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.