A French perspective

I recently received a communication from a French expert on the Russian Navy that provides an interesting (and I think quite accurate) perspective on the Mistral sale.

As you know, France is about to agree to sell four Mistral LHDs to Russia. Many see it as a signal to Russia that “this is ok” to invade all the little neighbors. Personally, I think that it would have been more damaging to the East-West relations to turn down the Russian approach. Built to commercial standards, the Mistral are more like ferries painted in gray and they don’t carry very sensitive technologies.

Many in Russia now consider that the US have taken over from Britain the traditional antagonism against them that led to the Crimean War and to the Great Game. They have sort of accepted this antagonism that has nothing to do with Communism. In this context, it would be interesting to resurrect the fact that during the Crimean and the Civil wars, Russia was a strategic partner of the US against Britain.

I think that we should take into consideration the weakness of Russia, their declining population and contemplate inviting them to a closer security relation. I don’t think that it was smart to press for a Nato integration of Ukraine and Georgia. The fact that the president of tiny Georgia contemplated military victory over Russia by seizing the initiative to reconquer Ossetia is another indication of this Russian weakness. And if you look at their shipbuilding programs and at their o[rder] o[f] b[attle], they will decline even further, just like the Royal Navy. Right now, the Russians are unable to make Bulava work and replace their SSBN fleet; the replacements for destroyers, frigates and submarines are awfully late. The carrier project is an admission that carriers are more effective than missile cruisers. It means that they won’t replace their missile cruisers and just get a replacement for Kuznetsov which is getting old by Russian standards.

My French colleague’s argument reinforces the point that the Russian Navy is declining, and the Mistral, while a fine ship, will not suddenly turn it into the most formidable force in the region. Furthermore, despite ongoing reforms, the Russian military as a whole will also get weaker before it gets stronger, in part because of deteriorating equipment, in part because of a decline in available personnel, and in part because of the retirement of well-trained officers who began their careers in the Soviet period and their replacement by officers who made their careers in the 1990s, when money for training was scarce.

The second point that comes out of the argument above is that European security would be strengthened by including Russia, rather than isolating it. This doesn’t mean that NATO should be replaced by some sort of vague new European security architecture along the lines proposed recently by Medvedev. But it does mean that the U.S. and European states (including the so-called New Europe of the east) should make an effort to work with Russia on security issues of concern to both sides, rather than ostracizing it because of a combination of leftover Cold War fears (for the western states) and fears of Russian neo-colonialism (for the eastern states).

As I noted in my previous post, I don’t think that Russia is interested in restoring its former empire.  Russia IS interested in preventing the emergence of hostile states on its borders — thus the rapid and somewhat excessive response to Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia. The key question for NATO collectively and its member states individually is how to ensure European security while at the same time reassuring Russia that its security interests on its borders will be taken into account. France and Germany have decided that this question can best be addressed by working with Russia on sensitive issues related to regional economic and military security, rather than by isolating it. While this is something that needs to be done with suitable caution, it seems to me that it’s a better idea than isolating Russia or treating it as a potential enemy.

Mistral panic now joined by outright misrepresentation

Ariel Cohen’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the Mistral sale adds nothing to the previous neo-con screeds on this topic. It’s basically a mish-mash of every bit of anti-Russian fear-mongering one can squeeze into 800 words. Nothing surprising and wouldn’t have been worth commenting on except for one thing. Cohen states that Russia’s new military doctrine “lowers the threshold for pre-emptive nuclear strikes.” This is actually just a false statement. A sentence by sentence comparison of the text with the 2000 military doctrine shows that the threshold was actually raised slightly in the new edition, as I noted in a previous post. I have no problem with differences of opinion on the nature and extent of the threat posed by Russia to the rest of the world. But let’s stick to the facts and avoid outright lying about misrepresentation of what’s in published documents.

Update: Perhaps lying is too strong a word. I don’t actually know whether Cohen is lying or just hasn’t bothered to read the documents in question. So let’s change lying to misrepresenting. Either way, it’s sad that a reputable newspaper like the WSJ would print this without some fact-checking.

