Punish Russia & Revolutionize NATO's Navy

NATO Should Buy Mistral-Class Ships Intended for Russia
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No Art of War aphorism need be employed to convey to NATO member nations that equipping your rival in the midst of a crisis is unwise. However, in less than ninety days, France will do just that when STX Shipyards will complete the transfer of one Mistral class amphibious assault ship to the Russian Navy. Despite Russian adventurism in Eastern Ukraine there seems to be little in the way to stop the French arms transfer. In July, French President François Hollande presented the Mistral deal between the French-owned shipyard and the Russian arms agency Rosoboronexport as a fait accompli, justified as the execution of a contractual obligation signed three years prior.

Since EU and NATO members rallied to impose sanctions on Russia in March following unrest in Ukraine, there have been several variations of the suggestion that France should suspend its Mistral contract with Russia including propositions that NATO, the EU and even Japan could purchase the ship(s). Implicit in these alternative proposals is the concept that French firms and Russian subcontractors associated with the Mistral project should be compensated at market value to complete the transfer of the Mistral into benign hands. Such remuneration would offer French authorities sufficient political and economic cover to initiate the ship transfer.

That any of these nations or organizations could obtain the completed Mistral and potentially a second vessel in production is not the most important point. Transfer to a third party in any case would achieve the operational objective of denying the Russian navy its most significant maritime acquisition (in terms of maritime power projection) since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But if a last-minute deal to swap end-user status of the Mistral ship is to be negotiated, the recipient of the amphibious ship should obtain real utility from its acquisition.

We argue that NATO’s legitimate strategic and operational interests place the alliance in the best position to acquire the $1.7 billion dollar Mistral class ships. Even in an era fiscal austerity among many of NATO’s member nations, there is room to synergize maritime platform acquisition and cost controls.

Revolutionize NATO’s Maritime Capability

The acquisition of the Mistral class ships can directly enhance NATO maritime interoperability within the Baltic and Black Sea. NATO force integration and maritime interoperability efforts would directly benefit from possessing a large amphibious ship capable of sustaining a permanent command element. For an alliance whose major operations have been centered for over a decade in Southwest Asia where it possesses no member states, the opportunity to re-center the alliance in the littoral spaces of the Baltic and Black Sea would be welcomed by those members closest to Russia.

NATO maritime integration generally excludes nations that cannot contribute ships of sufficient size. In the potluck-style of asset contribution, NATO’s maritime force generally draws upon member nations that can contribute at least one blue-water capable vessel for up to a six month period of time. As Michael O’Hanlon and Edward Joseph have noted, NATO possesses few commonly held assets. In that respect, the acquisition of a ship as large as the Mistral would be unprecedented in NATO’s history.

Acquiring the Mistral would absolutely revolutionize the maritime component of the 65-year-old alliance. All 28 member nations, even those with only brown-water capable navies, could contribute naval and marine personnel to augment the Mistral’s 160 person staff and 450 marine detachment. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania could assume a greater maritime role within NATO. Given recent events, the Baltic states would surely jump at this opportunity. Romania and Bulgaria’s budget-beleaguered navies may welcome personnel contributions as a way to augment their cumulative annual at-sea days.

If greater NATO naval integration within potential conflict zones is an operational goal in and of itself worth pursuing, then the acquisition of the Mistral class ship could be counted as a win-win for NATO.

The Mistral at Sea

Purchase of a Mistral class ship and the concomitant requisition of the second platform from STX shipyards in Saint-Nazaire, France seems unrealistic in an era where only four of NATO’s 28 nations have been able to meet defense spending benchmarks as a proportion of GDP. We argue that Mistral class ships as a part of NATO’s shared assets could be incorporated into operational level commands that could potentially offset NATO’s existing operating expenses in the civil and military budgets.

As an example among several choices, NATO would possess the real option to convert its maritime bases in Naples, Italy and its northern counterpart in Northwood, United Kingdom into genuine afloat staffs – not unlike the operational afloat structure used by the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet. The cost of incorporating Mistral class vessels into a NATO maritime command structure could be considered within the context of reducing or eventually eliminating the need for NATO to base and staff maritime elements on land. Conveniently enough, the two NATO maritime commands supporting each of the alliance’s regional maritime response groups matches the number of Mistral class ships to be produced.

The $1.7 billion dollar price tag on one Mistral class ship may seem like a rounding error within in the U.S. defense budget, but the ship’s price almost exceeds NATO’s entire annual military budget. If a NATO acquisition is tied directly to a cost assessment within the alliance, amortized over a decade, then the purchase could generate momentum to improve NATO’s operational maritime structure. One could only hope that having an afloat asset available for the maritime command in Naples would keep NATO staff officers at sea more, and in the Bagnoli espresso bars less.

A Chance for a NATO Broadside

The swap of Russian-destined hardware into NATO hands would surely require deft political bargaining within the alliance, but such a last minute default is hardly without precedent.

Rosoboronexport, Russia’s official arms export-import body and the recipient of the Mistral class ships, was forced to initially cancel its own 2007 deal worth $800 million dollars to supply Iran with S-300 air defense systems following substantial international pressure and deal-making.  Russia’s choice to subsequently delay a delivery answer to Iran by over three years could be seen as a useful – although hardly imaginative – policy option for France.

A vote by the French parliament to temporarily delay transfer of the Mistral could be a sufficient first step to encourage initiative among NATO nations to examine ways in which the two ships could be realistically incorporated into existing NATO structures, and how that cost and additional indemnities from a forthcoming Russian lawsuit, can best be distributed.

Taking the ships off Putin’s hands would complement the positive momentum that the U.S. and the EU set on July 29 when they introduced the most comprehensive sanctions against Russia to date. Unlike previous sanctions, the new measures have the potential to significantly harm Russia’s financial sector, energy sector and defense industry. The latest sanctions could have a lasting impact on Russia’s economy.

Most of all, a NATO purchase of the Mistral ships would deliver an unmistakable and meaningful rebuke of Russia’s military adventurism in Eastern Ukraine. Such a move would show that Russia’s actions carry economic and military costs, and that NATO and the EU are serious in their support for peace on Europe’s periphery. And it would send the strongest signal yet that the political paralysis, which has characterized the western response to Russia's aggressive attempt to shake the established world order, is officially over.

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