The Russian Mistral Decision Revisited: The Flagship for the NATO Spearhead Force?


2014-09-11 By Robbin Laird

Recently, the French government has suspended delivery of the Mistral amphibious ship to Russia.

In a story published by France 24 on September 9, 2014:

France on Wednesday suspended the first of two controversial Mistral-class warship deliveries to Russia, saying “conditions” were not in place as the crisis in Ukraine deepens.

The announcement comes a day before the start of a NATO summit and after months of pressure on France from allies to suspend the sale amid tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

President François Hollande’s office, in a statement after he met with top defence advisors, called the fighting in eastern Ukraine “grave”, and said Russia’s recent actions harm “the foundations of security in Europe”.

Despite talk on Wednesday of a possible ceasefire in Ukraine, Hollande said, “the conditions for France to deliver the first warship are not to date in place”.

Following the presidency’s statement, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was careful not to close the door entirely to the possibility of France delivering the warship. 

“The decision that the president had to take was: Are the conditions there today for the delivery. No, but we hope that they will be in the future,” Fabius said on BFMTV.

But to be clear, the deal is in limbo and not cancelled. 

This means that the issue remains to be resolved.

Members of the "Mistral, We Win" team. Credit: France 24
Members of the “Mistral, We Win” team. Credit: France 24

French domestic politics are not to be ignored, nor the economic impact of terminating the deal. 

Indeed, a coalition of trade unions and the Far Right are supporting the continuation of the deal.

Not unlike the 1930s, when the Far Right supported the Nazis, the Far Right is now supporting Putin.

“The crisis in Ukraine is all the European Union’s fault. Its leaders negotiated a trade deal with Ukraine, which essentially blackmailed the country to choose between Europe and Russia,” Le Pen told Le Monde daily in an interview.

Le Pen has been a long-standing critic of Europe’s foreign policy and does not see how Ukraine could join the bloc.

“The European Union’s diplomacy is a catastrophe,” Le Pen told RT’s Sophie Shevardnadze in an exclusive interview in June.

“The EU speaks out on foreign affairs either to create problems, or to make them worse.”

“Ukraine’s entry into the European Union; no need to tell fairy tales: Ukraine absolutely does not have the economic level to join the EU,” Le Pen told RT.

In her fresh interview with Le Monde, the National Front leader had a positive attitude towards Russian President Vladimir Putin and the economic model he builds.

“I have a certain admiration for the man [Putin]. He proposes a patriotic economic model, radically different than what the Americans are imposing on us,” said Marine Le Pen.

As for France’s decision to suspend the delivery of the first of two Mistral helicopter carrier ships to Russia, it only shows Paris’ obedience of American diplomacy, Marine Le Pen said earlier.

Protestors have come out against the suspension of the sale on various grounds, loss of jobs, the need to honor the contract, or directly supporting the Russians and their actions in the Ukraine.

The president and his government are subordinated to the diktats of Washington and of NATO.

This president has become the dog of Obama, Cameron, and Merkel.

France is a big country – proud and independent – who must decide on its destiny on its own,” Saint-Nazaire city council member Jean-Claude Blanchard told Ruptly news agency.

The two ships were commissioned by Russia in 2011 at a cost of US$1.6 billion.

The first of these, the Vladivostok, was due to come into service at the end of this year.

The second, the Sevastopol, is due to be completed in 2015. 

”If we fail to deliver the ship on time, or not deliver it at all, our penalty for not adhering to the contract might exceed 10 billion euros ($13 billion). That will be a disaster – both to the economy and the reputation.

The contract is important for France, and for Saint-Nazaire in particular,” Blanchard said.

Ignoring the historical context in which you live is not unique to the protestors against suspending the sale, but it is very troubling when apologia becomes analysis.

Russian sailors in Saint-Nazaire to take charge of the Vladivostok. Credit: France 24
Russian sailors in Saint-Nazaire to take charge of the Vladivostok. Credit: France 24

But it is clear that the French government needs to find a way out with the ships it has built and are building.

In a rare piece of analysis on the subject of options, Dirk Steffen has looked back at historical lessons which might be applicable to the Mistral case.