The Mistral sale: No reason to panic

The recent news that the French government has agreed to sell one or more of its Mistral amphibious assault ships to Russia has led to virtual panic in some quarters. The cold warriors who have never quite gotten over the view that the Soviet Union Russia is hell-bent on threatening the rest of the world seem to believe that Russia will use these ships to attack (or at least threaten to attack) any neighboring states that dare to oppose it.  Here’s a typical statement (from Vlad Socor):

NATO is being tested, with “its future at stake,” not so much in Afghanistan as the line recently went, but rather in Brussels itself and in the Alliance’s most influential capitals. The latest among these tests –one that the Alliance seems only determined to side-step– is over the proposed French naval modernization program for Russia. The program envisages selling one French Mistral-class warship –a state-of-the art, offensive power-projection capability– to Russia and licensing the construction of three or four ships of the same class in Russia, potentially usable in the Baltic and Black Sea.

And a little later in the same article:

Georgia remains a prime target of opportunity for Russia in the Black Sea basin at present. A Mistral-class ship would enable Russia to threaten amphibious and helicopter landings on Georgia’s sea coast, with far greater speed and effectiveness than those of Russia’s existing capabilities. Russia’s naval command publicly alluded to the Mistral’s potential use against Georgia when starting the talks with France for the sale. Paris has ignored Georgian officials’ appeals (EDM, September 18, November 2, December 2, 2009). Meanwhile, Georgia is an all-but disarmed country and (as a thwarted NATO aspirant) is not covered by any external security guarantees.

There is a widespread assumption that these ships would be used in either the Black or Baltic Seas. This allows the writer to claim that the ships will increase the threat Russia poses to Georgia or the Baltic States. Most of this speculation is based on a single comment by Admiral Vysotsky, the Commander in Chief of the Russian Navy, about Russia being able to win the 2008 war with Georgia more quickly if it had the Mistral. He most likely said this in order to increase the navy’s chances of getting more procurement funding. The Russian navy would play a minor role in any conflict in the region (except with Turkey, god forbid). A future conflict with Georgia, just like the previous one, would primarily involve ground forces, with air force cover to the extent it’s still capable of that. The Navy would have a small role, with or without the Mistral — just enough to justify continued funding.

Furthermore, I very much doubt that the Mistral ship(s) will be based in the Black Sea or the Baltic. All of the Russian reports I’ve seen on this assume that these ships will go to the two big fleets (Northern and Pacific). I share this belief, in part because of prestige factors — the Black Sea Fleet is a bit of a backwater, despite all the politics that swirl around it. The Baltic Fleet even more so. The Russian navy is not going to put its most modern (and one of its largest) ships in a backwater. Second, basing in the Black Sea will be tricky. The agreement with Ukraine prevents Russia from placing new ships in Sevastopol. It’s possible, of course, that Yanukovich will agree to allow this to happen, but I think he will seek to avoid needlessly antagonizing the anti-Russian part of the Ukrainian population and will not do this. This means that a Mistral-class ship would have to be based at Novorossiisk. This presents various logistical challenges — there isn’t very much space there now and the base expansion is not ready yet and won’t be for several more years. So even if Russia wanted to place a new Mistral-class ship in the Black Sea, it would be difficult for it to do so in the short term. And more than one is simply out of the question.

A second concern for the cold warriors is that the Mistral would significantly increase the Russian Navy’s force projection capability. This is also based on the Vysotsky comment — the part about how with this ship, Russian troops could have gotten to Georgia more quickly. But Russia has plenty of domestically built amphibs — some of which were used in August 2008. The main constraint then (as Vysotsky noted) was the speed of the ships vs the distance from their bases in Sevastopol and Novorossiisk to the conflict area. By the time they got to Georgia, all that was left to do was to mop up. Is the Mistral that much faster than their existing ships? Its top speed is 18.8 knots. Ropuchas and Alligators can go 16-18 knots. So the talk about Russian troops being able to get to Georgia faster on the Mistral is just talk. They just don’t need the Mistral for the purpose of troop transport.

