How much of a threat to NATO is the Mistral sale?

I’ve written a lot of posts now trying to explain why Russia sought to purchase the Mistral from France and why I do not believe that the purchase presents a threat to a) Georgia, b) the Baltic states, c) European security, or d) NATO cohesion. Yet various folks keep writing the same old thing regardless of the evidence arrayed against their arguments. The newest entry is Vlad Socor’s latest piece, entitled “France’s Sale of the Mistral to Russia: The Challenge to NATO’s Transatlantic Partners,” which arrived by email today from the Jamestown Foundation. I haven’t found a version online as of yet, but if I find one in the next day or two, I’ll provide a link. (See the update at the bottom of the article for links to most of the content)

Socor argues that despite Russian leaders repeated statements that the ships will be based in the Pacific Fleet, they will actually be placed in the Black Sea and Baltic Fleets, where they will be used to threaten the Baltic states and Georgia as part of a potential simultaneous attack from land and sea.

Furthermore, he argues that these ships are primarily power projection platforms. He believes Admiral Vysotsky’s rhetorical statement that ““In the conflict in August [2008], a ship like that would have allowed the Black Sea Fleet to accomplish its mission in 40 minutes, not 26 hours which is how long it took us [to land the troops ashore].” He goes on to argue that Mistral ships would have allowed the Russian military to open a second front in Georgia in 2008, moving in from the west while the main army attacked from the east.

In the final section, Socor discusses the challenge this deal poses to NATO cohesion. He argues that mercantilist considerations have driven France (as well as other European countries that have recently sold arms to Russia) to trample allied solidarity. In other words, France, Germany and Italy have put the security of their eastern allies at risk for the sake of the profits of their arms manufacturers.

Given that I have already addressed these issues here, and don’t have any new arguments to offer, I thought I would give the floor to someone who has spent the last year studying the Mistral deal and has written what may be the definitive work on the subject.

LCDR Patrick Baker recently completed a Master’s Thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School entitled, “A Study of the Russian Acquisition of the French Mistral Amphibious Assault Warships.” He graciously agreed to respond with his thoughts on Vlad Socor’s article. Please note that his views represent his own personal opinions and not those of the U.S. Navy or the Naval Postgraduate School.

On why Russia sought to buy the Mistral:

As I said in my thesis, I think that the real reason behind the Mistrals is the technologies that Russia can get from France.  Specifically the command and control systems, and also, I think as important, are the shipbuilding technologies.  As I argued in my thesis, no shipyard in Russia today can build modular warships.  And all their shipyards are full of orders now anyway (besides Baltiysky Zavod, which is bankrupt).  To modify a shipyard for the Mistral would mean fewer other ships for the Russian navy.  As STX Europe is going to build Russia a new shipyard on Kotlin Island, this gives the Admiralty Shipyards a brand new facility to build not only warships but also commercial ships.

A helicopter carrier also allows the Russian Navy to ask for new helicopters to equip its new ships with, providing business for Kamov.  Besides the attack helicopters, there has been little in the news about any significant upgrades to the Russian Naval infantry.  As of the 2011 Military Balance, Russia has maximum 16 landing craft that could even fit in a Mistral, and only 8 new ones.  Moreover, no modern hovercrafts are in development that I have seen.

The Mistral I think is the perfect example of getting a system first, then figuring out the missions for the ships.  I think the Russians see the Mistrals as a means to the end (naval modernization), not the end themselves.  True the Mistrals can fulfill many roles, including some of the ones Socor talks about, but that was not the driving force behind the sale.  If Russia really wanted just the capability, I do not think the contract negotiations would have taken so long (and continue to drag on), specifically on the issues of technology transfer.

On the potential threat posed by these ships to Georgia and the Baltic states:

I do not accept that the Russian failure to open a second front in Georgia was the driving force.  As you have pointed out, the Mistralis no faster than Russia’s existing Alligators and Ropuchas, so the ships would not have gotten to Georgia any faster.  A better argument would have been a Mistral would have allowed for better close air support from attack helicopters from the coast.  Still while a nice benefit from having the ship, but not the main reason for acquiring the ships.

The other part behind the Mistral is about image and prestige.  But not against Georgia and the Baltics.  People seem to forget that Russia today has 4 Ropuchas sitting in Kaliningrad, which could transport 760 troops and 40 MBT themselves.  In the Black Sea, Russia has 3 Alligators and 4 Ropuchas. The Mistral adds to the capability of the Russian Navy, but in terms of troop lift, it is not a game changer.  The only new capability, and it is a significant one, is the aviation aspect of the Mistral.  But Russia is not without airfields in both Georgia and around the Baltics.

