heavily focused on equipping the Vietnamese coast guard,” and that efforts would be focused on improving Vietnam’s “maritime domain awareness and maritime security capabilities”. Maritime platforms and systems may therefore predominate future deals, but officials also acknowledged that “airborne defense systems would also be considered for sale if they included a maritime capability.”
These comments could imply opportunities across multiple market segments and platforms. The implication that the sale of maritime systems was the primary purpose of the change in policy, with a secondary possibility of airborne systems, was surprising given the previous widespread belief that the transfer of P-3 maritime surveillance aircraft would be the most likely object of a renewed U.S.-Vietnamese defense export relationship. Furthermore, Vietnam has a strengthening shipbuilding industry that is the primary source of Vietnamese coast guard vessels, and larger surface combatants have already been ordered from Russia and Damen Shipyards.
It therefore seems likely that US sales might be initially confined to advanced maritime sensors, C4I systems, and other shipboard electronics, rather than maritime platforms, that would improve the Vietnamese Coast Guard’s capability to patrol the country’s maritime territory. In time, future contracts might appear for a limited number of armed patrol craft, maritime rotorcraft, or maritime patrol aircraft.