The Akash supersonic cruise missile on parade in New Delhi. Vietnam may soon procure the weapon with an eye on China. Photo: Wikipedia

India is renewing efforts to sell its indigenous Akash surface-to-air missile (SAM) to Vietnam, with the dual aim of reinforcing its defense industry’s indigenization while strengthening its strategic partnership with Hanoi.

The proposed missile deal may also signal India’s attempt to tilt the military balance in Southeast Asia to refocus China away from the Himalayas.

Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh visited Vietnam this week and is expected to offer Hanoi a substantial selection of its indigenously-developed weapons, with the Akash among the items on offer.

Akash is a short-range SAM that India claims to be 96% indigenous. It has a range of 25 kilometers and the system protects vulnerable areas and points from air attacks. It can simultaneously engage multiple targets in group or autonomous mode, features built-in electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM) features and is highly mobile.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) inducted Akash into service in 2014, with the Indian Army following suit in 2015.

However, despite the homegrown claims, the Akash’s design is clearly based on the Russian Kub SAM, as it uses a simplified version of the Kub’s ramjet propulsion system mated to a more modern Indian-made fire control radar.

Vietnam and India have been in talks about the Akash system since 2017, as Vietnam was looking to replace its aging Soviet-era S-125/S-75 mid-tier SAMs. However, Vietnam declined India’s offer at the time, deciding that it needed a longer-range air defense system.

However, Vietnam is now eyeing the Akash New Generation (Akash NG) variant, which has a 70–80-kilometer range. Hanoi is also seeking the approval of a technology transfer agreement with India to enable local missile production.

Vietnam has been closely watching the development of the Akash NG since 2021, and it could potentially become the first customer of the type once it is cleared for production in 2023. However, the customized export variant of the Akash NG may not be ready until 2025.

The Akash NG can cover the mid-level range gap between Vietnam’s long-range S-300P systems and low-level SPYDER batteries.

At present, Vietnam uses the long-range S-300P from Russia and the low-level SPYDER from Israel. The S-300P uses several types of missiles to engage aerial targets at different altitudes, with the 5V55K missile having a range of 47 kilometers, while the 5V55R and 48N6 have ranges of 75 kilometers and 150 kilometers, respectively.

A SPYDER surface-to-air launcher. Photo: Army Technology / Twitter

Although Vietnam has chosen the SPYDER as its new mid-level air defense system, it is also capable of low-level air defense. The SPYDER uses two types of missiles, the Python infrared seeking short-range missile with a 15-kilometer range and the Derby active radar-guided missile which has a range of 50 kilometers.

It’s not clear why Vietnam may opt for India’s untested Akash, rather than stick with the proven Israeli SPYDER. The Akash has a minimum engagement altitude of 30 meters and engagement speed of 2,520 kilometers per hour.

This makes it vulnerable to Chinese terrain-hugging cruise missiles such as the CJ-10, which can fly at only 25 meters above the ground. The Akash may also be vulnerable to missiles flying faster than its maximum engagement speed, such as China’s CM-102 anti-radiation missile which flies at 3,500 kilometers per hour.

Power struggles within the Vietnamese Communist Party’s leadership may explain its decision to opt for India’s Akash over the Israeli SPYDER.

The issuance of an arrest warrant this April against a prominent Vietnamese woman who facilitated billions of dollars’ worth of Israeli-Vietnamese weapons sales may have compromised future Vietnamese purchases of Israeli weapons, including the SPYDER SAM.

Haaretz reported that the reason for the arrest of Nguyen Thi Thanh Nhan was her involvement in military deals and power struggles.

It is possible that Vietnam’s internal political power struggles may have made India’s Akash the only feasible choice for its mid-level air defense system, despite its technical limitations.

Although the Akash has significant weaknesses against low- and fast-flying missile threats, the real value of the system for Vietnam may be to lay the practical foundations for future India-Vietnam defense cooperation.

Vietnam is looking at India as an alternative supplier of high-end weapons, as its interests are increasingly at odds with its traditional weapons supplier Russia.

Despite longstanding Cold War ties, Vietnam and Russia have more recently drifted steadily apart. The primary reason for their cooperation, countering China, is arguably less applicable in the current, fast-changing strategic environment.

Russia’s neutral stance towards the South China Sea disputes, its increasingly close defense cooperation with China and its investments in two Mekong River hydropower projects in Laos that may have serious downstream consequences for Vietnam may be forcing Hanoi to rethink its strategic partnership with Moscow.

Moreover, sanctions imposed on Russia’s arms industry over its invasion of Ukraine will have a significant impact on Vietnam as the world’s fifth-largest importer of Russian weapons and largest in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam’s military modernization drive has slowed since 2016, and it now must make do with a more modest defense budget, which makes pricier Western weapons a hard sell. India may thus be positioning itself to fill the gap as an alternative source of affordable high-end weapons.

Earlier this year, India clinched a deal with the Philippines to sell its BrahMos supersonic anti-ship missile, potentially making Manila the first foreign user of the weapon.

The contract was considered a big win for India, as it aims to indigenize its defense industry, sell sophisticated weapons to regional partners and reduce dependence on Russian arms imports.

BrahMos missiles on display in an Indian parade. Photo: Facebook

Apart from the Philippines, India hopes to sell the BrahMos missile to Indonesia and Vietnam. Using the BrahMos sale to the Philippines as a template, India may try to repeat this success by selling the Akash system to Vietnam.

In a wider strategic sense, India may also aim to arm Southeast Asian countries to create a counterbalance against China in the Himalayas, where the two powers are locked in a high mountain armed standoff.

The ongoing Ukraine war has also shifted US attention to Europe, providing China with a window of opportunity to press its territorial claims in the Himalayas, the South China Sea and possibly Taiwan.

This year, China announced a new border law to “recondition” the disputed Himalayan boundaries with India while at the same time saying that it planned to deploy artificial intelligence-powered machine gun robots operated wirelessly from command centers.

Those and other provocations have forced India to deploy its new Russian-made S-400 SAMs along its disputed Himalayan border with China.

By arming Southeast Asian states such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, India may thus hope to create a more credible threat along China’s maritime periphery to distract its strategic attention and resources from the Himalayas.