There are three potential reasons for the purchase: 1) As a helo platform, 2) as a command ship (if they get some advanced electronics as part of the deal), 3) as means of rebuilding the domestic shipbuilding industry (if they get to build the other 3 under license). These are obviously not mutually exclusive. I have discussed reasons 2 and 3 before (here and here). Galrahn has an excellent discussion of reason 1. Basically, he argues, helicopters are a key part of Russian naval doctrine. They need new helicopter carriers and may be concerned that their domestic shipbuilding industry is not currently capable of building such a ship on its own. So they buy one from the French to improve this core capability and hope to also get a license to build more domestically so they can revive their shipbuilding industry.

The last thing they want is to be dependent on foreign purchases for the long term. The Russian military’s culture is based on self-sufficiency. The admission that they have to buy a major ship from abroad, and from a NATO member no less, is deeply traumatic for top commanders and therefore something they hope to avoid having to do in the future. To say that this deal will open the floodgates to future NATO arms sales to Russia fundamentally misunderstands this point. Though from my point of view, the more NATO sells arms to Russia the better. Ideally, NATO would also buy certain kinds of arms from Russia. They still make really good machine guns, for example. If NATO states and Russia develop a relationship where they sell equipment to each other, they are much less likely to view each other with hostility and distrust. And this can only help increase stability in Europe.

So, to summarize, the Mistral is likely to be based in the Pacific and/or Northern Fleets, where it is very unlikely to be a threat to Georgia or the Baltic States. Its purpose will not be to transport troops for amphibious landings, but to carry helicopters and/or to serve as a command center for naval task forces. And Russian leaders hope to use the newly established relationship with the French to revive their domestic shipbuilding, so they don’t have to buy ships from abroad in the future.

Russia’s new military doctrine: An exercise in public relations

Last Friday, the Kremlin finally published the long-awaited text of Russia’s new military doctrine. All in all, it’s a fairly innocuous document largely filled with empty generalities. Aleksandr Golts is probably right in arguing that this is the best that can be expected in a situation where clans of military bureaucrats are engaged in an ongoing conflict. He describes the document as fifteen pages “filled with breaking news that the Volga empties into the Caspian Sea.”

Nevertheless, there are some important points to be made regarding this document. The item that has received the most publicity, though, is something that did not make it into the final document. Despite Nikolai Patrushev’s prediction of several months ago, the doctrine does not include any statement about the preemptive use of nuclear weapons. The text reads “Russia retains the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use against it or (and) its allies of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, or in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons, if [such an attack] threatens the very existence of the state.” This is more or less taken verbatim from the previous edition of the military doctrine, which was adopted in 2000. Nikolai Sokov points out that if anything, the criteria for use of nuclear weapons are actually somewhat narrower, as the final clause  in the previous edition read “in situations critical for the national security of Russia.” The only other innovation in this regard is that the new text makes clear that all decisions on the use of nuclear weapons are made by the President of the Russian Federation.

Commentators inclined to treat anything done or said by Russian officials with suspicion argue that such a statement was excluded from the military doctrine to avoid increasing tension with the international community but is undoubtedly included in the unpublished and classified “Basic principles of state policy in the area of nuclear deterrence to 2020″ document, which was approved at the same time as the military doctrine and supposedly spells out the situations in which Russia would use nuclear weapons. Given that planners in both Russia and the United States still by and large subscribe to the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, there is little point to secret plans to use nuclear weapons — the whole point is to publicize a relatively explicit set of situations in which your side would use nuclear weapons in order to make sure that the other side does not cross those lines.

More believable commentators speculate that the absence of the clause on preemptive use of nuclear weapons is a sign that negotiations with the United States on a new START treaty are going well.

