France has really done it this time — the country is apparently going ahead with a plan to sell Russia two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships, a move which is understandably none too popular with NATO and its member states, who understandably wonder if this is the best time for NATO to be arming Russia.
Or to paraphrase Vladimir Lenin, NATO wonders whether it's selling Russia the rope with which Russia will hang it.
The Mistral is a modern, advanced amphibious assault ship capable of carrying up to 900 troops, a tank battalion, and 16 to 35 helicopters. While not the largest amphibious-support ships out there, they're still very serious ships that could play an important role in a very serious amphibious force. Even aside from their utility as combat platforms, their large size and wide range of capabilities — each ship includes an onboard hospital that could serve a city of 25,000 people — gives the vessels enormous potential in a wide range of soft-power roles. Not only are they great ships, they make great gifts!
So given the rigmarole that’s been unleashed as a result of Russian hijinks in Ukraine, Mostly-Ukraine, and Used-to-Be-Ukraine, it’s no surprise that France is getting a lot of pushback.
NATO is careful to point out that this isn’t NATO’s deal to kill — only France can do that. Nonetheless, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on April 8, “I am confident that France will take the necessary decision, taking into account all the concerns that have been expressed.”
The US isn’t entirely thrilled with arming Russia now either. President Barack Obama was quoted in a Voice of Russia report saying, “I have expressed some concern, and I don't think that I am alone in this, about continuing significant defense deals with Russia at a time when they have violated basic international law, and the territorial integrity and sovereignty of their neighbors.”
And quite naturally, the Baltic States — Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which are all now members of NATO but were formerly part of the Soviet Union — and Poland have been screaming bloody murder. None of those four countries trust Russia not to accidentally invade the crap out of them, and they've been among the most strident in their response to recent events in Ukraine. “Russian generals have already said what these ships will be used for: to threaten Russia's neighbors in the Black Sea, and that means Europe's partners," Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorsi said in an interview with Le Monde. "I don't think France would want to be in the position of supplying efficient weapons to an aggressor.”
With all that outcry from its allies, one might wonder if France is moving ahead with the deal just to spite everyone, but there's more to it than that. The economic angle to this deal is pretty important to France. The agreement adds up to about $1.7 billion and involves up to 2,500 jobs. Now that the contract has been signed and money has changed hands, France wouldn't just lose all that if it backed out, it would also have to pay billions in penalties for reneging on the deal.
Future ships will be built in Russia. This means that French people are in Russia right now, helping to set up the facilities to carry out the construction.
In addition, the French shipbuilding industry has been floundering, and European shipbuilding in general has seen a lot reorganizations, restructuring, acquisitions, and mergers over the last decade. Currently, the company responsible for building the ship is STX France; 33 percent of the company is owned by the French government, which is trying to keep the company afloat. Last month, the Korean owners of the remaining 66 percent stake announced their intention to sell their portion. Considering that the entire French shipbuilding industry averages about $1.4 billion in commercial orders and $2 billion in military orders per year, a hit of more than $1.7 billion would be devastating.
In addition, a complete collapse of the shipbuilding industry would mean the loss of critical know-how and skills. Defense planners around the world have been expressing ongoing concern about various national defense industrial bases for years. The defense industry requires a lot of specialized manufacturing, technology, and skills that are slow to acquire and hard to replace if lost. If a key company goes under, then those employees scatter to the four winds. This means that when a country actually needs to do something — like build an advanced warship — nobody knows how to do it anymore, and everything has to start from scratch.
Defaulting on the Mistral contract could, at the most extreme, be such a severe blow that it would sink the entire French shipbuilding industrial base.
There’s also more than meets the eye to the Russian side of the deal. In 2011, Lieutenant Commander Patrick Baker of the US Navy completed his thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School examining the Russian acquisition of the Mistral-class ships from France. In the thesis, he pointed out that Russia announced it wanted to buy Mistral-class ships before it actually announced that it needed to acquire the kind of capability these ships provide.
In fact, Russia has never fielded the specific kinds of amphibious warfare capabilities for which the Mistral-class is optimized. Granted, Russia has conducted some amphibious operations fairly recently, including the amphibious assault portion of their 2008 war against Georgia. But this kind of over-the-horizon assault, power-projection capability is a new twist. It will be very interesting to see if Russia fleshes out this purchase with other complementary systems, or if these ships will be standalone purchases.
The other thing that Baker’s thesis points out about the Russian acquisition of these ships is that it is super rare for Russia to actually buy ships at all. Russia makes ships — it does not buy them.
So the fact that Russia is buying them suggests that Russia cannot build them. The entire Russian defense industrial base took a savage beating with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and there have been problems with the loss of institutional knowledge and know-how in all kinds of areas. While Russian designers can still design some of the world’s most advanced stuff, their ability to make it has withered away substantially. And judging from this purchase, the Russian ability to build large ships is no exception.
The Mistral-class is not just a modern and advanced ship. It also utilizes some very modern and high-tech manufacturing and naval architecture. A lesser-discussed part of the Mistral deal is that future ships will be built in Russia. This means that French people are in Russia right now, helping to set up the facilities to carry out the construction.
In the longterm, this will give Russia a big leg up on being able to once again build large warships. While Russia might not have much legacy of large amphibious assault, it has had some very large surface combatants, and was dabbling with big aircraft carriers toward the end of the Cold War. Like the Mistral, such vessels have a number of soft power and power-projection capabilities. (When you park an aircraft carrier off a country's coast, things happen.) Those kinds of capabilities would fit well in line with the political-military priorities of a resurgent Russia.
In other words, Russia isn’t buying an amphibious ship as much as it’s trying to buy an industrial base.
Some US lawmakers have proposed that NATO instead buy the two ships. This is a clever and elegant solution, at least in theory. However, it’s unclear who would end up footing the bill and how this plan would work with the contract cancellation fees. And so ultimately, the problem really facing NATO isn’t a matter of whether or not Russia has two advanced amphibious assault ships, but whether rebuilding the Russian shipbuilding industrial base is too high a price to pay for keeping the French shipbuilding industrial base alive.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan