Vietnam to begin reusing war airstrips

Published: Saturday, Nov. 1 1997 12:00 a.m. MST

Vietnam announced ambitious plans Friday to bring dozens of abandoned wartime airstrips back into service under a $6 billion aviation blueprint aimed at meeting growing air traffic demand.

Civil Aviation Administration officials said the plan envisaged dozens of crumbling airfields, built by the former French colonial administration and U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam, being repaired and put back into use.They told Reuters the project, to be carried out over 13 years, was aimed at meeting both civilian and military needs, and would see Vietnam equipped with a total of 138 airports by 2010.

"It's needed to meet the growing market demand," one official said, without elaborating. "Using the old airstrips will be cheaper than building new ones."

Hanoi's masterplan is divided into three stages.

During the first phase, between now and 2000, it is expected that some $1.58 billion will be spent on providing a face lift for 11 existing airfields.

These included the international airports that serve Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

A total of $2.24 billion would be spent over the following five years on secondary airfields such as the Lai Chau strip at Dien Bien Phu - site of the historic 1954 French military defeat.

The final $1.91 billion would be used to upgrade remaining minor airfields between 2006 and 2010.

But, as often in Vietnam, there were few answers to the question of where the money would come from.

Existing government investment plans cover the period 1996 to 2003 and include just $775 million for aviation - earmarked for upgrading Hanoi's Noi Bai airport and Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat.

Officials were vague on the issue, and said only that the government would seek resources from the state budget, through overseas loans and from ventures with foreign firms.

Vietnam's air traffic has registered a sharp increase in following economic reform policies launched in the late 1980s. But currently only 15 airports are marked on the domestic flight map of the national flag carrier, Vietnam Airlines.

Recently revised International Air Transport Association forecasts put average annual growth over the five-year period to 2001 at 17.5 percent, on par with Yemen and representing the highest rate of increase in the world.

However, Vietnam Airlines said earlier this year that its growth during the first seven months of 1997 had slowed to around 8 percent from an annual rate of 35 percent two years earlier. Executives blamed a domestic economic slowdown.

Also unclear was the question of how many of the fields were being repaired to meet military needs.

International assessments of Vietnam's military air power point to a recent strengthening of its forces. Analysts say this may be linked to Hanoi's concerns over the fate of island chains in the South China Sea, some of which are claimed by neighboring states.

In addition to some 15,000 air force personnel, Vietnam has around 200 combat aircraft including Su-22s and Su-27s, MiG 21s plus several dozen armed helicopters. Unconfirmed reports say further new Su-27s have been acquired in the past few months.

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