For me, the most striking passages in the  doctrine have to do with the listing of external threats facing Russia. Eleven such threats are listed, including some fairly generic ones such as the spread of international terrorism and the spread of ethnic and religious extremist groups in regions near Russian borders. But the first threat listed refers explicitly to NATO and its efforts both to extend its reach globally and to bring its military infrastructure close to Russia’s borders. The second threat listed refers to “efforts to destabilize the situation in specific countries and regions so as to undermine strategic stability,” clearly a veiled reference to Russian elites’ belief that the US was behind popular efforts to remove autocratic rulers in various former Soviet states in the last decade.

Because of these two sentences, the new doctrine is much more explicit than any previous official policy document in declaring that Russia considers NATO and its member states to be the most significant source of military danger to Russia. This makes for good domestic politics, but does little to address the real security issues facing Russia. Nor does it provide for a realistic set of guidelines for how to structure the Russian military in coming years. Clearly, Russian military planners are not planning  a military buildup on Russia’s western border. The actual threats will continue to emanate from the south in the near term, with a growing potential for tension with China sometime down the road.

Russian military planners know full well that NATO is not a threat and this was made clear today when French and Russian officials announced that they were going forward with the sale of France’s Mistral amphibious assault ship to Russia. It seems fairly unlikely that Russian officials would buy military technology from an enemy state, nor that such an enemy would agree to sell it.

It seems to me that the prominent mention of NATO in the list of threats is a sop to the military’s old guard, who have been defeated in the battle over the future direction of the Russian military through the elimination of the mass mobilization army and the forced retirement of most of the old guard generals. Listing NATO as a threat is seen as a relatively harmless way to keep them quiet while the current leadership presses ahead with both structural reforms and closer ties with foreign defense industry.

Thus, we can see that Russia’s new military doctrine is simply a public relations document both in terms of its statement on nuclear policy and its listing of the key foreign threats facing Russia. In this context, it is not surprising that the content of the rest of the document is so generic, as the only politically relevant parts of the document are those that serve a PR purpose. As far as Russia’s military and civilian leadership is concerned, the rest could be filled with complete gibberish.

Why the Mistral?

I had thought I would be writing this week on what has been accomplished by the December 1 deadline for completing the reorganizational phase of the military reform. But since everyone else is still talking about the Mistral, I’ve inevitably been thinking more about the reasons for the possible purchase.

First of all, there is no reason for panic. This is something both supporters of Georgia and boosters of the Russian shipbuilding industry should keep in mind. American analysts such as Vlad Socor and David Smith are worried that the Mistral will be used to attack Georgia or the Crimea. Setting aside my doubts on whether there is any reason for Russia to undertake such an operation, we should remember that it will take several years after a purchase agreement is completed before any Mistral-class ships actually become part of the Russian fleet. And while we can expect the first one, built in France, to be built fairly expeditiously, the ones that will be built under license in Russia will take quite a while, given the need to refurbish shipyards before construction begins and the general slow pace of ship construction in Russia. I would guess that the political uncertainty surrounding Russia’s relations with these two countries will be resolved before the Mistral comes online.

Russian opponents of the purchase frequently note how this purchase will spell the final doom of domestic military shipbuilding, if not of the entire Russian defense industry. Comments about how this purchase is taking work away from domestic shipbuilding are, oddly enough, immediately followed by statements by the same person arguing that Russia does not have facilities to build Mistrals under French license. If there are no facilities capable of building the Mistral, how can there be facilities capable of building a domestic equivalent?

I would argue that the Russian military shipbuilding industry is more likely to be doomed without such a purchase. Russia’s shipyards have proven themselves virtually incapable of building new military surface ships of any size. (They seem to still be able to build submarines for some reason) Only one new ship larger than a corvette has been completed since 1993. The Admiral Gorshkov frigate keeps getting delayed. The initially highly publicized Ivan Gren LST project has disappeared completely — it may be that it’s failure is the proximate cause for the RFN looking to France for an alternative.

