RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
President Obama was in Vietnam just a few hours before announcing the U.S. would lift a decades-old ban on selling that country lethal military equipment. Vietnam's leaders have been pushing hard for access to American military systems. Though as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, lifting the embargo will not necessarily lead to a boon for U.S. arms manufacturers.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: President Obama's decision to lift the arms embargo opens up potentially lucrative contracts for U.S. defense companies. Ben Moores is a defense specialist at the consultancy IHS Jane's says Vietnam has a relatively small but quickly growing defense budget and a roughly $13 billion wish-list for military equipment.
BEN MOORES: That's everything from, you know, tanks, armored personnel carriers, attack helicopters, tactical helicopters, long-range radars. They need the maritime patrol aircraft. So they've got a wide range.
NORTHAM: But Vietnam has had a long relationship with Russia, from which it buys more than 80 percent of its military hardware. Anthony Nelson is a director of a business council that connects the U.S. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
He says lifting the arms embargo doesn't mean Vietnam will rush into the arms of U.S. weapons manufacturers.
ANTHONY NELSON: I don't think it's a kind of transformative development in terms that it's not going to immediately lead to enormous arms purchases or a complete reboot of their military.
NORTHAM: But China, Vietnam's regional rival, is also familiar with the Russian weaponry, and Hanoi will likely want to diversify as tensions grow in the South China Sea. Nelson says this is where U.S. defense companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon will look to compete with sophisticated technology, especially for use at sea.
NELSON: In particular, in kind of command and control, in maritime domain awareness, in communications, in those kind of force multiplier areas where high technology is going to work and it's going to make a big difference, U.S. companies will definitely be interested in completing there.
NORTHAM: But the U.S. has plenty of competition besides Russia. India, Japan, Korea and others are already supplying military equipment and technology to Vietnam. Greg Poling, a specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says lifting the embargo was more than a nod to U.S. defense companies.
GREG POLING: What this is really a symbol of is the normalization of relations. That was inevitable, and certainly the fear that China has created helped accelerate that timetable.
NORTHAM: Analysts say it could take several years before any U.S. weapons system arrives in Vietnam. Two years ago, the administration partially lifted the lethal weapons ban for Vietnam's maritime defense. And there still hasn't been a major purchase from the U.S. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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