Dick Steffen is a Commander in the German Naval Reserve and is Director Maritime Security for our partner Risk Intelligence.

Rewind 100 years: on 2 August 1914 the Ottoman Empire ratified an alliance with the German Empire setting in motion a chain of events whose effects can still be felt today.

This step had not been entirely unavoidable for the Entente powers.

Unfortunately, the government in Istanbul had placed orders for two dreadnoughts with British shipyards (or rather: it had taken over a Brazilian contract in one case), one in 1911 and the other in 1913 (as well as one in 1914, but work never began on that order).

As war loomed large the British government, at the behest of the First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Winston S Churchill, pre-emptively seized the two Ottoman battleships named Sultan Osman-ı Evvel and the Reşadiye after having stalled delivery of the already completed SULTAN OSMAN-I EVVEL for several weeks.

The Admiralty offered a fixed payment per day for their usage in war, but this did not mollify the Ottoman government or public.

The situation then was, of course, quite different from that of today, since France and Russia are not as war (as the British and Ottoman Empire would soon be after this episode)….

So what is to be done about the MISTRALs due to be delivered to Russia? Just like the dreadnoughts would have been valuable to Ottoman sea control in the Black Sea, the MISTRALs would be just the tool for Russia’s new “ambiguous warfare” and a valuable addition to re-asserting its sea control over the Black Sea rim….

Steffen raises the important point that a sale of a major weapon system, which a class of ships represents, is not simply a financial transaction but part of the strategic equation and certainly can affect a strategic calculus and balance. 

This is certainly true of the Mistral and its use in the Baltics, the Arctic, the Black Sea or in the Far East.

To the point this class of ship – a new build amphibious ship – has become one of the most dynamic security and defense assets in the 21st century as aviation, C2, and ISR capabilities evolve under the impact of the digital and electronics revolution.

The ship is defined by what operates off of the deck and the combat group of which it can become a part.

As such, it is an extremely flexible security and defense asset or power projection or influence asset.

To give a sense of the value of the ship in evolving French operational experience, the ship was part of Bold Alligator 2012.

And in an interview with a French officer involved in what the US called Odyssey Dawn, he outlined how the ship was used.

The BPC Mistral was the key sea platform which allies brought to the Bold Alligator 2012. 

The Mistral was recently involved in the Libyan operations and part of the French use of sea bases in a Mediterranean engagement context.

In a key interview with a senior French leader, SLD focused on the role of this element to the Libyan operations.

SLD: The amphibious ships were an important part of the air operation.

Lt. Gen. Desclaux: They were. On the Mistral, it was very interesting because when we are conducting the night assault with the helicopters, a few hours before the helicopter runs, we were sending Rafale, downloading the imagery on the Mistral or on the Charles De Gaulle, and then the intel officers were preparing the targets for the helicopters and they were taking off with very fresh information on their targets.

The evolution of the amphibious ship and its capabilities is a key part of the challenge and why the Mistral transfer must stop.

Due to many changes, notably in military aviation, the amphibious ship is undergoing a renaissance and also able to deliver “boots” on the ground 21st century style in terms of power projection and withdrawal.

The Russian Mistral being prepared for the Russian Navy. Credit: France 24
The Russian Mistral being prepared for the Russian Navy. Credit: France 24

In the US, the old amphibious ships of the Gator navy, are becoming key elements for a sea base insertion force enabled by Ospreys and other aviation assets and with the coming of the F-35B, a formidable strike asset as well.

The Russians have not missed the point of the importance of the amphibious ship to 21st century operations, and opened a bidding war in Europe to find a best value deal for themselves to become equipped with modern amphibious  ships.

Steven Blank has highlighted ways in which this ship is important in building out relevant capabilities for 21st century operations.

The Mistral’s concept combines a landing helicopter deck, a floating hospital, an amphibious assault ship can carry up to 16 heavy helicopters, more than a dozen tanks, and one third of a mechanized regiment, plus two hovercraft or four landing craft.

It also could ideally serve as a command vessel.

Furthermore, the Mistral class ship could serve as a very powerful anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopter vessel to detect enemy submarines.