It used to be that everyone blamed lack of financing. But when financing became readily available in the middle of this decade, the rate of ships being completed didn’t increase. By this point, it seems pretty clear that primary blame must be cast on problems at the shipyards themselves, rather than on the government or the Navy. So a license to build a foreign-designed ship may be just the thing to revitalize the Admiralty shipyard in St. Petersburg or Sevmash in Severodvinsk.

Whether this is the ship that should be built is another matter entirely. Various authors have made the case that the Mistral is not the ship that the Russian Navy needs. It may be that at least part of the reason for its purchase has to do with political factors, such as improving Russian-French relations. Or it may be that the Navy wants a versatile ship that can be used in many different ways.

While because of its versatility I don’t think it would be wasted in the Russian Navy, it’s probably not the best use of the limited procurement budget. It might make a good utility ship, good for “conducting independent amphibious operations in distant locales” but is that really going to be a primary mission for the Russian Navy in coming years? It seems to me that for the foreseeable future, the Navy’s main missions will consist of protecting sea lanes and showing the flag. The Mistral could be used for these kinds of operations, but they are not its primary purpose. Given the money that would be spent on this ship, it seems that the RFN might as well get exactly what it needs.

To the extent that Russia needs new ships, it seems that a large frigate or even a destroyer would be more useful than an amphibious assault ship. For the moment, the Udaloys are doing their jobs, and may be considered the workhorses of the Russian fleet. But with one exception (Admiral Chabanenko), they are now all 20-25 years old. It’s time to start thinking about what comes next, especially since the remaining Sovremennyi destroyers are extremely unreliable and hardly ever go far from their home ports. Given the speed with which Russian ships are being built (such as the Admiral Gorshkov frigate, now approaching its fifth year of construction), it may be time to start thinking about building a replacement, so that they are ready in ten years when the Udaloys start to retire.

The Mistral Comes to Town

On November 23, the French amphibious assault ship Mistral arrived in St. Petersburg for what is expected to be a three-day visit. Reports indicate that during this visit, a decision will be made on the purchase of one ship of this class together with a license to build another 3-4 ships in Russia. The ship is likely to be purchased without weapons or radar equipment. The prospective purchase has raised a great deal of questioning and opposition among Russian military experts.

The questioning mostly revolves around uncertainty about the purpose to be served by having such a ship in the Russian Navy. This is an important point. It seems obvious that a large ship such as this would not be needed for anti-piracy operations or protection of shipping lanes, the two main missions of the Russian Navy these days. For those missions, the Admiral Gorshkov frigates that Russia is (slowly) building domestically are perfectly adequate.

It’s possible that the Navy hopes to use this ship for political purposes, similar to those served by the cruise of the Peter the Great nuclear cruiser last winter. But this is not sufficient — and it’s not clear how effective such cruises are in any case.

It seems to me that the Russian Navy can best use the Mistral as a command ship. The ship has space for a command center that can accommodate up to 200 people and, if properly equipped, can be used to control operations up to fleet level, as well as joint operations with air and ground forces. But it may not be so useful as an amphibious assault ship, given differences between Russia and France in how naval infantry is used.

Experts also question whether Russia can afford such a purchase. They point out that the total expenditure on this purchase would be greater than the entire domestic military shipbuilding program. That may well be the case, but at least it would result in some ships actually entering the Russian Navy. Domestic construction has so far resulted in virtually no new ships entering the fleet. Highly touted projects such as the Ivan Gren amphibious assault ship, two of which should have been built by now according to the timetable announced in 2004, have instead disappeared entirely. The Ivan Gren is not even listed among the ongoing projects on the shipbuilder’s website.

Opposition to the purchase is based on two factors: the fear that purchasing major weapons systems from NATO countries will make the Russian military dependent on the West and the potential that such purchases will destroy what remains of Russia’s defense industry. On the first point, Russian military analysts continue to demonstrate their perception of the West in general and NATO in particular as an enemy that might be tempted to use any sign of Russian weakness to attack. In the event of a future conflict, they believe that Western-built platforms (such as the Mistral) would be useless, because Western countries would refuse to supply spare parts.

