Russia-NATO military cooperation (Part 2: Defense industrial cooperation with France)

Defense Industrial Cooperation

As Russian military leaders have grown frustrated with the failures of their country’s domestic defense industry, they have become increasingly willing to procure military equipment from NATO countries and to engage in joint military industrial projects with them.

France: In recent years, the Russian military has considered a number of purchases from NATO countries. The most extensive cooperation has been with France. The recent deal for the Mistral amphibious assault ship is the most notable Russian military purchase from abroad in recent history. While the final contract has not yet been signed, the rough outlines of the likely deal are well known. Russia is set to purchase two Mistral-class ships, to be built in France at a total cost of approximately 980 million euros. The two sides have not yet agreed on whether Russia would be charged an additional 170 million euros for logistics and crew training expenses, or if those items would be included in the construction price. In addition, Russia would pay 90 million Euros for construction licenses and technical documentation that would allow two more Mistral ships to be built in Russia.

In addition to the ships themselves, Russia is going to receive some of the advanced technology that is used on the French versions of these ships. This will include the SENIT-9 combat information system, but without license rights and without the Link 11 and Link 16 NATO communications systems. The transfer of NATO communications systems would require the unanimous consent of all NATO members. Therefore, even though the request is currently under consideration at NATO HQ, it will be rejected. It is certain to be opposed by the Baltic states, and likely to be opposed by a number of other NATO countries including the United States. It is interesting to note that Russia’s request to receive these systems was justified by its desire to participate in joint missions with NATO navies. The lack of license rights means that Russia will not be able to use the SENIT-9 technology on other ships, nor will it be able to use the knowledge acquired by building such systems to improve its own ability to manufacture advanced combat information systems.

The SENIT-9 systems used on the French Mistral-class ships are derived from the US Navy’s Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS) and are based on the tri-dimensional MRR3D-NG multi-role radar, built by Thales, which operates on the C Band and incorporates IFF capabilities. The French version can be connected to Link 11, Link 16, and Link 22 NATO communications systems. The purpose of the system is to centralize all data from the ship’s sensors in the ship’s command center. Russian military officials argue that having these systems on board will allow them to turn their Mistrals into command ships that will be capable of providing fire control for various forces in the open seas, including dividing targets among surface ships, submarines and aviation.

Reports in French newspapers indicate that the Thales MRR-3D-NG radar, as well as a Racal-Decca helicopter control radar, will also be included as part of the deal. It seems very unlikely that the Russian Mistrals will be equipped to use French communications systems, based on French satellites SYRACUSE 3-A and SYRACUSE 3-B. These satellites provide 45% of the Super High Frequency secured communications of NATO. For Russia, it would make much more sense to equip the ships with communications systems that connect with their own satellites. Otherwise, the ships would not be able to communicate with other Russian ships.

While the reason for the Russian purchase of these ships has been the subject of extensive debate in Western and Russian sources, a consensus has recently emerged on this question. The main purpose of the ships will be to serve as command and control vessels. The first two ships will go to the Pacific Fleet as part of a significant upgrade that will turn that fleet into the most capable of Russia’s four fleets. The ships’ second task will be to serve as helicopter carriers. They will be capable of carrying either Ka-52 attack helicopters or Ka-27 anti-submarine helicopters. While the ships are obviously capable of carrying out amphibious landing operations, this will be a lesser task for them.

Finally, the Mistral ships are also being purchased with the goal of revitalizing Russia’s declining shipbuilding industry. The third and fourth ships will be built at shipyards in St. Petersburg, which will be reconstructed for the purpose, most likely with French assistance. The goal is to be able to use the experience of building ships to French standards to improve indigenous military shipbuilding capabilities.

While the Mistral deal has received the most attention, Russian-French military cooperation actually began several years ago. In 2007, Russia bought French aircraft targeting containers from Sagem and thermal imaging equipment from Thales. One hundred units of the latter were installed on Russian T-90M tanks. Subsequently, an agreement was signed in 2010 to manufacture thermal imagers under license at a Russian plant in Vologda. At the same time, Russia bought some French communications equipment to test the possibility of integrating this equipment into its tanks and armored personnel carriers. The total value of the 2010 deal was estimated at 300 million Euros. French companies had been installing this equipment for years on Russian tanks and aircraft sold abroad, including Su-30MKI aircraft sold to India, MiG-29s sold to Algeria, T-80U tanks sold to Cyprus, T-90S tanks sold to India, and BMP-3 armored personnel carriers sold to the United Arab Emirates.

The Russian military is negotiating with French companies for further items, including Sagem’s Sigma 30 artillery navigation equipment and its infantry integrated equipment and communications units (FELIN). The FELIN units include a set of navigation tools, secure radio communications equipment, computer equipment, GPS receivers, helmet sights for individual small arms and integrated electronic targeting devices. A limited number of these may be purchased for Military Intelligence Directorate special forces units. In February, First Deputy Defense Minister Popovkin announced that the Russian military would like to have a Russian analog of the FELIN equipment designed in the next decade. The Sigma 30 units would be used to modernize Russian Grad and Smerch multiple rocket launchers. They are already used for this purpose in other countries, such as Poland.

Recently, the Russian Center for the Analysis of the World Arms Trade announced that the Russian border troops were negotiating with the French company Panhard for the acquisition of 500 VBL light armored vehicles for $260 million.

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.