Alexei Filippov / Courtesy Reuters Vladimir Putin and François Hollande in St. Petersburg, September 2013.

The French Connection

How to Sink France's Warship Deal With Russia

Almost 70 years after landing on the beaches of Normandy, the United States has another opportunity to save France -- this time from itself. Unlike D-Day, the rescue won’t require combat. Nor will it divert many U.S. military resources. Instead, Washington need only commit a modest $1.6 billion -- a small fraction of its $640 billion defense budget -- to outbid Russia for two French helicopter carriers.

France’s determination to sell the ships has already led to a good deal of hand-wringing. U.S. leaders have been urging their French counterparts to cancel the sale since its announcement in 2010, and they’ve only ramped up the pressure since Russia annexed Crimea. Nevertheless, the first ship is still due to be delivered this October.

Despite what Russian propaganda might have one believe, the ships would hardly represent a major shift in the global balance of power. But they would give the Russian navy something it currently lacks: the ability to project power ashore from a relatively safe distance at sea. With this new hardware, in other words, Russia could carry out a swift seaborne invasion -- without needing to storm any beaches.

The two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that France is selling to Russia are essentially capable of launching a small invasion on a sovereign state: each will be able to carry up to 450 troops, 40 tanks, and 16 helicopters. Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, who heads Russia’s naval forces, recently explained what such a capability could mean in practice: had Russia deployed Mistrals against Georgia in 2008, he said, the conflict would have ended “in 40 minutes instead of 26 hours.”

To be sure, such boasting should be taken for what it is. And as the Crimea annexation has demonstrated, Moscow need not mount a frontal assault to expand its territory. Still, the prospect of a new Russian seaborne force has long been a source of anxiety for the countries it would most likely target. Back in 2010, shortly after the sale was announced, Andrius Kubilius, then Lithuania’s prime minister, publicly expressed his frustration after a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. “We would like to know the enemy of Russia, against whom it must buy the Mistral,” Kubilius told reporters. “Is Sweden, Finland, Lithuania an enemy?” 

Paris, meanwhile, has done everything possible to avoid answering that question itself. Just last week, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defense minister, insisted that the ships under construction were not intended for combat, since France had refused to sell weapons systems along with them. France has also cited unspecified financial penalties should the ships not be delivered that were written into its contract with Russia. In reality, the French government is understandably worried about layoffs at the shipyard in St. Nazaire, where a consortium of French companies, including Alstom, STX Europe, and the state-owned DCNS are building the vessels, and where some 1,400 jobs are tied to the project.

If Paris can’t be shamed into dropping the sale, Washington must let its money do the talking. In the wake of the crisis in Ukraine, France seems perfectly willing to take dollars in place of rubles. The French government had hoped to find a lucrative market for French arms in Russia, and there was even talk of selling Putin two additional ships. But that strategy now seems too risky. Even if the Mistral sale goes through as planned, NATO will try to block any future deals -- including lucrative maintenance contracts -- for as long as tensions with Russia persist.

Given that the typical service life of a Mistral ship is over 40 years, a sale to the United States would guarantee France a reliable market for maintenance, training services, and weapons systems. And for its part, Washington could even turn a profit, selling or lend-leasing the Mistrals to Australia, India, or South Korea -- all of which have a need for the ships as well as the means to pay for them. 

The ships do, however, carry substantial price tags. Even if the United States arranged generous terms for their transfer to another country, the costs of training crews and maintaining such large vessels would still be significant for the receiving party. The U.S. Navy estimates that the annual cost of keeping an aircraft carrier at sea is approximately $400 million a year. It would be safe to assume that the cost of maintaining the much smaller Mistrals would be less than half that. San Antonio–class ships, which are similar to the Mistrals, cost the U.S. Navy about $110 million annually to man and maintain.

This would not be an inconsiderable expense for a medium-sized navy. India, for example, already operates a fixed deck carrier and could most easily integrate one of the Mistrals into its fleet. Whether it would risk its historically close ties with Russia is another question. 

Australia has a long history of operating carriers, though it retired its last one, the H.M.A.S. Melbourne, a former British carrier, in 1982. Two ships similar to the Mistrals are already are under construction in Australia, and the prospect of adding a compatible third at a cut-rate price could prove tempting.

South Korea could be a customer as well. It has the financial means to acquire the ships and a strong strategic incentive. The Mistrals could add weight to its claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea (also claimed by Japan), to fishing grounds in the Yellow Sea (also claimed by China), and to Yeonpyeong Island (where North and South Korean vessels traded fire as recently as last week).

Other countries, too, might covet such a ship, such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, or Vietnam, to name a few. But the costs involved would probably be prohibitive for these countries, handy as a Mistral might be in fending off, say, an unwanted drilling rig operated by China.

But France could simply refuse to renege on its commitment to Russia in spite of a generous offer from the United States. Paris has a lot more to lose in angering Moscow; though an afterthought for the United States in terms of trade, Russia remains the European Union’s third-largest trading partner. Both imports and exports are growing briskly, and big French firms are major beneficiaries. France’s second-largest bank, Société Générale, owns Rosbank, a major retail lender based in Moscow; Renault owns Russia’s largest car producer. Alstom, the French engineering firm helping to build the Mistrals, owns 45 percent of Russia’s largest rail equipment manufacturer, Transmashholding.

For now, Paris has signaled that it might end the Mistral deal if further Russian interference in eastern Ukraine prompts another round of economic sanctions. But France would be wise to consider a U.S. offer carefully. At the end of the day, Washington’s money could support as many French jobs as could Moscow’s, and without any of the embarrassment. 

Putin won’t be pleased, of course, if France does end up selling the Mistrals to the United States. And he will probably want Paris to pay a price. He might even reverse his acceptance of French President François Hollande’s invitation to attend next month’s celebrations of the 70th anniversary of D-Day. But that would hardly be a surprise; after all, Putin has his own invasion to celebrate.

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