On the second point, it is striking that those who argue that the Russian Navy should procure ships such as this from domestic shipbuilders often simultaneously argue that the Russian defense industry is in such a state that it is no longer capable of building serious ships.

Neither of these objections make very much sense given the Russian military’s plan to license the production of these ships and build all except the first at a Russian shipyard. Doing so would both help revitalize domestic military shipbuilding and ensure that Russian suppliers could provide spare parts in the (highly unlikely!) event of a future conflict with NATO. In fact, licensing a ship series from a Western country such as France for domestic construction may be the best thing that could happen to Russian military shipbuilding. In order to build French-designed ships in Russia, the builder would have to bring in trainers from France. This would be more useful for revitalizing the industry than years’ worth of empty declarations by government officials about revival efforts.

Overall, it is not entirely clear to me why the Russian Navy needs this type of ship. But the opposition to its purchase is largely based on outdated and contradictory thinking. The general goal of purchasing a license to build foreign-designed ships at Russian shipyards is a laudable one and may be the best way to actually revitalize the shipbuilding industry. But perhaps the Russian Navy would be better served by licensing a frigate, rather than an amphibious assault ship.

Update on the Navy

Before I started writing on Russian military reform, I used to cover the Russian Navy. There have been a few new developments in the last couple of weeks, so I thought I’d briefly mention them here, just for the record.

1) The on-again, off-again move of the navy’s headquarters to the Admiralty building in St. Petersburg has been suspended. For the moment, the Admiralty will house a backup control center (in case Moscow is conquered???).

2) China is copying the design of the Varyag aircraft carrier (similar to the Admiral Kuznetsov) as it begins a program to build its own carriers. The 75 percent completed Varyag was sold several years ago, ostensibly for the purpose of serving as a casino in Macao.  Instead, it is been used to reverse engineer a Chinese aircraft carrier. If China succeeds in develop such a craft (something that is still highly doubtful), it will certainly carry copies of Su-33 naval aircraft, since China has procured a prototype plane of this type from Ukraine.

3) The purchase of a French helicopter-carrying amphibious assault ship seems to be moving forward. The Mistral itself will visit St. Petersburg in the near future. The goal continues to be to buy one actual ship and then to license the production of four more in St. Petersburg or Severodvinsk.

According to Vice-Admiral Oleg Burtsev, the first deputy chief of staff of the navy, the ships would be based in the Northern or Pacific Fleets (not the Black Sea Fleet, as recently claimed by Jacob Kipp). They would be used for amphibious landing operations, for peacekeeping and rescue operations, and to fight pirates (where their helicopters would come in handy).

There is some skepticism in the media about whether the Russian-built ships will be completed in a reasonable period of time (i.e. less than 10 years per ship), how they will be supported in terms of ASW and AAW, and whether the promised modernization of the potential forward base in Tartus will materialize. Russian analysts are also questioning whether the navy will be able to afford the ship’s cost, estimated at 400-500 million euros per ship.

4) Alexander Khramchikhin, for one, blames the Bulava for the inevitably coming demise of the Russian Navy. The article is worth quoting at length:

[The Bulava's] effectiveness has turned out to be simply amazing. The missile has not entered serial production, and never will, but it has already destroyed the Russian Navy. Almost all the money allocated to the Navy’s development have been spent on this mindless dead-end program.

Any person who can see the real situation well understands that in a few years the Russian Navy as a whole, as well as all four of its component fleets, will cease to exist. This is already absolutely inevitable — the situation will not be changed even by mass purchases of ships from abroad.

In light of this, it is especially amusing to observe the fierce “battle for Sevastopol.” Why do we need it after 2017? To pay Kiev enormous sums to rent empty piers? By that time, at best the Novorossiisk naval brigade will be all that’s left of the Black Sea Fleet. And the discussion of whether we need a blue-water navy or a coastal one is a complete farce. We won’t even have a coastal force — the maximum that our “navy” will be able to accomplish in ten years is the immediate defense of a few main naval bases. Because we built the Bulava.