Thus it can contribute to amphibious, ASW, and helicopter operations in any theater. 

The Mistral’s capabilities help explain why Moscow wants to buy up to 4 Mistral ships to learn how to produce those kinds of ships indigenously.

In the return of direct defense of Europe challenge posed by Russian actions and strategy, the Russian Mistral would be part of shaping the threat environment for Europe directly and indirectly in terms of serving Russian interests in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and in the Far East.

[slidepress gallery=’the-mv-22-operates-off-the-dixmude’]

Notably, the Nordic and Baltic states see the Mistral is part of the evolving direct threat capabilities against their interests.  An ice-hardened Mistral would be very useful in both Arctic and Baltic operations and for putting pressure in the 21st century style of prick and poke, which Putin is following.

According to a piece in the Polish press published June 13, 2014, the Poles see a direct threat to their Baltic coast from the Russian military and clearly the Russian Mistral could be part of enhanced capabilities to execute such a threat.

The Russians are capable of landing a battalion-sized force from Baltiysk on the Polish coast within an hour and a half.

The modernization of the Polish Navy will cost 17 billion zlotys. This is a small sum compared to, for example, the costs of the air and missile defense program. The procurement plans do not provide for new submarines to be equipped with cruise missiles.

Meanwhile, the Russians are developing the most cutting-edge offensive methods and maintaining the highest concentration of military forces in the entire Russian Federation in the Kaliningrad enclave. The Russians began another round of warship exercises in the Baltic on 10 June.

A key aspect in understanding 21st century conflict is to understand the synergy about Information Warfare, non-kinetic and kinetic capabilities in shaping favorable political outcomes in the ongoing process of conflict.  There is no end of history, but there are trend lines, which are decidedly unfavorable or favorable to peoples, cultures and states.

And to that end military tools sets are directed; encouraging favorable outcomes and attenuating those unfavorable to national interest.

Reversing the Mistral buy for Russia would have impacts on all fronts.

In terms of Information War, it would be a clear statement that actions matter and simply deceiving the West is not going to get a positive result.  The ship can be purchased for the use of NATO forces; in fact, it can be the flagship for the new Spearhead force.  As such it can support Arctic ops, Baltic ops and Med ops.  It can be renamed for a capital city in the Baltics to make the key IW point.

In terms of non-kinetic, the ship can be a major Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief asset to support operations such as those necessary to support those suffering from ISIS.  The ship can be worked as a key HA/DR asset to support NATO operations.

In terms of kinetic, the ship can be built out over time as new aviation, C2 and ISR assets become available to NATO forces.  The Osprey has already landed aboard the Mistral and is a harbinger of things to come.

NATO funds can be generated to buy the ship and attach it directly to the Spearhead force, or the Norwegians, Italians, or Germans can buy it separately or together.

Now is not the time to underwrite the adventures of Admiral Putin.

For a France 24 story on the Russians and Mistral see the following:

And for a broader look at reversing course with Russia see the following:

Credit Photos for Slideshow of MV-22 Operating Off of the Dixmude : French Navy

In January 2014 a United States Marine Corps (USMC) V22 Osprey landed for the first time onboard the Dixmude, a French Navy Mistral class LHD.

The Mistral was part of the Bold Alligator 2012 exercise and the French were well aware of the role of the Osprey in the exercise. 

There was a clear recognition of the advantages of preparing to land the Osprey on a Mistral class amphibious ship and the French and US navies worked the challenge and have demonstrated the capability.

Two French Navy test pilots (one from an experimental squadron, CEPA/10S, the other from the French Procurement Agency DGA) were present onboard the V22 to observe and assist the USMC crew in the maneuvers. According to the commander of CEPA/10S and flight test engineer, “with this first phase we validated the location, refined procedures and performed environmental measures primarily of wind and temperature. Although we had little concern about it, these experiments confirm the ability of Mistral class LHDs to accommodate the V22 in acceptable security conditions from the vessel perspective as well as from the aircraft perspective.”

The MV-22 late last year landed on a Japanese amphibious ship and the way is opening up to included several allies amphibious ships as key elements of encompassing the Osprey as part of an allied expeditionary enterprise.