France Closes the Door on the Mistral Deal: An Opportunity to Address the Shortfall in US Amphibious Capability?


2015-08-08 Earlier, Second Line of Defense has raised the question several times about whether the execution of the Mistral deal made any sense in light of Russian actions in Europe.

As Steve Blank noted in 2014:

Whatever the logic of negotiating a deal with Russia in 2011, the strategic situation has changed dramatically.

The seizure of Crimea has returned European direct defense to the table, and the Nordic states in NATO have clearly expressed not only their concern but increased resources for their direct defense and are concerned with Baltic sovereignty.

In a piece published in EUObserver on August 7, 2015, the cancellation of the program by the French government was the focus of attention.

French president Francois Hollande’s office announced on Wednesday (5 August) that a deal has been reached with President Vladimir Putin to pay Russia compensation for cancelling the delivery of two French Mistral warships over the Ukraine crisis.

Russia will be “fully reimbursed” for the two warships, the Elysee Palace said in a statement.

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

According to Le Figaro, France will pay back a little less than €1bn to Russia, a sum that falls short of what Moscow initially demanded (€1.2bn) and is more than what Paris had said it would pay (€800m).

The payment covers what the Kremlin had already paid to Paris for the ships as well as some costs to do with the training of Russian sailors at Saint-Nazaire, a port town in the west of France, in spring this year.

Both the Kremlin and the French government said they considered the matter closed.

The question remains with regard to the future of these ships and a sale to the United States would make great sense given the significant shortfall in amphibious ships in the United States.

In a piece by Robbin Laird published in the Fall of 2014, the opportunity for the West inherent in this cancellation and the opportunity for a NATO initiative was discussed:

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.

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 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.

BPC Mistral

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.

Germany directing funds to help in this effort would send a clear signal to Russia about Germany’s role in strengthening NATO against Russian aggressive behavior.

Pierre Tran of Defense News has indicated that the French believe there is a market for the ship and is actively pursuing opportunities.

Prime contractor DCNS had planned to hand over the first Mistral, the Vladivostok, Nov. 14.

“Egypt and Saudi Arabia are entirely ready to buy the two Mistrals,” said a French official in Egypt, Le Monde reported. Saudi Arabia wants Egypt to build a naval fleet that could project power regionally in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

“There is strong interest in the Mistrals from some countries in the region, to build a maritime capability,” said a diplomatic source, the report said.

Egypt could use the two warships to transport 1,000 troops, armored vehicles and helicopters to intervene in Yemen, Libya or other countries where a joint Arab force might become involved, the report said. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have close relations, with Riyadh providing US $4 billion of general funding to Cairo.

Separately, Saudi Arabia is also financing Lebanon’s €3 billion acquisition of French arms in a bid to modernize the armed forces.

The Mistral helicopter carrier has sparked interest in the export market so the French cancellation of the deal should not be a concern, said Hollande.

“These ships attract a certain amount of interest among many countries, and there will be no difficulty in finding a buyer for these ships, without extra cost for our country,” Hollande told journalists in Egypt.

The French government has taken a tough decision and in addition to the US helping itself and/or NATO in acquiring additional amphibious capability, it is important for the US to take its own tough decision with regard to Russian space and not continue to fund Russian transport of US astronauts to the International Space Station.

It would be better to suspend those activities than to hand the Russians a half billion dollars in cash.

Recently, the Obama Administration announced that it is signing an agreement with Russia to continue to fly Americans to the Space Station in spite of Russian behavior.

NASA informed lawmakers on Wednesday that because Congress has failed to fully fund its Commercial Crew Program for the last five years, it is signing a $490 million contract extension with Russia to send Americans to space.

The new contract, running through 2019, means that NASA will continue to depend on Russia to get its astronauts to space even as tensions between Washington and Moscow escalate.

It will put money in Russia’s pockets even as U.S. economic sanctions seek to put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government over the conflict in Ukraine.

It will also make the U.S. susceptible to threats from Russia, which in the past has suggested it could stop taking U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station. The U.S. has relied on Russia since retiring its space shuttle program.

Following the French lead would make sense.

Indeed, this opportunity was already presaged in an op ed for Space News published last year.

In many ways, U.S. space policy and its dependence on the Russians is the functional equivalent of the Mistral challenge.

Dependency is significant in terms of the engines used by one of the two key rockets used by the Pentagon, and indeed in the views of many experts, the better of the two rockets.

Also, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, only the Soyuz is available currently for moving humans to the Space Station. And with the Russians in a central place in Space Station policy, the Russians can play havoc with the U.S. equity in the Space Station. This was not a Russian trick but deliberate US policy.

Reversing course is doable but costly.

But in the presence of Russian map-making, it is essential.

And past decisions such as NOT building a domestic variant of the RD-180 engine, not pursuing an effective alternative to the Space Shuttle, and not working with the Europeans on ATV as a player in an alternative Space Station policy are all parts of taking a relaxed view of Russian involvement in a number of strategic areas for US space policy.

Such a relaxed view, which really was done because of the absence of U.S. effort and investment, will only aid and abet further Russian map making. And the current Administration which clearly committed itself to a “re-set” of policy towards Russia as opposed to make tough decisions about building real space capabilities, needs to stop the rhetoric and get on with policies to build real capabilities.

And one can hope that a side bar debate about the role of Space-X in the nation’s launch future is not used a diversion from getting on with central decisions about whether the US intends or not become a 21st century space power, rather than operating as a custodian for what we did in the 20th century.

The 21st century is not the 20th; and this is not the replay of the Cold War.

It is something profoundly different than what the US policy community is focused upon. The Russians are not accepting the nice divide between soft and hard power, which folks who believe in the inevitability of globalization eliminating military conflict continue to push.

Rather the Russians under Putin understand that carrots and sticks and pressures combined with tactical flexibility can advance a national agenda.

Particularly when your competitors unilaterally eliminate core capabilities in key sectors, like the US has done in space, you can use their weaknesses to your advantage.

This is about power; in which military power used as a leverage tool can be very effective

 Last year we published this piece regarding the Osprey landing on the French Mistral class ship:

02/11/2014: 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.

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

Credit Photos: French Navy