Brigade No.162, under the supervision of Naval Region 4, is the Vietnam People's Navy’s biggest water-surface combat unit, with multiple state-of-the-art warships in its fleet.
The young soldiers of Brigade 162 are charged with the command of a squadron of advanced warships, including two Gepard-class 3.9 frigates, the first of their kind in Vietnam; the missile escort vessels Dinh Tien Hoang and Ly Thai To; Molniya-class fast-attack missile ships; and the Vietnamese-built TT-400TP gunboats.
The two missile escort vessels are named after two former Vietnamese kings.
Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper revisited the brigade for a special Tet report, four years after reporting on the newly-received Dinh Tien Hoang missile escort vessel in August 2012.
Young commanders on modern warships
At Brigade 162’s headquarters, Tuoi Tre spoke with Major Pham Anh Tuan, captain of the Ly Thai To missile escort vessel, while several anti-submarine helicopter Ka-28s hovered above his ship.
Tuan explained that the choppers, under the command of Anti-submarine Unit 954, were engaged in a drill with his missile escort ship, while the brigade’s other modern warships including the Dinh Tien Hoang, the fast-attack missile ships, and the gunboats, were also training offshore.
In August 2012, Anh was wearing the Lieutenant badge and was the vice-captain of the Dinh Tien Hoang warship. After four years, he was promoted to Major and assigned to work on the Ly Thai To.
“Over the last four years, our force has been significantly ‘rejuvenated,’ with more and more young soldiers,” Tuan told Tuoi Tre.
“More than 50 percent of our troops were born in the 1980s and 1990s, and their mastery of the weapons and equipment has made them way more confident than when we first received these modern warships."
Pham Anh Tuan (L, 3rd) during a break with his comrades
Born in 1979, Tuan himself has yet to reach his 40s, quite young for a warship captain.
“The biggest pressure is keeping everything in military order and staying prepared for combat at all times,” he said.
“This may sound easy, but it is a tough task to get work done.”
Tuan explained that compared to other ships, missile escort vessels are more modern, carry more weapons, and transport more crew.
“To date, we are confident that everything is in place and 100 percent of our crew members are ready to accept and complete any mission,” he underlined.
Ly Thai To is one of Brigade 162’s best two ships, having earned recognition in various Vietnam People’s Navy training competitions, including in August 2016 when the vessel won the top prize in the combat ship category.
Looking back on nearly five years of hard work since the modern Ly Thai To ship was delivered to Vietnam from Russia, Tuan said he had never believed that he and his comrades would do so well.
“In the beginning, problems were inevitable. We just were not familiar with modern ships,” Tuan said. “Since then, our young soldiers have mastered how to use the ships and their equipment.”
The 32-year-old leader
The brigade’s interesting stories are not limited to the missile escort vessels.
Brigade 162 is Vietnam’s first naval force to receive the Russian-built Molniya-class fast-attack craft.
In June 2014, Vietnam introduced the first homemade Molniya-class warships, presenting them to Brigade 162’s artillery-missile ship.
Thanks to their experience, it was Brigade 162 soldiers who were chosen to train their fellow Brigade 167 members on how to use the homemade warships.
“We started to train the first two batches of Brigade 167 soldiers, including the captain and other officers, on how to use the equipment and weapons on the fast-attack ships in 2012, two years before they officially received the home-built vessels from the Ba Son Shipyard,” recalled Captain Vu Trong Tan.
Tan, 32, is captain of the brigade’s missile-armed fast-attack ship 375, one of the most powerful warships in the Vietnamese navy.
The young captain has led the ship through several training scenarios and drills, with 100 percent of his crew achieving good and excellent grades in each exercise.
Captain Tan was also tasked with conducting an inspection on the acceptance of all weapons armed on the Ba Son-built ships before they were transferred to Brigade 167.
His efforts and ability have won acclamation from Russian experts and the High Command of the Vietnam People's Navy.
Vu Trong Tan (R) and Vu Khanh Hai
With such an outstanding captain at the helm, it comes as no surprise that “Ship 375, together with the Ly Thai To, is among the most outstanding vessels in Brigade 162,” confirmed Captain Tong Xuan Quan, the brigade’s commissar.
Ship 375 is also the only vessel under the command of Naval Region 4 to be awarded the third-grade medal for national protection and the “Best Training Unit” title among the Brigade 162 for five years straight. None of these are easily achieved acclaim.
Tan was only 30 when he was transferred to Ship 375 before his promotion to vice-captain in 2014.
“After being transferred to the ship, I would awake every day to the passion and devotion with which my superiors handled their duties. It was a great example for younger comrades like me,” Tan recalled.
“We were inspired by these officials and it caused us to fall in love with our jobs.”
Brigade 162 is currently the most advanced and biggest water-surface warship brigade under the Vietnamese navy.
However, according to the brigade’s commissar Tong Xuan Quan, “having ‘modern’ personnel is more important than modern weapons.”
The ‘modern personnel,’ by his definition, are servicemen with “good health and knowledge, great professional skills, and foreign language fluency.”
While soldiers in the brigade are constantly on a tight schedule, including training, practicing, and research, self-study is one of the group’s biggest focuses.
“Because the ship itself and its equipment are all modern, officers and soldiers have to keep studying each particular aspect of the ship,” Captain Vu Khanh Hai, 33, said.
Hai said high-ranking officers from the brigade frequently run unexpected checks on soldiers to ensure they are staying constantly vigilant.
“There are days when we are checked twice,” he said.
“You will be asked one random point from a thick set of documents, and you have to give a clear, thorough, immediate answer.”
While a score of 7/10 is normally considered ‘good,' in the army it just means ‘average’ and “you will not be allowed to work with those weapons,” Hai explained.
The captain added that he and his comrades have spent entire days working to expand their knowledge of the ship’s equipment.
The Brigade 167 is poised to receive a new Gepard-class 3.9 frigate, and Hai has already been tapped to serve as its vice-captain upon delivery.
Hai is also known for his creative ideas to help soldiers better control the modern warships. In 2014 and 2015, the captain also led his ship and crew members to achieve ‘excellent grades’ in various live-fire exercises.
Vu Khanh Hai was selected as a standout young member of the Vietnamese navy in 2015.
“I always bear in mind the words of my senior officer, commissar Tong Xuan Quan – modern weapons and vessels are not as important as ‘modern’ personnel,” Hai said.
Hai added he acknowledges the important duty of managing multimillion-dollar warships, especially given Vietnam’s modest economic ability.
“Every soldier must try their hardest and perform their best to fulfill their role,” he said.