U.S. and Vietnam Discussing Sale of Enhanced F-16s: Benefits and Drawbacks of Falcons For Hanoi

The United States and Vietnam are reportedly discussing the possible sale of F-16 fighter planes to equip the Vietnam People’s Air Force, according to two figures familiar with the matter cited anonymously by Reuters. The negotiations are still in the “early stages,” and have reportedly been “a key topic” of talks between officials in Washington, New York, and Hanoi over the past month. Washington has reportedly made efforts to make offers more attractive through favourable financing packages, with an American official stating regarding the talks: “Part of what we’re working on internally as the U.S. government is being creative about how we could try to provide better financing options to Vietnam to get them things that might be really useful to them.” The reports closely follow a visit by U.S. President Joe Biden visited Hanoi in early September, during which he referred to the two countries as “critical partners at what I would argue is a very critical time.” Although Vietnam has consistently rebuffed American overtures for a closer strategic partnership against its leading trading partner China, it has been a prime beneficiary of U.S.-led Western efforts to diversify supply chains away from China. Hanoi has thus benefitted from a degree of ambiguity in its foreign relations and hedging between the Western Bloc and Beijing, although its has continued to avoid acquiring Western armaments and instead relies very heavily on imports from Russia. 

Vietnam’s choice of fighter to modernise its fleet and replace its Su-22 strike fighters has long been widely speculated. The country operates more modern and much heavier Su-27SK and Su-30MK2 fourth generation aircraft, the former which have recently been modernised with Belarusian support and the latter which are well optimised for long range maritime patrols. The new Su-30SM2 and the F-16 have both been considered leading candidates to replace the older Su-22s. Vietnamese media outlets have also widely reported since 2017 that the Defence Ministry is planning to purchase Russian Su-57 fifth generation fighters close to the end of the decade – by which time enhanced variants expected expected to have ‘5+ generation’ capabilities. While the Su-57s are expected to phase out older Su-27s and Su-30s, which aircraft will compliment it remains uncertain. The F-16 Block 70/72 has a significantly more modern radar and electronic warfare capabilities than the Su-30, as well as lower maintenance needs as a much smaller aircraft. Fielding the aircraft would also allow Vietnam to operate as part of a network with American and allied assets including sharing sensor data from across the region. 

The Su-30 as a much larger and higher end twin engine aircraft remains a superior fighter in almost all major performance aspects, from its speed and flight performance to its engagement range, endurance, operational altitude and weapons payload. The much larger size of its sensor suite also more than compensates for the greater sophistication of the F-16’s APG-83 radar. The F-16’s main disadvantage is the very strict controls the United States places on its foreign operators, including where they can fly and be based, what weapons they can integrate and  what kind of missions they can fly at which times – which is controlled by restricting access to their codes. Moreso than the F-16’s more limited capabilities and higher costs than the Su-30, the significant restrictions on its operations are expected to be a key impediment to Vietnam accepting to acquire the aircraft. Delays to production and very low production rates means unless Vietnam purchases second hand F-16s from American stocks, they are unlikely to be delivered before close to 2030 by which time they will be much closer to obsolescence. The Su-30 by contrast can usually see a squadron delivered to export clients within two years, as unlike the F-16 the class remains in production on a significant scale for domestic use. 

While there are potentially political benefits that come with acquire the fighters, Hanoi could also benefit from holding negotiations on acquisitions even if not intending to acquire the fighters. Doing so provides a means to express its intentions for greater security ties, and thus possibly encourage Washington to increase its support for supply chains relocating to Vietnam. This would be far from unprecedented, with India having for over 15 years indicated interest in acquiring American fighters, fuelling optimistic predictions across the Western world regarding future defence ties, without going through with a purchase. As a fourth generation fighter class which first entered service 45 years ago in 1978, the F-16’s capabilities against fighters fielded by neighbouring countries remain limited, with even lower end Chinese fighters in production today such as the J-10C considered at least a match for them, while fifth generation fighters such as the J-20 retain overwhelming advantages. With the U.S. Air Force itself having ceased acquisitions 18 years ago in 2005, F-16s are unlikely to be relied on for air superiority missions where they remain overwhelmingly outmatched. They could be part of a high low pairing with existing Su-30s, however, and eventually Su-57s.