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.