Who I think Russia is worried about is China.  That is why the ships have been announced to go to the Pacific first.  Not against the Japanese – and yes Socor makes this point, but the Japanese are not the threat – it is just convenient and risk free to blame the Japanese, because Russia knows Japan is not going to invade the Kuril Islands.  Rather Russia, in my opinion does not want to appear weak, or abandoning the Pacific to the Chinese.  Russia cannot say that it is bulking up its Pacific Fleet against the Chinese publicly though.  Putting two large warships is a very visible statement of Russian interest in the Far East.  Granted there is little significant naval combat power, but that is not the point.  The Mistrals also work well as a forward command post in the Far East, where ground command stations are few and far between.  This Russian interest in the Far East is evident in other actions, such as the movement of the Marshal Ustinov from the Northern Fleet to Pacific Fleet after her refit, the Yuri Dolgorukiy to Petropavlosk and if the Admiral Nakimov ever is refurbished, the Russian have announced plans to put her in the Far East.

I think the Russians are more interested in having a LHD style ship that can cruise the globe (without tugs following her) implying that they are still a great power.  I also think they want the PR benefit of being able to have a ship to participate in humanitarian operations.  I know they have sent rescue teams and assistance in the past, but the image of a Russian ship helping is a powerful one, as the US has seen.  Or for evacuation of Russian citizens – being able to evacuated civilians quickly on one ship is important.  Look at Libya, the French used the Mistral herself, while the Russia had to hire a ferry and flew jets in to evacuate citizens.  What if the airport had been closed?

On how the Mistral’s capabilities might be used:

I think that Socor does make some valid points about how the capabilities of the Mistral could be used.  And he is correct, it is something that the US and NATO will have to account for.  I just don’t think it was the Russians primary reason, more of a side benefit.  If they were so eager for an amphibious capability, why did they not honestly evaluate the other LHDs on the market, ensuring they would get the best package, vice choosing the Mistral from day one?  Again, it was because they get the shipbuilding and command and control technologies.  In addition, there still remain some serious obstacles.  Now that they get the command and control technologies, how do they integrate NATO style systems with Russian ones?  How easy will it be to integrate Russian weapon systems with French radar systems?  Besides the significant modifications for arctic operations, there are still some sizeable design changes, such as the raising of the hanger deck.  It will be interesting to see what the final design is.

My final take is that there was a myriad of reasons the Russians wanted the Mistral.  There is no one smoking gun. Technology, command and control and image I think were the top ones, not a desire to kick in the door somewhere.  Can they do that…maybe.  Nevertheless, a LHD also gives them a ship that is multi-mission, something they will actually use.   If they built an anti-carrier destroyer again, it may be a great platform, but realistically, it is not as likely to be employed as much as a LHD is these days.  Therefore, there may not be a sinister reason behind the purchase, just a realization of with limited resources, what will actually have the most benefit.  In addition, with the Admiral Kuznetsov going into an announced refit until 2017 (if it happens on time) the Russians have really only one capital ship (Peter the Great) to signify nation interest.  The Mistrals could give them something to build a task force around.  Again this is where image comes into play.

On the impact of the sale on NATO cohesion:

Therefore, will NATO and the US have to pay attention to these ships – yes…can Russia use these ships to intimidate weak smaller nations – yes….was that the Russian primary intention – no.  I think the valid point that Socor makes is the issues this type of sale causes within NATO.  The lack of trust between countries is something that has to be improved.  Perhaps more significant behind the scenes consultations would help (basically so countries aren’t finding out about these things via the newspapers).  But the Baltics have to be realistic as well, but the image of France not respecting other allies’ inputs is what has to be overcome.

I’m very much in agreement with LCDR Baker’s analysis. I would just expand briefly on the final point. It seems to me that the key task for countries such as France, Germany and Italy is to work to convince NATO’s eastern members that Russia does not present a military threat to them. Russian leaders could do a great deal to help this effort by changing some of their policies toward the region, and especially their rhetoric — which is frequently much more belligerent than their policies. The best way to improve European security is to increase integration with Russia, not to maintain old dividing lines that do nothing but promote insecurity on both sides.

UPDATE: Still no sight of an electronic version of Vlad Socor’s article, but LCDR Baker pointed out that most of the content was posted in three recent shorter articles that cover the sale, power projection against Georgia, and NATO reactions.

FURTHER UPDATE (July 12): Thanks to the folks at the Jamestown Foundation for providing the link.