While I wouldn’t blame all of the navy’s problems on the Bulava, Khramchikhin is exactly right in his analysis of the future trajectory of the Russian Navy. Despite relatively generous financing over the last few years, its shipbuilders have shown time and again that they are incapable of producing ships in a timely manner. All of the navy’s shipbuilding projects have been repeatedly delayed. As the existing ships approach (and in many cases pass) the end of their expected lifespan, there are few replacements in the works.

In any case, there is little if any cause to fear that the Russian Navy is making progress in its oceanic ambitions, whether or not it still has any. Instead, we should be thinking of it as living out the last years of the leftover glory of its Soviet years. In another 10 years, its major ocean-going ships will be gone, with nothing but a few corvettes and a couple of French LSTs to replace them.

 

An Excellent Analysis of the Future of the Russian Navy

Galrahn’s discussion of the implications of the Mistral purchase for the Russian Navy’s future is the most perceptive I have read yet.

The two key points are:

1) I think that is pretty significant, in particular it suggests the Russian military has lost all confidence in its own shipbuilding industry.

2) From a strategy perspective, this aligns the direction of the Navy with the stated national military strategy of Russia to downsize the land Army and become more expeditionary in nature.

Read the whole post here.

A Bit More on the Mistral Purchase

There were some additional details on Russia’s decision to purchase French amphibious assault ships published in yesterday’s Vedomosti.  It seems that the ship to be purchased is the third one of its class, which was originally intended for the French Navy and is currently already under construction. An additional 3-4 ships will be built under license, most likely by the St. Petersburg “Severnaia Verf” shipyard. This shipyard belongs to Sergei Pugachev, a billionaire who has long been considered to be a member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. The total cost of the project (for a total of 5 ships) could be as much as 1.5 billion Euros.

The author of the Vedomosti article questions the extent to which the Russian Navy can afford such a purchase, which is significantly larger than the annual appropriations for shipbuilding to date. He also expresses doubts about the utility of such a craft, since its main purpose is expeditionary warfare and it is unclear where Russia is planning to conduct such operations.

The unstated supposition is that political favoritism, rather than the actual needs of the military, is driving this purchase. I find this to be the most likely scenario as well, with the added ingredient of the Defense Minister wanting to make a dramatic statement that foreign procurement is here to stay.

That said, the Mistral will significantly increase the Russian Navy’s expeditionary capability, especially if it is equipped with a full complement of hovercraft and helicopters, allowing for amphibious landings reagrdless of terrain or onshore facilities. The Mistral is also highly automated, and therefore needs only 160 crew to operate — a potential boon to a military that may find itself with an insufficient supply of professional soldiers and sailors.

Of course, the question of what the purpose of this additional capability would be still remains. Perhaps Russia seeks to be able to chase down pirates on shore? The other alternative — to prepare for an invasion of Crimea — still seems politically unlikely. But the job of the military is to be prepared for possible conflicts entered into by political leaders. Perhaps the military is making sure that, if a decision  to invade a neighboring state from the sea is made at some point in the future, it will be ready to carry it out.

The Russian Navy and Procurement Abroad

Today’s news that the Russian Navy has made a deal to purchase a French Mistral-class amphibious assault ship presents final proof that the defense ministry is aiming at a radical shift in procurement. As Alexander Khramchikhin wrote in NVO a couple of weeks ago, the goal is to shift the mentality from the military being in the service of the military industrial complex to the MIC returning to its stated purpose of serving the needs of the military.

After months of discussions, this is the first major piece of military hardware to be purchased by Russia from abroad in decades. Russia (and the Soviet Union before it) was perhaps the only country in the world to procure all of its military equipment domestically. The SIPRI database of arms transfers lists only three items purchased by Russia from abroad. The comparable list for the United States (for 1991-2008) is ten pages long.

