Vietnam is responding to China’s construction of military facilities in the Spratly Islands by modestly expanding its own capabilities in the disputed chain. New imagery shows that Hanoi is significantly upgrading its sole runway in the South China Sea—at Spratly Island—and constructing new hangars at that feature. This is a familiar pattern for Hanoi. Even amid reduced diplomatic tensions, Vietnam continues to modernize its military and seek closer security tieswith Japan, the United States, and India in preparation for future Chinese assertiveness in disputed waters. Reuters recently reported that Vietnam had deployed surface to air missile platforms to the Spratlys. Hanoi has not confirmed those reports, but such countermeasures should not be surprising in light of the significant air power that China will soon project over the Spratlys.
Vietnam has lengthened the runway at Spratly Island from less than 2,500 feet (the shortest of any claimants’ in the Spratlys) to about 3,300 feet. Continued reclamation and construction will likely extend this to more than 4,000 feet. Vietnam is also constructing two large hangars. These new facilities can easily accommodate the Vietnamese air force’s PZL M28B maritime surveillance aircraft and CASA C-295 transport planes. The Vietnamese fleet also includes the Antonov An-26 transport plane and Hanoi has expressed interest in acquiring P-3 surveillance aircraft, but the runway at Spratly Island will not be long enough for either. Any of Vietnam’s combat aircraft could make use of the new runway, but the islet would have limited use for fighter jets given space constraints. By contrast, China’s three largest artificial islands now boast enough hangar space for 24 fighter jets each.
Vietnam has now added about 57 acres of land at Spratly Island, one of 10 features that it has expanded in recent years, though its reclamation remains modest by China’s standards. Once completed, Vietnam is likely to make use of its improved runway and hangars at Spratly Island to bolster its ability to patrol the Spratlys. The disparity in military capabilities between China and Vietnam will only grow as the three air bases Beijing has constructed become operational. But Hanoi seems determined to better monitor and, if the reported missile deployments are true, defend its claims.