Is the Mistral deployment to the Pacific a dagger aimed at the heart of the US Pacific Fleet?

I suppose I should not be surprised that the professional fearmongers would not be fazed by the announcement that the Russian navy will deploy the first two Mistrals to the Pacific Fleet. Since a good chunk of the commentariat had spent well over a year arguing that placing these ships in Russian hands would destabilize Russia’s entire western periphery and present a grave threat to Georgia and the Baltic states, I thought that this announcement would trim their sails a bit.

Instead, we have the following two quotes from an otherwise informative piece by Pavel Felgenhauer in today’s Eurasia Daily Monitor on changes in Russian force structure in the Far East:

It seems the deployment of the Mistrals in the Pacific Fleet is not against Japan, but that the US in preparation for conflict could “leap-frog” the fortified South Kuriles into the undefended and uninhabited central Kuriles to invade the Sea of Okhotsk.

and

Japan is not a first-class priority in Russian politics or strategic planning. The strategic build up in the Kuriles and of the Pacific Fleet capabilities may not be aimed at Japan or China per se, but the US – Russia’s true present number one strategic concern.

It turns out that placing the Mistrals in the Pacific may perhaps be an even greater threat to US security than having them in Russia’s western fleets. After all, the US remains Russia’s top strategic concern, so all of its military planning must clearly be aimed at stopping the inevitable US invasion.

There are so many things wrong with this analysis, I’m not sure where to begin. First of all, if the US for some reason wanted to invade the Sea of Okhotsk, presumably in order to take out Russia’s nuclear submarines based there, I can’t imagine that the Mistrals would pose any kind of impediment. These ships are essentially troop and helicopter transports with some nice C2 capabilities. The main criticism of the French version of these ships is that they cannot enter hostile waters without an escort, because they are under-equipped for self-defense. They would be no match for even a single US destroyer, much less a carrier strike group. In other words, they add little or nothing to Russia’s ability to protect the Kuriles from a potential US invasion.

Next, let’s address the question of whether the US is Russia’s number one strategic concern. While one can’t read the minds of President Medvedev and his advisors, this statement seems to go against the entire thrust of the recent military reform. The reform was designed to increase the Russian military’s ability to deal with small local conflicts, while reducing its classic Cold War anti-US posture. This would not have been done if military planners still believed that they would be likely to fight a war against the United States. There’s just no evidence out there to support this statement.

This is not to say that Russia can ignore the possibility of conflict with the US completely. It has to be prepared for such a conflict given the sheer power of the US military and its positioning near Russian borders. It would be foolish of Russian military planners to ignore the possibility of such as conflict. What I challenge is the statement that “The US is Russia’s number one strategic concern.” It’s more like Russia’s #4 or #5 strategic concern. And I very much doubt that the unlikely possibility of facing the US at some point is the reason for the decision to place the Mistrals in the Pacific. Especially given my argument above that they would be useless in that fight.

Finally, there’s the question of whether Russia is truly concerned about the possibility of a Japanese threat to the Kuriles. Felgenhauer argues that “Japan is not a first-class priority in Russian politics or strategic planning.” While I doubt that Russian planners believe that Japan is going to invade Russia any time soon, the reality is that strategic planners are paid to prepare for unlikely but possible contingencies, and Japan and Russia do have an unresolved border dispute. It would be irresponsible for them to not prepare for the remote possibility of a military conflict over the southern Kuriles at some point down the road, perhaps in the unlikely event of a turn toward militant nationalism in Japan. The chances of such a turn are remote at best, and if I were a planner, I’d spend my money on something else, but it’s certainly more likely than a US naval invasion of the Sea of Okhotsk.

And the potential for a conflict with China is somewhat more likely than that (though again not very likely at all). Though the Mistrals aren’t particularly well equipped for a fight with China. Which brings us back to the question of why put the Mistrals in the Pacific. It seems to me, and I’ve made this argument before, that the Russian navy bought these ships primarily in order to rebuild its domestic shipbuilding capability. But having bought them, it needs to put them somewhere — and the Pacific is a more logical place than any of the other fleets given the local political and strategic environment. So having made that decision, they needed to be given a mission — and protecting the Kuriles made more sense, given the ships’ actual capabilities, than anything else.

UPDATE: Added a paragraph above to address a commenter’s point that Russia has to be prepared to fight the US.

11 thoughts on “Is the Mistral deployment to the Pacific a dagger aimed at the heart of the US Pacific Fleet?

  1. Pavel F is a propagandist rather than analyst.
    It’s unfortunate that some people still take him seriously – especially after 08.08.08 (when he was completely wrong on every single issue)

  2. Pavel Felgenhauer might be wrong, but I don’t think Russia is – or can even afford – to ignore the possibility of a conflict with the United States. Not now, not ever.