There have been other signs of a shift in procurement policy in recent months, including the purchase of British sniper rifles and Israeli UAVs, but the purchase of a warship with a likely price tag of around half a billion dollars dwarfs these previous acquisitions and signals that Russia is now willing to purchase any type of military equipment from abroad.

A Declining Navy

It makes sense to start this radical change in procurement policy with the navy. The Russian Navy was perhaps the most neglected military service in the 1990s and while the increase in its financing in the last decade has helped it to resume training and deployments, its warships are almost all Soviet vintage and are not being replaced at an adequate rate.

According to a recent overview, the current RFN order of battle lists 29 nuclear attack submarines (14 operational), 19 diesel subs (16 operational), 1 aircraft carrier, 6 cruisers (4 operational), 19 destroyers (13 operational), 7 frigates, 21 amphibious landing ships (12 operational), and 108 smaller ships (77 operational). I exclude SSBNs from this list, as they are more properly discussed as part of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.

Only four new ships have entered service in the last 10 years. The rest are at least 20 years old and will need to be retired in the next 10-15 years, if not sooner. There are few ships in the pipeline – just three Saint-Petersburg class diesel subs, the Admiral Gorshkov frigate, three Steregushchii class small frigates, and the Severodvinsk nuclear submarine (which has been under construction since 1993!). The first ships of the St Petersburg and Steregushchii classes took 10 and 7 years, respectively, to build. Some reports indicate that the St Petersburg has serious technical problems, which has caused it to be in sea trials for over two years. (For more on the state of the Russian Navy, see the linked reports.)

Khramchikhin writes that given current rates of replacement, in 10 years there will be only 50 warships of any size left in the Russian Navy. Domestic shipbuilding corporations have proven themselves to be incapable of rebuilding the Russian fleet, not because of a lack of financing, but because of a loss of technology and personnel, combined with corruption and lax quality control standards.

Given this situation, purchasing foreign ships seems to be the only solution, at least for the short term. Furthermore, the threat of foreign competition may encourage Russian shipbuilders (and other defense contractors) to get their house in order, knowing that the alternative is going out of business entirely. In the past, Russian defense corporations have felt secure knowing that the government could not let them disappear entirely. Now for many companies there will be no such guarantee.

The Role of the Mistral

The Mistral is a modern helicopter-carrying amphibious assault ship with a displacement of 20 tons that can also be used as a command and control ship. It can carry 450 soldiers and up to 70 vehicles. The French version includes a 69 bed hospital. Two such ships are currently in use by the French Navy, having been commissioned in 2006 and 2007 respectively.

It is not clear why the Russian military chose to begin its shift to foreign procurement with an amphibious assault ship. One could argue that it needs new frigates (or perhaps even destroyers) much more than it needs new amphibious ships. The Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate is being built very slowly, while there are no plans at all to replace the aging and unreliable Sovremenny-class destroyers. Without new blue water ships like these, the Russian Navy will inevitably be reduced to a coastal defense force in the coming decade or two.

Perhaps this purchase is more palatable because the Soviet Navy bought the bulk of its amphibious ships from Poland, so there is no existing domestic shipbuilder whose niche is being taken away by this decision. But that is not reason enough to spend half a billion dollars on a ship. Especially given that amphibious ships generally last longer than other kinds of warships (since they don’t need advanced weaponry) and Russia’s existing LSTs were mostly built in the 1980s and can serve for another 20 years.

Some will see this purchase as another piece of evidence that Russia may be planning for the possibility of another war with Georgia or even an attack on Crimea. This is not entirely out of the question – all militaries must prepare for the likeliest potential conflicts, and another conflict in the Black Sea involving the Russian Navy is certainly more likely than a war with China or with NATO. But what is more significant is that this purchase, if followed by the promised further purchases of ships of this type (or even an agreement on cooperative production of additional units), may indicate that the Russian Navy is going to shift to a coastal defense role for the foreseeable future, while hoping to restore a strong blue water capability 15-20 years down the road.