    Please keep in mind what you wrote yourself:

    “While I doubt that Russian planners believe that Japan is going to invade Russia any time soon, the reality is that strategic planners are paid to prepare for unlikely but possible contingencies, and Japan and Russia do have an unresolved border dispute. It would be irresponsible for them to not prepare for the remote possibility of a military conflict over the southern Kuriles at some point down the road, perhaps in the unlikely event of a turn toward militant nationalism in Japan.”

    But this also applies to the relationship between the United States and Russia. You don’t even have to believe that Russia is in the hands of a Hitler-style leadership to recognize there are several areas where Russia and the United States could clash. After all Russia is virtually surrounded by American bases and military alliances like NATO. Indeed the relationship between Russia and the United States has since the end of the Cold War swung from cooperation and “the Cold War is over”-rhetoric to renewed confrontation. Also keep in mind there is the Japan-US Security Treaty from 1951 and that the United States has a large military presence in Japan. In case of a war regarding the Kuriles it is difficult to imagine the United States not getting involved in one way or the other. Perhaps this is what Felgenhauer was referring to.

    From a purely military point of view it also makes sense for the Russian military to prepare for a conflict with the United States. The Americans still has the largest and strongest military force in the world and if you want your own military to be able to fight a great power-war it makes sense to look after what the biggest and toughest guy in the street is doing. If you have a military capable of dealing with the Americans it should also be capable to deal with other enemies, whether it is the Chinese or the Japanese.

    All that said I would also like to add I think it remains far more likely to see Russian soldiers battle Somali pirates or insurgents in the Caucasus that fighting WW3 with the United States. Mistral-ships or no Mistral-ships.

  3. Robert: I don’t disagree. Russia has to be prepared to fight the US. It would be foolish of them to ignore the possibility. What I challenge is the statement that “The US is Russia’s number one strategic concern.” It’s more like Russia’s #4 or #5 strategic concern. And I very much doubt that the unlikely possibility of facing the US at some point is the reason for the decision to place the Mistrals in the Pacific. Especially given my point that they would be useless in that fight.

  4. I’ve agreed with Dmitry’s theory that the military capabilities of the Mistral are not why Russia has procured them. These ships don’t present much of a threat to other vessels in the region; they’re made to support and launch amphibious assaults. The only way I see them doing this is supporting operations off the Kuril Islands, intervening in Korea (unlikely), or supporting operations in China (unlikely).

    However, the high tech within the Mistral gives it the capability to act as an advanced command & control ship for the Russian fleet. I think that both Mistrals are being deployed to the Pacific to significantly strengthen the coordination of the Russian Pacific fleet. Although, some question if the Mistral’s advanced comms will even be capable of integrating with the current systems on Russian ships.

    Russia’s just reacting to the rise of powers (any rising power is a potential threat) in the Pacific: China, South Korea, Japan, the US, and India. They’re just doing their part in this conventional arms buildup in the Pacific.

    • Bret: Do you have any information on whether the Russian Mistrals will be equipped with the advanced communications equipment? My understanding was that France was not going to provide NATO comms for these ships. If that’s the case, Russia will have to design their own comms and equip the ships with them. That would make integration easier, but would mean they’re not as advanced.

      • Dmitry,

        I am not 100% sure as few media outlets included this in the announcement of the deal. However, this source: http://en.rian.ru/mlitary_news/20101101/161170512.html says that the “transfer of technologies” is included. Even though reliability of the press can be questioned, the technology seems like the main reason why the Mistral was chosen over other possible ships (Netherlands Rotterdam).

        If I was planning strategy, I would assume it had those systems.

      • I got some additional information that seems to confirm your sense on this from a colleague and will post more about it next week.

  5. I was going to do a piece on this myself, but there seems little point now that you have deflated it so effectively. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a couple of troop-carriers that need heavy escort as the pivotal game-changer of the Pacific Rim. And given Mr. Felgenhauer’s implication that the actual troop levels in the Kuriles will not rise significantly from their current 3,500 or so, he obviously rates the Russian fighting man very highly indeed if they can strike terror into U.S. forces 10 times their number based in Japan.

    I liked Mr. Felgenhauer’s work when he used to occasionally write for the Moscow Times; he seemed to be a realist. But there’s nothing realistic about the piece you have so effectively skewered.

    The Eurasian Daily Monitor pointed out in a much earlier post that the BORYY Class Ballistic Missile submarines lacked sufficient escorts, and that consequently their strategic launch position could well be in the Sea of Okhotsk, but that doesn’t seem sufficient justification for the USA to have to dominate it. Still, postwar military committees in the U.S. – planning the long-term containment of beaten Japan – rated the establishment of a U.S. military base in the Kuriles as “essential”.

  6. Pingback: The Mistral’s C2 systems « Russian Military Reform

  7. Pingback: Noun, Verb, Kuriles (Again) | The Kremlin Stooge

  8. Pingback: How much of a threat to NATO is the Mistral sale? « Russian Military Reform

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